Hagiography is the writing of saints' lives. It comes from the Greek words αγιος and γραφη = "holy writing" or "writing about the holy (ones)."
- Hagiography refers literally to writings on the subject of such holy persons; specifically, the biographies of persons publicly glorified (canonized) by the Church.
- Hagiology, by contrast, is the study of saints collectively, without focusing on the life of an individual saint.
Hagiography as a Form of Biography
Hagiography is unlike other forms of biography in that it does not necessarily attempt to give a full, historical account of the life of an individual saint. Rather, the purpose of hagiography is soteriological—that is, the life of the saint is written so that it might have a salvific effect on those who encounter it.
As such, hagiography often fails to include details which are standard for most biographical works, such as birthdate, childhood, career, and so forth. Rather, the details included are those which pertain to the saint's life as an icon of Christ, as one who points us to the abundant life available from our Lord.
The secondary purpose of hagiography is to glorify persons in whom Christ has powerfully worked. Therefore, one often can notice a dearth of mention of the saint's sins in this life. Sometimes, those sins are mentioned (as with St. Mary of Egypt or the Prophet King David) so that their great repentance can be demonstrated, but other times, hagiography includes no mention of the saint's sins at all. This character of the genre should not be understood as propaganda—after all, it is axiomatic that only Christ is without sin—but rather that such details are not germane to the purpose of hagiography.
Development of Hagiography
Hagiography comprised an important literary genre in the early millennia of the Church, providing informational history as well as inspirational stories and legends. A hagiographic account of an individual saint is often referred to as a vita.
The genre of lives of the saints first came into being in the Roman Empire as collections of traditional accounts of Christian martyrs, called martyrologies. In the 4th century, there were 3 main types of catalogues of lives of the saints:
- Menaion, an annual calendar catalogue (in Greek, menaios means "month") (biographies of the saints to be read at sermons)
- Synaxarion, or a short version of lives of the saints, arranged by dates
- Paterikon (in Greek, pater means "father"), or biography of the specific saints, chosen by the catalogue compiler
In Western Europe hagiography was one of the more important areas in the study of 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.
In the 10th century, the work of St. Simeon Metaphrastes—an Orthodox monk who had been a secretary of state—marked a major development and codification of the genre. His Menologion (catalogue of lives of the saints), compiled at the request of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus while Simeon was still a civil servant, became the standard for all of the Western and Eastern hagiographers. Over the years, hagiography as a genre 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. Simeon's contribution was to collect these saints' lives from written and oral traditions, copying directly from some sources and reworking others, then arranging them in order of the saints' feast days.
The genre of lives of the saints was brought to Russia by the South Slavs together with writing and also in translations from the Greek language. In the 11th century, the Russians began to compile the original life stories of the first Russian saints. In the 16th century, Metropolitan Macarius expanded the list of the Russian saints and supervised the compilation of their life stories. They would all be compiled in the so called Velikiye chet’yi-minei catalogue (Великие Четьи-Минеи, or "Grand monthly readings"), consisting of 12 volumes in accordance with each month of the year.
Even though some of the writings seem to contain embellishments, as one may assume when reading of the life of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker and Archbishop of Myra, they are still quite useful. In the words of Fr. Thomas Hopko:
- They may be used very fruitfully for the discovery of the meaning of the Christian faith and life. In these "lives" the Christian vision of God, man, and the world stands out very clearly. Because these volumes were written down in times quite different from our own, it is necessary to read them carefully to distinguish the essential points from the artificial and sometimes even fanciful embellishments which are often contained in them. In the Middle Ages, for instance, it was customary to pattern the lives of saints after literary works of previous times and even to dress up the lives of the lesser known saints after the manner of earlier saints of the same type. It also was the custom to add many elements, particularly supernatural and miraculous events of the most extraordinary sort, to confirm the true holiness of the saint, to gain strength for his spiritual goodness and truth, and to foster imitation of his virtues in the lives of the hearers and readers. In many cases the miraculous is added to stress the ethical righteousness and innocence of the saint in the face of his detractors.
- Generally speaking, it does not take much effort to distinguish the sound kernel of truth in the lives of the saints from the additions made in the spirit of piety and enthusiasm of the later periods; and the effort should be made to see the essential truth which the lives contain. Also, the fact that elements of a miraculous nature were added to the lives of saints during medieval times for the purposes of edification, entertainment, and even amusement should not lead to the conclusion that all things miraculous in the lives of the saints are invented for literary or moralizing purposes. Again, a careful reading of the lives of the saints will almost always reveal what is authentic and true in the realm of the miraculous. Also, the point has been rightly made that men can learn almost as much about the real meaning of Christianity from the legends of the saints produced within the tradition of the Church as from the authentic lives themselves.