Saint Benedict of Nursia, Abbot - 480-550

St. Benedict contributed more than anyone else to the rise of monasticism in the West. His Rule was the foundational document for thousands of religious communities in the middle ages. Monks and nuns in these communities are known as Benedictines; the monks wear a cowled black habit as seen at left.

The earliest image of St. Benedict that I have yet seen is a 10th century fresco featuring one of the saint's miracles related by Gregory the Great.  The fresco is in the 8th century church beneath San Crisogono in Trastevere.  In it, the saint wears a black habit with a peaked cowl, as he does also in an 11th or 12th century ivory from Venezia.

In later portraits, St. Benedict is usually shown holding a crozier and book and wearing his Benedictine habit, sometimes over an alb (example). The crozier, normally a sign of episcopal status, signifies an abbot when it is carried by a person in monastic garb. The book is St. Benedict's Rule.

Sometimes instead of a crozier he will carry a tied bundle of rods to symbolize the strength of monks who live together in a community (example).

Occasionally a portrait will use some other attribute drawn from the hagiography -- for example, a cup with a snake to refer to one episode of attempted poisoning, or a raven with bread in its beak referring to another, or a wine flagon figuring in yet another (cached) (example).

St. Benedict's story circulated first in the form of St. Gregory the Great's 6th-century life of the saint, which included a great number of episodes, most involving miracles. The 13th-century Golden Legend culls and abbreviates these episodes.

Feast day: March 21 (changed to July 11 in the Roman Catholic Church in 1969)

At left, "St. Benedict" - Pamplona

Other images:
Aretino, Stories from the Legend of St. Benedict, 1387Narrative frescos, 1387
Gozzoli, mid-15th centuryEpisode: The Impersonator of King Attila
Episode: The Death of St. Scholastica
Mexican santoMexican santo
Spanish painting

Hagiography:
Gregory the Great, Life of Benedict (cached)
Golden Legend #49: html or pdf

Also see:
St. Scholastica

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