views updated Jun 08 2018

saints The terms ‘saint’ comes from the Latin sanctus, meaning sacred, inviolate, or holy. The term is used within Christianity to designate a holy person, one deemed to have lived a life of such great virtue and sanctity as to achieve special closeness to God. Such persons may be venerated in public cults after their deaths. This occurs not only through the commemoration of a saint's feast day and belief in the divine intercession of the saintly figure, but also through the veneration of relics, the physical remains of the holy person. These may include the intact body of the saint or portions of the body, as well as objects worn, used, or associated with him or her. Within medieval Christianity the cult of relics — those of Christ as well as of the martyrs and saints — was crucial to religious practice.

Historians of Western religion have expanded the category of saint to include holy and venerated persons within other religious traditions. The hasid in Judaism, the Islamic wali, the Buddhist arahant and bodhisattva, and Hindu gurus have been assimilated to this category for the purposes of cross-cultural comparison. Although questions remain about the appropriateness of using Western Christian categories to describe non-Christian practices and beliefs, careful attention to differences as well as similarities between various categories of venerated persons is itself informative.

First of all, not all traditions single out certain individuals as models for action and intercessors to be venerated by the community. Traditions in Africa, the Americas, and Australia tend to focus on established religious roles rather than individual sanctity. Classical rabbinic Judaism stresses the salvation of the community rather than that of the individual, although a certain reverence is granted to the rabbis themselves. Protestant Christianity rejects the cult of the saints so crucial to medieval and modern Catholic Christianity. Many Protestant groups return to early Christian usage, in which the redeemed are referred to as the community of saints.

Moreover, different religious traditions stress different poles of the twofold, sometime contradictory, nature of the saint. Whereas some religious traditions are most interested in identifying certain people as models for how all should act, others stress the wonder-working, miraculous, or even salvific nature of holy persons. Within many traditions, such as Christianity, the two functions exist uneasily side by side.

Even within those traditions that do single out certain individuals for (usually posthumous) veneration, what constitutes sanctity, and the methods of veneration, differ dramatically. Most crucially for our purposes, emphasis on the bodies of the saints and their miraculous powers is found most prominently in Christianity and Buddhism. Parallel practices can be found among the Sufi brotherhoods of Islam. Within Hinduism, on the other hand, the impurity of the dead prohibits development of a cult of relics. Living gurus, however, are often understood to be avatars of the divine, and venerated with incense and offerings in ways parallel to the treatment of divine images.


Emphasis on the bodies of the saints began in early Christianity with the cult surrounding the Christian martyrs, put to death under the various Roman persecutions from the first to the fourth centuries. The bishop Polycarp's (second-century) executioners, for example, attempted to burn him at the stake, but the fire made a vault around his body, from which emanated a sweet aroma. The bodies of other martyrs were similarly spared suffering, suggesting their assimilation to the resurrected body of Christ. By the third century, believers commemorated the anniversary of martyrs' deaths and crowds flocked to the cemeteries where their remains were buried, a practice abhorrent to Roman sensibilities, as they regarded dead bodies as polluting. Christian enthusiasm for the often mutilated remains of their religious heros was so great, however, that religious leaders made altars of their tombs, claiming their patronage for local churches. At the tomb, people prayed for the cure of illnesses, the forgiveness of sins, and protections from enemies. Martyrs' bodily remains were sites of the divine on earth, possessed of miraculous and saving power.

Veneration of the relics of the saints increased throughout the medieval period, particularly with the spread and growth of Christianity. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 ce made it obligatory for relics to be present for the consecration of a church. Although relics of Christ's Passion and the Virgin Mary were popular (these were of things associated with the Passion and the Virgin Mary, as Christ's and Mary's bodies were believed to have been assumed into heaven), those of the saints were key to the traffic in relics through which Christianity was disseminated and ecclesial power established. The bodies of those deemed to be saintly in life were often the subject of fierce disputes; many, like that of the well-known thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, were divided and dispersed immediately after death. These body parts were not only institutionally and economically important, they also carried political power for ecclesiastics and secular leaders because of the religious powers vested in them by both lay people and churchmen. The thirteenth-century prelate James of Vitry tells readers, for example, that he wore the finger of his mentor Marie of Oignies around his neck and was, by this means, saved from a shipwreck.

Within both the early Christian and the medieval period, the bodies of the saints were depicted in hagiography and iconography as transformed into the resurrected body through their asceticism, suffering, and practice of prayer and virtue. At times, even stronger claims were made, associating saintly remains with the body of Christ. Hugh, bishop of Lincoln, for example, to the horror of those present, ate a piece of the arm of Mary Magdalen, arguing that if we eat the body of Christ we should also eat the bodies of his saints. The role of the body in sanctity was particularly strong in depictions of women saints, for whom bodily suffering, illness, and asceticism were the primary mode of attaining sanctity. These women's transformed bodies, like Marie of Oignies', were often depicted as healing the wounded or suffering bodies of men. Just as Christ's suffering body redeemed humanity on the cross, so these women's bodies were depicted as undergoing suffering to redeem their fellow Christians. Although there is evidence that some women pushed against these cultural prescriptions for female sanctity, such images pervade medieval hagiographies, in which women redeem sinners on earth, in purgatory, and even in hell through their prayerful suffering.

Martin Luther's revolt against many practices of the medieval church included a denunciation of the cult of the saints and of relics as superstition and idolatry. Although he recognized that certain saintly people were exemplars of virtue and good behaviour, he denied the intercessory power of the saints and claims to the miraculous and sanctifying power of their relics. In the face of the protests of Luther and other reformers, the Catholic Reformation systematized and reaffirmed these practices and beliefs for modern Catholicism.


There are two major divisions of Buddhism, each of which has its own understanding of sainthood. In Theravada Buddhism, based primarily in Sri Lanka and South East Asia, the arahant marks the pinnacle of human possibilities. The arahant achieves release from suffering, death, and rebirth through a rigorous pursuit of the monastic life and the ‘three trainings’ in higher morality, higher concentration, and higher wisdom. Through this the arahant destroys the asavas, the wrong mental states that bind one to kamma and rebirth. Although there have been few arahants since the time of the Buddha, their legends are found throughout the Pali canon.

The extraordinariness of the arahants' achievement make them figures of veneration rather than imitation. The arahant is connected to the community of believers through relics. By making offerings at pagodas containing relics of the saint, the householder purifies the mind and achieves merit. The action has a similar outcome to the care of monks, also undertaken by householders.

Mahayana Buddhism, which is found throughout East Asia, stresses the power of the saints to help ordinary lay people attain enlightenment. The saintly figure in this case, known as a bodhisattva or ‘Buddha-to-be’, is a person who puts his or her own enlightenment on hold in order to help others on the path. They emulate the compassion of the Buddha, who also delayed his enlightenment in order to teach the path of enlightenment. The bodhisattva ideal is available to men and women, but stories surrounding women bodhisattvas suggest that they must be sexually transformed in order to attain this state.

Amy Hollywood


Brown, P. (1981). The cult of saints. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Kieckhefer, R. and Bond, G. (ed) (1988). Sainthood: its manifestations in world religions. University of California Press, Berkeley.

See also Buddhism and the body; Christianity and the body; martyrdom.


views updated Jun 27 2018


In addition to the saints inherited from the Early Church and Byzantium, the Orthodox Church in Rus soon began to create its own objects of veneration. The saints belonged to three main categories:(1) spiritual and secular leaders who rendered significant service to the Church; (2) martyrs; and (3) those who exhibited extraordinary spiritual gifts, specifically the power to perform miracles, especially through their relics. Although the miracles were not a formal precondition under canon law, popular Orthodoxy placed a high value on this quality, primarily if manifested in "uncorrupted remains" (netlennye moshchi ). The miracle of physical preservation, attested by an official examination of the crypt, reinforced belief in the power to perform miracles and hence intercede on behalf of the disabled and distressed.

Canonizations in the Russian Orthodox Church have proceeded in a highly uneven fashion. In early medieval Russia (from Christianization in 988 to the 1547 Church Council), the Russian Church canonized only nineteen figures; the first to be so honored were the princes Boris and Gleb, whose nonresistance to a violent death amidst the fratricidal warfare made them the very model of kenoticism. The first major burst of canonizations came during the Church Councils of 1547 and 1549, which, reflecting Muscovy's new self-assertion as the Third Rome, recognized thirty-nine new saints. Subsequently the church slowly expanded the number of saints, but that process came to a virtual halt in 1721: It canonized only five new saints before Nicholas II ascended the throne in 1894 and sought to bolster autocracy by favoring canonization and emphasizing the religious foundations of autocracy. The Bolshevik Revolution brought all of that to an end; the new regime actively engaged in de-canonization, opening scores of saints' crypts (to demonstrate that the "uncorrupted relics" were frauds) and consigning relics to museums and storage. Although the Church was able to canonize five saints in the 1960s and 1970s, an era of large-scale canonizations opened in 1988. Over the next decade the church canonized a long list of prominent medieval figures (i.e., Grand Prince Dmitry Donskoy and the icon-painter Andrei Rublev) as well as many martyred during the Soviet era.

By 1999 the Russian Orthodox Church had a total of 1,362 saints. The majority came from the hierarchy (11.5%) and monastic orders (49.9%); few of the parish clergy were canonized (1.8%), all, indeed, on the basis of marytyrdom. In addition to a substantial number of princes and tsars (6.9%), the church canonized ordinary lay martyrs (24.5%), some "fools-in-Christ" (3.2%), and laypersons venerated for their extraordinary spirituality (2.3%). These saints are, moreover, overwhelmingly male (96.4%). Since 1999, the church has begun to change these proportions, chiefly because of the ongoing canonization of martyrs (e.g., more than a thousand in August 2000). While some decisions have been exceedingly controversial (above all, the canonization of Nicholas II and his family), the church seeks to pay homage to the ordinary priests and parishioners who paid the ultimate price for their unswerving faith during the merciless repressions of the first decades of Soviet rule.

See also: hagiography; orthodoxy; religion; russian orthodox church


Freeze, Gregory. (1996). "Subversive Piety: Religion and the Political Crisis in Late Imperial Russia." Journal of Modern History 68:30850.

Grunwald, Constantin de. (1960). Saints of Russia. London: Hutchinson.

Gregory L. Freeze


views updated Jun 27 2018

359. Saints


any of the editors of the Acta Sanctorum, a critical and official hagiology begun by the Jesuits in the 17th century.
the devotion, veneration, or respect accorded saints.
the writing and critical study of the lives of the saints; hagiology. hagiographer, n. hagiographic, hagiographical, adj.
the veneration or worship of saints. hagiolater, n. hagiolatrous, adj.
1. the branch of literature comprising the lives and legends of the saints.
2. a biography or narrative of the life of a saint or saints.
3. a collection of such biographies. hagiologist, n. hagiologic, hagiological, adj.
an intense dislike for the saints and the holy.


views updated May 18 2018

saints All Saints' Day a Christian festival in honour of all the saints in heaven, held (in the Western Church) on 1 November (see also Halloween).
Land of Saints and Scholars a name for Ireland, alluding to the holiness and learning associated with the early Celtic Church.