In the Middle Ages, several different saints were represented in art as knights. Generally these saints were portrayed in full suits of armor, carrying a sword or banner. Some of them were on horseback. This polychromed wooden sculpture, on display in the medieval gallery of the RISD Museum, is one example of this phenomenon. Until recently, it was identified as Saint George, one of the more popular knight-saints. However, looking closer at the statue’s iconography calls this identification into question.
By the fifteenth century, when this statue was produced, Saint George was usually shown on the back of a white horse, bearing a shield with a red cross and preparing to slay a dragon.1 The RISD knight bears a red cross similar to Saint George’s on his shield. However, there is no dragon in RISD’s sculpture, nor is the knight’s sword tilted as if he were about to kill a dragon that has now been lost. Additionally, the horse in the RISD sculpture is not white, and there is no evidence that it has been repainted. These differences between RISD’s statute and the iconography of Saint George that had become set by the later Middle Ages make it unlikely the saint is Saint George.
What could be the identity of RISD’s Crusading Knight? Saint Michael Archangel was another popular armored saint. However, the absence of wings, or any marks on the RISD sculpture’s back that suggest that wings were previously attached, quickly dismiss him as a candidate. Saint Martin is another possibility for this sculpture, but he was typically shown dividing his cloak for a beggar. The absence of a cloak or another figure on the RISD statue makes this unlikely. Saint Theodore’s iconography is similar to Saint George’s, so he can be eliminated for the same reasons. Saint Eustace can also be eliminated, as there is no reference here to Christ’s appearance to the saint in the form of a deer.
Since the sculpture may be from Spain, Santiago Matamoros is another possible identity. Saint James the Great gained the moniker “Moor Killer” after a supposed appearance during a ninth-century battle at the beginning of the Reconquista, where he aided Christian troops to defeat a Muslim army. As the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula continued, the saint grew in popularity.2 These sculptures of Saint James show him in full armor, riding a rearing horse. There is usually the body of a Moor underneath the horse’s front legs, though many of these figures have been removed or lost. RISD’s horse is clearly not rearing, but the awkward shape and length of its legs may indicate that they were modified to be standing on all fours.
Of all the warrior saints, however, Saint Maurice is the strongest candidate for RISD’s sculpture. Maurice was the commander of the Theban Legion in the third century, martyred in present-day Switzerland after refusing to persecute Christians.3 Relics of Saint Maurice and several member of his legion were initially held at the abbey Saint-Maurice d’Aguane, Switzerland and a cult rose up around them that extended into present-day France and Germany.
King Louis IX of France had the relics transferred to an Augustinian priory in Senlis in the mid-thirteenth century, expanding the importance of the cult. The canons of the new house were expected to have an active role in religious processions that were popular in the town, particularly those in support of the Crusades.4 Perhaps the RISD statue was used in similar sorts of processions. While the saint is dressed in full armor and raising a sword, his horse wears only a simple bridle and saddle, suggesting that the knight is part of a procession rather than going into battle. In fact, the statue was likely meant to be viewed from below, perhaps held above a crowd during a religious procession. The saint and his horse are attached to a worn wooden base with molding around the edges, which although it is likely later, may have replaced a similar base. Both figures are unusually proportioned, especially relative to one another. The saint is much larger than his horse, making it seem as if he’s riding a pony. In addition, the saint’s head and raised hand are much larger than would be proportionally correct. Looking at it from below corrects some of the awkwardness of these proportions.
Though not always portrayed on horseback, Saint Maurice tended to be depicted as a knight in armor. When on horseback, it was generally with his right arm raised and holding either a sword or a banner. Several sculptures from the same period as the RISD sculpture show the saint in this pose. In a sixteenth-century retable sculpture from Strasbourg, for example, Saint Maurice is portrayed in luxurious full golden armor while his horse wears only a simple bridle and saddle. The sculpture is oriented in the same direction, and Saint Maurice raises his right arm with a sword.
Many images and sculptures of Saint Maurice depict him with dark skin due to his supposed origin in Egypt, especially following the production of a thirteenth-century sculpture in the cathedral of Magdeburg.5 The skin color of the RISD example is difficult to discern due to state of conservation of paint on the sculpture’s face. In the places where paint has flaked off, most noticeably on the saint’s right cheek, the area appears pink. However, the layer that is flaking appears slightly darker and browner. This could be centuries of dirt discoloring the paint. It could also be a nod towards the saint’s African origins. As some of the above comparanda suggest, Saint Maurice continued to be depicted as Caucasian beyond the thirteenth century as well, so the color of the RISD sculpture’s skin is not critical to its identification as Saint Maurice.
Though a number of saints were depicted as knights in the Middle Ages, Saint Maurice is the most likely identity for RISD’s sculpture. The statue looks the most similar to other depictions of Saint Maurice from the time. Since devotion to Saint Maurice was more frequent in northern Europe, however, further work needs to be done to determine if this statue was truly produced in Spain.
Lia Dykstra is a third-year PhD student in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. Her research interests include Modern architecture and urbanism and medieval architecture and reuse studies.
Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Medieval Gallery, 2012(?)-Present
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- Lester, Anne E. “Confessor King, Martyr Saint: Praying to Saint Maurice at Senlis.” In Center and Periphery: Studies on Power in the Medieval World in Honor of William Chester Jordan, 11:195–210. Later Medieval Europe. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
- Mershman, Francis. “Saint Maurice.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10068c.htm.
- National Gallery of Art. “The Making of a Seventeenth-Century Spanish Polychrome Sculpture.” Accessed November 2, 2015. http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2010/sacred/conservation/slideshow/index.shtm.
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- 1With the exception of a French fourtheenth-century illuminated initial in a manuscript of de Varagine’s Golden Legend (Charleville-Mézières – BM – MS. 0177), in which the saint is shown on horseback but there is no dragon.
- 2Erin Kathleen Rowe, Saint and Nation: Santiago, Teresa of Avila, and Plural Identities in Early Modern Spain (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011).
- 3Francis Mershman, “Saint Maurice,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10068c.htm.
- 4Anne E Lester, “Confessor King, Martyr Saint: Praying to Saint Maurice at Senlis,” in Center and Periphery: Studies on Power in the Medieval World in Honor of William Chester Jordan, vol. 11, Later Medieval Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 203.
- 5Devisse, The Image of the Black in Western Art.