Last updated

Page from the Vita Sancti Martini by Sulpicius Severus Caroline 2.jpg
Page from the Vita Sancti Martini by Sulpicius Severus

A hagiography ( /ˌhæɡiˈɒɡrəfi/ ; from Ancient Greek ἅγιος , hagios 'holy',and -γραφία , -graphia 'writing') [1] is a biography of a saint or an ecclesiastical leader, as well as, by extension, an adulatory and idealized biography of a preacher, priest, founder, saint, monk, nun or icon in any of the world's religions. [2] [3] [4] Early Christian hagiographies might consist of a biography or vita, a description of the saint's deeds or miracles (from Latin vita, life, which begins the title of most medieval biographies), an account of the saint's martyrdom (called a passio), or be a combination of these.


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, [5] Hinduism, [6] Taoism, [7] 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. [8]

However, when referring to modern, non-ecclesiastical works, the term hagiography is often used today as a pejorative reference to biographies and histories whose authors are perceived to be uncritical or excessively 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 could 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 Jacobus 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 ).

Medieval England

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 Saints [9] contains 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 25 December 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 harks 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. [10]

Other examples of hagiographies from England include:

Medieval Ireland

Calendar entries for 1 and 2 January of the Martyrology of Oengus. National Library of Ireland MS G10 p24.jpg
Calendar entries for 1 and 2 January of the Martyrology of Oengus.

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.

Eastern Orthodoxy

Visual hagiography of St Paraskeva (Patriarchate of Pec, 1719-20). Vita icon of St Paraskeve of Trnovo (Patriarchate of Pec, 1719-20).png
Visual hagiography of St Paraskeva (Patriarchate of Peć, 1719–20).
Example of Greek Orthodox visual hagiography. This is one of the best known surviving Byzantine mosaics in Hagia Sophia - Christ Pantocrator flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist made in the 12th century. Hagiasophia-christ.jpg
Example of Greek Orthodox visual hagiography. This is one of the best known surviving Byzantine mosaics in Hagia SophiaChrist Pantocrator flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist made in the 12th century.

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, they began to compile the original life stories of their first saints, e.g. Boris and Gleb, Theodosius Pechersky etc. In the 16th century, Metropolitan Macarius expanded the list of the Russian 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.

The Life of Alexander Nevsky was a particularly notable hagiographic work of the era.

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.

Oriental Orthodoxy

The 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). [18] There are some 200 hagiographies about indigenous saints. [19] They are among the most important Medieval Ethiopian written sources, and some have accurate historical information. [20] 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. [21] [22] Fragments from an Old Nubian hagiography of Saint Michael are extant. [23]


Jewish hagiographic writings are common in the case of Talmudic and Kabbalistic writings and later in the Hasidic movement. [24]


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. [25]

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. [26]

Other groups

The pseudobiography of L. Ron Hubbard compiled by the Church of Scientology is commonly described as a heavily fictionalized hagiography. [27] [28]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Saint</span> Person recognized by a religion as being holy

In Christian belief, a saint is a person who is recognized as having an exceptional degree of holiness, likeness, or closeness to God. However, the use of the term saint depends on the context and denomination. In Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Oriental Orthodox, and Lutheran doctrine, all of their faithful deceased in Heaven are considered to be saints, but some are considered worthy of greater honor or emulation. Official ecclesiastical recognition, and consequently a public cult of veneration, is conferred on some denominational saints through the process of canonization in the Catholic Church or glorification in the Eastern Orthodox Church after their approval.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Saint George</span> Christian saint and martyr (died 303)

Saint George, also George of Lydda, was a Christian who is venerated as a saint in Christianity. According to tradition, he was a soldier in the Roman army. He was of Cappadocian Greek origin and a member of the Praetorian Guard for Roman emperor Diocletian, but was sentenced to death for refusing to recant his Christian faith. He became one of the most venerated saints and megalomartyrs in Christianity, and he has been especially venerated as a military saint since the Crusades. He is respected by Christians, Druze, as well as some Muslims as a martyr of monotheistic faith.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Legend</span> Genre of storytelling that involves heroic humans

A legend is a genre of folklore that consists of a narrative featuring human actions, believed or perceived to have taken place in human history. Narratives in this genre may demonstrate human values, and possess certain qualities that give the tale verisimilitude. Legend, for its active and passive participants, may include miracles. Legends may be transformed over time to keep them fresh and vital.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Veneration</span> Act of honoring a saint

Veneration, or veneration of saints, is the act of honoring a saint, a person who has been identified as having a high degree of sanctity or holiness. Angels are shown similar veneration in many religions. Veneration of saints is practiced, formally or informally, by adherents of some branches of all major religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Jainism.

<i>Golden Legend</i> Medieval collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Voragine

The Golden Legend is a collection of 153 hagiographies by Jacobus de Voragine that was widely read in Europe during the Late Middle Ages. More than a thousand manuscripts of the text have survived. It was likely compiled around 1259–1266, although the text was added to over the centuries.

<i>Wali</i> Arabic term meaning "master", "authority", "custodian", or "protector

A wali is most commonly used by Muslims to indicate a saint, otherwise referred to by the more literal "friend of God".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Demetrius of Thessaloniki</span> Christian martyr (died 306)

Saint Demetriusof Thessalonica, also known as the Holy Great-Martyr Demetrius the Myroblyte, was a Greek Christian martyr of the early 4th century AD.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Synaxarium</span> Collection of hagigraphies of the Eastern Churches saints and martyrs

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Symeon the Metaphrast</span> 10th-century Byzantine historian and hagiographer

Symeon or Simeon, distinguished as Symeon Metaphrastes (Latin) or Symeon the Metaphrast, was a Byzantine writer and official regarded as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. His feast day is celebrated on 9 or 28 November. He is best known for his 10-volume Greek menologion, a collection of saints' lives.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hippolyte Delehaye</span> Belgian Jesuit hagiographic scholar

Hippolyte Delehaye, S.J., was a Belgian Jesuit who was a hagiographical scholar and an outstanding member of the Society of Bollandists.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Acts of the Martyrs</span> Set of early Christian texts

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Latin biographies of Muhammad</span>

A number of biographies of Muhammad were written in Latin during the 9th to 13th centuries.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Menologium</span> Works organized by days of the month

A menologium, also known by other names, is any collection of information arranged according to the days of a month, usually a set of such collections for all the months of the year. In particular, it is used for ancient Roman farmers' almanacs ; for the untitled Old English poem on the Julian calendar that appears in a manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; for the liturgical books used by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches following the Byzantine Rite that list the propers for fixed dates, typically in twelve volumes covering a month each and largely concerned with saints; for hagiographies and liturgical calendars written as part of this tradition; and for equivalents of these works among Roman Catholic religious orders for organized but private commemoration of their notable members.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ciarán of Saigir</span> First Irish-born 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.

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.

A legendary is a collection of saints' lives. The word derives from the Latin word legenda, meaning 'things to be read'. The first legendaries were manuscripts written in the Middle Ages, including collections such as the South English legendaries or the Golden Legend.

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.

Manāqib is a genre in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian literature, broadly encompassing "biographical works of a laudatory nature", "in which the merits, virtues and remarkable deeds of the individual concerned are given prominence" and particularly hagiographies. The principal goal of such works "is to offer to the reader a moral portrait and information on the noble actions of the individuals who constitute their subject or on the superior merits of a certain group". Such texts are valuable sources for the socio-political and religious history of early and medieval Islam.

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.

Leontius of Damascus was a Syrian monk who wrote a biography in Greek of his teacher, Stephen of Mar Saba. It emphasises Stephen's asceticism and thaumaturgy (miracle-working), but is also a rich source for the history of Palestine in the eighth century. It has been translated into English.


  1. "hagiography" . Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press.(Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. Rico G. Monge (2016). Rico G. Monge, Kerry P. C. San Chirico and Rachel J. Smith (ed.). Hagiography and Religious Truth: Case Studies in the Abrahamic and Dharmic Traditions. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 7–22. ISBN   978-1474235792.
  3. Jeanette Blonigen Clancy (2019). Beyond Parochial Faith: A Catholic Confesses. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 137. ISBN   978-1532672828.
  4. Rapp, Claudia (2012). "Hagiography and the Cult of Saints in the Light of Epigraphy and Acclamations". Byzantine Religious Culture. Brill Academic. pp. 289–311. doi:10.1163/9789004226494_017. ISBN   978-9004226494.
  5. Jonathan Augustine (2012), Buddhist Hagiography in Early Japan, Routledge, ISBN   978-0415646291
  6. David Lorenzen (2006), Who Invented Hinduism?, Yoda Press, ISBN   978-8190227261, pp. 120–121
  7. Robert Ford Campany (2002), To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong's Traditions of Divine Transcendents, University of California Press, ISBN   978-0520230347
  8. Davies, S. (2008). Archive and manuscripts: contents and use: using the sources (3rd ed.). Aberystwyth, UK: Department of Information Studies, Aberystwyth University. p. 5.20. ISBN   978-1906214159
  9. Ælfric of Eynsham. The Lives of the Saints . Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  10. Koch, John T. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 203–205. ISBN   1851094407 . Retrieved 23 November 2009.
  11. Barbara Yorke, Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses (Continuum, 2003) p. 22
  12. Stowe MS 944, British Library
  13. G. Hickes, Dissertatio Epistolaris in Linguarum veterum septentrionalium thesaurus grammatico-criticus et archeologicus (Oxford 1703–05), p. 115.
  14. John Leland, The Collectanea of British affairs, Volume 2. p. 408.
  15. Liuzza, R. M. (2006). "The Year's Work in Old English Studies" (PDF). Old English News Letter. Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University. 39 (2): 8.
  16. Tatlock, J. S. P. (1939). "The Dates of the Arthurian Saints' Legends". Speculum. 14 (3): 345–365. doi:10.2307/2848601. JSTOR   2848601. S2CID   163470282. p. 345
  17. Jones, David, ed. (1995). Saint Richard of Chichester : the sources for his life. Lewes: Sussex Record Society. p. 8. ISBN   0854450408.
  18. Kelly, Samantha (2020). A Companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea. Brill. ISBN   978-9004419582.
  19. Kefyalew Merahi. Saints and Monasteries in Ethiopia. 2 vols. Vol. 2, Addis Ababa: Commercial Printing Press, 2003.
  20. Tamrat, Taddesse (1970). Hagiographies and the Reconstruction of Medieval Ethiopian History.
  21. "Lives of Ethiopian Saints". Link Ethiopia. Archived from the original on 5 March 2017. Retrieved 4 March 2017.
  22. Galawdewos (2015). The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman. Princeton University Press. ISBN   978-0691164212.
  23. van Gerven Oei, Vincent W. J.; Laisney, Vincent Pierre-Michel; Ruffini, Giovanni; Tsakos, Alexandros; Weber-Thum, Kerstin; Weschenfelder, Petra (2016). The Old Nubian Texts from Attiri. punctum books. doi:10.21983/P3.0156.1.00.
  24. "Hagiography", Jewish Virtual Library.
  25. Ch. Pellat, "Manāḳib", in Encyclopaedia of Islam, ed. by P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W.P. Heinrichs, 2nd edn, 12 vols (Leiden: Brill, 1960–2005), doi : 10.1163/1573-3912_islam_COM_0660.
  26. Alexandre Papas, "Hagiography, Persian and Turkish", in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Three, ed. by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson (Leiden: Brill, 2007–), doi : 10.1163/1573-3912_ei3_COM_23914.
  27. Tucker, Ruth A. (1989). Another Gospel: Cults, Alternative Religions, and the New Age Movement. Zondervan. ISBN   0310259371. OL   9824980M.
  28. Lewis, James R.; Hammer, Olav (2007). The Invention of Sacred Tradition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN   978-0-521-86479-4 . Retrieved 8 August 2016.

Further reading