The meaning of objects held by Saints in Icons

Wall of Saints

Iconography can be an extremely concise way of communicating the Faith. Therefore, what the Saints hold in their hands in portrait icons help in identifying them and in telling us about their lives.

I hope to show that what is held in the hands of the Saints in Icons is their instrument of Salvation; i.e. the “tools” by which God saved and glorified these people.

Martyrs Menodora, Metrodora, and Nymphodora

Martyrs Menodora, Metrodora, and Nymphodora

First, a Cross, which indicates the Saint is a Holy Martyr. The reason martyrs are shown holding a cross is two-fold: firstly, martyr comes for the Greek for witness, and so these witnesses hold the preeminent symbol of Christianity: the Cross. Secondly, the Cross symbolizes the most perfect sacrifice of life for others, Christ’s own crucifixion. Therefore, any Saints who were murdered for confessing the Faith are shown with crosses, regardless of how they died. The manner of a Saint’s execution is not how they gained Sainthood. Multitudes of people suffer horribly each day, and die in all sorts of gruesome ways and yet are not called Saints or martyrs for it. It is the confession of Faith that counts, and so those who confessed Christ and died for it hold a cross to mark their martyrdom. Saints holding the instruments of their execution are more common in Renaissance-era art of Europe, but this, I suggest, reflects a preoccupation with the earthly life, rather than eternal heavenly reality. Orthodox Icons may sometimes show the martyrdom itself, but portrait Icons are “windows into Heaven”, and so the Saints are not shown burdened by the things which killed them.

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St Ephraim the Syrian

St Ephrem the Syrian, holding a scroll of his inspired writings

The Prophet Isaiah

The Prophet Isaiah; the scroll contains a quote from his writings

A Scroll indicates holy Wisdom, and so is often shown in the hands of the Old Testament prophets, but is also commonly seen in the hands of the Apostles. Both were given wisdom from God – the prophets through visions, the Apostles through meeting and knowing Jesus Christ. Later Saints may also be shown holding scrolls if they were also known for prophecy, percipience,  and imparting divine knowledge to others. One example is Ephrem the Syrian (right), a hymnographer and deacon from the 4th century well-known for his poetic works of theology. Where the scrolls are unfurled, quotes from the Saints’ own writings are shown. At first this may seem as though the Saints are being glorified for their own “works”. However, it is precisely because these Saints’ writing/wisdom/prophecy is believed to come from God, not their own reasoning, that they are glorified. This is clear when we see, for example, the Prophet Isaiah holding a scroll which bears the words: “Hear, O Heavens, and give ear O Earth” (Is. 1:2). These words are “Isaiah’s”, but are also the words of God spoken through his prophet. It’s the same for later Saints who are shown holding scrolls bearing the words they were inspired to write.

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Mosaic of St. Nicholas of Myra

St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

In the New Testament we read of the Apostles, especially Paul, appointing overseers (Gr. episkopos) to guide the new Christian communities, keeping them strong within the faith. It is these overseers which over a generation become the bishops we know today. It is fitting therefore, that Sainted Bishops in Icons hold their main tool: the Gospel Book, from which they proclaim the Good News to the faithful during the Liturgy. Many of the Church Fathers were also Bishops, and some of their “writings” which we read today were not writings at all, but sermons preached after the reading of the Gospel, later copied down by the congregation for other churches to benefit from. Their inspired teachings were grounded in the Gospel, and so they hold these books in Icons as the instruments through which God granted them sainthood. And they hold them with great reverence indeed, indicated by the way some Icons show the Bishops covering their bare hand with their vestments or stole. It is this supreme respect for the Gospel which inspired the Bishops to defend the Faith so vehemently at the Ecumenical Councils, another way in which some went on to be recognized as Saints. Naturally, the Evangelists are also depicted in Icons holding a Gospel Book, often open and in the same way as scrolls they bear the words they penned (e.g. this Icon of St John the Evangelist).

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St John the Wonderworker

Icon of John the Wonderworker

Another role of the Bishop is that of a pastor, or shepherd, of Christ’s flock. This is symbolized by the Crosier, which in Orthodoxy doesn’t look the same as the “shepherd’s crook” held by bishops in the West. It is of a simpler design, usually in the shape of the Greek letter Tau, which symbolizes life, resurrection, or the Cross (more on the symbolism of Tau here). Sometimes the crosier will be topped by a cross, just above a double crook. This double crook is sometimes in the shape of serpents’ heads, symbolizing the serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness. Which design of crosier used in an Icon is largely dependent upon the actual design used in life by the Saint in question (e.g. St John the Wonderworker, left).

St. John Maximovitch

St. John during his earthly life

The Tau-shaped crosier is also a symbol of authority held by abbots or abbesses of monasteries, and so icons of monastic saints may also show them holding this kind of staff if they were known for shepherding the faithful. On occasion, a Saint who wasn’t a bishop, abbot, or abbess in life will be shown holding a crosier in iconography. This in recognition of their spiritual authority, regardless of any office they achieved during their lives. A perfect example of this is St. Xenia of Petersburg, a homeless wanderer who through her life of renunciation “taught us to disregard the flesh for it passes away” (hymn to St Xenia). Because of her wanderings she is shown in iconography with a walking stick, yet in some icons this is rendered as a Tau-shaped crosier, as in this Russian icon. The walking stick is an image of St Xenia’s earthly life, but it has been given a new meaning to reflect her heavenly role in the life of the Church.

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Greek Icon of St Menas

Martyr Menas, a Roman Soldier who renounced his high rank

This leads us to Weapons in icons, such as lances, shields and swords. In the first few centuries of the Church, two types of martyr gained particular devotion among Christians: virgin-martyrs and soldier-martyrs. The latter group were typically soldiers in the pagan Roman Empire who converted to Christianity and were murdered because of it. Often their conversion meant they renounced their military lives which makes their appearance in icons garbed in full armour seem strange, almost contradictory. However, if we think about St Xenia’s walking stick “transfigured” into a crosier in icons of her then things become clearer. These martyr-soldiers (and they usually hold crosses too, in remembrance of their sacrifice) have through their confession of faith become “soldiers for Christ”. As our intercessors in Heaven it is comforting, I believe, to know that there are saints warring against the “principalities of darkness” on our behalf. It is therefore natural to show those already courageous soldiers who renounced earthly weapons to even more courageously embrace death now adorned with the armour of God (Eph. 6:11-18).

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Apostles Peter and Paul supporting the Church

Ss Peter and Paul are sometimes depicted together in a single Icon (they also share a feast day: June 29) and when they do they are shown together supporting a small Church Building in their hands (left). This reflects the hymnography of the Church, where the two Apostles are praised as “pillars of the Church.” Not only were they pillars of the Church, but church-builders too, establishing Christian communities (churches) around the Mediterranean and Holy Lands. Later, other Saints are remembered for their “church-building” and so are depicted holding small churches or monasteries, often in profile, shown offering the church to Christ (like the second icon of St Edwin on this page).  It is quite common for Sainted kings and queens to be shown holding churches in this way, as they are honoured for their role as protector and benefactor of the Church within their lands. It is through the building up of the church that these monarchs were glorified by God, and so these buildings are the instruments of their own salvation.

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And then there is Jesus Christ Himself. It’s probably impious of me to refer to the Infant Christ as a “tool” of Salvation, but given the above there is much sense in seeing Mary holding Christ in the same way a holy heirarch holds a Gospel Book. The reason Christians do not chase after martyrdom is because it is not something that is sought after, but something accepted if God wills it. The martyr, the holy heirarch, the prophet, and the warrior-saint are all chosen by God to fulfill their roles, for the benefit of all. Individual Saints do not choose whether to be a wise hermit, a virgin-martyr, or an evangelist; their choice is simply to accept the role God ordained for them, or to go their own way.

Icon of the Annunciation

And so when Archangel Gabriel delivered to the virgin Mary news that God had chosen her to be the mother of the world’s Saviour, she had the choice to accept this, or to run away. By humbly saying “be it to me according to your word”, Mary would be forevermore called full of Grace. Therefore, in most icons of her, Mary is shown holding the Infant Christ, through Whom she was glorified as the Birth-Giver (Theotokos) and Mother of God.

Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God

For the same reason as the Mother of God holds Christ in her hands, it is also right for icons of Simeon the God-Receiver to show him holding Christ. By the same reasoning it is inappropriate to show Joseph of Nazareth holding Christ. Joseph was the man betrothed to Mary, who protected her and Christ during Herod’s persecutions, and to most people was considered Jesus’ father. But he wasn’t, and is not acclaimed a Saint for being Jesus’ father. He is a saint for being the Betrothed of Mary, for protecting her and not breaking off the betrothal for infidelity. Where portrait Icons of Joseph exist (and they’re not that common) he’s usually shown holding two doves, the poor-man’s sacrifice he offered at Christ’s Presentation at the Temple (Luke 2:22–40).

There are other objects not mentioned here which are held by Saints in their “heavenly portraits”. The reasons for each object are different, but the principal is the same: the Saints hold the tools of their Salvation. The sheer number of different items depicted in Icons show us the diversity of ways in which God calls us. The Cross, the Gospel, holy Wisdom, the Church: all ultimately lead to Christ, of course, yet the richness of items points to the abundance of His Mercy and Grace.

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35 Responses to The meaning of objects held by Saints in Icons

  1. Pingback: Pentecost Icon as an Icon of the Church | A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

  2. The showing of the palm of the hand in Icons. Does that depict that they were a virgin or does it have another meaning?

    • iconreader says:

      I have heard that the general meaning of the raised hand is a steadfastness of faith and a renunciation of the world. Of course, for many Saints that meant celibacy too, so you will find Virgin-Martyrs – for example – holding a cross in one hand whilst holding the other out, palm outwards.

    • Hollis Blinn says:

      When a saint is depicted holding a palm frond it means they were martyred. This doesn’t seem to be a symbol used in the Orthodox Icons.

  3. Pingback: Holy-Martyr Panteleimon the Unmercenary | A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

  4. Mary says:

    I have seen in one icon where a saint, who’s name I couldn’t read, was holding a cross and a feather. What does the feather mean?

    • iconreader says:

      Are you sure it wasn’t a palm frond? These can look similar to a feather in some icons. In Revelation 7:9, the martyrs in heaven are robed in white and hold palm branches, a symbol of victory, so it is not unusual to sometimes see martyrs in icons also holding palm branches.

      I have seen some pictures of Barbara the Great-Martyr with a feather, but they are mainly in Roman Catholic depictions I am not sure of the reasons behind it (there doesn’t seem to be anything in her life and martyrdom which refer to it, so it might be related to a miracle wrought after her death).

      Here is more information about St Barbara – in the Icon it looks like she is holding a feather, but I still believe it to be a palm-branch.

      http://www.antiochian.org/stbarbara

      • The feather (if it is one and not a palm frond) in an Icon will in most cases (unless there is something specific to that particular saints life) represents the recording of a particular event; i.e., the martyrdom of others etc…

      • Jason says:

        “Let us praise Barbara who has broken the snares of the enemy. By the help of the weapon of the Cross she has escaped as a bird and flown Godwards”

        If it is indeed a feather, could it possibly reflect what is in St. Barbara’s troparion?

  5. NANA NARA says:

    I have a Clarte icon,am catholic , mother mary and jesus have crowns on..mary holds a feather in her left hand,,a blue flower in right hand..she has predominately red on he is in a flower robe?? DO YOU KNOW OF THIS ICON..IT WAS A GIFT TO ME ..

    • iconreader says:

      Hello:
      Would it look anything like this icon:

      ?

      If it does then it is the Icon of the Unfading Bloom (or Unfading Rose). The icon is based on the 8th century hymn to the Mother of God, written by Romanos the Melodist, in which Our Lady is given many different names, all relating to her role in our salvation (bringing forth Jesus Christ into the world).

      In the hymn, Mary is addressed: ‘Rejoice, O thou alone who hast blossomed forth the unfading Rose’ and ‘Rejoice, … mystical staff that didst blossom with the unfading Flower’.

      What looks like a feather may be the palm frond of victory which I described in my reply to Mary above.

      I couldn’t say any more without seeing a picture of the icon you have, but “unfading blossom” may seem the most likely icon, as icons called “unfading bloom/rose” vary quite a lot in style, eg:

      http://www.templegallery.com/main.php?mode=4&p1=1458&p2=0&p3=0

      Are all “Unfading Bloom” icons.

      Hope this helps, and I hope God will bless you through this wonderful gift.

  6. Pingback: The Warrior Saints | A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

  7. Rohit says:

    There is a statue of William Of Normandy or William The Conqurer and in this statue he holds a scroll in his left hand. Maybe it was this secret wisdom that helped helped him win battles in 1066 and conquer England

  8. Mariana Kaegebein says:

    I’m looking for the name of an icon with Panaia and Jesus holding a scroll in his right hand. Jesus has a blue sash and he looks like he is crippled in some way. Jesus is on the right side of the Mother. She is wearing a dark crimson robe. This icon is supposed to be about healing.. Can someones help me find the name.

    • misadro says:

      Your description makes me think of the Axion Esti or Kikkotissa types of icons. In both the Child seems to wriggle out of the Theotokos’ arms, which makes His body appear somehow twisted.

  9. GL says:

    Some icons of St. Mary Magdalene have her holding a cross. She wasn’t a martyr though. Why would she be holding a cross?

    • Laura says:

      I was about to ask the same thing! I wondered if it was related to her title Equal to the Apostles?

      • Laura says:

        Or her presence at the crucifixion?

      • iconreader says:

        Hello GL and Laura:

        I’m not sure either! However I think Laura is along the right lines by connecting it with her title “Equal-to-the-Apostles”. St Vladimir, also called Equal-to-the-Apostles, is often shown holding a cross in icons, despite the fact he reposed in peace.

    • In all likelihood, the best explanation is that it’s just a mistake on the icon painters part. An honest mistake, but a mistake all the same.
      In actuality, Mary Magdalene should be shown holding an egg as a symbol of resurrection, this owing to her having been the first witness to Our Lord’s Resurrection. While kings, princes, and aristocrats should be shown holding items denoting their title and rank. Items like orbs, sceptres, and the like.

      Another feature of note regarding icons of St. Mary Magdalene is a dry debate on whether she should shown with unfurled blonde hair. Unfurled blonde hair on a woman in Byzantine and Medieval art denotes a prostitute. If her hair is braided or styled, that indicates a woman as being an aristocrat or a courtly figure. But no if it’s unbraided. Where it’s a matter of dispute is whether or not the Orthodox hagiographies recognise Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute, because many do not.

  10. Dave says:

    Dear Iconreader,

    I am doing an icon of St. Peregrine and the prototype I have is of him holding a “book” – presumably the Bible. What about Saints holding a Bible?

    The icon can be found at this site.

    http://www.blessed-sacrament.org/peregrine.html

    I was recently diagnosed with cancer and wanted to do an icon of this saint as I prayed to him.

    Dave

    • iconreader says:

      Hello Dave:

      The icon you linked to is done in a “Byzantine” style, and a book like that represents a Gospel Book, identifiable by a cross on the frontispiece. As it says in the article, in Orthodox iconography Gospel Books are held by Sainted Bishops, or Holy Fathers (who were usually bishops anyway): the Bishop proclaims the Gospel to the people, and so this is the “instrument” he is most usually shown with, next to the pastor’s staff, or Crosier.

      But the above only applies to Orthodox iconography – and even then there will be exceptions. Perhaps Catholicism has different conventions for what a Gospel Book held by a saint means.

      May God give you strength in your fight with cancer. Saint Nectarios of Aegina is also called upon by cancer sufferers, and is recognized as a Saint by the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nectarios_of_Aegina

      Take care.

      • Dave says:

        Iconreader,
        Thank you, you have no idea how much this means to me. And the link to St. Nectarios is just what I needed.
        Dave

  11. Carolyn says:

    I rescued an icon from a garage sale in Oregon. It depicts three figures: an angel in black and red holding a red cloth and a cross, a woman (?) wearing green robes covered by a black shawl beautifully trimmed in gold, and a third person semi-reclining between them, wearing gold robes. There are 10 birds depicted in the icon, all of them are white with grey wings. There are numerous plants in the icon. The image is decoupaged onto fiberboard. I believe the red lettering on the icon is Cyrillic. I would love to know the story depicted in the icon, I have not had any success in my research, so I would greatly appreciate your help. Thanks, Carolyn

  12. Hello!

    Thank you for this article. My question is, what is the orb with an X that the angels are holding in some of the icons. What does the X stand for?

  13. Anne says:

    In the icon of St. Anna, holy Mary Is holding a flower. What does this represent?

  14. jonte95 says:

    You wrote: >> “I believe, to know that there are saints warring against the “principalities of darkness” on our behalf. It is therefore natural to show those already courageous soldiers who renounced earthly weapons to even more courageously embrace death now adorned with the armour of God (Eph. 6:11-18).” <<

    Don't you believe Eph 6:11-18 talks about putting on the armor of God while on earth, as that's where one has to meet temptations etc?

    Also how would people in heaven war against demons on our behalf, do you mean literally or by intercession? If the former, aren't that what the angels should do? As heaven also seems to be a place of eternal rest.

    • iconreader says:

      That the Saints intercede for us (and miraculous visions have confirmed this to be the case) in no way precludes the angels from doing the same. The army of God is indeed vast.

  15. Darwin Nicolas says:

    Hi,

    I want to know more of the symbols/iconography of St Andrew the Apostle. Could you guide me? I am maintaining an image of the holy apostle back home and i want it identical with what he should look like.

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