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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 can comprise a vita.

The genre of lives of the saints first came into being in the Roman Empire as legends about Christian martyrs and were called martyrologies. In the 4th century, there were 3 main types of catalogues of lives of the saints:

  • annual calendar catalog, or menaion (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.

The Bollandist tradition continues the study, academic assembly, appraisal and publication of materials relating to the lives of Christian saints.

In the 10th century, a Byzantine monk, St. Simeon Metaphrastes, was the first one to change the genre of lives of the saints into something different, giving it a moralizing and panegyrical character. His catalog of lives of the saints became the standard for all of the Western and Eastern hagiographers, who would create relative biographies and images of the ideal saints by gradually departing from the real facts of their lives. Over the years, the genre of lives of the saints had 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.

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.

The genre of lives of the saints was often used as an ecclesiastic and political propaganda. Today, the works in this genre represent a valuable historical source and reflection of different social ideas, world outlook and aesthetic concepts of the past.


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