A hagiography ( // ; from Ancient Greek ἅγιος , hagios 'holy',and -γραφία , -graphia 'writing') or vita (from Latin vita, life, which begins the title of most medieval biographies) is a biography of a saint or an ecclesiastical leader, and by extension, an adulatory and idealized biography of a founder, saint, monk, nun or icon in any of the world's religions.
Christian hagiographies focus on the lives, and notably the miracles, ascribed to men and women canonized by the Roman Catholic church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox churches, and the Church of the East. Other religious traditions such as Buddhism,Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, Sikhism and Jainism also create and maintain hagiographical texts (such as the Sikh Janamsakhis) concerning saints, gurus and other individuals believed to be imbued with sacred power.
Hagiographic works, especially those of the Middle Ages, can incorporate a record of institutional and local history, and evidence of popular cults, customs, and traditions.However, when referring to modern, non-ecclesiastical works, the term hagiography is often used as a pejorative reference to biographies and histories whose authors are perceived to be uncritical of or reverential toward their subject.
Hagiography constituted an important literary genre in the early Christian church, providing some informational history along with the more inspirational stories and legends. A hagiographic account of an individual saint can consist of a biography (vita), a description of the saint's deeds or miracles, an account of the saint's martyrdom (passio), or be a combination of these.
The genre of lives of the saints first came into being in the Roman Empire as legends about Christian martyrs were recorded. The dates of their deaths formed the basis of 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 medieval 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 of Prague, who is buried in the cathedral, is shown in 18 scenes, probably based on a lost illuminated copy of one of his Lives.
The Bollandist Society continues the study, academic assembly, appraisal and publication of materials relating to the lives of Christian saints. (See Acta Sanctorum .)
Many of the important hagiographical texts composed in medieval England were written in the vernacular dialect Anglo-Norman. 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. 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.
Imitation of the life of Christ was then the benchmark against which saints were measured, and imitation of the lives of saints was the benchmark against which the general population measured itself. In Anglo-Saxon and medieval England, hagiography became a literary genre par excellence for the teaching of a largely illiterate audience. Hagiography provided priests and theologians with classical handbooks in a form that allowed them the rhetorical tools necessary to present their faith through the example of the saints' lives.
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 Lives of the Saintscontains 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.
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.
Other examples of hagiographies from England include:
Ireland is notable in its rich hagiographical tradition, and for the large amount of material which was produced during the Middle Ages. 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 (Latin)/Colum Cille (Irish) and St. Brigit/Brigid—Ireland's three patron saints. The earliest extant Life was written by Cogitosus. Additionally, several Irish calendars relating to the feastdays of Christian saints (sometimes called martyrologies or feastologies) contained abbreviated synopses of saint's lives, which were compiled from many different sources. Notable examples include the Martyrology of Tallaght and the Félire Óengusso. Such hagiographical calendars were important in establishing lists of native Irish saints, in imitation of continental calendars.
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 introduced in the Slavic world in the Bulgarian Empire in the late 9th and early 10th century, where the first original hagiographies were produced on Cyril and Methodius, Clement of Ohrid and Naum of Preslav. Eventually the Bulgarians brought this genre to Kievan Rus' 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.
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 so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches also have their own hagiographic traditions. For instance, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church hagiographies in the Ge'ez language are known as gadl (Saint's Life).There are some 200 hagiographies about indigenous saints. They are among the most important Medieval Ethiopian written sources, and some have accurate historical information. They are written by the disciples of the saints. Some were written a long time after the death of a saint, but others were written not long after the saint's demise. Fragments from an Old Nubian hagiography of Saint Michael are extant.
Hagiography in Islam began in the Arabic language with biographical writing about the Prophet Muhammad in the 8th century CE, a tradition known as sīra . From about the 10th century CE, a genre generally known as manāqib also emerged, which comprised biographies of the imams (madhāhib) who founded different schools of Islamic thought ( madhhab ) about shariʿa , and of Ṣūfī saints. Over time, hagiography about Ṣūfīs and their miracles came to predominate in the genre of manāqib.
Likewise influenced by early Islamic research into hadiths and other biographical information about the Prophet, Persian scholars began writing Persian hagiography, again mainly of Sūfī saints, in the eleventh century CE.
The Islamicisation of the Turkish regions led to the development of Turkish biographies of saints, beginning in the 13th century CE and gaining pace around the 16th. Production remained dynamic and kept pace with scholarly developments in historical biographical writing until 1925, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (d. 1938) placed an interdiction on Ṣūfī brotherhoods. As Turkey relaxed legal restrictions on Islamic practice in the 1950s and the 1980s, Ṣūfīs returned to publishing hagiography, a trend which continues in the 21st century.
Catherine of Alexandria, or Katherine of Alexandria, also known as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Catherine of the Wheel and The Great Martyr Saint Catherine, is, according to tradition, a Christian saint and virgin, who was martyred in the early 4th century at the hands of the emperor Maxentius. According to her hagiography, she was both a princess and a noted scholar who became a Christian around the age of 14, converted hundreds of people to Christianity and was martyred around the age of 18. More than 1,100 years after Catherine's martyrdom, Joan of Arc identified her as one of the saints who appeared to and counselled her.
Saint Valentine was a 3rd-century Roman saint, commemorated in Western Christianity on February 14 and in Eastern Orthodoxy on July 6. From the High Middle Ages his Saints' Day has been associated with a tradition of courtly love. He is also a patron saint of Terni, epilepsy and beekeepers.
Saint Ursula is a legendary Romano-British Christian saint, died on 21 October 383. Her feast day in the pre-1970 General Roman Calendar is 21 October. There is little definite information about her and the anonymous group of holy virgins who accompanied her and on some uncertain date were killed at Cologne. They remain in the Roman Martyrology, although their commemoration does not appear in the simplified Calendarium Romanum Generale of the 1970 Missale Romanum.
Synaxarion or Synexarion is the name given in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches to a compilation of hagiographies corresponding roughly to the martyrology of the Roman Church.
Olivia of Palermo, Palermo, 448 – Tunis, 10 June 463, is a Christian virgin-martyr who was venerated as a local patron saint of Palermo, Sicily in the Middle Ages, as well as in the Sicilian towns of Monte San Giuliano, Termini Imerese, Alcamo, Pettineo and Cefalù.
Saint Jarlath, also known as Iarlaithe mac Loga, was an Irish priest and scholar from Connacht, remembered as the founder of the monastic School of Tuam and of the Archdiocese of Tuam, of which he is the patron saint. No medieval Life for Jarlath is extant, but sources for his life and cult include genealogies, martyrologies, the Irish Lives of St Brendan of Clonfert, and a biography compiled by John Colgan in the 17th century.
Acts of the Martyrs are accounts of the suffering and death of a Christian martyr or group of martyrs. These accounts were collected and used in church liturgies from early times, as attested by Saint Augustine.
A number of Latin works on the Life of Muhammad were written during the 11th to 13th centuries.
Saint Ailbe, usually known in English as St Elvis (British/Welsh), Eilfyw or Eilfw, was regarded as the chief 'pre-Patrician' saint of Ireland. He was a bishop and later saint.
Ciarán of Saigir, also known as Ciarán mac Luaigne or Saint Kieran, was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland and is considered the first saint to have been born in Ireland, although the legend that he preceded Saint Patrick is questionable. Ciarán was bishop of Saighir (Seir-Kieran) and remains the patron saint of its successor, the diocese of Ossory.
Saint Syrus (Sirus) of Pavia is traditionally said to have been the first bishop of Pavia during the 1st century.
Secundinus, or Sechnall as he was known in Irish, was founder and patron saint of Domhnach Sechnaill, Co. Meath, who went down in medieval tradition as a disciple of St Patrick and one of the first bishops of Armagh. Historians have suggested, however, that the connection with St Patrick was a later tradition invented by Armagh historians in favour of their patron saint and that Secundinus is more likely to have been a separate missionary, possibly a companion of Palladius.
Muirchú moccu Machtheni, usually known simply as Muirchú, was a monk and historian from Leinster. He wrote the Vita sancti Patricii, known in English as The Life of Saint Patrick, one of the first accounts of the fifth-century saint, and which credits Patrick with the conversion of Ireland in advance of the spread of monasticism. This work was dedicated to Bishop Aedh of Slébte, who was also the one who suggested the biography be written, and was the patron for the work. Muirchú's work is of little historical value in relation to the distant fifth century, but is a useful source for the time in which he lived and how Patrick was viewed in the seventh century.
Saint Féchín or Féichín, also known as Mo-Ecca, was a 7th-century Irish saint, chiefly remembered as the founder of the monastery at Fore (Fobar), County Westmeath.
Saint Ephigenia of Ethiopia or Iphigenia of Ethiopia, also called Iphigenia of Abyssinia, is a folk saint whose life is told in the Golden Legend as a virgin converted to Christianity and then consecrated to God by St. Matthew the Apostle, who was spreading the Gospel to the region of "Ethiopia," which in this case is understood to be located in the regions south of the Caspian Sea, either in one of the provinces of Mesopotamia, or in Ancient Armenia (Colchis).
Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye describes a legend thus: "The legend, on the other hand, has, of necessity, some historical or topographical connection. It refers imaginary events to some real personage, or it localises romantic stories in some definite spot. Thus one may speak of the legend of Alexander or of Caesar." Hagiography is not intended to be history, but aims at edification, and sometimes incorporates subjective elements along with facts.
Abbán moccu Corbmaic, also Eibbán or Moabba, is a saint in Irish tradition. He was associated, first and foremost, with Mag Arnaide and with Cell Abbáin. His cult was, however, also connected to other churches elsewhere in Ireland, notably that of his alleged sister Gobnait.
Medieval Serbian literature or Old Serbian literature refers to the literature written in medieval forms of Serbian language, up to the end of the 15th century, with its traditions extending into the early modern period.
Declán of Ardmore, also called Déclán, was an early Irish saint of the Déisi Muman, who was remembered for having converted the Déisi in the late 5th century and for having founded the monastery of Ardmore in what is now Co. Waterford. The principal source for his life and cult is a Latin Life of the 12th century. Like Ailbe of Emly, Ciarán of Saigir and Abbán of Moyarney, Declán is presented as a Munster saint who preceded Saint Patrick in bringing Christianity to Ireland. He was regarded as a patron saint of the Déisi of East Munster.
Hagiography is the literary genre of biographies about holy people. In Islamic Persia, hagiography developed as a genre during the eleventh century CE, in Khurāsān, a region from which many eastern Ṣūfīs came. It tended to focus on Sūfī saints. The tradition declined around the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries CE, but was revived in the nineteenth and still exists today online.
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