January 1st: Naming of Jesus In accordance with Mosaic law, circumcision was performed on a Jewish child on the eighth day after his birth; Jesus was duly circumcised 'when the eighth day came' (Lk 2:21). No mention is made of the season, but when December 25th was adopted in the West as the commemorative festival of Jesus' birth, the eighth day coincided with the Kalends of January, the first day of the Roman year. At the time of his circumcision, Jesus, like all Jewish male children, was given his name, as announced by Gabriel to Mary, and to Joseph in a dream.
Circumcision by Fra Angelico, Museo di San Marco, Florence
January 6th: Epiphany The festival celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi. The gospel narrative on which this festival is founded (Mt 2:1-12) has three elements: a star which presages the birth of a great figure; a king who attempts by a ruse to discover the whereabouts of a hidden rival; and the supernatural frustration of the plan to kill the child. The Magi are three in number to accord with their gifts, gold (tribute to Christ's kingship), frankincense (tribute to his divinity) and myrrh (forecast of his death). The Magi were known by a variety of names, which were standardised in the Middle Ages as Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar.
Adoration of the Three Magi by Pietro Cavallini, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome
January 25th: Conversion of St Paul, Apostle While on the road to Damascus, Paul (then Saul) was struck to the ground, blinded by a sudden light from heaven. The voice of God said, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' According to tradition Saul was travelling on horseback. He is generally depicted lying on the ground as if just thrown from his horse. He may be wearing Roman armour. Christ appears in the sky, while Saul's attendants run to help him or try to control the rearing horses.
Conversion of St Paul, Tapestry by Pieter van Aelst, Vatican Museums, Rome
February 2nd: Presentation of Christ in the Temple Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to be 'consecrated to the Lord' (Luke 2: 22-39). Mary holds Jesus out to the high priest, while Joseph bears a pair of doves. Also present, according to Luke, was Anna, an aged prophetess, who raises her right hand.
Presentation of Christ in the Temple, mosaic by Jacopo Torriti, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome
March 25th: Annunciation The archangel Gabriel's annunciation to the Virgin Mary that she will conceive and become the mother of Jesus, the Son of God, marking his Incarnation.
Annunciation, Duomo, Florence
Passion Sunday The sixth Sunday in Lent, which marks the beginning of Holy Week, is known as Passion Sunday, as it is devoted to contemplation of the suffering (Latin passio) of Jesus from his prayers in the Mount of Olives to his death on the Cross. The day is also known as Palm Sunday, for when Christ made his entry into Jerusalem 'the people took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him' (John 12.13).
Christ's entry into Jerusalem by Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Holy Thursday Holy Thursday, also known in England as Maundy Thursday, commemorates the last meal that Christ took with his disciples before his arrest. The meal was the celebration of the Jewish feast of the Passover and Christ chose the occasion to announce to the Twelve that one of them would betray him. At the meal Christ also performed two symbolic acts, which became the foundation for the Eucharist. He took bread and broke it, saying that this was his body; and holding a cup of wine he pronounced it the blood of the new covenant. After each action he said, 'Do this in remembrance of me'.
The Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno, Sant' Apollonia, Florence
Good Friday Good Friday (Holy Friday in other languages) is the traditional English name for the day devoted to the contemplation of Jesus' suffering and death on the cross.
Wooden bas-relief of the crucifixion, Santa Sabina, Rome
Easter In 325 the Council of Nicaea decreed that Easter should be observed on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. Easter can, therefore, fall on any Sunday between March 22nd and April 25th. There were no witnesses to the resurrection; the guards at the tomb 'became as dead mean' when an earthquake struck and an angel descended and rolled back the stone which sealed it (Mt 28:1-2).
Resurrection of Christ by Luca della Robbia, Duomo, Florence
Ascension The fortieth day after Easter marks the Ascension of Christ into heaven.
Ascension of Christ by Andrea da Firenze, Spanish Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Pentecost The descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles, fifty days after Christ's resurrection.
Pentecost, mosaic in St Mark's Basilica, Venice
April 25th: St Mark, Evangelist Mark was the companion of Paul and Barnabas on their early missions and was later in Rome with Paul. In the 9th century his supposed remains were stolen from Alexandria and taken to Venice, where he is the patron saint of the city. St Mark's attribute is a winged lion.
St Mark by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence
May 3rd: St Philip and St James the Less, Apostles Philip was from Bethsaida and was one of the first to be called to follow Christ. He does not figure much in art. His attribute is the Cross. In the city of Hierapolis he is said to have banished, with the aid of the Cross, a serpent or dragon from the Temple of Mars. As the monster emerged, it gave off such a stink that many people died. James the Less is generally regarded as the same person as James 'the Lord's brother', who is mentioned by St Paul (Gal. 1:9). 'Brother' could here apply to any male relation. He became the first bishop of Jerusalem and he may be depicted wearing episcopal robes, with mitre and crozier. His attribute may also be a fuller's staff.
St Philip by Giuseppe Mazzuoli, San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome
May 14th: St Matthias, Apostle It is related (Acts 1:15-26) that in the days following the Ascension, Peter proposed to the assembled brethren, who numbered one hundred and twenty, that they choose one to fill the place of the traitor Judas in the Apostolate. Two disciples, Joseph, called Barsabas, and Matthias were selected, and lots were drawn, with the result in favour of Matthias, who thus became the twelfth Apostle.
June 24th: St John the Baptist John forms a link between the Old and New Testaments, being regarded as the last in line of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the saints of the New, in which his story is told. He was the son of Zacharias, a Temple priest, and Elizabeth, a relation of the Virgin. John was a preacher, who baptised in the river Jordan all who came to him in a penitent spirit. At the baptism of Christ, the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove was seen to descend from heaven. John rebuked Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great) for marrying his dead brother's wife. He was imprisoned and later executed, the result of a rash promise that Herod made to his step-daughter Salome. In art he holds a lamb which may have a cruciform nimbus. The lamb and the accompanying inscription 'Ecce Agnus Dei' refer to the fourth gospel (1:36), 'John looked towards (Jesus) and said "Behold the Lamb of God"'. He also invariably holds a reed cross with a long slender stem. Baptisteries are naturally dedicated to him. He is the patron saint of Florence.
Preaching of St John the Baptist by Andrea del Sarto, Chiostro dello Scalzo, Florence
June 29th: St Peter and St Paul, Apostles Peter, 'the Prince of the Apostles', was a fisherman from Galilee and the brother of Andrew. He and his brother were called to be 'fishers of men'. His special attribute is a key, or keys: 'I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven' (Matt. 16:19). Other attributes are a book, an upturned Cross and a cock. Paul was born Saul, a Jew from Tarsus, circa 10 CE. He was converted to Christianity while on the road to Damascus. His special mission was to the world of the Gentiles. His attributes are a sword, with which he was executed, and a book or scroll. St Peter and St Paul are joint patron saints of Rome.
St Peter and St Paul, Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome
July 3rd: St Thomas, Apostle Thomas, also called Didymus (twin), is popularly known as 'doubting Thomas'. He is generally depicted young and beardless and his attributes are a builder's set-square or ruler, a girdle and a spear or dagger. Thomas was absent when Christ first appeared to the disciples after his death. When told about it afterwards Thomas refused to believe until he had seen for himself. Christ appeared again when Thomas was with them and said to him, 'Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed'. Thomas is the patron saint of builders and architects.
Incredulity of St Thomas (det.) by Andrea del Verrocchio, Museo del Orsanmichele, Florence
July 22nd: St Mary Magdalene Mary, who came from the village of Magdal, near the Lake of Galilee, was the woman 'out of whom came seven devils' (Lk 8:2), which may mean that Jesus cured her of epilepsy, which was then attributed to demonic possession. Mary Magdalene witnessed the crucifixion; saw where Jesus' body was laid; and was the first person to whom the risen Christ appeared (Mk 16:9). In art Mary Magdalene's attribute is a jar of ointment, because it was an ancient opinion that she and the unnamed woman, who approached Jesus in the house of the Pharisee and anointed him as he sat at table, were one and the same person. It was generally assumed that the latter was a prostitute. According to a 9th century legend, Mary Magdalene spent the final years of her life in penitence in a cave at Sainte-Baume, near Marseilles. At her death she was received into heaven and was cited as an example for all who had fallen. She is portrayed, vase in hand, her long hair untied and covering her whole body. In this she resembles St Mary of Egypt, a repentant and reformed courtesan.
St Mary Magdalene by Desiderio da Settignano, Santa Trinita, Florence
July 25th: St James the Greater, Apostle James the Greater was the son of Zebedee, a fisherman from Galilee, and the brother of John. He was among the circle of men closest to Christ, being with Peter and John at the Transfiguration and again at the Agony in the Garden. He was tried in Jerusalem in 44 CE and executed. A series of apocryphal legends from the Middle Ages tells of his mission to Spain and his burial at Compostella and it has been legend rather than scripture that has been the chief source of inspiration to artists. James is generally portrayed wearing the pilgrim's broad-brimmed hat and cloak, on either of which appears his special attribute, a scallop shell. James the Greater is the patron saint of Spain, where he is known as 'Matamoros', the 'Moor-slayer'.
St James by Luca della Robbia, Pazzi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence
August 6th: Transfiguration The occasion when Christ manifested his divine nature to the disciples Peter, James and John. Christ took the three disciples up a mountain and in their presence he became transfigured: his face shone like the sun, his clothes became dazzling white and Moses and Elijah appeared on either side of him.
Transfiguration of Christ by Fra Angelico, Museo San Marco, Florence
August 15th: Assumption The taking up to heaven of the soul and body of the Virgin Mary. There is no scriptural foundation for this event; it rests solely on apocryphal literature from the 3rd and 4th centuries. Such writings relate that Mary was surrounded on her death-bed by the apostles when Jesus appeared and bore her soul away. Three days later angels bore Mary's body to Paradise, where it was reunited with her soul. The Assumption was only declared an article of faith on November 1st, 1950 when Pope Pius XII (r. 1939-58) issued the Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, in which it was affirmed that Mary, 'when the course of her earthly life was finished...was assumed (Latin assumpta est: taken up) body and soul into the glory of Heaven'.
Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Nanni di Banco, Porta della Mandorla, Florence
August 24th: St Bartholomew, Apostle The New Testament mentions Bartholomew only by name, but says nothings about his acts. His attribute is a knife, for a according to the Golden Legend, he was martyred by being flayed alive. He is generally depicted with his flayed skin draped over his arm. He is the patron saint of tanners.
St Bartholomew by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Rome
September 8th: Nativity of the Virgin Mary
Nativity of the Virgin Mary by Pietro Cavallini, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome
September 14th: Exaltation of the Holy Cross The feast commemorates the recovery of the Holy Cross by St Helena.
Discovery of the True Cross by Agnolo Gaddi, Santa Croce, Florence
September 21st: St Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist St Matthew was a tax-gatherer from Capernaum and traditionally the author of the first gospel. His attribute is a winged figure resembling an angel. He also has book, pen and inkhorn, the common attributes of a writer.
St Matthew and the Angel by Caravaggio, Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
September 29th: St Michael, Archangel St Michael the Archangel is generally armed with a sword/spear and a shield and tramples underfoot Satan or a dragon. St Michael is also represented weighing the souls of the dead in order to measure their just desserts. The Feast of St Michael is also known as Michaelmas.
St Michael Archangel, San Michele in Foro, Lucca
October 18th: St Luke, Evangelist Luke was described by St Paul as the 'beloved physician', but he does not appear in art in this role. As he was thought to have been a painter, he is portrayed as such, generally painting an image of the Virgin. His attribute is a winged ox and a portrait of the Virgin.
Saint Luke Painting the Virgin by Giorgio Vasari, Santissima Annunziata, Florence
October 28th, St Simon and St Jude, Apostles Little is known about Simon Zelotes (the Zealot). His is said to have travelled through Syria and Mesopotamia with Jude, preaching the gospel. According to the Leggenda Aurea (Golden Legend, c. 1260), he was martyred by being sawn in half. His attribute, unsurprisingly, is a saw. Jude (Thaddeus) is said to have martyred in Persia. His attribute is a club, halberd or lance. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.
Virgin and Child with Saints Jude and Simon by Fedrico Barocci, Urbino
November 1st: All Saints The Feast of All Saints, which used to be known in England as All-Hallows, or Hallowmas (Old English: haleou: saint), commemorates all the martyrs, known and unknown, who in heaven enjoy the beatific vision of God.
November 30th: St Andrew, Apostle Brother of Peter and the first to follow Christ. He is usually portrayed as an old man, white-haired and bearded. His attribute is a saltire, an X-shaped cross.
St Andrew by Francois Duquesnoy, St Peter's Basilica, Rome
December 8th: Immaculate Conception In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of December 8th, 1854, Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-78) pronounced and defined that the Virgin Mary "in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin."
Virgin Mary, Column of the Immaculate Conception, Rome
December 25th: Nativity This festival celebrates the birth of Jesus. Although the date of his birth is unknown, by the early-to-mid fourth century the Church in the west had placed Christmas on December 25th.
Nativity by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, San Domenico, Siena
December 26th: St Stephen The first martyr, or 'protomartyr', who was stoned to death after arousing the anger of the Sanhedrin with his sermon which accused them of having murdered the Messiah, whose coming their prophets had foretold. His attribute are stones, which usually rest on his head or shoulders. He is appealed to for relief by people suffering from headaches.
Martyrdom of St Stephen by Bernardo Daddi, Santa Croce, Florence
December 27th: St John, Apostle and Evangelist John, the son of Zebedee and brother of James (the Greater), is the presumed author of the fourth gospel and, by tradition, of the Apocalypse. John's attributes are a book/scroll, an eagle which may hold a pen or inkhorn in its beak, and a chalice from which a snake emerges. At the Last Supper he is shown leaning his head on the breast of Christ, from the tradition that identified him with 'the disciple whom Jesus loved'.
St John the Evangelist by Camillo Rusconi, San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome
December 28th: Holy Innocents At the time of Christ's nativity, Herod the Great, learning of the birth of the child who was to become 'king of the Jews' and fearing his own loss of power, ordered the slaughter in Bethlehem and the surrounding area of all male children aged two or under. The Holy Innocents are venerated as the first martyrs.
Massacre of the Holy Innocents by Matteo di Giovanni, Sant' Agostino, Siena