The violent death of the Saints in medieval iconography

The medieval world is also - and above all - a universe made up of images which must catch the eye of passers-by. In these societies where religion is the cement of mentalities, iconography is there so that everyone can see and understand the world. Thus, each element, each physical trait, has a specific meaning. The death of saints and martyrs is therefore represented in a violent manner, in order to impress the faithful and remind them of the cruelty of the persecutions committed by “pagans” or Jews. Through these few representations, made between the 13th and 14th centuries, we will see in what ways these violent deaths are staged.

Saint Stephen (I): the stoning

Etienne, accused of having uttered blasphemous words against Moses and God, is brought to justice before an assembly of Jews gathered in the Sanhedrin. The future Saint then claims to contemplate "the open heavens and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God". His exasperated accusers push him out of town, knock him down and stone him.

This scene is frequent in medieval iconography. We can see Etienne, young in appearance, kneeling with his hands clasped, his head haloed. The Saint is then dressed in the dalmatic of the deacon, sometimes holding in his hand, the object of his martyr.

Subsequently, he becomes the patron saint of soldiers armed with a slingshot, masons, stonemasons or even all trades related to stone.

Saint Barthélémy (Ier): the skinning

Bartholomew passes to be the one who evangelized Arabia and then Mesopotamia. He first went to Armenia before arriving in India. Jacques de Voraigne in his Légende Dorée (13th century) gives a precise physical description of it "the black and frizzy hair, the white flesh, the large eyes, the even and wide open nostrils, the thick beard with a few white hairs, the average stature" . At the age of twenty-six, he preached in India when King Polème's brother, Astiage, had him arrested in order to make him recant his faith. Barthélémy refuses and is flayed alive then crucified upside down.

In fact, the Saint is represented flayed, carrying his skin on his shoulder or holding it in his arms. Often he is depicted undergoing his ordeal. The painters of the Baroque age will subsequently make the scene even more morbid.

Barthélémy becomes the protector of the trades of butchers, tanners, furriers, tailors and more generally of those who handle hides. Later, his name will be used in the context of the Saint Barthélémy massacres.

Saint Laurent (3rd): fire

Originally from Huesca in Aragon, Laurent was the deacon of Pope Sixtus II. His martyr is dated with precision in 258. The generosity with which he dispenses his alms drew the wrath of the Emperor Valérien who tried to recover the wealth of the Church. Laurent is then arrested and then executed. Legend has it that he was brought to the grill and, before he died, addressed Valérien saying "I'm roasted on this side, turn me on the other side and eat me." Saint Laurent was frequently associated with Vincent of Saragossa, hence the iconographic confusion about him.

He is usually represented wearing the dalmatic or even posed on a grill where executioners and demons stoke the burning embers of the fire with the help of large bellows.

Through his torment, he became the patron saint of roasters, cooks, glassmakers or more simply the poor in reference to his large alms.

Saint Denis (3rd): the ax

At the end of the 3rd century, Denis - converted by Saint Paul - left Athens to join Paris and then became the city's first bishop. His sermons attracted the wrath of the emperor, who then arrested him and inflicted many punishments on him and then beheaded him. A miracle follows. Saint Denis gets up, grabs his head and goes alone to the place of his burial. In 659, Dagobert had the relics of the Saint transported to the Saint Denis church which gradually became the royal necropolis.

In medieval iconography, Denis is most often represented standing, holding his head in his hands. He is also recognizable thanks to his bishop's miter and sometimes to his chains.

After Dagobert and during the Middle Ages, Saint Denis became the protector of the Kingdom of France.

Saint Sebastian (III-IV): the arrows

Commander of Diocletian's Praetorian Guard, Sébastien was arrested for proselytizing. He was subsequently sentenced to death. According to tradition, two soldiers stab him with arrows. However, this first martyr fails to kill him. Sébastien goes to the emperor to reaffirm his faith. Diocletian then had him stoned and then threw his body in the Cloaca Maxima. The Saint appears in a dream to a matron who finds his body and buries it in the catacombs.

In the iconography, we can already find paintings of the Saint on the walls of the catacombs of Callistus in Rome from the 5th century. Saint Sebastian is represented in various forms. However, it is frequently riddled with arrows, tied to a post. The painters of the Italian Renaissance will give it the features of a handsome young man assimilated to an Apollo.

Subsequently, he becomes the protector of athletes, archers or upholsterers.


- Gaston DUCHET-SUCHAUX and Michel PASTOUREAU, The Bible and the Saints, Flammarion, September 2014.
- Rosa GIORGI, Les Saints, Hazan, 2009.

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