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St. Luke: Evangelist and Physician

The following description of St. Luke is derived from the presentation by the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Russian Orthodox Church) in Howell, New Jersey on their web site. It has been edited here for style.

The figure of St. Luke looms large out of both the New Testament and the pages of documented human history so that nearly two thousand years after his death his awesome image is undiminished. His fellow apostle St. Paul called him the "glorious physician," but that was only one of the talents which this magnificent man applied in a service to God.

Hailing from the ancient city of Antioch, Syria, Luke was a well-educated Greek-speaking Roman citizen whose early conversion to Christianity is evidenced by his membership in the Christian community of Antioch. This was prior to his emergence as an apostle, which took place after meeting Paul and sailing with him from Troas. He employed the Greek language's idiomatic expressiveness in his beautiful narrative form of recording history. A full appreciation of the sheer beauty of his language is reserved to the privileged few who can comprehend classical Greek. He became the Church's most articulate historian and wrote with such sensitivity and clarity that his Gospel in the New Testament has been rightfully called the most beautiful book ever written.

Icon of St. Luke

Luke joined St. Paul on his second missionary journey, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. Their odyssey, which began in Troas around 50 A.D., took them to Philippi, Rome, Caesarea, and Jerusalem. His prominence as a physician may have obscured his skills as an eloquent orator in the cause of Christ, but he was later to display a considerable talent as an artist whose icon of the Virgin Mary he gave to the Mother of God herself and which is now the prized possession of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (a copy of this icon is found in the Basilica Maria Maggiore in Rome, dated to about 850 A.D.). Although his skill as a physician and his talent as an artist may have by themselves given St. Luke a small place in history, it was his consummate gift as a writer, displayed in the Gospel of St. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, that made him one of the greatest figures in all Christendom.

Luke's contributions to the cause of Jesus Christ are beyond all measure, and his influence enabled the Christian Church to rise to its ever increasing role in human experience, including its leadership in providing medical care.

According to reports of later writers, St. Luke remained unmarried and he died in Thebes at the age of 84. He became the patron saint of physicians and artists, but especially physicians. His name graces many medical associations and hospitals. The "School of St. Luke" in Crete was established during the 15th century as a guild of painters. St. Luke's feast day is October 18.

For a comprehensive analysis of St. Luke's life and works, see the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Here is a well-known prayer to St. Luke:

Most charming and saintly Physician, you were animated by the heavenly Spirit of love. In faithfully detailing the humanity of Christ, you also showed his divinity and his genuine compassion for all human beings. Inspire our physicians with your professionalism and with the divine compassion for their patients. Enable them to cure the ills of both body and spirit that afflict so many in our day. Amen.

A note about direct and indirect knowledge of St. Luke as a physician

The only unequivocal statement about St. Luke's healing profession is in St. Paul's letter to the Colossians (4:14), where Paul relays that "Luke, the beloved physician, sends you his greetings." Luke is also mentioned in two other letters of St. Paul, in passing and without reference to him being a physician (Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). The indirect knowledge of Luke's training as a physician comes from an analysis of his writings (particularly the Gospel, but also Acts), which includes frequent use of terminology commonly found in the Greek medical literature of his time, pointing to his familiarity with it, while the same terminology is not typical of the other gospel accounts. He also includes some details of the ailments of people who Jesus had healed that are not mentioned in the other accounts, particularly the duration of their illness, as might interest a physician, and he includes illnesses of less dramatic form (such as dropsy) not found in the other accounts. Luke's gospel is particularly known for its inclusion of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is the guiding parable for Christian medical care. In it, he gave great insights into the methods of caring for those in need.

Icon of St. Luke

[The stained glass window, left, is at St. John's Episcopal Church in Stamford, Connecticut. In this window, St. Luke is shown holding a book which represents his Gospel. In his other hand he holds a plant, representing healing herbs].

The Icon by St. Luke

Although the original painting (writing, as it is called for icons) by St. Luke is probably long gone, but the image has been retained. The image below is from Constantinople about 1400 A.D. It is currently at the British Museum, where it is described as follows:

The icon of the Virgin Mary Hodegetria (she who shows the way) appears at the center of the top register on a stand draped with red and gold cloth. This, the most famous icon of Constantinople, was believed to have been painted by the Evangelist St. Luke, and thus to be an actual life portrait of the Virgin. The regent Empress Theodora and her young son, the emperor Michael III (reigned AD 842-867) appear on the left, wearing jeweled crowns and robes. On the right is the Patriarch Methodios (from 843-847) together with three monks. The lower register depicts eleven saints and bishops, some of whom triumphantly display icons.

Icon of St. Luke

Another image of this icon is shown below, left, it was originally in the Church of Guides, built by Michael III (842-867), who was depicted in the icon above as a child emperor.

Icon of St. Luke Icon of St. Luke

The icon of St. Luke in the Basilica Maria Maggiore (Rome) is shown on the right. Unlike the other images, in this one, Mary is not pointing towards Jesus with her right hand and Jesus is not completely facing forward. In Eastern iconography, it is common to have the images facing forward.