The lives and deaths of saints have long occupied a distinctive place in Christian belief. Other religious traditions have also revered certain individuals as embodying their most admired virtues and having a special relationship with God. Christian saints, however, became such powerful figures that church authorities have had to balance carefully between supporting and moderating their influence. This influence includes the veneration of objects said to have been used by or associated with a saint and, even more precious, their physical remains.
Martyrs, Hermits, and Town Saints
Christianity was but one of many religious sects that were active within the extended reach of the Roman Empire as disciples started to disseminate the teachings of Jesus. The zeal of the early Christian converts brought them into conflict with their Roman overlords, who feared any destabilizing movements. Some Christians were executed by the authorities, others were slaughtered. The persecutions continued into the fourth century before abating. Those who died for their beliefs became the first martyrs, and the first martyrs became the first saints. Sanctification occurred by acclaim of their fellow believers; it would be another millennium before the pope and the church acquired authority over this process.
An early example of spontaneous sanctification was Polycarp of Smyrna (second century). He was admired as a person who had sacrificed himself in emulation of Jesus and therefore strengthened the faith. Polycarp's bones were buried in a secret and safe place. This action could be regarded simply as a sign of respect, but eventually veneration of physical remains of saintly persons would become a widespread and intense phenomenon. Martyrs predominated among the earliest saints. There is no comprehensive record of all the men and women who were martyred in the early Christian centuries, and many of the names have been lost. Another type soon emerged: the desert hermits, most notably Anthony (fourth century), who chose an ascetic and isolated life in the desert wilderness to overcome the temptations of the spirit and the flesh. Having accomplished this daunting task, he laid down guidelines for other Christians and became the inspiration for monasticism.
As time went on the number of saints increased greatly. Local and regional saints appeared in profusion throughout the Western domains of Christianity. Most of these saints were people who had impressed their community but were not known beyond their limited area. High church officials had little influence over the creation of town saints or the cult practices that formed around them.
Solace for the People, Challenge for the Papacy
Christianity struggled with dissension and numerous practical problems through the first millennium. The organizational effectiveness of the Roman Catholic Church gradually improved, however, and popes were in position to exercise a greater degree of control. One of the issues that needed serious attention was the status and function of saints. Many of the faithful relied heavily on both local and universally acclaimed saints. Images, statues, and shrines represented and honored the saints. People overwhelmed by anxiety and suffering turned to their favorite saints for help. The saints of choice were compassionate. They listened to the fears and sorrows. They certainly had more power than the people, whose sense of hopelessness and despair led them to beg for intercession.
Church leaders knew that the venerated saints represented an accessible point of comfort for the great mass of believers who, illiterate and poorly educated, had only limited understanding of the more subtle and abstract ideas that comprised Christian theology. The saints were mercy and salvation brought near. At the same time, though, there were also problems that could not be ignored. The numerous saint cults often seemed more pagan than Christian. Purists were dismayed by what appeared to be the worship of images that drew attention away from the true meaning of Christianity. There was also concern that the status of saint had been seriously debased by the uncritical and unrestrained enthusiasm of people who had been carried away by their emotional needs.
One other phenomenon required special attention: the ever-growing fascination with the bones and other remains of saints. Many of the people acclaimed as saints since the fourth century had been credited with miracles either while alive or dead. It was widely believed that their physical remains could also be invoked to produce miracles, usually of healing the desperate and incurable. Aside from the medical and religious questions involved there were also the economic and power issues. Churches were competing with each other for relics and remains (including even body parts claimed to have belonged to Jesus). The church that had no illustrious saint remains was in a difficult position in attracting parishioners and donations. Saint remains were offered for sale to the highest bidder, and many a church official suspected their authenticity, yet hesitated to challenge or withdraw from the bidding.
The church worked hard to sort things out, starting in the eleventh century, and continuing into modern times. Many local saints were dropped from the lists. Guidelines and procedures were established to rule out weak and spurious claims for new candidates. It was a hard blow when very popular saints such as Christopher were eliminated on the grounds that no such person had actually existed (although Christopher has continued to thrive despite this directive). The investigative techniques developed by the church helped to lay the foundation for present-day detective work and intelligence analysis. This dedication to ensuring that only the deserving are venerated was accompanied by a reaffirmation of the power of saints. Any lingering doubts were put to rest by the Council of Trent (1563), which made belief in the efficacy of saintly intervention a core article of Catholic faith.
The church did little, though, to subdue the fixation on saintly remains or to dry up the commerce of same. It is unlikely that any such campaign would have been very successful because there was a widespread horror of the decomposing body during the Middle Ages (to the extent that the illustrious dead would often be boiled until the flesh separated from the bones, with the former then tossed and the latter buried). It was therefore a most welcome miracle when a corpse did not decay, when divine intervention had spared a person the indignity of decomposition. Some of the most beloved saints were those whose bodies had "the odor of sanctity" rather than the rank smell of decomposition when unearthed after a lengthy period of burial. The Virgin Mary escaped decomposition through her ascension to heaven and therefore also avoided corruption of the flesh. Medieval destinations for pilgrimage invariably featured saint relics and remains.
Germaine Cousin is a relatively recent example of an incorruptible. Born in rural France in 1579, she was described as an unattractive and mentally unstable person who attracted little attention when she died at the age of twenty-two. Her corpse happened to be disinterred forty years later and was reported to be perfectly preserved, even unto the garland of carnations and rye that had been placed on her hair. This preservation (like many others) could not be attributed to embalming. In due time she had become St. Germaine, provided with an altar by which her remains could perform their work of healing and protecting those who sought her intercession.
Preserved remains of saints can still be seen. Lawrence Cunningham expresses a not uncommon discomfort with viewing "the incorruptible bodies encased in glass coffins or the statues of Santa Lucia with eyeballs on a plate held in her hand or the large reliquaries with shriveled arms and tibias" (Cunningham 1980, p. 1). Anneli Rufus vividly describes several preserved saints in their contemporary settings.
A Perspective on Preserved Saints
History suggests that saints of the Roman Catholic Church achieved their distinctively influential status first as exemplars of faith and courage and then as intermediaries through which troubled people could convey their fears and hopes to God. The prospect of salvation and immediate triumph over death became attenuated as the centuries went by and people continued to suffer and die. Saints became increasingly valued as available resources to help with pressing concerns; female saints provided an alternative to the male-dominated church hierarchy.
Two themes had been widespread in world societies long before Christianity: fear of the dead and belief in sympathetic magic. These themes were often combined in cults of the dead where rituals attempted to keep the peace between the living and the dead while drawing upon the special powers of the latter. The emerging saint cults exhibited some of these features, but with a significant twist: The sacred remains of the saints were not to be feared; they were, rather, tokens of hope. The remains also functioned as objects for the working of sympathetic magic. Whatever had been close to a person—or, in this case, part of the person—could be used to make good things happen.
People who otherwise felt powerless to understand and control their fate could take inspiration from those who had become saints by virtue of their virtue, and could participate in a sense of mystic communion with those whose bodies had been preserved from the corruption of the flesh. Even the staunchest faith can sometimes use another glimmer of hope.
See also: Catholicism; Christian Death Rites, History of; Jesus; Martyrs; Virgin Mary, the
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Brown, Peter. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Cruz, Joan Carroll. The Incorruptibles. Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1977.
Cunningham, Lawrence. The Meaning of Saints. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.
Delaney, John J. Dictionary of Saints. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Farmer, David H. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Rufus, Anneli. Magnificent Corpses. New York: Marlowe and Company, 1999.
Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
Weinstein, Donald, and Rudolph M. Bell. Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Williams, Caroline. Saints: Their Cults and Origins. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.
Woodward, Kenneth L. Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Wyschograd, Edith. Saints and Postmodernism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.