St. Wolfgang of Regensburg was one of the most important German bishops of the 10th century. In his early career he was a hermit, then a monk, then a missionary to the Magyars. After he was made bishop of Regensburg he built many new churches and effected substantial reforms in the clergy and the monasteries.
Not all images of St. Wolfgang include an attribute, but in those that do he has an axe like the one in the picture at right. The Catholic Encyclopedia's article on Wolfgang explains:
The axe refers to an event in the life of the saint. After having selected a solitary spot in the wilderness, he prayed and then threw his axe into the thicket; the spot on which the axe fell he regarded as the place where God intended he should build his cell.The legend is reprinted in Acta Sanctorum, November vol. II(i), 549-50.
An alternative explanation of the axe is in a verse that Molanus (372) quotes from Kaspar Brusch's verses on Wolfgang's monastic reforms: securi etiam sordes resecare pudendas, "and with an axe [he] cut off shameful and sordid things."
A third signification relates to the specialized tool known today as the grub axe (Latin ligo), which provides a metaphor in a medieval poem on Wolfgang: Corpus adurgebat, fideique ligone scopebat, "He disciplined his body and swept it with the grub axe of faith."
The images always put St. Wolfgang in the grandest episcopal finery, but in fact during his time as bishop he continued to wear his simple monastic habit (Butler, IV, 231).
Prepared in 2018 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.