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July 2010

Beneath the Nimbus—The Hair of the Saints

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Department of Dermatology, University Hospital of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.

Arch Dermatol. 2010;146(7):764. doi:10.1001/archdermatol.2010.103

From the beginning of civilization, man has placed importance on the appearance and symbolism of hair. The psychosocial significance and religious connotation of hair are well known. Hair has 2 perceived symbolic meanings in a spiritual context: shaven hair is a symbol of celibacy and chastity, while uncut hair is seen as withdrawal from worldly concerns and vanities. Religious tradition is a plentiful source of accounts of hopes and fears related to the human condition. These hopes and fears are reflected in Christian hagiography and iconography. While the former deals with the accounts of the saints' lives, the latter relates to the saints' depiction in art. Appreciation of religious art is deepened by a knowledge of what is depicted and why. Roman Catholic churches are replete with images of saints. Since saints are seldom labeled with their names, clues to their identity are given by their attributes, ie, by their appearance or what object they are holding. These attributes may be the instruments of martyrdom, representations of events in their lives, or symbols of their teachings.

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