Cult of Saints

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CULT OF SAINTS . The cult of saints in the early Christian church began with the commemoration and veneration of the victims of persecution. The earliest forms of this veneration were part of the traditional funerary memoria of the dead. The inclusion of the names of martyrs in the liturgies of early Christian communities and the earliest celebrations of the anniversaries of martyrs, often observed at their tombs, rapidly gave rise to specific cults that went far beyond mere commemoration of the dead. The practice of petitions addressed to martyrs on behalf of the living arose out of the belief in the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and the high status accorded those who had died for the faith, and who, through their remains, remained physically present among the living. The acceptance of the intercessory role of the martyrs can be seen as early as the Passion of Saint Perpetua (early third century).

Although the martyr epitomized the ideal type of saint for centuries, the end of the period of persecution (early fourth century) brought with it a new concept of sanctity: namely, that those persons who lived lives of constant self-martyrdom and extraordinary virtuehad there been persecutions they too would have been martyrswere also worthy of veneration. Increasingly, first in Syria but then throughout Christendom, persons living lives of extraordinary asceticism were venerated as sancti (holy persons). Sancti were thought capable of exerting hidden supernatural powers through miracles and, as an extension of this, powers within human society. Thus, sancti functioned as mediators among local groups and between local communities and regional and central powers. The sort of human and supernatural patronage that these individuals provided was thought to continue at the site of their tombs after they had died. The bodies were preserved and honored as pledges (Lat., pignora ) of their continued interest in the living. The sorts of veneration accorded to themvows, petitions for cures and other miracles, incubation at their tombs, and offerings of goods and specie to the clerics who had charge of their tombsclosely resembled the practices associated with pre-Christian pagan cults, such as that of Asklepios.

The initial cult of saints was focused on their tombs, but the increasing demand for cult objects in the fourth century led, in the eastern part of the empire, to the practice of moving bodies of saints to new locations, although such translations and the practice of dismembering bodies and distributing the various parts as relics were against Roman law. Along with the veneration of saints through their corporeal remains, a cult of saints focusing on their images, or icons, developed in the East. This cult, apparently encouraged by emperors as an extension and reinforcement of the secular cult of the emperor's image, survived the violent iconoclastic attacks of the seventh and eighth centuries and became a major aspect of Eastern Christianity.

In the West, the cult of saints was more conservative and, throughout the eighth century, continued to focus on the tombs of martyrs and early confessors. Nevertheless, objects that had been in physical proximity to saints' tombs were distributed as relics, particularly by the bishops of Rome, who gained much of their prestige from controlling large quantities of remains of Roman martyrs. Relics of the saints played a major role in the Christianization of the West because the relics were offered to new converts to replace their pagan gods. The locations where bodies or relics were found became primary sites for contact between the human and divine worlds and formed the basis for the reorganization of sacred geography. While the classical world had emphasized the sacrality of urban space and considered extraurban cemeteries unclean, the Christian cult of martyrs and saints gave priority to the suburban cemeteries at the expense of the city.

Churchmen such as Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) and the bishop Gregory of Tours (d. 594), both of whom sought to establish indigenous Christian traditions, attempted to anchor the cult of saints within the control of the hierarchy by deemphasizing living saints, who were, after all, difficult to regulate, in favor of the dead and by writing lives of Western martyrs and confessors. In these lives and in early medieval hagiography (literature dealing with saints)which included not only passiones ("accounts of martyrdom") but vitae ("lives"), libri miraculorum ("books of miracles"), and translations ("accounts of translations")saints were largely presented as members of social elites elected before birth as instruments of divine power. The social roles of such saints were severely limited: aside from the early martyrs, the men were normally bishops or monks and the women were almost without exception members of religious orders who had spent their lives in the cloister. The saints' lives and the promotion of their cults, particularly those of Merovingian saints written in the seventh century, were often closely related to the efforts of aristocratic relatives to establish a sacred heritage on which to base their claims of lordship. Thus saints were presented less as models of the Christian life than as evidence of supernatural power.

Threats to Rome by the Lombards in the mid-eighth century led popes to translate the remains of many martyrs into the city from the undefended catacombs. The Franco-papal political and cultural alliances of the following century resulted in an unprecedented number of translationsboth sanctioned and illicitof saints from Rome, Spain, and Gaul to the northern and eastern territories of the Frankish empire.

The demand for the remains of the saints for the purpose of promoting Christianity was enormously important in the subsequent development of medieval religion. In the ninth through eleventh centuries Roman martyrs and local saints, who were often deemed responsible for the evangelization of specific regions, were the focus of much of religious life. Veneration centered on the tombs of the saints, usually buried under the sanctuary of a church. Access to these tombs was controlled by the clergy of the church, frequently monks or canons, who were responsible for the celebration of the liturgy of the saints and direction of the cult. The importance of saints as miracle workers, patrons, and protectors of the region in which their remains were found resulted in the advent of pilgrimages made on principal feast days as well as at other times in the fulfillment of individual vows. The need to accommodate numbers of pilgrims without disrupting the regular liturgical life of the church led to the development of the characteristic pilgrimage church, with its raised crypt and wide ambulatories allowing the faithful to reach the saint's tomb or shrine without disturbing the liturgical life of the community.

During the tenth century the popularity of three-dimensional images of saints began to increase, particularly in the south of France. These statues, which were not unknown earlier and probably developed from statue reliquaries, became increasingly important during the twelfth century, when expanded contact with the Near East and improved internal communication and centralization contributed to the growth of the cults of more international saints, particularly the Virgin and the apostles of Christ. Although relics of the saints maintained their importance, miraculous statues and paintings, particularly in Italy during the later Middle Ages, became the focus of devotions.

Some saints' cults, such as those of the martyrs in Rome, the cult of Saint James in Compostela, and the cult of Saint Foy (Faith) in Conques, became international in their appeal. Most cults, however, were primarily local and regional. Consequently, competition between cults of different saints and between different cult locations for the same saint could be fierce. Beginning in the twelfth century devotion to exclusively local saints gave way to more individual or group choices of patrons as both laity and religious chose specific patrons for their activities and organizations. Devotion to particular patrons became an integral aspect of solidarity and identity in religious orders and communities, lay fraternities, craft and trade guilds, communes, and nascent states. In addition, specific saints became identified with specific types of miracles and thus were sought for specialized assistance.

The competition among cults, as well as the concern of secular and religious authorities over the proper identification and recognition of saints, led in the course of the later Middle Ages to an increasingly formal means of authentication of saints. Prior to the ninth century the process had been extremely informal: the existence of a popular cult among the faithful was usually seen as proof of sanctity. Starting in the ninth century, however, church synods insisted that no new or previously unknown saints could be venerated unless their sanctity was proved by the authenticity of their lives and miracles. The determination of authenticity was the responsibility of the local bishop; recognition meant the inclusion of the saint's name and feast day (usually the traditional anniversary of his or her death) in the liturgical calendar of the diocese. As of the tenth century local groups increasingly sought the inclusion of the saint's feast in the Roman calendar as well, and in time this led to the customary request that the pope recognize the saint's cult with a solemn canonization. With the growth of papal centralization, this practice became more formalized, and from the time of the pontificate of Innocent III (11981216), the right of canonization has been reserved to the pope. This did not, however, change the primary role of the faithful in the development of the actual cult. On the contrary, the role of the faithful was of the utmost importance: without an existing cult and evidence of post mortem miracles, no individual, no matter how exemplary his or her life, could be canonized. Because of the enormous expense, political negotiations, and investment of time necessary to effect a papal canonization, very few of the hundreds of persons who were the objects of cults were ever actually canonized, and those who were tended to be members of princely or aristocratic families or important religious orders who could organize, finance, and sustain the canonization process.

The intervention of the papacy in the recognition of saints as well as the social and economic transformations of the later Middle Ages prompted a change in the popular image of saints. From the thirteenth century on, more emphasis was placed on the quality of life of the individual as an imitation of the life of Christ than on miracles. The spectrum of social backgrounds from which the venerated men and women came was also greatly broadened. Under the influence of mendicant spirituality there were more saints from the bourgeoisie, more women who had active roles outside the cloister, and more laity who were seen to have achieved sanctity.

Throughout the late Middle Ages there existed a broad consensus on both the existence of a sort of sensorial code by which one could recognize special servants of God and on a belief in the saint's ability to intervene in all areas of human need. However, from the twelfth century on, a widening gulf separated the mental structures of the laity and the majority of the clergy from the university-trained elite. In the later Middle Ages three groups of persons developed who were accorded sanctity based both on geography and social position. According to André Vauchez (1981), the popular saints were the first group. Venerated primarily in rural areasgenerally in northern Europethey were the closest to the archaic type of saint: persons who, regardless of life and piety, met violent and undeserved deaths. The second group, local saints, varied according to region. In northern Europe they were, as in the early Middle Ages, persons of high rank whose bodies produced miracles. In the Mediterranean world, the local saints were most often persons who had renounced a normal existence for voluntary asceticism, poverty, and chastity. The third group of saints most closely resembled the type of saints whose cults were promoted by the official church.

The official teaching concerning the communion of the saints, the efficacy of the saints as intercessors and, thus, the validity of the cult of saints, has always insisted that whereas saints may be the object of veneration (Gr., dulia ), they must never be the object of adoration (Gr., latria ). Since the virtues of the saints are the virtues of Christ, praise of the saints, prayers to them, and veneration of their relics are all ultimately directed to Christ. The reality of several of the specific cults of saints, however, was often at great variance with this official position, and throughout the Middle Ages orthodox reformers occasionally objected to excesses or deviations from the official stance. From the late twelfth century on, radical reformers, such as Pierre Valdès, founder of the Waldensians, went still further by rejecting the intercessory role of saints, thereby denying the validity of the cult. Sixteenth-century reformers, especially John Calvin, were even more forceful in rejecting the mediatory role of saints and condemning the cult of relics and images as idolatry. Despite these oppositions, the cult of saints, especially that of the Virgin, has continued to play an important role within the Catholic tradition, particularly in southern Europe and in Latin America, where the cult of Christian saints has merged with indigenous and African cults in a process similar to that which took place in Europe in late antiquity.

See Also

Asklepios; Iconoclasm; Icons; Persecution, article on Christian Experience; Pilgrimage, articles on Eastern Christian Pilgrimage, Roman Catholic Pilgrimage in Europe, and Roman Catholic Pilgrimage in the New World.


Peter Brown's The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago, 1981) is a brief, interpretative introduction to the cult of saints in late antiquity. More specialized are his articles on saints and holy men in his Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 1982). Ernst Kitzinger's "The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 8 (1954): 83150, reprinted in his The Art of Byzantium and the Medieval West (Bloomington, Ind., 1976), pp. 90156, remains a fundamental introduction to the development of the cult of icons by a leading art historian. In Frantisek Graus's Volk, Herrscher und Heiliger im Reich der Merowinger: Studien zur Hagiographie der Merowingerzeit (Prague, 1965), the important Czech historian provides a classic study of the place of saints and hagiography in early medieval society. For the later, Carolingian, period, Joseph-Claude Poulin's L'idéal de sainteté dans l'Aquitaine carolingienne d'après les sources hagiographiques, 750950 (Quebec, 1975) examines the changing values of society as reflected in the cult of saints.

Three recent studies have examined the cult of saints in the later Middle Ages in relation to changing social forms and spiritual values. Michael Goodich's Vita Perfecta: The Ideal of Sainthood in the Thirteenth Century (Stuttgart, 1982) presents a computer-assisted prosopographical analysis of thirteenth-century saints as an ideal cultural type. Donald Weinstein and Rudolph M. Bell, in their Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 10001700 (Chicago, 1982), examine saints between 1000 and 1700 in order to understand the transformation of late medieval and early modern piety. The most important of the three is that of André Vauchez, La sainteté en Occident au derniers siècles du Moyen-Âge d'après les proces de canonisation et les documents hagiographiques (Rome, 1981). This magisterial examination of the cult of saints in the later Middle Ages is essential for understanding the interplay of social, religious, political, and cultural factors in the cult of saints.

A number of recent anthologies have collected important articles on saints from specialized journals. The most significant of these are Agiografia altomedievale, edited by Sofia Boesch Gajano (Bologna, 1976), and Saints and Their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History, edited by Stephen Wilson (Cambridge, U.K., 1983). The latter is particularly valuable for its rich annotated bibliography on all aspects of saints and hagiography both Christian and non-Christian.

New Sources

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate, and Timea Szell, eds. Images of Sainthood in Medieval Europe. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

Crook, John. The Architectural Setting of the Cult of Saints in the Early Christian West. Oxford and New York, 2000.

Howard-Johnston, James, and Paul Antony Hayward, eds. The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Contributions of Peter Brown. Oxford and New York, 1999.

Rollason, David W. Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Thacker, Alan, and Richard Sharpe, eds. Local Saints and Local Churches in the Early Medieval West. Oxford and New York, 2002.

Patrick J. Geary (1987)

Revised Bibliography