Thursday, January 28, 2016

Saint Thomas Aquinas – Eloquent Ox, Angelic Doctor

Carlo Crivelli, Saint Thomas Aquinas
From the Demidoff Altarpiece
Italian, 1476
London, National Gallery

During 2016 the Order of Preachers, the religious order founded by Saint Dominic, is celebrating the 800th anniversary of their approval by Pope Honorius III.  

Eight hundred years is a long time and during that period much has happened in the world.  In those centuries, the Dominican order has produced many great saints.  One of the greatest of these is the saint whose feast day is celebrated on January 28.  He is perhaps the greatest philosopher and theologian of the western church between the death of Saint Augustine in the early fifth century till today.  He is Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Life and Importance

Born in 1225 into the noble family of the Counts of Aquino in Roccasecca in the Lazio region of Italy Thomas’ early education took place in the monastery of Montecassino and was continued in Naples.  In Naples he encountered the Dominican order for the first time and resolved to join them.  His family was appalled by his decision and took drastic measures to change his mind, basically kidnapping him and confining him in a family castle for a year while they tried to change his mind.  He proved adamant and was finally released and allowed to join the Dominicans.  

Master of Catherine of Cleves, Saint Thomas Aquinas
from Hours of Catherine of Cleves
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1435-1445
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 917, fol. 287

He was sent to Paris, then the center of advanced education in Europe, where he studied under his fellow Dominican, Albert the Great.  Saint Albert was impressed by the boy’s intellect and took him along as an assistant when he was moved to Cologne in 1248.  It was during this time that the quiet Thomas was given the name of “dumb ox” by his fellow students.  Saint Albert is reputed to have admonished them by saying “We call him the dumb ox, but he will give such a bellow in learning as will be heard all over the world.” While in Cologne he became a teacher.  He moved later back to Paris, where he also gained his master and doctorate degrees.

Anonymous Woodcut, Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1450
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art

Later in his relatively brief life he was sent by his order from place to place to teach his fellow Dominicans, especially those of the Italian province based at Santa Sabina in Rome.  While in Rome he was also appointed as papal theologian.  In Rome he began the work that has been considered his masterpiece ever since, the Summa Theologica.  This massive work covers practically the entire world of thought and belief and has been a foundational document for both the church and western philosophical and theological thought from that day to this.  Saint Thomas is renowned for applying Aristotelian logic to both the natural world and to Christian revelation.

Francisco de Herrera, Saint Thomas Aquinas
Spanish, c. 1656
Seville, Museo de Bellas Artes

In addition to being one of the great intellects of the West, Thomas was also a mystic and poet.  Numerous accounts from his own time suggest that he had attained a high state of mystical union with God, evidenced by reports of levitations and visions.

One of the requests he received as papal theologian came from Pope Urban IV in 1264.  Pope Urban asked him to compose the prayers and hymns for the newly approved feast of Corpus Christi (or Corpus Domini).  This feast, in honor of the Body and Blood of Christ manifested in the Eucharist, had begun in northern Europe and had spread to the entire church.  The beautifully poetic material Thomas prepared is still used to this day and includes some of the best known Catholic hymns in honor of the Blessed Sacrament.  Among them are the “Pange lingua”, sung every year on Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi.  The last two verses are the text for the hymn “Tantum Ergo” which is sung at every Benediction service.  Also still in use is the sequence he composed for the feast, “Lauda Sion”, as well as the prayers for the Divine Office and for the Mass of Corpus Christi.  Numerous other prayers still in use are also attributed to Saint Thomas.  While the Summa may not have become a household word for every Catholic, virtually everyone has been touched at one time or another by these prayers. 

Tomaso da Modena, Saint Thomas Aquinas
From the Beauchamp/Warwick Hours and Psalter
Italian, c. 1430-1487
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 893, fol. 263r

In 1274 Thomas was teaching in Naples when he was summoned by Pope Gregory X to meet him in Lyons for a Council.  Saint Thomas began his journey, but fell ill on the way while still only south of Rome.  He was welcomed into the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova and died there on March 7.  He was 49.  His exemplary life and work resulted in his canonization in 1323.  In 1667 he was given the rare title of Doctor of the Church. 

Saint Thomas in Art

The iconography of Saint Thomas Aquinas can be divided into several categories, depending on the approach of the artist (or his/her patron) to the subject.  There are: portraits and “triumphs”, scenes from his life and/or his legend, as one of a group of saints and as imagined by Dante in the Divine Comedy.  We will look at all of them below.

Jacques Callot, Saint Thomas Aquinas
From Les Images de Tous les Saincts et Saintes de l'Année
French, 1636
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art


The simplest images of Saint Thomas are portraits.  No “real” portraits of Saint Thomas were done in his lifetime.  Indeed, the concept of a portrait as we understand it was not even conceivable during the century in which he lived.  What images there were that attempted to convey a representation of an individual person were highly stylized.  But we do see such images within 100 years of his death.

At first they are stylized as might be expected, but as time progressed they became more and more individuated until a recognizable type had evolved.

Jean le Noir and collaborators, Saint Thomas Aquinas Teaching
From the Breviary of Charles V
French (Paris), c. 1364-1370
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1052, fol. 348v

Jacopo Landini, Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1350-1400
Avignon, Musée du Petit Palais

He is presented in his Dominican habit of black and white, and usually displays or carries a book and pen.  He may have the image of the radiant sun on his chest, a symbol of the radiant light he shed on philosophical and theological thought.

Fra Angelico, Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1440-1445
Venice, Collezione Vittorio Cini

Attributed to Sandro Botticelli, Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1481-1482
Riggisberg (Switzerland), Abegg Collection

Jean Bourdichon, Saint Thomas Aquinas
From Hours of Frederic of Aragon
French (Tours), c. 1501-1504
Paris, Bibliotheeque nationale de France
MS Latin 10532. fol. 364

He may also carry a model of a church, shown sometimes in a partially ruinous state.  I have not been able to find any solid information on the meaning of this symbol.

Because of his work on composing the liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi and his general devotion to the Holy Eucharist, he is very often depicted with a monstrance in his hand or nearby.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Defenders of the Eucharist
Flemish, 1625
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
In this great Eucharistic tapestry by Rubens, Saint Thomas Aquinas holds the central position among Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Clare of Assisi, Norbert and Jerome.

Reliquary bust of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1650-1700
Naples, Cathedral, Chapel of San Gennaro

Abraham van Deipenbeeck, Saint Thomas Aquinas
Flemish, Before 1675
Valenciennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, 18th Century
Nardò, Church of San Domenico

Thomas’ Life and Legend

Thomas’ life was largely spent in study, lecturing, writing and prayer, the life of an intellectual and a saint, but not the most picturesque of actions.  However, there are a number of images that have come down to us that illustrate his activities.

Life of Saint Thomas Aquinas
From the Hours of Louis of Savoy
French (Savoy), c. 1445-1460
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9473, fol. 174v
This illumination shows multiple events from the life of SaintThomas. Beginning at the upper left we see Thomas receiving the habit of the Dominican Order, below that are two scenes from his imprisonment by his brothers: his encounter with the prostitute hired by the brothers to tempt him and, below that, his visitation by angels who placed a belt (indicating chastity) on his waist. On the right are scenes from his later life: in his study in conversation with Saints Peter and Paul, levitating in ecstasy before the Crucifix from which Christ spoke to him and Saint Paul bringing the Christ Child to him on his deathbed, while a newly appearing star that was interpreted as a sign of his impending death shines down. 

Pedro Berruguete, Saint Thomas Aquinas Receives the Dominican Habit
Spanish, c. 1494-1500
Avila, Royal Monastery of Santo Tomas

There are also a number of pictures that present “events” from the legends that sprang up about him.

Erhard Altdorfer, Scenes from the Life of Saint Thomas Aquinas
From the Altar of Saint Thomas Aquinas
German, c. 1520
Lübeck, Sankt-Annen Museum

 Among these is the story of an event from the time of his imprisonment by his family.  His brothers were reported to have hired a prostitute to entice him to abandon his Dominican vow of chastity.

Bernardo Daddi, Temptation of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, 1338
 Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Diego Velazquez, Temptation of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Spanish, c. 1631-1632
Oriola, Museo Diocesano del Arte Sacro 

According to the legend, her appearance had the opposite effect.  Thomas is reported to have beaten her off with a firebrand and expelled her from his prison room.  Following this heroic defense of his virtue he was visited in a dream by two angels who bound his waist with a belt.  This imaginary belt is credited with preserving him from temptations of the flesh for the rest of his life.

Other life events that were often depicted were Thomas as assistant to Saint Albert the Great, Thomas inspired by the Holy Spirit, Thomas visited by Saints Peter and Paul, Thomas presenting his liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi to Pope Urban IV and Thomas visiting and visited by his Franciscan contemporary St. Bonaventure.

Sassetta, Saint Thomas Aquinas Inspired by the Holy Spirit
Italian, 1423
Budapest, National Museum
The tiny dove of the Holy Spirit can just be made out against the arch of the yellowish door to the left of the figure of Saint Thomas. 

Bartolomeo degli Erri, Saint Thomas Visited by Saints Peter and Paul
Italian, ca. 1470
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Taddeo di Bartolo,  Saint Thomas Aquinas Presenting the Office of Corpus Christi to Pope Urban IV
Italian, c. 1400
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

Alessandro da Bologna, Saint Thomas Aquinas Visiting Saint Bonaventure
From Legend and Life of Saint Francis of Assisi by Saint Bonaventure 
Italian, 1504
London, British Library
MS Harley 3229, fol. 26

Anonymous, Saint Bonaventure Visiting Saint Thomas Aquinas
Peruvian, 18th Century
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
In this charming painting Saint Thomas has been given wings.  This is presumably due to his title of "Angelic Doctor".

But it is a series of author portraits by the Neapolitan illuminator Matteo Felice and his workshop that probably most accurately depict the daily activities of Saint Thomas Aquinas.  Felice and his workshop were active in Naples in the decades around 1500 and illuminated a number of important books, including this set of works by Aquinas.

Matteo Felice and Workshop, Saint Thomas Aquinas Writing
From Super Isaaiam by Thomas Aquinas
Italian (Naples), c. 1489-1492
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 495, fol. 1r

Matteo Felice and Workshop, Saint Thomas Aquinas Writing
From Expositio in Paauli epistolam ad romanos by Thomas Aquinas
Italian (Naples), c. 1489-1492
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 674, fol. 1r

Matteo Felice and Workshop, Saint Thomas Aquinas Teaching
From Sententia super librum de caelo et mundo by Thomas Aquinas
Italian (Naples), c. 1489-1492
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 6525, fol. 1r

A much later painting adds another idea of what a day in the life of Thomas Aquinas may have been like.

Louis Francois Prosper Roux, Saint Thomas Aquinas Dictating
French, 1877
Le Puy-en-Velay, Musee Crozatier

The Vision of the Speaking Crucifix

Related to the scenes from his life and the legends that grew up about him are a series of images of a particular vision granted to him near the end of his life.  In 1273 it was reported by one of his brothers that as Thomas knelt (or stood or levitated) in front of a crucifix a voice came from the cross and said "You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?" to which Thomas replied "Nothing but you, Lord."

Francesco Morandini, Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1590-1593
Prato, Church of San Dominico

Santi di Tito, Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, 1593
Florence, Convento di San Marco

Workshop of Jacopo Tintoretto, The vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas   
Italian, 1598
Chioggia, Church of San Domenico

It was after this incident that Thomas was reputed to have told a friend that after his experience “all that I have written seems like straw to me”. 

Other Visions

This was not the only vision that Saint Thomas Aquinas received during his lifetime.  He also appears to have received visions of angels (including the two who presented him with the belt following his family's attempt to divert him from his intentions of becoming a friar).  These visions are not as well represented in his iconography but there are at least two that I have found.  

Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas
From Festes nouvelles by Jean Golein
French (Paris), 15th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 242, fol. 323r

Francesco Zugno, Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1725-1750
Troyes, Musee des Beaux-Arts et d'archeologie
Note that in this charming picture the "Angelic Doctor" actually has wings!


Fra Angelico, San Domenico Altarpiece
Italian, c. 1423-1424
Fiesole, Church of San Domenico
Saint Thomas is the Domincan figure to the left of the painting.

In addition to the pictures that are based on what is known of his life and of the legends embroidered onto it there are what might be called allegorical pictures of Thomas Aquinas.

These are images in which Thomas is seen as one of a group of saints and of a group of pictures called The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas.  The group pictures are usually composed of other Dominican saints, especially Saint Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers, and Saint Peter Martyr, one of the earliest Dominican saints.

Fra Angelico, Madonna and Child with Saints Dominic and Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1445
St. Petersberg, State Hermitage Museum

Filippino Lippi, Annunciation with Donor and Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1489-1491
Rome, Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Here Saint Thomas acts in the role of patron, presenting someone who appears to be a cardinal to the Blessed Virgin

Triumphs of Saint Thomas Aquinas

In the Triumph pictures Saint Thomas is seen as the central figure of the composition, usually shown seated and holding an open book.2

Matthaeus Guenther, Detail of painting titled The Holy Trinity Surrounded by Art and Science
German, 1760
Aldersbach, Former Cistercian Abbey

Lippo Memmi, Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1343
Pisa, Church of Santa Caterina

Andrea da Firenze, Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1366-1367
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella. Cappellone degli Spagnoli

Benozzo Gozzoli, Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1470-1475
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Filippino Lippi, Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1489-1491
Rome, Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Carafa Chapel

He is surrounded by other figures, often comprising angels, saints and other philosophers and theologians.  At his feet in the majority of the pictures is a prone figure, often identified as Averroës, the Spanish Arabic philosopher.

Averroës (born Ibn Ruěd) was an important twelfth century philosopher, one of the Spanish Arabs through whom the writings of Aristotle re-entered Western Europe.  He died approximately 27 years before St. Thomas was born.  Thomas wrote an important refutation of Averroës theory of the soul, "De unitate intellectus contra Averroistas", which upheld the Christian understanding of the individual character of the soul and individual immortality.  This is the specific “triumph” that is celebrated in these pictures, as well as the entire body of Thomas’ works.

Another group of works might be called an apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas.  In these pictures Thomas is seen as entering into heaven or resident there as one of the Doctors of the Church, with the earlier doctors:  Saints Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome and Gregory the Great.

Francesco Solimena, Saint Thomas Aquinas Received in Heaven
Italian, c. 1625-1649
Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Francisco de Zurbaran, Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Spanish, c. 1631
Seville, Museo de Bellas Artes

Jakob Vogel, Saint Thomas Aquinas With the Doctors of the Church
German, c. 1732
Bamberg, Former Domincan Convent of Saint Christopher

St. Thomas in Dante

Finally, there is a small group of manuscript illustrations of the Divine Comedy of Dante in which St. Thomas is included in the heaven of the Sun, where he introduces those who share this place in heaven with him.3

The number of spirits differ in these illustrations, but most likely include St. Thomas himself, along with St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi.  

Master of the Antiphoner of Padua, Dante and Beatrice Meet Saint Thomas Aquinas
From Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy
Italian, c. 1300-1350
London, British Library
MS Egerton 943, fol. 146

Heaven of the Sun
From Dante Alighiei, Divine Comedy
Italian (Florence), c. 1345-1355
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 676, fol. 103

Giovanni di Paolo, Dante and Beatrice Meet Saint Thomas Aquinas
From Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy
Italian, c. 1444-1450
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 36, fol. 148

A marvelous summation of Saint Thomas’ life is expressed in the words of Frederick Copleston, S.J., the historian of philosophy:  “it was a life devoted to the pursuit and defence of truth, a life also permeated and motivated by a deep spirituality … he was a great deal more than a professor or theologian, for he was a Saint, and even if his devotion and love are not allowed to manifest themselves in the pages of his academic works, the ecstasies and mystical union with God of his later years bear witness to the fact that the truths of which he wrote were the realities by which he lived”.4

© M. Duffy, 2016, additional text and images added 2023

  1.       Butler, Rev. Alban.  The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. III, Dublin, James Duffy, 1866, pp. 38-55.  See also:  Kennedy, Daniel. "Saint Thomas Aquinas." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 28 Jan. 2016 .
  2.              For a discussion of these pictures see:  Polzer, Joseph.  "The "Triumph of Thomas" panel in Santa Caterina, Pisa. Meaning and Date", Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz,  Vol.  37. Bd., H. 1 (1993), pp. 29-70.
  3.        Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy, Paradiso, Cantos 10-12. 
  4.         Copleston, Frederick, S.J.  A History of Philosophy, Volume II Medieval Philosophy, New York, Doubleday, 1993, p. 304.

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