In the monastery of Fossanova, near Terracina [Italy], St. Thomas Aquinas, Confessor and Doctor of the Church, of the Order of Preachers, illustrious for his noble family, holy life, and theological wisdom. Pope Leo XIII declared him the patron saint of all Catholic scholars. – Roman Martyrology for March 7
Much of Thomas Aquinas's writings were aimed at refuting Christian thinkers who had been led by their study of Arab philosophers to question the Eucharist and other church doctrines.1 Consequently a number of images of the saint follow the program seen at right: The turbaned figure lying vanquished under the saint's feet represents the errors of the Arab writers. The two men on his left and right are Aristotle and Plato, and above him the four Evangelists sit writing their gospels. Similar images abound (examples
from the 14th century
from the 16th).
Above them all, Christ himself approves the saint's work with the words BENE SCRIPSISTI DE ME THOMA, "You have written well of me, Thomas." A late version of the Golden Legend says these words were spoken to Aquinas by Christ as he contemplated the crucifix one night in prayer (image). Another episode in the same work has St. Peter and St. Paul come one night while Aquinas is praying and help him to understand the scriptures (image).
The legend's emphasis on Aquinas's prayerfulness probably explains the phrase on the left leaf of the saint's book in the first picture at right. The same phrase appears in many other images of Aquinas: Veritatem meditabitur guttur meum et labia mea detestabuntur impium, "my mouth will meditate on truth, and my lips will detest the impious man" (Proverbs 8:7).
Aquinas was a Dominican, so portraits normally show him in the black and white habit of that order with a distinct tonsure and often a shining sun on his breast as an emblem of his role as teacher of doctrine, as in the second picture at right. Some portraits show a dove at his ear to symbolize the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (example) and, less often, a monstrance referring to his work on the doctrine of Transubstantiation (example). Sometimes the saint holds a pen, as in the third picture at right.
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-01-16.