Christian Martyrs in Art: A Grotesque Fascination / by Chris Hall

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, devoured by lions in the Colosseum.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, devoured by lions in the Colosseum.

Maybe I have a sick mind, but I've always found depictions of Christian martyrs fascinating; you want to look away, but you can't.  I suspect I am not the only one today who thinks this way.  Of course I respect the holiness of saints, their wisdom, their many good works, and their dedication to their beliefs in the face of death.  But the imagination and grotesque beauty of the art suggests to me that the artists may have also been fascinated with their violent subject matter.  Incidentally, I've never cared too much for horror movies and realistic violence.  Usually, when the Christian martyrs are depicted in art, the violence is either stylized or symbolized in some way.

Click each image to enlarge.

Here we have Saint Agatha of Sicily, who had her breasts removed before being tortured to death.  She is often shown holding a plate or a chalice containing her breasts.

Saint Bartholomew was flayed alive.  Oddly enough, he is the patron saint of tanners.  Michelangelo painted himself as Saint Bartholomew's flayed skin in his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.  Sometimes depictions of Saint Bartholomew can be pretty graphic, making my own skin crawl.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria was tortured to death on the wheel that now bears her name.  To have the object of your execution named after you seems like a strange honor.

Saint Clement of Rome was tied to an anchor, tossed into the sea, and drowned.

Saint Hippolytus of Rome, a convert and fellow soldier of Saint Sebastian, was drawn and quartered.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch was thrown into the Colosseum in Rome and devoured by lions.

Saint Lawrence was grilled alive.  Reportedly he had a sharp sense of humor, and told his torturers that he was he finished on one side, and that it was time to turn him over.

Saint Lucy of Syracuse had her eyes gouged out prior to her execution.  She is often depicted holding a plate containing her own eyes.

Saint Peter of Verona was hacked to death.  He is often shown with a sword in the head.

Saint Sebastian is a favorite subject among Renaissance artists.  He was a Roman soldier under Diocletian and a Christian Convert.  When he was found out, he tied to a tree and had arrows shot at him.  Saint Sebastian was reportedly brought back to life by Irene of Rome, but when Saint Sebastian went directly to Diocletian to rebuke him, he was killed a second time, this time by being clubbed to death.