Saint Kateri Tekakwitha: The Iconography
JULY 14
St. Kateri Tekakwitha is often referred to as "the Lily of the Mohawks." She was an Iroquois by birth, but after her conversion she lived among the Christian Mohawks at Kahnawake, a Jesuit mission near Montreal. After her death two of the Jesuits were inspired to write brief biographies which are the source of later books and articles.

One of those authors, Claude Chauchetière, is also said to be the one who painted the first image of the saint, which hangs today in the mission church and is the source of St. Kateri's iconography (first picture at right). As in later images, she contemplates the cross and wears a short tunic over a long robe, leggings, and laced footwear apparently of deerskin. The dark mantle in the painting is replaced in later works by a short, fringed top – a common traditional garment among Mohawk women. The cross, fringed top, and laced footwear are the key elements in the iconography.

Through the years the images reflect changing notions of how "Indian" a saint should look. In the Chauchetière painting her skin is light and her thin nose looks European. An 18th-century print based on the painting widened the nose and made the saint quite dark.
Princess Summer­fall­winter­spring, from "How­dy Doo­dy," a chil­dren's te­le­vi­sion pro­gram in the 1950s. (Photo: Goo­gle Im­ages.)
In the early and mid-20th century she often has pig­tails and light skin, as in the third image at right, a white stereo­type of the un­threat­ening In­dian Prin­cess. Later images, such as this one and the second pic­ture at right, make her un­mis­tak­ably na­tive.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-11.

HOME PAGE


This painting of the saint by her spi­ri­tu­al ad­vi­sor esta­blished the icon­o­graphy that would be fol­lowed in sub­se­quent im­ages. (See the de­scrip­tion page.)


This statue in the Ba­si­li­ca Mis­sion San Juan Ca­pi­stra­no gives the saint a lily stalk to re­flect her title as "Lily of the Mo­hawks." (See the description page)


St. Kateri as portrayed in a Montreal stained-glass window (See the description page)

DATES

  • St. Kateri died April 17, 1680, at the age of 24.

NAMES

  • Kateri is the Mohawk form of the name "Catherine." Upon conversion, the saint took that name in honor of St. Catherine of Siena.

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • Claude Chauchetière, the saint's spiritual advisor, wrote La vie de la b. Catherine Thegakouita dite Ó prÚsent la Sainte Sauvagesse. It was published in New York in 1887.
  • Pierre Cholenac, another priest at the mission, wrote a second work, which has been translated into English by William Lonc as Catherine Tekakwitha: Her Life (Cambridge, England: Perfect Paperback, 2002).