St. Bernard founded the Cistercian abbey at Clairvaux, which became a model for monastic reform throughout Europe. Much of the work for which he is famed is of the sort that does not lend itself to imagery – writings against contemporary philosophers, meditations on scripture, political manoeuvres, and so on. However, this left a number of episodes in his life that artists and their patrons embraced with enthusiasm.
The Vita Prima, Bernard's earliest biography, claims a great number of miracles for the saint, including exorcisms and miraculous cures. The exorcisms are sometimes portrayed (example) but I have not encountered any images of the miraculous cures.
Only a few visions are mentioned in the early vitae, but those few were pictured again and again in the art. In one common type, the Virgin Mary appears to Bernard while he is writing at his desk, often in an open-air setting (example).1 In another, Jesus comes from the Cross to embrace him (example).2 The most unusual vision has the Virgin Mary sharing with Bernard some of the milk from her breast (example).3
CONFRONTING DUKE WILLIAM OF AQUITAINE
The vitae claim that Duke William (most likely William IX of Aquitaine) was a "schismatic" who reconciled with the Church after Bernard confronted him outside a church in Parthenay. Nearly identical paintings of the confrontation can be found at a number of sites (example).4
In portraits Bernard is tonsured and wears the white habit of the Cistercians, sometimes with the hood up, as in the first picture at right. Occasionally a white dog is used as his attribute; one can be seen in the exorcism picture mentioned above. More commonly, the creature with him will be a small demon, referring to his many exorcisms, as in the first picture at right. Other images express his devotion to the Passion of Christ by having him hold a crucifix or cross in his arms, often with a spear and a sponge on a pole, as in the second picture.
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Georgia Regents University