All terms

What is a hagiography?

A detailed biography of a saint.

Writing a Saint's Story: Understanding the Art of Hagiography

Hagiography refers to a biographical writing that chronicles the life, deeds, and miracles of a saint, aimed at highlighting their exemplary character and sanctity. The term is derived from Greek 'hagios,' meaning holy or saintly, and 'graphein,' which means to write, and it has been an essential part of Christian literature, particularly in the Middle Ages.

When writing a hagiography, one must make sure to accurately represent the life and deeds of the saint, as well as their spiritual significance. Sainthood is not bestowed lightly, and a hagiography must accurately reflect the saint's virtue and holy works, often leading to embellishments, miraculous events, and unverified stories.

Thus, hagiography requires a delicate balance between historical accuracy and the spiritual significance that the saint holds. A creative writing approach is often necessary, one that captures the essence of the saint's life and attributes that inspired their worship and veneration. In modern times, this genre has expanded beyond its spiritual roots, with writers producing hagiographical texts for notable public figures, celebrities, and political leaders.

Exploring the Use of Hagiography in Literature: Two Notable Examples

Hagiography has played a significant role in Christian literature, but it has also been used to describe the lives of non-religious or fascinating characters. Here are two examples of how hagiography was used in literature:

'The Life of Samuel Johnson' by James Boswell

The biography of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell is an example of a highly influential hagiography that explores the life, character, and virtues of the renowned 18th-century English writer, Samuel Johnson. While the book was intended to record Johnson's life, accomplishments, and literary contributions, it glorified his memory with mystical overtones.

Boswell presented Johnson as a hero who battled through the challenges of life to become an inspiration to society, sharing his advice and wisdom wherever he went. Boswell's biography portrays Johnson's generosity, wit, and love of literary criticism, making him a beloved figure in English literary history.

'The Autobiography of Malcolm X' by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

Much like Samuel Johnson's biography, Malcolm X's autobiography showcases the life of the iconic civil rights leader in an exemplary manner, making him a martyr to the African American struggle for racial equality. The book's narrative frames Malcolm X as a hero who bravely fought against segregation, racism, and oppression, all the while struggling against his personal demons and conflicting faith.

Alex Haley addressed Malcom X's role as a ''secular saint'' whose message of black pride, self-determination, and community control transformed many young African Americans, leading them to reject assimilationist strategies and pursue autonomous black political power as an alternative to a biased white society.