In a nineteenth century hymn, "There is a Happy Land," the hopeful aspiration of the writer is led toward a heavenly dawn. Time and space are defined, however, by a simple little verse that pulls the choir into the company of the saints:
The book couples image and text of nearly two hundred saints. The typical entry provides basic information on known dates of birth and death, feast days, names by which the saint is variously known among the European languages, local lore, and vignettes on their "attributes." The hagiography is necessarily selective, and often spare. The authors provide the saints' chief attributes in bold text, with brief explanations as to why their symbols are unique or why their patronage is often represented in an icon. For example, St. Eustachius, a second century martyr, is often depicted in proximity to a cross-bearing deer or with "instruments of the hunt" which are befitting the patron of hunters. He shares the honor of protector of hunters with Hubert of Liège, an eighth century bishop with similar attributes, who also encounters a stag with a cross atop his head.
Readers will encounter many saints with whom they are familiar, but others less so. For instance, Stephen the proto-martyr or Bernard of Clairvaux are included among the former. Pantaleon of Nicomedia (a physician and martyr who had his hands nailed to his head) or Gudula of Brussels (that city's patron) are included among the latter. Not all the saints are taken from the Roman calendar. One can find references to many of the saints' attributes among the pages of the Golden Legend, but the contemporary explanations are far more detailed. Some saints from the eastern churches are also included. The glossy images that accompany nearly every saint's entry range from black and white woodcuts of about two inches in height to full page color images. The volume should be savored as an art book that presents information on the saints' symbols. It is hardly a definitive reference, even though there is a "dictionary of saints" and their principal attributes along with an index of these emblems.
Matthew O'Connell's translation excels in some places (especially the introduction) but lags elsewhere. I spotted many grammatical mistakes among the vitae. Apart from the notes in the introduction, the volume lacks bibliography and in places the explanation of the symbols is curious or questionable. One wonders not merely what the emblems are, but why the attributes are assigned in the time, place and manner that they are assigned, as well as by whom, and for what purpose. This would have undoubtedly added to the length and cost of the volume and turned it into a monograph rather than the visual feast that its authors intended it to be.
Saints and Their Symbols will make for a lovely coffee table book and should appeal to all who are interested in the lives and legacies of the treasures of heaven.