I alluded to it a bit in my last Google Penance post, but it’s time to address the semiotic nastiness directly: why bother with symbols when you could use names? If you’ve got all those attributes of saints to remember and recognize from across a nave—assuming, of course, you’re not looking at some local bishop-saint, who looks like every other local bishop-saint—why not just write the names somewhere nearby?
And, true enough, you often see this in more modern churches and religious art. Part of this is because people in more recent years (at least those who don’t study medieval art history) can’t recognize attributes, part of it may be increased literacy, part of it may just be that we put more faith in the more concrete meanings of written words than we do in abstract symbols. Though the first two may have something to do with it, I’m leaning mostly towards the third—many “high church” parishioners can recognize the Top 40 Holy Hit Parade as well as anyone, and many late antique and medieval churches have inscriptions, often in Latin or Greek. While symbols may have been more easily read by the supposedly illiterate mob, you see complicated sets of attributes even in churches at Dominican priories and college chapels, where one could safely bet on many of the worshipers being literate and educated.
Rather, the modern primacy of reading text rather than symbols may be the culprit here. Umberto Eco, in The Name of the Rose, has several passages in which his medieval characters engage in symbol-reading and semiosis—while making the philosophical point that symbols allow for association of ideas and meanings with an ease that words do not.
For instance, the Dominican dog carrying a torch. While this distinctive image of a black-and-white dog can be associated with the Dominican Order (AKA “God’s Dogs, or Domini cani), both dogs and torches have their own symbolisms and meanings that the Order of Preachers would likely associate with their members. Dogs are seen as faithful servants of their masters, loyal and always ready to heed his call; torches not only provide light, but can be used to start other fires, spreading their light. The simple name “Dominican” doesn’t necessarily convey all these qualities; the picture of the faithful, humble servant spreading light to the world not only serves to reference the OP, but also their values.
The best examples of saint attributes follow these lines. While all too many boil down to martyrdom references (wheels, saws, griddles, severed breasts on a platter*) or the oft-infuriating “well, it’s a local bishop,” many attributes emphasize particular qualities a person had that the artist wishes to emphasize. Aquinas can be shown holding a book, quill, church, or chalice, depending on whether the artist wishes to emphasize his role as scholar, doctor, supporter of the church, or eucharistic theologian; Peter can be shown either as an old man—the apostle, with his inverted cross—or in Papal robes and tiara—the first Pope. Rather than simply use the name, the artist can tell a story, emphasize certain facts, work an angle, and tell you not just what the depicted person was called, but rather who the artist thinks they were.