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Traditions & Symbols of the Dominican Order

Catholic artistic tradition assigns each saint particular symbols that denote the Saint's martyrdom, miracles, or circumstances of their lives. These symbols serve to identify the saints, and aids to memory of a Saint's life and actions, and as symbols of spiritual ideals.


Veritas - truth, is the motto of the Order

St Dominic, founder of the Dominican order, is pictured with symbols from his childhood. A dog bearing a torch refers to his mother's prenatal dream; a star or cornona of light was said to have appeared on his forehead at his baptism. A loaf of bread he sometimes carries recalls a story of a miraculous supper, served to Dominic and his starving monks by angels.

The other two most commonly quoted are laudare, benedicere, praedicare (to praise, to bless, to preach) and contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere (to contemplate and hand on to others the fruits of contemplation).



The Orange Tree

The orange tree pictured is at Santa Sabina and is said to be a direct descendant of the one planted in Rome by Our holy Father Dominic in 1220. Apparently this was the first of its type to be planted in Italy. The Villa Sciarra in Rome has an orange grove grown in commemoration of the bringing of the plant to Italy by St. Dominic.


SPND - appended to a Dominican's name as in
God bless, in SPND,
Sanctus Pater Noster Dominicus = SPND = Our Holy Father Dominic



"To contemplate and to give to others the fruits of contemplation."

St. Thomas' defense of that revolution in understanding and practice gave rise to the motto of the Order - contemplata aliis tradere. Or to give it its fuller expression, contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere. Since the turn of the last century, that phrase has been often translated as  "to contemplate and to give to others the fruits of contemplation."  What we contemplate, as Dominicans, is Truth - with a capital T - Divine Truth. And it is that Truth which we have encountered in contemplation that we hand on to others through our preaching and teaching and other ministry. William Hinnebusch pointed out long ago in this regard that the simply word "Truth" does not merely point to the object of our collective vision and mission, but expresses exactly what we mean by "contemplation."



St Dominic - images of St. Dominic are very common in Latin countries. Usually you will be able to identify them easily by these attributes:

Dog with Torch - According to the Golden Legend St. Dominic's mother while pregnant dreamed that she would give birth to a dog who would hold a torch in its mouth and would "burn the world." It has been suggested that the dog represents a pun on Dominicanus, the word for a Dominican friar, and domini canis, "dog of the Lord." At any rate, a dog is often shown at the saint's feet holding a torch in its mouth, as at left.

Star on Forehead
- The Legend also relates that when St. Dominic was a baby his godmother saw a star on his forehead during the baptism, so another common attribute is a star either on the forehead or above the head (example).

- In the above example St. Dominic also carries a rosary, which a legend starting in the 15th century claimed had been given him by the Virgin Mary.

- Yet another attribute is a lily or stalk of lilies, referring to St. Dominic's notable chastity (example).

Book and Staff
- Finally, we often see St. Dominic with a book and a staff (example), a reference to a vision recounted in the Golden Legend in which Peter and Paul give him these items and urge him to take them into the world and preach. (In the sculpture at left, the position of the outstretched right hand seems to suggest that originally it held a staff.)

A given image may use any combination of these six attributes, in addition to the saint's tonsure and black-and-white Dominican habit. Sometimes, when the context has established who the figure is, the habit and tonsure may be the only attributes.

"Bury me under the feet of my brothers"
- spoken by St Dominic at his death. - His friars had taken Dominic to a local Benedictine abbey, where they hoped he might rest more comfortably. Since death was approaching, the Benedictine superior intimated that he would be very pleased to bury Dominic in the abbey; the holy man would be given a prominent grave that would accommodate the numerous pilgrims who could be expected to visit his final resting place. When he caught wind of this, however, Dominic ordered his friars to take him home to their own priory. There, after his death, they were to place his body in an unmarked grave beneath the flooring of the house. “Bury me under the feet of my brothers,” he commanded them.

Medieval Sourcebook: The Golden Legend:  St. Dominic

Dominican Shield Art