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0028 Ana Lavrič, On the Hierarchy of Saints on Altars. Visitation Records of Otto Friedrich Buchheim, the Bishop of Ljubljana (1641–1664) (English Version)

RIHA Journal 0028 | 16 September 2011

On the Hierarchy of Saints on Altars

Visitation Records of Otto Friedrich Buchheim, the Bishop of Ljubljana (1641–1664)

Ana Lavrič

Peer review and editing organized by:

Umetnostnozgodovinski inštitut Franceta Steleta ZRC SAZU, Ljubljana / France Stele Institute of Art History at the SRC SASA, Ljubljana


Sibylle Appuhn-Radtke, Miran Špelič

Slovenska verzija dostopna na / Slovenian version available at: (RIHA Journal 0027)


The visitation records of Otto Friedrich Buchheim, the Bishop of Ljubljana from 1641–1664, offer an insight into the rules governing the disposition of saintly figures in altar retables. The central place was accorded to the titular saint, while companion saints are positioned in pairs (separately for each level of the retable) in such a way that those of higher rank are placed on the more distinguished gospel side, whereas those of lower rank stand on the subordinate epistle side. The priority of one saint over another was not a matter of a random choice, but of a fixed hierarchical order which was created over the course of centuries in the Litany of All Saints and also in the hymns of the officium for All Saints Day; this hierarchy, as Buchheim remarks, is "in agreement with the general feeling of the Catholic Church". Ecclesiastical art in Slovenia shows that in the Gothic period the hierarchical principle governing the disposition of saintly figures was not yet firmly fixed, but it was fully established in the late Renaissance and Baroque periods, which coincides with the period of unification of the Litany of All Saints for the entire Catholic Church. Later it started to loosen again, yet it remained in force up to the 20th century.

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  1. The research into the 17th century visitation records of the Diocese of Ljubljana undertaken in the 1990s focused on the artistic policies of the bishops of Ljubljana, particularly from the viewpoint of effectuating decrees issued and guidelines drawn up by the Council of Trent, or, respectively, of implementing the instructions of Catholic reform theoreticians.1 In terms of art history, the records of Bishop Otto Friedrich Buchheim, the Bishop of Ljubljana from 1641–1664,2 who was greatly interested in the arts and well-read, proved to be of particular interest. Among other things, the records reveal the basis on which the Church formed the rules for the disposition of saintly figures in altar retables. A paper discussing this matter was published in 1993 in the journal Bogoslovni vestnik,3 while the present paper is a new version (in Slovenian and in English translation), complemented particularly with quotations from sources and with a greater number of examples taken from Slovenian art.

  2. After the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church—in controversies with Protestants, but in keeping with its traditions—again emphasised the holiness and dignity of liturgical spaces deriving from their consecration and the divine presence. Accordingly, the entire arrangement of churches and disposition of their furnishings were subordinated to the hierarchy of the sacred; thus, church buildings, as hierarchically organised units, also reflected the institutional structure of the Church. Of prime importance was the division of the building between the sanctuary as a place of liturgy and the clergy, and the nave as the place of the congregation. With regard to its distinction, the sanctuary had to be given particular visual emphasis, e.g. a vaulting, frescoes, marble pavement, etc., and—as recommended by Carlo Borromeo— it also had to be separated from the area occupied by the laity by means of a rail and steps.4 The nave was secondary to the sanctuary so its decoration was simpler, as was the quality of its vaulting and floor. Another important division in the church was between the gospel and epistle sides, which also represented the division between the two sexes; in Carniola, however, the demarcation was not marked by a wooden barrier, such as had been envisaged by the rigorous Carlo Borromeo to separate the area for women from that for men.5

  3. The gospel side, where the gospel was read (i.e. the right-hand side if viewed from the sanctuary at the nave, i.e. the position of the clergy; or the left-hand side if viewed from the nave at the sanctuary, i.e. from the position of the congregation, the so-called 'women's side') was more distinguished than the epistle side, where epistles were read (i.e. the left-hand side viewed from the sanctuary at the nave, i.e from the position of the clergy; or the right-hand side if viewed from the nave at the sanctuary, i.e. from the position of the congregation, the so-called 'men's side'). This hierarchy was also expressed in the placement of the tabernacle in the wall on the gospel side, which in the 17th century, for example, was often called the 'more respectable place' (locus eminentior, locus honorabilior) by the visitators to the Ljubljana Diocese.6 Later on, when the tabernacle was given an even more distinguished place on the high altar, thus defining and giving sense to the axis of the entire building, its original position on the gospel side was intended for the storage of holy oils. If there was an altar of the Holy Sacrament in the church, its position was usually on the gospel side. The priority of the gospel side over the epistle side was evident in altar retables in the disposition of saints, who, if placed on the former side, were accorded greater honour according to the generally accepted hierarchical order.

  4. The choice of saints to be worshipped in a certain church was left to commissioners, i.e. the congregation, founders or donors; but it was naturally also conditioned by time, place, society and personal factors. 7 An exact hagio-topography of the dioceses in Slovenia has not yet been made, although there have been several partial studies.8 If completed, apart from the general image of the worship of saints in Slovenian territory, it would also show specific local features. An overview of individual parishes which comprise independent hagiographic units is also interesting. Each of these units should have been suitably balanced in terms of content, but certain patrocinia in some of them were repeated several times; as a warning against accumulating the same patrocinia, Bishop Otto Buchheim, for example, even calculated repeated occurrences of the same titular saints of the churches and chapels in individual parishes.9 When a congregation asked for a change of patrocinium of an altar, church or chapel, their argument was precisely that certain saints were already sufficiently represented in their parish. Even within a single church, which is likewise a complete hagiographic unit, several examples of the same patron saint occur, most often the Blessed Virgin, to whom even several altars were dedicated in a number of cases, and rather frequently, several images.

  5. As a rule, the image of the titular saint to whom a certain altar was consecrated was intended for the central position in the altar retable. As can be understood from 17th century visitation records, retables did not always correspond to the title of the altar. Sometimes the titular saint was replaced by another, so that the titular saint—whose image was perhaps absent from the retable—can be inferred solely from consecration documents and holy mass obligations.10 It was not unusual for the central place in a retable to be occupied by a theologically more relevant motif, e.g. Christological or Marian, while the titular saint was moved to a side or the top position. The visitators ordered that such altars be adapted to the patron saint, so that the patrocinium of the altar would also be fully recognisable. Subordinate or associate saints were arranged to the side of the central saint or religious motif. Although the choice of these was optional, they were often (partly at least) related to the titular saint in terms of content or iconography, and a certain correspondence between them was required, at least for each individual pair. Thus, most often, both in the case of associate saints and titular saints if the latter appear in a pair or group, the usual pairs are present (e.g. Sts. Peter and Paul; Sts. Hermagoras and Fortunatus; etc.) and iconographically determined groups (e.g. a pair or group of apostles, martyrs, bishops, members of religious orders, Knights of Christ, etc.); it is only rarely that an unusual combination of saints who normally do not belong together occurs. The selection of saints sometimes followed the transfer of worship from removed altar retables to another altar in the respective church; this altar then, as Buchheim writes, "visually kept alive" the memory of their patron saints.11

  6. Naturally, associate saints did not flank the central saint at random or in spontaneous combinations, but in a certain hierarchical order. The disposition of saints in altar retables observed an order of precedence which echoed the superiority of the gospel side and the subordination of the epistle side. The saint who was given priority was placed on the gospel side (i. e. to the right if viewed from the side of the central saint), while the one of lower rank was assigned to the epistle side (i. e. to the left if viewed from the side of the central saint). However, the priority of one over the other was not a matter of individual decision-making, but of a generally accepted hierarchy of saints which was theologically grounded and rooted in Church tradition. 12 This hierarchy was established in the course of centuries in the Litany of All Saints and in the liturgy of prayer or, respectively, the liturgy of All Saints Day; it was observed in breviaries and other liturgical books.13 Hierarchical ranking was intended to reflect the heavenly hierarchy in which the angels and saints are ranked according to their priority in the history of redemption and according to their personal merit. Thus, in chronological principle, the representatives of the Old Testament precede those of the New Testament; particular priority is given to Christ's relatives and disciples. In the period following Christ's lifetime, priority was accorded to martyrs, followed by representatives of the high ecclesiastical hierarchy, then clergy of lower rank, etc. Because male saints take priority, female saints follow only at the end, and are ranked according to the same basic principle (priority goes to female martyrs, etc.). As participants in the heavenly liturgy (liturgia coelestis), the saints are assembled in this succession before God's throne or the Lamb of God.14

  7. The basic hierarchical scale was established more concretely through the Litany of All Saints. At first, in spite of its similar basic composition, the Litany was practiced in several local variants which were adapted to the local veneration of saints;15 when Pope Pius V (1566–1572) gave the Litany its present form, it became uniform for the entire Catholic Church.16 The rearranged Litany, which had already been generally introduced by the Roman pontifical in the 16th century, was subsequently only slightly altered: the acclamation to St. Joseph was inserted, and the order of certain saints inverted.17 The rearrangement of the Litany also fixed the number of acclamations, which were very numerous in the early variants of the Litany, and a fixed hierarchy was established, descending from St. Mary, via archangels and angels, orders of blessed spirits, St. John the Baptist, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and evangelists, disciples of the Lord and innocents, martyrs, bishops and confessors, doctors, priests and levites, monks and hermits to virgins and widows.

  8. The Litany of All Saints—following the Roman pontifical18—enumerates angels and saints in the following order:

Sancta Maria […], Sancte Michael, Sancte Gabriel, Sancte Raphael • Omnes sancti Angeli et Archangeli • Omnes sancti beatorum Spirituum ordines • Sancte Joannes Baptista19 • Omnes sancti Patriarchae et Prophetae, Sancte Petre, Sancte Paule, Sancte Andrea, Sancte Jacobe,20 Sancte Joannes, sancte Thoma, Sancte Jacobe,21 Sancte Philippe, Sancte Bartholomaee, Sancte Matthaee, Sancte Simon,22 Sancte Thaddaee,23 Sancte Mathia, Sancte Barnaba, Sancte Luca, Sancte Marce • Omnes sancti Apostoli et Euangelistae • Omnes sancti Discipuli Domini • Omnes sancti Innocentes, Sancte Stephane,24 Sancti Laurenti, Sancte Vincenti, Sancte Fabiane et Sebastiane, Sancti Joannes et Paule, Sancti Cosma et Damiane, Sancti Gervasi et Protasi • Omnes sancti Martyres, Sancte Sylvester, Sancte Gregori, Sancte Ambrosi, Sancte Augustine, Sancte Hieronyme, Sancte Martine, Sancte Nicolae • Omnes sancti Pontifices et Confessores • Omnes sancti Doctores, Sancte Benedicte,25 Sancte Antoni, Sancte Bernarde, sancte Dominice, Sancte Francisce, • Omnes sancti Sacerdotes et Levitae • Omnes sancti Monachi et Eremitae, Sancta Maria Magdalena, Sancta Agatha, Sancta Lucia, Sancta Agnes, Sancta Caecilia, Sancta Catharina, Sancta Anastasia • Omnes sanctae Virgines et Viduae • Omnes Sancti et sanctae Dei […].

  1. As can be understood from the Litany, a precisely defined ranking was usually established within individual groups, at least for some of their saints; prior to the introduction of the unified form, this had varied in locally conditioned variants in individual local Churches. But where the Litany enumerates only groups of saints and omits the list of concrete names, the arrangement within a single group is based either on the equality of all its members, and is hence optional, or is subject to established principles of priority; thus, for example, the hierarchy of angelic choirs had long been established by tradition—seraphim (Seraphim), cherubim (Cherubim) and thrones (Throni), dominions (Dominationes), virtues (Virtutes) and powers (Potestates), principalities (Principatus), archangels (Archangeli) and angels (Angeli)26 —although it is not explicitly stated in the acclamations.

  2. According to Bishop Buchheim, the hierarchical arrangement of saints in the Litany was "in accordance with the general feeling of the Catholic Church";27 therefore, it was intended as a guide to the disposition of saints in altar retables. While on a visitation inspection, Buchheim issued specific orders for the placement of statues on altars: the order of the Litany was to be observed. Because he was the only visitator of the Ljubljana diocese to have mentioned this issue, his records are interesting and valuable documents.

  3. Being well educated and highly cultured, Buchheim would in general have expatiated upon questions of iconography. While on visitations, he examined the iconographic adequacy or acceptability of the depictions, and demanded, in the spirit of post-Trentine efforts, that depictions of saints be in harmony with accepted models and historical truth. Thus, for example, he warned against the incorrect presentations of St. Leonard who, in Upper Carniola (present-day Gorenjska), i.e. at Jesenice and Kranj, was incorrectly depicted as a Cistercian monk, although, as a disciple of St. Benedict, he should have been dressed in a black Benedictine habit.28 He was also concerned with attributes, which are very important in identifying the person depicted. When, for example, he noticed this type of mistake in the church at Ljubno ob Savinji, he ordered that "the golden apples should be put back on the book held by the saint, so that the statue could be distinguished from other holy bishops".29

  4. Naturally, of most interest are the Bishop's remarks on the arrangement of saints on altars, as they directly point to the source from which his hierarchical principles were drawn. When he visited the church of St. Peter in Bistrica ob Sotli, he found that the hierarchy of saints on the high altar was "against the order observed by Holy Mother Church, which in the Litany first calls upon St. Andrew and only then upon St. John".30 Therefore, he had the statue of St. Andrew—located in the wrong, i.e. 'second', place—moved to the gospel side, and the statue of St. John the Evangelist to the epistle side. Also, in the case of the high altar at Kropa, he had the positions of the statues of Sts. Barbara and John the Baptist exchanged, so that John—who was higher in rank and hence preceded Barbara in the Litany—would thereafter stand on the gospel and Barbara on the epistle side.31 In the case of Preddvor, the Bishop decided that the statues of Sts. Paul and Sebastian on the high altar were to be placed to the gospel side, with Sts. Andrew and Roche moved to the epistle side,32 because only in this way would the two pairs of saints be correctly positioned: the leading apostle Paul would have priority over the apostle Andrew, and the martyr Sebastian over the confessor Roche. The definition shows that each pair was treated as an independent hierarchical unit; so the hierarchical rule had to be followed separately for the outer and inner pairs, which are not necessarily related in terms of content. Buchheim also noticed an error at Križe, where on the altar of the Holy Cross, St. Roche stood on the gospel and St. Sebastian on the epistle side; because "a martyr surpasses a confessor", the visitator ordered that St. Sebastian be placed to the more distinguished side.33 A case similar to that in Bistrica ob Sotli is found in the chapel in Škale, where Buchheim noted that on the altar of St. Anne, the statue of St. Andrew stood on the epistle and the statue of St. John the Evangelist on the gospel side, which was "against the general feeling of the Church, which in the Litany places St. Andrew before St. John"; therefore, he ordered that their locations be exchanged.34 In this case, the mistake was made only within the hierarchy of members of the same group, which should have followed the established order of the apostles, whereas several of the mistakes mentioned earlier were related to the incorrect ranking of members of different groups of saints (e.g. unjustified priority of a confessor over a martyr). The shifting of statues as ordered by Buchheim was still feasible in his time, since sculptures had not yet become so dynamic and extended into the surrounding space, and not so complementary in terms of composition and adapted to the architecture of the retables as they were later in the period of the high Baroque, when their dynamism increased and their interrelations visually more accentuated.

  5. The rule which Buchheim explicitly states must have been generally known and accepted, because mistakes were relatively rare, as the records prove; had they been more numerous, the Bishop's sharp eye would have certainly noticed. The surviving altars in Slovenia—as far as they can be taken into account at all, given later renovations and alterations—show that in the Gothic period the hierarchical principle was not followed consistently, but was enforced more vigorously in the late Renaissance and the Baroque—which corresponds to the period of unification of the Litany of All Saints for the entire Church—but, of course, not everywhere with the same strictness. Although it later lapsed again, it was generally in force throughout the 19th century and thereafter to some extent. Then, if the arrangement of figures of saints in altar retables (at several levels, if the altar had several 'storeys') is analysed in terms of the hierarchical principle, certain patterns which we may otherwise completely have overlooked become evident. So it becomes clear that on all the altars on which Sts. Peter and Paul figure as a pair, the former always stands on the gospel side and the latter on the epistle; the above-mentioned rule explains the reason for this. There are numerous other similar examples of this hierarchy; a few selected cases are presented below to illustrate individual periods, but this selection extends beyond the boundaries of Ljubljana diocese to encompass a broader area of modern Slovenia.

  6. A medieval example, St. Sigismund's altar at Ptujska Gora from c. 1410, shows an incorrect disposition, because the statue of St. Barbara stands to the titular's right, while that of St. Erasmus, who gallantly ceded the more respectable place to the 'lady', stands to his left (fig. 1).35

1 Sculptural workshop of Ptujska Gora, the altar of St. Sigismund, c. 1410, basilica of Holy Mary of Protection, Ptujska Gora (photo Andrej Furlan, © UIFS ZRC SAZU)

  1. The same holds true of the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary—also at Ptujska Gora and of the same date—in which St. Catherine has priority over the apostle St. Andrew (fig. 2).36

2 Sculptural workshop of Ptujska Gora, the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary, c. 1410, basilica of Holy Mary of Protection, Ptujska Gora (photo Andrej Furlan, © UIFS ZRC SAZU)

  1. As a representative of the so-called golden altars, which already observe the hierarchical order more strictly, the one of St. Martin at Crngrob dating from 1680 is an example: in the central part of the altar, St. Francis of Assisi, as the founder of a religious order, is correctly placed on the gospel and St. Anthony of Padua on the epistle side; similarly, on the top of the altar, the first martyr, St. Stephen, justifiably takes priority over the martyr St. Laurence (fig. 3).37

3 Altar of St. Martin, 1680, succursal church of the Annunciation, Crngrob (photo Andrej Furlan, © UIFS ZRC SAZU)

  1. The Baroque high altar from the mid-18th century in the church on the island of Lake Bled punctiliously observes male priority, since St. Henry accompanies the Blessed Virgin in the central niche on her right and St. Kunigunde on her left (fig. 4).38

4 Altar of the Assumption of the Virgin, c. mid-18th century, succursal church of the Assumption of the Virgin, Bled - Otok/Isle (photo Andrej Furlan, © UIFS ZRC SAZU)

  1. The 'prescribed' order of the Litany is also reflected in the arrangement of the doctors, e.g. in the mid-18th century altar of the former monastery church at Kostanjevica na Krki, now located in the church at Golo: featuring as the inner pair, next to the central niche, are St. Gregory (on the gospel side) and St. Ambrose (on the epistle side) and as the outer pair, in the same disposition, St. Augustine and St. Jerome (fig. 5).39

5 Anonymous Bavarian sculptor, high altar (originally at Kostanjevica na Krki), mid-18th century, parish church of St. Margaret, Golo (photo Blaž Resman, © UIFS ZRC SAZU)

  1. On altars featuring the figures of the Holy Family, the placing did not observe the same principle everywhere; sometimes it was determined by the titular saint, e.g. in Tunjice, where St. Anne—with the Maiden Mary and infant Jesus—has her husband, St. Joachim, on her right side, whereas St. Joseph, who has priority in the hierarchical scale, is removed to her left and Sts. Zacharias and Elizabeth, more remote in terms of kinship, form the outer pair and are arranged in accordance with the accepted rule of male priority (fig. 6).40

6 Lovrenc Prager (design), Anton Stampfel (execution), Valentin Vrbnik (statues), high altar, 1763-1766, completed 1782, parish church of St. Anne, Tunjice (photo Andrej Furlan, © UIFS ZRC SAZU)

  1. To illustrate the angelic hierarchy, the case of a seraph and a cherub dating from 1709 is given here, the former mounted on the more distinguished gospel side, and the latter on the epistle side of St. Francis Xavier's altar in the church of St. James in Ljubljana (fig. 7).41

7 Franc Grumnik (retable), Paolo Groppelli (statues of the cherub and seraph, attributed), altar of St. Francis Xavier, 1709-1710, parish church of St. James, Ljubljana (photo Blaž Resman, © UIFS ZRC SAZU)

  1. The high altar of St. John the Baptist in the church in the Trnovo suburb in Ljubljana, a work by Matija Tomc of 1859, is evidence that the rule was still in force in the mid-nineteenth century: in the pairs of saints, St. Joseph correctly takes priority over St. John the Evangelist, St. Florian over St. Nicholas, and St. Zacharias over St. Elizabeth (fig. 8).42