Writing about saints by Eliot Weinberger, Patricia Beer, Anthony Grafton, Barbara Newman, Marina Warner, Peter Burke, Elaine Showalter, Eamon Duffy, J.L. Nelson, Stuart Airlie and Tom Shippey.

The Christians’ Disneylands of architectural extravaganzas might be filled with colourful and thrilling, terrifying or sentimental images of Jesus and Mary and the saints, but these were not, they explained, objects of worship: they served only as didactic tools for the illiterate. Not idols for whom prayers were uttered and candles lit, they were edifying comic books.

According to A.N. Wilson

Patricia Beer, 3 December 1992

A.N. Wilson’s theory is that the mysterious man who joined the band as they walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the day of the Resurrection and whom at supper they recognised as Jesus, was in fact James. He applies the same theory to the scene at the tomb earlier that day when Mary Magdalene encountered somebody she took to be the gardener until he spoke, at which point she greeted him with the name she usually kept for Jesus; well, this was probably James too.

Time Lords: In the Catacombs

Anthony Grafton, 31 July 2014

Both Catholic and Protestant champions were expected to emulate the lives they could read about on the page and see on the walls of a church. Accounts and images of martyrdom dwelt on the details of torture and execution with a fascinated precision that can give a modern reader the creeps.

My Feet Are Cut Off: Lives of the Saints

Barbara Newman, 3 December 2009

How can we explain this carnival of cruelty? Theologically, the saints were of course imitating Christ, who saved the world by his suffering, so martyrdom in the primitive Church was prima facie evidence of sanctity. It was also one of the best recruiting tools the new religion had, for the impressive liturgies, the great cathedrals and the dazzling intellectual achievements came later.

Name the days: Holy Spirits

Marina Warner, 4 February 2021

The strangeness of such religious material again and again makes it incomprehensible that such figures should be considered holy, but if you look instead at their adventures as a remedy for the drudgery, dreariness and sheer misery of the daily grind, they take on another significance, as an extreme fiction, an offshoot of the fantastic.

Making saints

Peter Burke, 18 October 1984

There may not be any royal road to the understanding of an alien or half-alien culture – contemporary Japan, or the Medieval West – but one path which appears to lead into the interior is the study of that culture’s heroes. If we can only discover why, say, kamikaze pilots or Medieval saints have been singled out for honour, so the argument goes, the basic values of the culture which admires them will be revealed.’


Elaine Showalter, 2 October 1997

Michèle Roberts’s sensual saints are so bloodthirsty that I wonder whether the heroine seduces her visitor or eats him.

Martyrdom seemed to be a realm in which ancient and contemporary Christianity encountered each other. To study martyrs was to erase the distance in time between the pure religion of the earliest believers and the sadder but wiser religiosity of the moderns; to see, perhaps, the possibility of living an ancient life.

What a Woman! Joan of Arc

J.L. Nelson, 19 October 2000

By the end of the 20th century, Joan was known throughout the world for inspiring the campaign that ultimately brought the expulsion of the English from France; for having been burned by the English; for having heard voices; for dressing as a man and going into battle; for being one of le menu peuple who fearlessly confronted the authorities; for being a saint.

Soldier, Saint

Stuart Airlie, 19 February 1987

Thomas Becket was a driven figure: to live down his secular past he had to ‘out-bishop the other bishops’, and growing up in public is never easy. The pressures of his quarrel with Henry in 1163-4, and then of his exile, did not make him congenial, though they did ultimately lead to his sainthood.

Did he have things to confess? Was he someone people confessed to, like a priest? The term seems to have been attached to him by successive biographers in an attempt to get him canonised as a saint, and in that context ‘confessor’ is a term for someone slightly lower down the sanctity scale than a martyr, one who professes his faith in and adheres to Christianity in spite of persecution (which doesn’t seem to apply to Edward at all: his enemies were all Christians too).

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