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Saints are the superheroes of the Middle Ages. They’ve got the looks, the powers, the fame…they are the cultural icons.An icon in a religious context is a representation of Christ, the Virgin Mary or a saint, especially one painted in oil on a wooden panel, the word deriving from the Greek eikōn (‘likeness’ or ‘image’). But an icon is also a person or thing regarded as a symbol of a belief, nation, community or culture. Captain America, for instance, is a popular icon of the 1940s, an ‘intentionally patriotic creation’, often shown fighting against the Axis powers of World War II, his shield a symbol of his role as protector.
Superheroes are often more recognizable from insignia or objects, costumes or weapons, than by their own facial features. You know Thor by his hammer. You know Batman by his bat insignia.
St George, a Christian martyr of the Roman Empire, was killed because he refused to worship the pagan gods. St George didn’t fret about his martyrdom, but he made sure he gave all his wealth away to the poor beforehand. When it was time for him to die, he was lacerated on a wheel of swords (during which he was resuscitated three times) and then decapitated. But the iconic moment of his life was his dragon fight, first depicted in Byzantine art but brought back to Western Europe during the crusades. Today St George is England’s patron saint — pretty famous and recognizable as saints go in the 21st century. But is his visual recognition due to his good Christian works, giving money to the poor and refusing to worship pagan gods? Dragon slaying is just a bit sexier.
Another famous dragon-fighting saint is St Margaret, an early Christian virgin-martyr, who was swallowed by Satan in dragon form. She escaped from the dragon when the cross she carried gave him a tummy ache. Consequently, St Margaret is often shown with the dragon she conquered as well as her weapon of choice, her trusty cross.
Superheroes turn their own weaknesses or vulnerabilities into sources of power. When Tony Stark gets some shrapnel lodged dangerously close to his heart, he builds a device to save himself that is ultimately the source of his power as Iron Man. Saints use the things that injure them, that threaten their lives, to exhibit their own superpowers. St Sebastian is famously depicted bound to a stake or tree and shot through with arrows. (According to the stories, he looks like an urchin, hedgehog or porcupine.) Yet he miraculously lives through this so that the emperor Diocletian can beat him up and throw him in a privy. As a porcupine of arrows, the saint is strong, fierce and undefeatable. Even after his (second?) death by beating, he hasn’t really lost because his soul’s gone to God with a holy death.
St Lucy is often depicted with her eyes on a platter. (This can be a bit confusing since she always has a pair of eyes in her head as well — it looks a bit like she’s having someone else’s eyes for a snack.) St Lucy’s eyes were gouged out before her execution; or, according to another version of the story, she actually took out her own eyes in order to discourage a persistent suitor who admired him. Her eyes were miraculously restored after her death. Whether or not the eye-gouging was self-employed, St Lucy’s eyes on a platter represent her God-given power of sanctity.
I recently came across a remarkable art exhibition by the Italian artist Igor Scalisi Palminteri. Entitled Hagiographies, Scalisi Palminteri’s controversial pieces are sculptures of saints purchased from street markets in Palermo that he paints to look like familiar comic-book superheroes. The Virgin Mary becomes Catwoman, Jesus cosplays as Captain America, Saint Anthony and Christ Child make their DC debut as Batman and Robin. I love these re-imaginings of the ‘super-saints’, as described by blogger J. Caleb Mozzocco.
Last year the National Gallery in London featured an exhibition by Michael Landy called Saints Alive. The exhibition pamphlet describes Landy’s own re-imagining of super-saints: ‘[Landy] has been inspired by the stories of the saints, widely represented in the National Gallery’s collection. These stories were once known by everybody, yet today many of them have fallen into obscurity.’ His exhibition was interactive — press buttons and step on foot pedals to make saints move, spin a giant wheel to find out your own saintly fate, drop coins into a donation box to activate Saint Francis of Assisi. The most interesting part of the exhibition for me was Landy’s ‘Multi-Saint’, a sculpture that combined famous attributes of five different saints. Imagine a comic book superhero with Superman’s flight, speed and strength, Jean Grey’s telekinesis and Thor’s ability to summon lightning, who can also control basic atomic particles like Dr Manhattan and transform into the Incredible Hulk!
I’d like to end this post with one final medium through which we celebrate our heroes — cake. Here, for a child’s birthday party, are cakes with the insignia of Batman, Spidey and the Man of Steel.
How better to celebrate the tortured virgin Super-Saint Agatha, whose breast miraculously regrew after being removed with pincers?
Holy saints, Batman!