Who is Saint Luke and how to recognize him in art? Luke is one of the Four Evangelists and the author of the Gospel of Luke, one of the New Testament books that describe the life of Christ. Luke is definitely a historic figure, who lived in the 1st Century and originally came from the then Greek city of Antioch, now on the Turkish-Syrian border. He was an physician, painter and writer and died at the age of 84. As he is one of the Four Evangelists, he became pretty popular and important in Western art. Luke was also a physician, and thus his name is used for many Saint Luke Hospitals all over the world.
In the 8th Century a story popped up telling that Luke once painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Most likely just a cute legend, but it helps with recognizing Luke in art. He is shown as a painter at work, and his model is the Virgin. This also made Luke become the patron saint of painters. He gave his name to the Guilds of Saint Luke, which were the trade unions for painters in the 16th and 17th Century. Here is a 1652 painting by Guercino. Saint Luke shows the viewer his painting with the Virgin and Child. And look what’s on the table behind him. It’s a book. That refers to the Gospel he wrote. And on the book is an inkstand in the form of an ox. And the ox is the very most common attribute to recognize Saint Luke the Evangelist. The other three Evangelists also have their own symbols: Matthew – angel; Marcus – lion; John – eagle.
Here is another painting, from c. 1603, by El Greco (“The Greek”). His real name is Doménikos Theotokópoulos, a Greek painter but mainly living and working in Toledo in Spain. El Greco painted this magnificent portrait of Saint Luke for the Toledo Cathedral where it still can be seen. He must have felt close to Saint Luke, as they both came from Greece. Saint Luke shows us the Gospel, and his painting of the Virgin and Child is now incorporated in the Gospel book itself.
Most common is to depict Luke as a writer, together with an ox or a bull, which animal became Luke’s trademark symbol. The ox or bull, as an animal often used for offers, refers to Christ’s sacrifice and crucifixion. Here are a few Dutch Old Master prints from series with the Four Evangelists. The person writing, depicted together with an ox, can only be Saint Luke the Evangelist. Once you make the link between Luke and the ox, it will be super easy to recognize this saint.