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Hagiography is the study of saints. It comes from the Greek words agios and graphas = "holy writing" or "writing about the holy (ones)".

  • Hagiology, by contrast, is the study of saints collectively, without focusing on the life of an individual saint.

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 catalog 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, e.g. Ss. 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 catalogue (Великие Четьи-Минеи, or Grand monthly readings), consisting of 12 volumes in accordance with each month of the year.