Saint Andrew: The Iconography

In Patras, in Achaea, the natal day of St. Andrew the Apostle. He preached the Holy Gospel of Christ in Thrace and Scythia. He was arrested by the Proconsul of Aegea and imprisoned. Then he was gravely beaten and finally hanged on a cross. He lived on for two days, teaching the people and asking God not to let him down from the cross. Then he was surrounded by a great splendor from Heaven, and as the light ceased he gave up his spirit. – Roman Martyrology for November 30

The Holbein drawing at right features the four common identifying characteristics of portraits of St. Andrew: the wild hair, the long beard, a cross, and a book. (However, it is unusual for all four characteristics to be together in the same portrait.)

Wild hair is an individualizing characteristic of St. Andrew portraits from at least as early as the 6th century (second picture at right) to as late as the fifteenth (third picture at right). In this 13th-century mosaic, where the apostles are labeled, only Paul, Peter, and Andrew are individualized, and that only by the latter's wild hair and the beards on the other two.

In the hagiography, I have not yet found any direct description of the saint's hair, but perhaps there is a connection with his conversation with Christ about the the latter's promise, "a hair of your head shall not perish" (Luke 21:18). In any case, medieval and later artists tend to give the saint a more manageable haircut (example).

As for the beard, most medieval and later images tend to show it as a good deal longer than the Holbein at right, and somewhat less forked (medieval example, 15th-century example, 16th-century example). In early images (such as this mosaic and the second picture at right), the beard is not long at all.

The Cross is important in the Andrew hagiographies. Not only do they have him die on a cross, but they report lengthy disquisitions on his part explaining the mystery of the Cross. These sermons continued even while he was on his own cross when he was crucified in Achaia, to the awed inspiration of the crowd. (See Corona's painting of the event and the mosaic portrait in St. Paul Outside the Walls where the scroll he holds says that he prayed to the Lord while on the cross.)

The portraits sometimes have Andrew with a slender hand cross or processional cross (example), but more often his cross is pictured as large enough to hold a man, as it is in the Holbein at right and in this fresco from Croatia of about the same period in the 16th century. The fresco uses the style of cross seen in older portraits, a simple like Christ's. The X shape, called the "cross saltire" goes back at least as far as the 15th century (example). It refers to a later tradition that Andrew did not feel worthy to be given a cross like Christ's. The tradition could perhaps be influenced by the story of St. Peter's crucifixion upside-down. In a 15th century Catalan altarpiece the Achaians seem to be crucifying him sideways!

As an apostle St. Andrew is also commonly shown with a book. Just before his death on the cross in the Golden Legend account, he speaks of his yearning for "the purity of contemplation," and a contemplative emphasis may be behind the way he seems to meditate on his book in the Isenbrant Crucifixion and even the monkish garments he wears in some portraits (example).

NARRATIVE IMAGES

Christ calls Andrew and his brother Peter to follow him in Matthew 4:18-20 and Mark 1:16-18, and this is a common subject (example). Less common is his role in the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (example). The legendary episodes of his years as an evangelist and thaumaturge are pictured in this remarkable altarpiece in the Cloisters in New York.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-07-28, 2017-02-10,15.

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Holbein the Younger, St. Andrew, 1519-21 (See description page)


St. Andrew in the triumphal arch at the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna (6th century). See the description page.


Detail of the St. Andrew Altarpiece (Catalunya, 1420-30) (See description page)

MORE IMAGES

  • 12th century: Mosaic of St. Andrew in the Palatine Chapel.
  • 1708-1709: Camillo Rusconi's St. Andrew

DATES

  • Feast day: November 30

HAGIOGRAPHY

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