St. Bruno of Cologne: The Iconography

In the monastery of Turris, in the diocese of Squilace in Calabria, St. Bruno, Confessor. He was the founder of the Carthusian order. – Roman Martyrology for October 6

In images St. Bruno will be seen tonsured and in the habit of the Carthusian order, which he founded in the eleventh century. In most cases there is no attribute, but some paintings place a bishop's mitre on the ground beside him, and some identify him by a halo of golden stars.

The stars relate to an episode in St. Bruno's vita. The bishop of Grenoble had a dream in which God made himself a fitting habitation among the Chartreuse Mountains, a rugged area north of Grenoble. Above the habitation was a circle of seven golden stars. The next morning, seven men came to visit the bishop and ask for his advice about their desire to withdraw from the world to a life of prayer in some wilderness. Bruno was the leader among these men. Remembering the dream, the bishop advised them to go to the Chartreuse. They did, and there they set up what became the mother house of the Carthusian order.1
The Chartreuse Mountains, where St. Bruno and his companions first established a habitation. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
These seven men had attended a funeral in Paris of a noted scholar famous for upright living. While the corpse was being carried to church on a stretcher, it lifted its head and said, "I am indicted by the just judgment of God." Amazed and fearful, the people decided to delay the funeral till the following day, but on the morrow the same thing happened again. And again on the third day the corpse proclaimed, "I am indicted by the just judgment of God." Bruno said to his companions, "If a man of such dignity, so erudite, and who was reputed so upright in his life is damned, what can become of us miserable little fellows?" Bruno's conclusion was that the seven of them should seek salvation by imitating St. Paul the Hermit and withdrawing from this corrupt world. That is how they came to visit the bishop, who was known for his saintliness.2
At the funeral in Paris the corpse raises its head to pronounce the justice of his condemnation. From the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. See the description page.
As the fame of Bruno and the Chartreuse monks grew, he attracted more and more men to the life of prayer, penitence, and labor. Pope Urban II was so impressed that he offered to make St. Bruno the archbishop of Reggio di Calabria. But he refused, preferring to install himself and a few companions in Calabria's mountain caves.3 In the first picture on the right and a number of other portraits of Bruno, the mitre on the ground refers to this refusal.

Some of the narrative images deal with Bruno's friendship with a Count Roger of Calabria. While he was out hunting one day with his men, the dogs led him to Bruno's cave. He dismounted, knelt before the saint, and promised to build a church in which he and his companions could worship.
Count Robert dismounts and kneels before St. Bruno. Fresco in a former Carthusian monastery in Bavaria. See the description page.
Some time later, while Roger was sleeping St. Bruno appeared to him in a vision and warned him that an enemy army was just then preparing a surprise attack. Roger was able to arise, get his men organized, and defeat the attackers.4

In a good number of paintings St. Bruno is granted a vision of Christ or the Madonna and Child (example). So far, I have found no literary source for any such vision, even in the 186 folio pages devoted to him in the Acta Sanctorum.

Prepared 2017-03-05 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2020-02-28.

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A portrait in a Carthusian monastery of St. Bruno with the seven-star halo and the mitre on the ground. See the description page.

MORE PICTURES

  • 1766-68: Houdon's statue of Bruno, like many other images of the saint, identifies him only by way of his tonsure and Carthusian habit.

DATES

  • Feast day: October 6.
  • The monastery in the Chartreuse was founded in 1084.

NAMES

  • Originally the word "Chartreuse" (Latin Cartusia) applied only to the mountain range. But from it came the name of the "Carthusian" order and the word "charterhouse," which designates any Carthusian monastery. Some charterhouses supported themselves by making the wine that is now called "Chartreuse," and that wine's green color is itself known as "chartreuse."

BIOGRAPHY

NOTES

1 The bishop's dream is recounted in three vitae collected in the Acta Sanctorum, October vol. 3, 704, 713, 726.

2 The episode is recounted in all three of the vitae presented in the Acta Sanctorum, October vol. 3, 703-704, 708-709, 724-726. The words of the corpse and of St. Bruno are my translations from the Latin text.

3 Butler, 43.

4 Acta Sanctorum, October vol. 3, 719-20 and 732-33.

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