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What is Hagiography?

Updated on December 26, 2016

Hagiography is generally defined as a segment of Christian church history concerned with the lives and veneration of the saints. Lives of the saints generally reflect the concept of history current at the time they were written. In addition to furnishing biographical data they often aim at glorifying the saint and edifying the reader.

Early Examples of Hagiography

The earliest hagiographical documents are Martyr Acts, for example, Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (180); Passions, for example, The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (202); and Martyrdoms, for example, The Martyrdom of Polycarp (about 156). These contain few biographical details. The trial, sentencing, and execution are the important items.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria introduced a new trend in hagiography with his Life of Anthony. Written about 357, this biography portrays Anthony, the father of Christian monachism, as a. hero who overcame the world, the flesh, and the devil. His was the model of a life dedicated to God. Whatever Athanasius may have adapted from the Life of Pythagoras or the Life of Plotinus, he produced the model for subsequent Greek and Latin hagiography. Among the Greeks who followed the Athanasian model were Timothy of Alexandria, Palladius, Cyril of Scythopolis, and John Moschus. Leontius, bishop of Neapolis (about 590-668), much more a popularizer than earlier hagiographers, composed biographies intended to foster devotion.

Growth in East and West

The flowering of Greek hagiography began in the 8th century with the lives of the martyrs and confessors of the iconoclast struggle and continued into the llth century. Its chief centers were in Constantinople, Asia Minor, Mount Athos, Palestine, and Calabria. In the Latin West St. Jerome carried on the Athanasian tradition with lives of three holy monks, Paul of Thebes, Malchus, and Hilarion. The Life of Martin (bishop of Tours) by Sulpicius Severus (died about 410) became one of the models for Latin hagiographers. Gregory of Tours (about 538-594), particularly in his Book of Miracles, and Pope St. Gregory I (reigned 590-604) in his Dialogues probably did the most to chart the course of medieval hagiography.

Between 613 and 715, some 200 lives of saints were written, most of them anonymous, with the chief emphasis on edification. It was not uncommon to transfer miracles and episodes from the life of one saint to that of another to achieve this end. A few centuries later, apocryphal lives were written to satisfy local vanity.

Among the most important hagiographical collections are the Martyrs of Palestine by Euse-bius of Caesarea, the 4th century historian who is often styled "the first professional hagiographer." In the 10th century Simeon Metaphrastes brought out his great Menology, but the most highly esteemed in the West was the Legenda aurea of James of Voragine (died 1298).

Modern Hagiography

A new era in hagiography began with Lawrence Surius, who compiled a critical collection of saints' lives (De probatis sanctorum historiis, 1570-1575). In 1606 Heribert Rosweyde began a major hagiographical research undertaking but died before his projected Ada sanctorum was published. His successor John Bolland reorganized the work, giving a critical text of the lives of saints arranged according to the days of the month on which their feasts are celebrated. This work has been carried on by a group of Jesuit scholars in Belgium called the Bollandists.


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