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Saints in medieval manuscripts

The veneration of saints was an integral part of medieval culture. Tuija Ainonen examines a collection of manuscripts that contain saints’ lives and portraits.

The veneration of Christian saints is rooted in a long tradition. It started with the Christian martyrs who died for their faith in the first centuries after Christ's death, was expanded and developed by the medieval Church, and has continued to play an important part of many people’s faith up to the present. Saints are individuals who were recognised as holy or virtuous and were publicly revered after their deaths. 

In the medieval period, stories of saints’ lives were popular. They served as examples of ideal Christians, and provided models for how to live by the tenets of the Christian faith. Many copies survive in medieval manuscripts. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project has digitised over 100 manuscripts that contain hagiographic material (texts recounting the lives of saints). Luxurious copies of these texts were often accompanied by pictures illustrating their lives. 

Lives of early saints and Christian martyrs

In the Middle Ages, some of the most famous saints were the early martyrs who lived during the first three centuries of the Church. From the time of the Roman persecution of Christians, the martyrs who were killed for their faith were venerated. The stories of their lives and their courageous deaths spread throughout Christendom. Collections of these stories continued to be written down and read during the early medieval period and beyond. 

For example, one early 9th-century manuscript, produced in Canterbury, is a collection of accounts of the deaths of early Christian martyrs. These include the Apostle Philip, who was killed at Heliapolis in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), St Sebastian (d. c. 288), who was executed by the Roman emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305), and Sts Agnes (d. c. 304) and Agatha (d. c. 251), who became martyrs because of their desire to preserve their virginity and their refusal to marry. Such stories were often read out at suitable occasions, such as a saint’s feast day (the day when a saint died or became a martyr and entered into heaven).

Illustrated Lives of Saints

BnF Latin 10861, f. 2r

A collection of Lives of Saints made in 9th-century Canterbury (BnF, Latin 10861, f. 2r)

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Narrative initials

A Passionale is a collection of saints’ lives organised according to the liturgical calendar. It records the sufferings of saints and martyrs. In elaborate copies of these manuscripts, the initial letters that mark the beginning of each saint’s Life are often historiated, meaning that they contain visual synopses of the stories related in the text. In some initials, various events that took place at different times during a saint’s life are combined to create a sophisticated visual narrative or commentary. 

The historiated initial C(um) (when) in the image below, tells the story of the martyrdom of the early Christian St Demetrius (d. 306). St Demetrius was killed during a gladiatorial contest in Thessalonia to celebrate the visit of the Emperor Maximian (r. 286–308). St Demetrius had been arrested for preaching, and was brought before the Emperor. The accompanying text records that a circular enclosure was fenced off for the Emperor, ‘because it was a delight to him to witness the spilling of human blood’. In the upper part of the initial, Maximian, identified by his crown and sceptre, leans above just such an enclosure. In the centre, a young man beats the Emperor’s favoured champion Lyaeus. In the scene depicted in the lower left, Maximian is so enraged by Lyaeus’s defeat that he orders St Demetrius to be killed.

Passionale (Lives of Saints)

Arundel MS 91, f. 107r (detail)

The martyrdom of St Demetrius (British Library, Arundel MS 91, f. 107r detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Patron saints and their miracles

Many monasteries produced books containing accounts of the lives of their patron saints (saints who acted as heavenly advocates for the monastic community). One illustrated volume includes The Life and Miracles of St Nicholas (d. c. 343), an account of a bishop saint from Myra who was particularly renowned in the East. When his relics were transferred from Myra to Bari in southern Italy in 1087, he became a popular saint in the West as well. One manuscript containing his life was made towards the end of the 11th century, perhaps in the priory of St Arnoul de Crépy, north of Paris (founded between 935 and 943). Although most of its buildings have been destroyed, the priory is known to have had a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas.

The first full-page image in this volume illustrates one of the Saint’s most famous miracles. St Nicholas is seated to the left (distinguished by his halo), with three officers of the emperor Constantine (r. 306–37). Their distinctive pointed hats recall their mission in Phrygia, a kingdom in what is now Turkey. Having been sent by Constantine to quell a rebellion there, the men witnessed St Nicholas saving three innocent men from execution. When in turn Constantine condemned the officers, they called on the Saint to save them. St Nicolas appeared to the Emperor in a dream, and he spared them. 

The Life and Miracles of St Nicholas

Latin 18303, f. 1v detail

The Life and Miracles of St Nicholas (BnF, Latin 18303, f. 1v)

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St Germain

Another example of an illustrated saint’s life is a collection of texts about the life and miracles of St Germain (b. c. 496, d. 576), bishop of Paris. It was copied in the mid-11th century at the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The Abbey had a thriving scriptorium under abbot Adelard (r. 1030-1060). The manuscript includes a copy of the Translatio sancti Germani episcopi Parisiensis, an account of the movement, or translation, of the Saint’s relics to a tomb within the main church of St Vincent, outside the walls of Paris, in 756. Preceding the text is an image of St Germain portrayed as a bishop between two robed monks, possibly officiants of the Eucharist, one holding an open book and the other a vase. 

Life and miracles of St Germain

BnF Latin 12610, f. 40v detail

Image of St Germain, bishop of Paris and the founder and patron saint of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris (BnF, Latin 12610, f. 40v detail)

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It is likely that the book would have been used for readings at different services at the Abbey. The sermons and the account of the miracles performed by the Saint include specific instructions about when they should be read. One sermon, for examples, states that it should be ‘read at the Vigil of the Deposition of St Germain’. 

Other portraits of saints

Portraits of patron saints could appear alongside other texts too. One manuscript, also made in the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, includes a copy of Origen of Alexandria’s (d. c. 253) homilies on the Old Testament. The text is preceded by a full-page illustration of the two patron saints of the Abbey, St Germain and St Vincent of Saragossa (d. 304). 

The two saints stand under an arcade. To the left, St Germain is represented as a bishop, wearing a mitre and holding a crosier, while St Vincent is dressed as a monk, with a book in his left hand. St Germain holds a long scroll where the scribe, Edmundus, identifies himself, and recommends his soul to the prayers of the monks. The other scroll held by St Vincent includes an anathema, or condemnation of anyone who would seek to remove the book from the Abbey. The portrait of the two patron saints could have been included in the book as a mark of its ownership. The presence of the anathema suggests that the image might have acted as a deterrent to any attempts to remove the manuscript from the Abbey’s possession. 

Origen, Homilies on the Old Testament

BnF Latin 11615, f. 2v

Portraits of St Germain and St Vincent, the two patron saints of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris (BnF, Latin 11615, f. 2v)

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St Thomas Becket

During the Middle Ages, many new saints were canonised. One of the most famous was Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury (r. 1162–1170). Becket was involved in a clash with King Henry II (r. 1154–89) over the autonomy of the Church from the Crown. As a result, he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. The event shocked Christendom, and Becket was canonised as a martyr just three years later. 

Prior Alan, later abbot of Tewkesbury (b. before 1150, d. 1202) assembled a collection of letters related to the conflict. It includes the earliest known representations of the murder, illustrating a letter of John of Salisbury (d. 1180), who was an eye-witness to the event.

The images included in this manuscript narrate the sequence of events. In the upper register, St Thomas is at dinner, when a messenger announces the arrival of four knights, who are depicted outside the door to the right. Below, having taken up arms, the knights enter the cathedral and attack Becket while he is kneeling before an altar. The knight wielding the sword may be Reginald Fitzurse, if the small animal head on his shield can be identified as a bear (ursus is ‘bear’ in Latin). To the right are four prostrated figures who venerate St Thomas at his tomb. St Thomas’s shrine at Canterbury attracted pilgrims from across Europe.

Martyrdom of Thomas Becket

Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r detail

Earliest illustration of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket (British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r detail)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

An additional representation of this event is included in a large initial ‘I’, illustrating a letter addressed to Becket by Pope Alexander III (r. 1159–1181), and composed at Benevento on 10 May 1169. Three circular images depict the arrival of the knights at Canterbury Cathedral, their murder of the Archbishop, and Becket’s burial.

Martyrdom of Thomas Becket

Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 214v

Decorated initial I including three images, representing the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket (British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 214v)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The veneration of saints was integral to the life of monastic communities during the Middle Ages, and this is reflected by the many manuscripts they produced that include hagiographic material.

  • Tuija Ainonen
  • Tuija Ainonen studied at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto between 1999 and 2006. Since then she has taught Latin, and catalogued medieval book fragments at the National Library of Finland. Her research focuses on medieval manuscript culture, biblical dictionaries and the organisation of information on the manuscript page. She has published translations of papal letters, as well as coedited a translation of the Rule of St Benedict in Finnish.

    From 2016 to 2019, Tuija worked as The Polonsky Foundation Curator for pre-1200 manuscript digitisation at the British Library, and managed The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.