Artwork of the Week: May 8

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Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Wittenberg, 1472–1553), Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Barbara. Oil on wood panel, about 1515–20. Purchased with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in Memory of her Father, Maurice A. Scott, 1961.32. 48 1/2 in. by 22 in., Gallery 19

How did 16th-century viewers of this panel know which of these saints was which? Martyred Christian saints were depicted with identifying objects (attributes) usually associated with their death. These attributes were well known to Medieval and Renaissance audiences. The wheel and sword identify Catherine of Alexandria, who was tortured on spiked wheels before being beheaded. Margaret, reading a prayer book, was tortured with fire. Barbara’s identity may have been less clear. She holds the chalice and wafer used for Catholic Holy Communion instead of her more common attribute, the tower in which she was imprisoned. To help the viewer, part of her name is embroidered on the neckline of her dress.

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