No one knows what most individual saints looked like. There are no photographs before the nineteenth century and usually no drawings. For this reason, artists use a symbol associated with the particular saint to identify him or her. The man in the foreground is St. Peter. We can see this because he is carrying two large keys. This is the common symbol associated with Peter. Why?
Matt. 16:18-19 "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." NRSV. See the detail of Peugino's Charge to Peter. These images are from Christus Rex
This is a very important quote. First, it predicts that the church will not be destroyed by the forces of evil and death. Take a look at the page on the Damned in the Last Judgment. Evil and Hades will sometimes win individual battles, but they cannot win the war. Second, Peter's authority and power are established. The power to bind and loose in heaven is remarkable. It is the power to admit someone to heaven or exclude them; it is the power to forgive sins. This authority is shared with the other apostles and their successors. (Priests too share in the authority to forgive sins, if they act in unity with their bishop.) See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 981ff; and 1444-45. However, the pope as Peter's successor also has authority to make doctrinal judgments, govern the church, and make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Ibid., sections 551-53. You can see El Greco's Repentant Peter at Harden's site, Raphael's Freeing of St. Peter at Christus Rex, and the Crucifixion of Peter by Caravagio at the Web Museum.
The fact that pleasing God can also be costly is clear from the painting. Look at the detail of St. Bartholomew and his flayed skin. What cost are we willing to endure to be loyal, faithful and loving?
The face on the "skin" of the saint is reported to be that of Michelangelo. Why would he do this? What might he be saying about himself? Could it be that he is used up, that doing this painting has drained the life out of him? Or could he be saying that he has undergone some sort of transformation, as did the saint?
When you look at the sections that depict the saints, what do they all have in common? Their attention is all directed toward Christ. This is how they lived on earth as well as how they live in heaven. Christ, God, is the center of their attention, work, and entire lives.
This is St. Catherine of Alexandria who was condemned to die on a spiked wheel. That is what she is holding and it is the symbol used to indicate her identity. (She may also have a crown to signal royal birth. Her existence is now considered unlikely, although her "cult" was widespread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. E. Hallam, Saints, Simon and Schuster (1994) p. 131.)(The word "cult" here means: " The followers of ... a religion or sect . A system or community of religious worship and ritual. The formal means of expressing religious reverence; religious ceremony and ritual." It is not meant in a derogatory way as the word is often used today. American Heritage Dictionary.)
Note that she has her gaze firmly on Jesus. In contrast look at Sebastian.
Little is known for sure about this man, Sebastian, except that he was a soldier and was martyred. His legend indicates that for his execution archers were made to use his body for target practice. In this image, he is holding arrows that is his identifying symbol. Notice how he holds the arrows out boldly, with out stretched arm. His expression seems stern, and he is not looking at Christ. So where is he looking? Toward the damned. It is as if he is holding up the arrows to show them why he is in God's kingdom and they are not. Because these arrows are weapons, could he be saying to the damned that if you fight your way past the angels, he would fight to push them back? (Click on Sebastian to see a larger image, or here.) Another Sabastian, by Andrea Mantegna, is at the Harden's site. Other numerous links.
Obviously, there are many more saints that surround Christ. Revelation says that there would be 144,000 of the elect. ( Rev. 7:3-4; 14:1 NIV) This is not meant to be the final number, but a "mystical" number that indicates a vast amount. (It is mystical because it is a multiple of 12, and twelve is the number of the original apostles.)
If you look the saints over, you should be able to identify at least some. There is a man with a cross. What saint(s) would be identified with a cross?
Matt. 27:32 "As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross."
Or, Luke 23:39-43. "One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, 'Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.' Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' He replied, 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.'"
I am not an art critic or artist. I just invite others to think about the message presented by the work of art and then in meditation reflect on its application in your life. In addition, use your imagination. Put yourself in the position of one of the people depicted and feel what they feel. A painting may have tremendous spiritual meaning for you whether or not the artist intended it, or the art critics would agree. If you find meaning, work with that meaning thanking God.
The images of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, and Peugino's Charge to Peter are used with the permission of the owner of the copyright, Christus Rex. Images are displayed here for non-profit religious and educational purposes only. No other use is intended or permitted. The text is by the Rev. Roger J. Smith, unless attributed to someone else, and is presented "as is". ©1997, Roger J. Smith.
"The Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved."
This web page is the responsibility of Rev. Roger J. Smith, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Comments can be sent to him by Email.