Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Iconography

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 in a number of images a turbaned figure lies vanquished below the saint, representing the errors of the Arab writers.

According to the Golden Legend Saints Peter and Paul themselves helped Aquinas understand the scriptures (image).

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).

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-01-16, 2019-04-02.

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Mario di Laurito, Disputation of St. Thomas, 16th century (See description page)


Sebastiano Ricci, Saints Pius V, Thomas Aquinas, and Peter Martyr, 1730-33. Aquinas is on the left with a sun on his breast. (See the description page).

MORE IMAGES

  • 15th century: A della Robbia Lunette memorializes Aquinas's defense of the mendicant orders.
  • 16th century: In a fresco in the Veneto, rays of light from the sun on Thomas's breast penetrate an image of the very church where the fresco was painted.

DATES

  • Feast day: Originally March 7, changed to January 28 in 1970.
  • Born 1225, died 1274

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • Caxton's translation of the Golden Legend includes a life of Aquinas: html or pdf
  • Acta Sanctorum, March vol. I, 655-747

NOTES

1 Butler I, 510-11. Farmer, 419.