St. Luke and the Virgin Mary

Happy Feast Day! Today, we celebrate St. Luke, one of the four evangelists who wrote a book of the gospel!

So, who is St. Luke? That’s a good question! So, in honor of today, I would like to look at him as an evangelist, an artist, and then look at how artists commonly portray him!

St. Luke, the Evangelist

Well, besides writing the Gospel of Luke, he accompanied St. Paul in some of St. Paul’s extensive travels. In fact! The first reading today mentions Luke by name!

NABRE

2Timothy 4

10for Demas, enamored of the present world, deserted me and went to Thessalonica, Crescens to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. 11Luke is the only one with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is helpful to me in the ministry. 12I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13When you come, bring the cloak I left with Carpus in Troas, the papyrus rolls, and especially the parchments.14Alexander the coppersmith did me a great deal of harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. 15You too be on guard against him, for he has strongly resisted our preaching.16At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them! 17But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

It is also thought that he was a physician that attended to St. Paul in some of his sufferings, so that when St. Paul refers to a physician, many traditions hold that St. Luke was that person!

St. Luke, the Artist

But what surprised me the most about some of the traditions of St. Luke were about him… and art. More notably, tradition holds that he was the first one to paint a picture of the Virgin Mary!

As the tradition goes, he spent a lot of time with the Virgin Mary at St. John’s house, where he got to know her story and about Jesus from her perspective. Thus, he was able to write Jesus’ infancy narrative that occurs in St. Luke. The tradition further goes that, being an accomplished painter, he painted Our Lady’s portrait, putting Christ as an infant with her, as some of the first church icons.

So, what do these paintings by St. Luke look like? Supposedly, the painting of Our Lady of Częstochowa was based on an original artwork that St. Luke did! Also, another popular icon that is traditionally attributed to St. Luke is Virgin Salus Populi Romani, which looks like this:

Virgin Salus Populi Romani, traditionally by St. Luke. Basilica of St. Mary Major, Rome, Italy.

St. Luke, as Portrayed By Art

There are a lot of pictures about St. Luke, but the most particular genre seems to be St. Luke painting icons of the Virgin Mary! This was an incredibly popular icon in the Eastern church, and this sort of artwork became very popular in Western art during the Renaissance. Still, the particular artwork that I would really like to take a look at is this one!

St. Luke Painting the Virgin, by Giorgio Vasari, c. 16th century. Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, Florence, Italy.

No, it doesn’t try to be accurate at all. St. Luke was a contemporary of St. Paul, after all! He wouldn’t have known Jesus as an infant, let alone Jesus’ adopted father, St. Joseph, who is in the background, working as a carpenter in a shop. The painting that the artist is working on looks nothing like the icons that are attributed to St. Luke. And let’s not even talk about the angels, which were a popular Renaissance fad in religious art.

Still, there are several things I like about this painting because of the history and symbolism that is contained in this painting.

First of all, in the time of Renaissance, it was considered to be a high honor for an artist to be commissioned for this genre of painting, which is known as “St. Luke Painting the Virgin.” Why? Because St. Luke is the patron saint of artists, and typically only the best artists were picked for that art piece. Because the likeness of St. Luke is unknown, the artist often inserted himself into the picture as St. Luke. So, in this picture, Giorgio Vasari, the artist who painted this, is the model for St. Luke! And it’s very likely that the setting that Vasari has chosen for this painting is reminiscent of his own actual workshop. So, it gives us an idea what an artist’s headquarters might look like in the Renaissance!

Second, it has a giant ox right behind St. Luke. But, look closer! The ox has wings that look a little like peacock feathers! Each of the four evangelists have a special creature that symbolizes them, and St. Luke’s is a winged ox! That first seems pretty random — a winged ox, really? — but there actually is a strong scripture basis behind this Christian symbolism. Check out this prophecy by Ezekiel!

NABRE

Ezekiel 1

4As I watched, a great stormwind came from the North, a large cloud with flashing fire, a bright glow all around it, and something like polished metal gleamed at the center of the fire. 5From within it figures in the likeness of four living creatures appeared. This is what they looked like: 6They were in human form, but each had four faces and four wings, 7and their legs were straight, the soles of their feet like the hooves of a bull, gleaming like polished brass. 8Human hands were under their wings, and the wings of one touched those of another. 9Their faces and their wings looked out on all their four sides; they did not turn when they moved, but each went straight ahead.10 Their faces were like this: each of the four had a human face, and on the right the face of a lion, and on the left, the face of an ox, and each had the face of an eagle. 11Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above. On each one, two wings touched one another, and the other two wings covered the body. 12Each went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they went; they did not change direction when they moved. 13 And the appearance of the living creatures seemed like burning coals of fire. Something indeed like torches moved back and forth among the living creatures. The fire gleamed intensely, and from it lightning flashed. 14The creatures darting back and forth flashed like lightning.

Each of these creatures is attributed to a gospel writer, since the Holy Spirit is revealed in the Gospel for all to see. So, why is St. Luke’s symbol the winged ox? Because his gospel in particular focuses on the healing and redemptive nature of God’s sacrifice, while oxen are commonly associated with sacrifice. And, just as cathedrals and art typically portray the winged ox to represent Luke’s gospel, this winged ox sneaks into the artwork of St. Luke!

The third thing that I like about this painting? It shows St. Luke in what is supposed to be the childhood home of Jesus! While it is completely inaccurate, artists often portrayed St. Luke in this setting to remind the viewer that it was in Luke’s gospel that most of the infancy narrative of Jesus was written about in the Gospel of Luke.

Quite a lot of things for one little painting to contain, isn’t it?

Anyway, have a wonderful feast day! St. Luke, pray for us!

Dear Jesus,

Thank You for inspiring writers, such as St. Luke, to write about Your Gospel so that we may read it today and have a guide in our lives. May You inspire us to live within Your Gospel truth so that we may touch others with Your living Gospel.

Amen.

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