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Saint George and the Dragon (1880) by Gustave Moreau
Saint George and the Dragon (1880) by Gustave Moreau

"One could ask oneself whether the obsession with the Christian martyrs and their tortures, as published in Tortures and Torments of the Christian Martyrs, is not responsible for the inordinate amount of interest in hagiographies. It is this kind of sensationalism which has provided their enduring popularity."--Sholem Stein

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints

"Sympathy for the Devil" (1968) by The Rolling Stones

"The earliest specimens of northern French literature are metrical Lives of the Saints. These are supposed to have been translated from Latin compositions about the middle of the eleventh century. "--History of Fiction (1814) by John Colin Dunlop

"Saints and sinners may cordially unite to abate these nuisances. But the old asceticism, regarding filth and ignorance as capital virtues, came at last to robe godliness in them." --Art Thoughts, The Experiences and Observations of an American Amateur in Europe (1870) by James Jackson Jarves

"St. Stefano Rotondo, a damp, mildewed vault of an old church in the outskirts of Rome, will always struggle uppermost in my mind, by reason of the hideous paintings with which its walls are covered. These represent the martyrdoms of saints and early Christians; and such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper."--Pictures from Italy (1846) by Charles Dickens

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald
The Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald

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In religious belief, a saint is a person who is recognized as having an exceptional degree of holiness, likeness, or closeness to God.

The English word saint originated in Christianity and derives from the Latin sanctus, with the Greek equivalent being ἅγιος (hagios) 'holy'.



Hagiography is the study of saints. A hagiography refers literally to writings on the subject of such holy people, and specifically the biographies of ecclesiastical and secular leaders. The term hagiology, the study of hagiography, is also current in English, though less common.

Christian hagiographies focus on the lives, and notably the miracles of men and women canonized by the Roman Catholic church (it being the only Christian church which performs canonizations). Other religions such as Buddhism and Islam also create and maintain hagiographical texts concerning saints and other individuals believed to be imbued with the sacred.

The term "hagiographic" has also come to be used as a pejorative reference to the works of those contemporary biographers and historians whom critics perceive to be uncritical and even "reverential" in their writing.


Hagiography constituted an important literary genre in the early Christian church, providing some informational history with the more important inspirational stories and legend. A hagiographic account of an individual saint can constitute a vita or brief biography, an Acta Sanctorum or account of the deeds of the individual, or it may be condensed into a passio, concentrating on the saint's martyrdom.

The genre of lives of the saints first came into being in the Roman Empire as legends about Christian martyrs and were called martyrologies. In the 4th century, there were three main types of catalogs of lives of the saints:

  • annual calendar catalogue, or menaion (in Greek, menaios means "month") (biographies of the saints to be read at sermons);
  • synaxarion, or a short version of lives of the saints, arranged by dates;
  • paterikon (in Latin, pater means "father"), or biography of the specific saints, chosen by the catalog compiler.

In Western Europe hagiography was one of the more important vehicles for the study of inspirational history during the Middle Ages. The Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine compiled a great deal of mediæval hagiographic material, with a strong emphasis on miracle tales. Lives were often written to promote the cult of local or national states, and in particular to develop pilgrimages to visit relics.

The Bollandist Society continues the study, academic assembly, appraisal and publication of materials relating to the lives of Christian saints. (See Acta Sanctorum.)

The mediæval period in England

With the introduction of Latin literature into England in the 7th and 8th centuries the genre of the life of the saint grew increasingly popular. It is not surprising that such a genre would become popular in England. When one contrasts it to the popular heroic poem, such as “Beowulf,” one finds that they share certain common features. In “Beowulf,” the titular character battles against Grendel and his mother, while the saint, such as AthanasiusAnthony (one of the original sources for the hagiographic motif) or the character of Guthlac, battles against figures no less substantial in a spiritual sense. Both genres then focus on the hero-warrior figure, but with the distinction that the saint is of a spiritual sort.

In Anglo-Saxon and mediæval England, Hagiography became a literary genre par excellence for the teaching of a largely illiterate audience. Hagiography provided priests and theologians with the classical handbooks in a form that allowed them the rhetorical tools necessary to defend the truth of their scriptures.

Of all the English hagiographers no one was more prolific nor so aware of the importance of the genre as Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham. His work The Lives of the Saints (MS Cotton Julius E.7) comprises a set of sermons on saints' days, formerly observed by the English Church. The text comprises two prefaces, one in Latin and one in Old English, and 39 lives beginning on December 25 with the nativity of Christ and ending with three texts to which no saints' days are attached. The text spans the entire year and describes the lives of many saints, both English and continental, and hearkens back to some of the earliest saints of the early church.

Imitation of the life of Christ then was the benchmark against which saints were measured, and imitation of the lives of saints was the benchmark against which the general population measured itself.

The mediæval period in Ireland

Ireland is notable in its rich hagiographical tradition, and for the large amount of material which was produced during the mediæval period. Irish hagiographers wrote primarily in Latin while some of the later saint's lives were written in the hagiographer's native vernacular Irish. Of particular note are the lives of St. Patrick, St. Columba and St. Brigit—Ireland's three patron saints.


See also

List of saints

Further reading


See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Saint" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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