The Prophet Isaiah
The Iconography
Isaiah figures in Christian art mostly as a prophet of specific events and concepts in the New Testament. Thus images of the Nativity may find room for a representation of this prophet as an old man with gray hair and beard holding a scroll with words from Isaiah 7:14, ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitur nomen eius Emmanuel, "behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be Emmanuel" (as at right).

Or in a "Jesse Tree" image the scroll may bear the words from Isaiah 11:10: in die illa radix Iesse, qui stat in signum populorum, ipsum gentes deprecabuntur, et erit sepulchrum eius gloriosum, "In that day the root of Jesse, who standeth for an ensign of the people, him the Gentiles shall beseech, and his sepulchre shall be glorious" (example).

Isaiah can also be represented at the Adoration of the Magi (example), where the verse cited can be Isaiah 60:14 (Et adorabunt vestigia pedum tuorum omnes qui detrahebant tibi, "And those who used to slander you will adore the footprints of your feet") or 60:6 (Inundatio camelorum operiet te, dromedarii madian et epha; omnes de Saba venient, aurum et thus deferentes, "The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Madian and Epha: all they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense").

In the Church of St. Clement in Rome Isaiah holds a scroll reading vidi Dominum sedentem super solium, "I saw the Lord sitting on a throne," as he stands in the frame of an allegorical mosaic where Christ's "throne" is the cross (Isaiah's portrait, whole mosaic).

In one mosaic in Ravenna, Moses and Isaiah are in the lower register representing the Law and the Prophets while Saints Mark and Matthew in the upper register represent the New Testament.

In a third-century letter Origen mentioned a tradition that Jewish leaders had executed Isaiah by sawing him in half. The same assertion is made in the third-century Ascension of Isaiah.1 This idea persists into the middle ages and beyond. We see the prophet being sawed in the 14th-century manuscript illustration at right, and a bucksaw is used as as his attribute in the 16th-century portrait below it.

Another feature sometimes seen in images of Isaiah is a hot coal (example), referring to Isaiah 6:6-7, where a seraph touches his lips with an ember from the altar of the Lord and says, "now that this has touched your lips your wickedness is removed."

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-09-14.

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Isaiah standing beside a Nativity scene (See the description page)

The Martyrdom of Isaiah (See the description page).

With a bucksaw as his attribute (See the description page)

DATES

  • Isaiah lived in the 8th century B.C. The vision of the hot coal occurred in "the year King Uzziah died," 742 B.C.

HAGIOGRAPHY

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 The Ascension of Isaiah, 5:1-14; Origen, "A Letter to Origen from Africanus About the History of Susanna," in Schaff, IV, 388.