A hagiography (/ˌhæɡiˈɒɡrəfi/; from Ancient Greek ἅγιος, hagios, meaning 'holy', and -γραφία, -graphia, meaning 'writing')[1] is a biography of a saint or an ecclesiastical leader. The term hagiography may be used to refer to the biography of a saint or highly developed spiritual being in any of the world's spiritual traditions.

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,[2] Hinduism,[3] 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.[4] 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 to 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:

  • annual calendar catalogue, or menaion (in Greek, μηναῖον, menaion means "monthly" (adj, neut), lit. "lunar"), biographies of the saints to be read at sermons;
  • synaxarion ("something that collects"; Greek συναξάριον, from σύναξις, synaxis i.e. "gathering", "collection", "compilation"), or a short version of lives of the saints, arranged by dates;
  • paterikon ("that of the Fathers"; Greek πατερικόν; in Greek and 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 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[5] 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 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.[6]

Other examples of hagiographies from England include:

Medieval Ireland

National Library of Ireland MS G10 p24
Calendar entries for January 1st and 2nd 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)/Colm (Irish) and St. Brigit/Brigid—Ireland's three patron saints. 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

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, 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.

Oriental Orthodoxy

Traditional Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church hagiography in Ge'ez language is known as the Gadl (Saint's Life). They are, in addition of the Axumite inscriptions and the Ethiopian Royal Chronicles, among the most important Medieval Ethiopian written sources. However, their historical accuracy is in question. They were created 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.[13]


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.[14]

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 with continues in the 21st century.[15]

See also


  1. ^ "hagiography". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ Jonathan Augustine (2012), Buddhist Hagiography in Early Japan, Routledge, ISBN 978-0415646291
  3. ^ David Lorenzen (2006), Who Invented Hinduism?, Yoda Press, ISBN 978-8190227261, pp. 120–121
  4. ^ 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 978-1-906214-15-9
  5. ^ Ælfric of Eynsham. The Lives of the Saints. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  6. ^ Koch, John T. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 203–205. ISBN 1-85109-440-7. Retrieved November 23, 2009.
  7. ^ Barbara Yorke, Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses (Continuum, 2003) p. 22
  8. ^ Stowe MS 944, British Library
  9. ^ G. Hickes, Dissertatio Epistolaris in Linguarum veterum septentrionalium thesaurus grammatico-criticus et archeologicus (Oxford 1703–05), p. 115.
  10. ^ John Leland, The Collectanea of British affairs, Volume 2. p. 408.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Tatlock, J. S. P. (1939). "The Dates of the Arthurian Saints' Legends". Speculum. 14 (3): 345–365. doi:10.2307/2848601. JSTOR 2848601. p. 345
  13. ^ "Lives of Ethiopian Saints". Link Ethiopia. Archived from the original on 5 March 2017. Retrieved 4 March 2017.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ 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.

Further reading

  • Heffernan, Thomas J. Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages. Oxford, 1992.
  • Mariković, Ana and Vedriš, Trpimir eds. Identity and alterity in Hagiography and the Cult of Saints (Bibliotheca Hagiotheca, Series Colloquia 1). Zagreb: Hagiotheca, 2010.
  • Vauchez, André, La sainteté en Occident aux derniers siècles du Moyen Âge (1198–1431) (BEFAR, 241). Rome, 1981. [Engl. transl.: Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge, 1987; Ital. transl.: La santità nel Medioevo. Bologna, 1989].

External links

Acta Sanctorum

Acta Sanctorum (Acts of the Saints) is an encyclopedic text in 68 folio volumes of documents examining the lives of Christian saints, in essence a critical hagiography, which is organised according to each saint's feast day. The project was conceived and begun by Jesuit Heribert Rosweyde. After his death in 1629, the Jesuit scholar Jean Bolland ('Bollandus', 1596–1665) continued the work, which was gradually finished over the centuries by the Bollandists, who continue to edit and publish the Acta Sanctorum.The Bollandists oversaw the project, first in Antwerp and then in Brussels. The Acta Sanctorum began with two January volumes (for saints whose feast days were in January), published in 1643. From 1643 to 1794, 53 folio volumes of Acta Sanctorum were published, covering the saints from January 1 to October 14. When the Jesuits were suppressed by the Habsburg governor of the Low Countries in 1788, the work continued at Tongerlo Abbey. After the creation of the Kingdom of Belgium, the Bollandists were permitted to reassemble, working from the Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels. The main work ended with the Propylaeum to December published in 1940.

In addition to the extraordinary amount of biographical material, extensively researched, the Acta Sanctorum broke new ground in its use of historical criticism.


Saint Amphibalus is a venerated early Christian priest said to have converted Saint Alban to Christianity. He occupied a place in British hagiography almost as revered as Saint Alban himself. According to many hagiographical accounts, including those of Gildas, Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Matthew of Paris, Amphibalus was a Roman Christian fleeing religious persecution under Emperor Diocletian. Saint Amphibalus was offered shelter by Saint Alban in the Roman city of Verulamium, in modern-day England. Saint Alban was so impressed with the priest's faith and teaching that he began to emulate him in worship, and eventually became a Christian himself. When Roman soldiers came to seize St. Amphibalus, Alban put on Amphibalus' robes and was punished in his place. According to Matthew Paris, after St. Alban's martyrdom, the Romans eventually caught and martyred Amphibalus as well.

Barloc of Norbury

Barloc of Norbury was a Dark Ages Catholic saint and hermit, from Anglo-Saxon England.

Very little is known of the life of this saint. His name indicates he might have been Celtic. He is known to history mainly through the hagiography of the Secgan Manuscript; he also occurs in a litany in MS Tanner 169* of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.He was venerated at St Werburgh's, Chester and his feast day is on 10 September.

Beunans Meriasek

Beunans Meriasek (English: The Life of Saint Meriasek) is a Cornish play completed in 1504. Its subject is the legends of the life of Saint Meriasek or Meriadoc, patron saint of Camborne, whose veneration was popular in Cornwall, Brittany, and elsewhere. It was written in the Cornish language, probably written around the same time and in the same place as Bewnans Ke, the only other extant Cornish play taking a saint's life as its subject.

The manuscript of Beunans Meriasek is held in the Peniarth Collection at the National Library of Wales.

Bewnans Ke

Bewnans Ke (The Life of Saint Ke) is a Middle Cornish play on the life of Saint Kea or Ke, who was venerated in Cornwall, Brittany and elsewhere. It was written around 1500 but survives only in an incomplete manuscript from the second half of the 16th century. The play was entirely unknown until 2000, when it was identified among the private collection of J. E. Caerwyn Williams, which had been donated to the National Library of Wales after his death the previous year. The discovery proved one of the most significant finds in the study of Cornish literature and language.

Bewnans Ke is one of only two known Cornish plays based on a saint's life; this and other evidence suggests some relationship with the other such work, Beunans Meriasek. The story has much correspondence with a French text, a translation of a lost medieval Latin hagiography of Kea, allowing gaps in the narrative to be tentatively filled. The play is divided into two distinct sections, which may indicate that it was intended for a two-day performance. The first section deals with the deeds and miracles of Kea, including his conflicts with the tyrannical king Teudar. The second is a long Arthurian episode, describing King Arthur's wars with the Romans and with his nephew Mordred; it does not mention Kea in its current form.

Eadfrith of Leominster

Eadfrith of Leominster also known as Eadridus was a seventh century Catholic saint from Anglo-Saxon England. Although very little is known of his early life, he is an important figure in the process of Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England.

Eadfrith came from Northumbria and worked as a missionary to the Hwicce kingdom and in 660 converted King Merewalh of the Hwicce, a contemporary (and possibly son) of King Penda of Mercia.Around 660 Eadfrith also founded Leominster Abbey for women, as a conventual priory of the monks of Reading Abbey. This abbey was mentioned in the Domesday Book and was re-founded about 1139. at which time it may have been associated with the royal family.Eadfrith is known to history mainly through the hagiography of the Secgan Manuscript, but also the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Catalogus sanctorum pausantium in Anglia.Eadfrith died in 675 and was buried in Leominster. His feast day is on 26 October.

Florentius of Peterborough

Florentius of Peterborough was a seventh-century saint and martyr.

Florentius was a Roman, and is known to history mainly through the hagiography of the Secgan Manuscript.According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscript E, Florentius' relics were purchased from Bonneval Abbey and moved to Peterborough Cathedral in 1013 or 1016 by Abbot Ælfsi of Peterborough.Florentius' was venerated at Peterborough along with Cyneswith and Cyniburg. However, his feast day on 27 September might suggest that he was in reality Florentinus of Sedun, who was martyred by the Vandal persecution.

Kalikamba Nayanar

Kalikamba Nayanar, known as Kalikkamba, Kalikamba, Kalikambar, Kaliyamba, Kalikkambar, Kalikkampa(r), Kali Kambanar, Kalikkampa Nayanar and Kaliyamba Nayanar(u), is a Nayanar saint, venerated in the Hindu sect of Shaivism. He is generally counted as the forty-third in the list of 63 Nayanars. His hagiography speaks about how he cut the hand of his wife, who did not help in serving a Shaiva, devotee of the god Shiva.


Longinus is the name given to the unnamed Roman soldier who pierced Jesus in his side with a lance and who in medieval and some modern Christian traditions is described as a convert to Christianity. It first appeared in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. The lance is called in Christianity the "Holy Lance" (lancea) and his story is related in the Latin Vulgate Bible during the Crucifixion. This act is said to have created the last of the Five Holy Wounds of Christ.

This individual, unnamed in the Gospels, is further identified in some versions of the legend as the centurion present at the Crucifixion, who said that Jesus was the son of God. Longinus' legend grew over the years to the point that he was said to have converted to Christianity after the Crucifixion, and he is traditionally venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, and several other Christian communions.

Margaret the Virgin

Margaret, known as Margaret of Antioch in the West, and as Saint Marina the Great Martyr (Greek: Ἁγία Μαρίνα) in the East, is celebrated as a saint on July 20 in the Western Rite Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, on July 17 (Julian calendar) by the Eastern-Rite Orthodox Church and on Epip 23 and Hathor 23 in the Coptic Churches.Said to have been martyred in 304, she was declared apocryphal by Pope Gelasius I in 494, but devotion to her revived in the West with the Crusades.

She was reputed to have promised very powerful indulgences to those who wrote or read her life, or invoked her intercessions; these no doubt helped the spread of her cultus.Margaret is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, and is one of the saints who spoke to Joan of Arc.

Martyrologium Hieronymianum

The Martyrologium Hieronymianum or Martyrologium sancti Hieronymi (both meaning "martyrology of Jerome") is an ancient martyrology or list of Christian martyrs in calendar order, one of the most used and influential of the Middle Ages. It is the oldest surviving general or "universal" martyrology, and the precursor of all later Western martyrologies.

Pseudepigraphically attributed to Saint Jerome, the Martyrologium Hieronymianum contains a reference to him derived from the opening chapter of his Life of Malchus (392 AD) where Jerome states his intention to write a history of the saints and martyrs from the apostolic times: "I decided to write [a history, mentioned earlier] from the coming of the savior up to our age, that is, from the apostles, up to the dregs of our time".


A martyrology is a catalogue or list of martyrs and other saints and beati arranged in the calendar order of their anniversaries or feasts. Local martyrologies record exclusively the custom of a particular Church. Local lists were enriched by names borrowed from neighbouring churches. Consolidation occurred, by the combination of several local martyrologies, with or without borrowings from literary sources.

This is the now accepted meaning in the Latin Church. In the Orthodox Church, the nearest equivalent to the martyrology is the Synaxarion and the longer Menologion. As regards form, one should distinguish between simple martyrologies that simply enumerate names, and historical martyrologies, which also include stories or biographical details; for the latter, the term passionary is also used.

Menologion of Basil II

The Menologion of Basil II (also called Menologium of Basil II, Menology of Basil II) is an illuminated manuscript designed as a church calendar or Eastern Orthodox Church service book (menologion) that was compiled c. 1000 AD, for the Byzantine Emperor Basil II (r. 976–1025). It contains a synaxarion, a short collection of saints' lives, compiled at Constantinople for liturgical use, and around 430 miniature paintings by eight different artists. It was unusual for a menologion from that era to be so richly painted. It currently resides in the Vatican Library (Ms. Vat. gr. 1613).

A full facsimile was produced in 1907.

Military saint

The military saints or warrior saints (also called soldier saints) of the Early Christian Church are

Christian saints who were soldiers in the Roman Army during the persecution of Christians, especially the Diocletian persecution of AD 303–313.

Most were soldiers of the Empire who had become Christian and, after refusing to participate in rituals of loyalty to the Emperor (see Imperial cult), were subjected to corporal punishment including torture and martyrdom.

Veneration of these saints, most notably of Saint George, was reinforced in Western tradition during the time of the Crusades.

The title of "champion of Christ" (athleta Christi) was originally used for these saints, but in the late medieval period also conferred on contemporary rulers by the Pope.

Roman Martyrology

The Roman Martyrology (Latin: Martyrologium Romanum) is the official martyrology of the Catholic Church. Its use is obligatory in matters regarding the Roman Rite liturgy, but dioceses, countries and religious institutes may add to it duly approved appendices. It provides an extensive but not exhaustive list of the saints recognized by the Church.

Saint Mari

Saint Mari, also known as Mares and originally named Palut, is a saint of the Church of the East. He was converted by Thaddeus of Edessa (a.k.a. Addai) and is said to have had Mar Aggai as his spiritual director. He is believed to have done missionary work around Nineveh, Nisibis, and along the Euphrates, and is said to have been one of the great apostles to Syria and Persia. He was buried in Dair-Kuni. His feast day is 5 August in the Christian calendar. He and Thaddeus are credited with the Liturgy of Addai and Mari. Despite the fact that there is little, if any, concrete information on Mari, he is still venerated as a saint by the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. He is distinct from St Mari of the seventy disciples with whom the Apocryphal Acts of Mar Mari are connected.


Synaxarion or Synexarion (plurals Synaxaria, Synexaria; Greek: Συναξάριον, from συνάγειν, synagein, "to bring together"; cf. etymology of synaxis and synagogue; Latin: Synaxarium, Synexarium; Coptic: ⲥϫⲛⲁⲝⲁⲣⲓⲟⲛ) 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.

There are two kinds of synaxaria:

Simple synaxaria: lists of the saints arranged in the order of their anniversaries, e.g. the calendar of Morcelli

Historical synaxaria: including biographical notices, e.g. the Menologion of Basil II and the synaxarium of Sirmond. The notices given in the historical synaxaria are summaries of those in the great menologies, or collections of lives of saints, for the twelve months of the year. As the lessons in the Byzantine Divine Office are mostly the lives of saints, the Synaxarion became the collection of short lives of saints and martyrs, but also of accounts of events, of famous visions seen by saints and even useful narratives whose memory is kept.

Thaddeus of Edessa

According to Eastern Christian tradition, Thaddeus of Edessa (Syriac: ܡܪܝ ܐܕܝ, Mar Addai or Mor Aday, sometimes Latinized Addeus) was one of the seventy disciples of Jesus. He is possibly identical with Thaddaeus, one of the Twelve Apostles. From an early date his hagiography is filled with legends and fabrications. The saint himself may be entirely fictitious.

Æthelwine of Athelney

Æthelwine of Athelney was a 7th-century saint venerated in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. He lived as a hermit on the island of Athelney in the marsh country of Somerset, and is known to us through being recorded in the hagiography of the Secgan Manuscript. He was venerated as a saint after his death, Nov. 26.

Topics about Saints
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