The concept of martyrdom has deep roots in religious traditions. Christian martyrs suffered and died for their faith, such as Saint Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr, as well as St. Sebastian pierced with arrows and St. Joan of Arc burned at the stake. In Islam, the term “shahid” refers to persons who died defending their faith, such as Imam Hussein, martyred at the Battle of Kerbala.
Martyrs have often become symbols of resistance and catalysts for change. They include Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk in Vietnam who immolated himself in protest against religious persecution, or Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated for their advocacy of civil rights. Medical martyrs include Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, the 19th-century Hungarian champion of handwashing to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, countless healthcare professionals risked their health and safety to care for the sick and dying. Many lost their lives in the process, making the ultimate sacrifice for the well-being of others.
In art, Christian saints are often shown with halos around their heads, indicating their holiness, and attributes like the keys to the kingdom of Heaven held by St. Peter, birds and animals and wounds of the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi, or the crown of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven. Martyrs in particular are often shown holding the instruments of their torture and death, such as St. Sebastian tied to a tree or pillar and shot with arrows, St. Catherine of Alexandria shown with the spiked wheel, St. Lawrence burned on a gridiron, St. Lucy carrying her eyes on a tray, St. Agnes with a lamb, and St. Agatha holding a platter bearing her severed breasts.
The religious theologians and doctors of the Catholic Church were significant scholars. They include St. Augustine studying or writing, holding a feather quill and a book, St. Thomas Aquinas shown as a scholar or sometimes teaching, and St. Teresa of Avila in ecstasy with her heart pierced by a golden arrow held by an angel.