Saint Rita: The Iconography

In Cassia, in Umbria, St. Rita, Widow, a nun of the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine. After a secular marriage she cherished Christ as her one eternal spouse. – Roman Martyrology for May 22

Statues of St. Rita such as the one pictured at right can be found in many Italian and older American churches. They are most often exactly as shown here, with the saint in her Augustinian habit, contemplating a crucifix in her hands. A gash or wound will be apparent above her left eye. Sometimes she will be holding a crown of thorns instead of a crucifix.

The crucifix, the wound, and the crown of thorns are inspired by a passage in her vita regarding her nightly meditations on the Passion of Christ. In one of these, a thorn from Christ's crown lodged itself in her forehead, causing a wound that never healed (Acta Sanctorum May vol. 5, 225-26).

St. Rita is celebrated to this day as "wife, mother, widow." She was unwillingly married at 12 to an abusive husband whose life ended in murder. With some difficulty she succeeded in dissuading her two sons from avenging the crime. Then they died too, and she entered an Augustinian convent.

Like the second picture at right, many two-dimensional images of St. Rita include roses. These refer to another passage in her vita: As she lay sick, a cousin asked if she could get her anything. Rita asked for a rose from the garden of her former home. It was January, but when the cousin went into the garden she found a rose blooming, which she plucked and took to the saint.

An appendix to the vita asserts that St. Rita's body was incorrupt and that it was seen on more than one occasion to rise up in its casket (ibid., 231-32). Poussin's painting of the saint rising above the countryside may be a reference to this, or it may simply be a visualization of the transition of her soul to Heaven.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University

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The majority of St. Rita statues are like this one in Santa Maria degli Angeli e Martiri, Rome (See description page)


St. Rita receives the thorn (See description page)

DATES

  • Feast day: May 22
  • Born 1386, died 1456

HAGIOGRAPHY