The Head of a Saint

St. Denis, fifteenth century. Photo: Wikipedia, collection Museé de Cluny, Paris.

The Golden Legend or the Legenda Aurea was written by Jacobus de Voragine, a native from the town of Varazze in Northern Italy. Born c. 1229, he entered in the Dominican Order in 1244. In 1292 he became archbishop of Genoa. He died c. 1296 and is venerated as a saint since 1816, when he was beatified by Pope VII in 1816.

He became famous as author of the Legenda Sanctorum or readings on the saints. The popularity of the work, written after 1250, caused it to be called Legenda Aurea. Editions both in the original Latin and in every Western European language multiplied into the hundreds after the advent of printing in c. 1450. Some thousand written manuscripts before the time of printing have survived. It has been the book most widely read after the bible. The book is a compilation of some 130 sources from the second to the thirteenth centuries. Most sources were regarded as reliable authorities, some of the sources, however, were known to be apocryphal and thus not trustworthy.

The book deals with the saints, whom the Church had declared worthy of public veneration, and particularly those whose feast days were celebrated in the liturgy. There were already many other readings about these saints, hagiographies, martyrologies, legendaries and other sources, but Jacobus added new (apocryphal) material gleaned from his sources. The lives of the saints are narratives, the saints the people heard about, talked about and prayed to became alive, they moved, talked and acted. They thus became humanized and dramatized and a part of the daily life of the deeply religious medieval society. The saints became a face. Very little was known about the actual lives of most saints and he gave them a history. Martyrdom, heroic virtue and miracles were the best proofs of sainthood.

Medieval people had a different understanding of religion and saints should be understood from this perspective. God was an ever-present daily reality by the presence of the Church and the creator, giver and taker of life. The world was the scene of struggle between good and evil, war and peace, famine and food, disease and health. The Church offered a path for life. Liturgy, the hope and victory over evil (symbolized by life, death and resurrection of Christ, the sun of God), sacraments, the mysteries, all contributed to the salvation of mankind. The hand of God was presence of saint and their miracles in the world. The stories seem astonishing, excessive, boring, ridiculous, fanciful, fantastic, or even sometimes vulgar today, but they all share the purpose to prove that the person was truly a saint and thus a messenger of God. Most stories don’t make much sense to modern readers, but medieval people had a different perception of the functioning of the world and society and the role of God and the saints.

The Legenda Aurea, though originally written in Latin (Jacobus was a cleric himself), became a book for private reading and devotion and read as a kind of bible about the saints. It was a truly European book, translated into all main European languages, and dealing with truly European saints, recognized across Europe.

One of the fascinating stories deals with Saint Dionysius or St. Denis. It also shows the Europeanization (or rather Romanization) of the first centuries after Christ. Dionysius the Areopagite (called after the quarter Areopagus in Athens were he lived) was converted to faith by apostle Paul. When Dionysius around the year 65 had learned that emperor Nero had imprisoned Peter and Paul, he went to Rome to visit the apostles. After their martyrdom (Peter crucified upside down, since he regarded himself not worthy to be crucified like Christ, and Paul sent to heaven by the sword) Dionysius went to Paris to convert many to the true faith. Dionysius was taken captive by the Roman prefect and grilled, thrown to the wild beasts, thrown into an oven, nailed to a cross. All in vain, he remained unharmed. Finally, he was beheaded, but instantly the body of Dionysius stood up, took his head in his arms and he marched from Montmartre (the mountain of the martyr) to the place where his body was buried, today’s St. Denis church in Paris. (Source: Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend. Readings on the Saints, translated by Willliam Granger Ryan. Princeton 1993)