14 October 2022

Saint of the Week – St Luke the Evangelist

The traditional patronage ascribed to St Luke makes him look like something of a proto-Renaissance man: writer, historian, poet, artist, and physician – St Luke used all his God-given gifts in the service of Christ.

Name: Luke (Loukâs)

Born: c. AD 9; Antioch, Syria (Turkey)

Died: c. AD 95; Boeotia, Achaea (Greece)

Feast Day: 18th October

Patron Saint of:

Artists, Physicians; Surgeons; Bachelors

Luke was by birth a Greek-speaking gentile from Antioch (according to Eusebius) and therefore was not one of the twelve apostles, who were all Jews. Nonetheless, he was a direct contemporary of the apostles and the travelling companion of St Paul for some of his journeys (where St Paul refers to Luke as the “beloved physician” (Col 4:14)). It’s clear from his writings that Luke spent sufficient time with the apostles as to be able to write not only the longest of the four Gospels (actually it is the longest book of the entire New Testament), but also the Acts of the Apostles, written as a sequel to his gospel. In total, St Luke contributed about a quarter of the entire New Testament. It’s of further interest that about fifty percent of Luke’s Gospel is original material. It includes the Canticles of Zechariah, Mary and Simeon which are a daily feature of the Divine Office. Given the fact that Luke was the only author of a Gospel who was not a Jew, it’s not surprising that his Gospel has a certain gentile emphasis. In his Gospel the faith of gentiles is frequently praised (eg. The Samaritan leper, the centurion, etc.) and Jesus is proclaimed by Simeon as “a light to enlighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). For these reasons it is widely accepted that Luke’s Gospel was pitched particularly at gentile converts to Christianity.

Luke’s eye for narrative detail is a feature of his Gospel. Many of the best loved parables come from Luke’s Gospel, most notably the Parables of the Prodigal Son, of the Good Samaritan, and of Lazarus and the Rich man. His eye for detail also applies to his concern for historical accuracy, citing times, names of people and places with precision. For example, in his ample and vivid account of Christ’s conception and infancy, Luke situates the birth of Christ firmly within its broader historical context during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:2-3). Luke is considered by reputable archaeologists to be an important ancient historical source.

Tradition holds that St Luke was not only a masterful and polished writer, but also a skilled painter who took the opportunity to paint the Blessed Mother of God. Although there are no known icons that date as far back as the first century, the iconographic style that is such a feature of Byzantine Christianity is said to hail from St Luke’s original prototype. For this reason he is the patron saint of artists. Throughout the centuries, countless artists’ guilds and confraternities have taken the patronage of St Luke. In artistic representations St Luke is often accompanied by a winged ox, his symbol as an evangelist [aside: each of the evangelists is symbolised by a different winged creature: Mark, the Lion; Matthew, the man; John, the eagle]. Why the winged ox? This is explained because of Luke’s account of the birth of Christ in the stable of Bethlehem which was attended by the ox and ass, and (perhaps the more convincing explanation) because of Luke’s emphasis on the sacrifice of Christ (the ox being an Old Testament animal of sacrifice).

Whether through the written word, the visual arts or music, art is a powerful medium for encountering the transcendent. The Church has always understood that beauty is not merely ‘useless ornamentation’ but rather a powerful tool for evangelisation. The ordered beauty of the liturgy, our churches, sacred music, (etc.) when done well facilitate an encounter with Christ. Although we have no signature paintings, it’s clear from his written works that Luke’s artistry was used to full effect to move the hearts of his audience to a deeper knowledge and love for Jesus Christ. Perhaps we might be inspired in the week ahead to sit down and read Luke’s Gospel and Acts from beginning to end to reacquaint ourself with the life of Christ and the early Church. Or perhaps you might even be inspired to pick up your paint brushes and seek to glorify God by creating your own little masterpiece!

St Luke, pray for us!