St. Luke, Evangelist and Painter of The Blessed Virgin Mary
Of the real history of St. Luke we know very little. He was not an apostle; and, like St. Mark, appears to have been converted after the Ascension. He was a beloved disciple of St. Paul, whom he accompanied to Rome, and remained with his master and teacher till the last. It is related, that, after the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul, he preached the Gospel in Greece and Egypt; but whether he died a natural death, or suffered martyrdom, does not seem clear. The Greek traditions represent him as dying in peace, and his death was thus figured on the ancient doors of San Paolo at Rome. Others affirm that he was crucified at Patras with St. Andrew.
There is some ground for the supposition that Luke was a physician. (Col: 4:14) But the pretty legend which makes him a painter, and represents him as painting the portrait of the Virgin Mary, is unsupported by any of the earlier traditions. It is of Greek origin, still universally received by the Greek Church, which considers painting a religious art, and numbers in its calendar of saints a long list of painters, as well as poets, musicians, and physicians. In the west of Europe, the legend which represents St. Luke as a painter can be traced no higher than the tenth century; the Greek painters introduced it; and a crude drawing of the Virgin discovered in the catacombs, with an inscription purporting that it was “one of seven painted by Luca,” confirmed the popular belief that St. Luke the evangelist was meant. Thus originated the fame of innumerable Virgins of peculiar sanctity, all attributed to his hand, and regarded with extreme veneration. Such ancient pictures are generally of Greek workmanship, and of a black complexion.
In the legend of St. Luke we are assured that he carried with him everywhere two portraits, painted by himself; one of our Saviour, and one of the Virgin; and that by means of these he converted many of the heathen, for not only did they perform great miracles, but all who looked on these bright and benign faces, which bore a striking resemblance to each other, were moved to admiration and devotion. It is also said, that St. Luke painted many portraits of the Virgin, delighting himself by repeating this gracious image; and in the church of Santa Maria in Via Lata, at Rome, they still show a little chapel in which, “as it hath been handed down from the first ages, St. Luke the Evangelist wrote, and painted the effigy of the Virgin-mother of God.”
On the strength of this tradition, St. Luke has been chosen as the patron saint of painters. Academies of art are placed under his particular protection; their chapels are dedicated to him, and over the altar we see him in his charming and pious avocation, that of painting portraits of the Blessed Virgin for the consolation of the faithful.
The devotional figures of St. Luke, in his character of evangelist, represent him in general with his gospel and his attendant ox, winged or unwinged, but in Greek Art, and in those schools of Art which have been particularly under the Byzantine influence (as the early Venetian), we see St. Luke as evangelist young and beardless, holding the portrait of the Virgin as his attribute in one hand, and his gospel in the other. A beautiful figure of St. Luke as evangelist and painter is in the famous “ Heures d’Anne de Bretagne.” In an engraving by Lucas van Leyden Netherlands, 1494-1533, executed as it should seem in honor of his patron saint, St. Luke is seated on the back of his ox, writing the gospel; he wears a hood like an old professor, rests his book against the horns of the animal, and his inkstand is suspended on the bough of a tree. But separate devotional figures of him as patron are as rare as those of St. Matthew.
St. Luke painting the Virgin has been a frequent and favorite subject. The most famous of all is a picture in the Academy of St. Luke, at Rome, ascribed to Raphael. Here St. Luke, kneeling on a footstool before an easel is busied painting the Virgin with the child in her arms, who appears to him out of heaven sustained by clouds: behind St. Luke stands Raphael himself looking on. Another of the same subject, a very small and beautiful picture, also ascribed to Raphael, is in the Grosvenor Gallery. In neither of these pictures is the treatment quite worthy of that great painter, wanting his delicacy both of sentiment and execution. There is a most curious and quaint example in the Munich Gallery, attributed to Van Eyck – here the Virgin, seated under a rich Gothic canopy, holds on her lap the Infant Christ, in a most stiff attitude; St. Luke, kneeling on one knee, is taking her likeness. There is another, similar in style, by Aldegraef, in the Vienna Gallery. Carlo Maratti represents St. Luke as presenting to the Virgin the picture he has painted of her.
Sacred and Legendary Art – Volume 1
Mrs. Jameson (Anna), Estelle May Hurll – 1897