Hagiography (pronounced /ˌhæɡiˈɒɡrəfi/) is the study of saints. A hagiography, from the Greek (h)ağios (ἅγιος, "holy" or "saint") and graphē (γραφή, "writing"), refers literally to writings on the subject of such holy people, and specifically to the biographies of ecclesiastical and secular leaders. The term hagiology, the study of hagiography, is also current in English, though less common. (This, in fact, follows original Greek practice, where ἁγιογραφία refers to visual images of the saints, while their written lives (βίοι or vitæ) or the study thereof are known as ἁγιολογία.)
Christian hagiographies focus on the lives, and notably the miracles of men and women canonized by the Roman Catholic church, the Anglican Communion, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church . 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.
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:
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 bronze Gniezno Doors of Gniezno Cathedral in Poland are the only Romanesque doors in Europe to feature the life of a saint. The life of Saint Adalbert, who is buried in the cathedral, is shown in 18 scenes, probably based on a lost illuminated copy of one of his Lives.
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 Athanasius’ Anthony (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.
There are two known instances where saint's lives were adapted into vernacular plays in Britain. These are the Cornish-language works Beunans Meriasek and Beunans Ke, about the lives of Saints Meriasek and Kea, respectively.
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.
In the 10th century, a Byzantine monk Simeon Metaphrastes was the first one to change the genre of lives of the saints into something different, giving it a moralizing and panegyrical character. His catalog of lives of the saints became the standard for all of the Western and Eastern hagiographers, who would create relative biographies and images of the ideal saints by gradually departing from the real facts of their lives. Over the years, the genre of lives of the saints had absorbed a number of narrative plots and poetic images (often, of pre-Christian origin, such as dragon fighting etc.), mediaeval parables, short stories and anecdotes.
The genre of lives of the saints was brought to Kievan Rus' by the South Slavs together with writing and also in translations from the Greek language. In the 11th century, the Rus' began to compile the original life stories of the first Rus'ian saints, e.g. Boris and Gleb, Theodosius Pechersky etc. In the 16th century, Metropolitan Macarius expanded the list of the Rus'ian saints and supervised the compiling process of their life stories. They would all be compiled in the so called Velikiye chet’yi-minei catalog (Великие Четьи-Минеи, or Great Menaion Reader), consisting of 12 volumes in accordance with each month of the year. They were revised and expanded by St. Dimitry of Rostov in 1684-1705.
This literary genre was often used as ecclesiastic and political propaganda. Today, the works in the genre of lives of the saints represent a valuable historical source and reflection of different social ideas, world outlook and aesthetic concepts of the past.
The term "hagiography" has come to refer to the works of contemporary biographers and historians whom critics perceive to be uncritical and even "reverential".
As stated by Aldous Huxley: "a book unique, so far as my knowledge goes, in the literature of hagiography"
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