The Essential Bookshelf for a Religious Artist, Part 1: the Golden Legend

There are a few books that are especially useful to anyone who wishes to understand or to make religious art; living in an time when its meaning has become obscure and its traditions neglected, they are essential.

The Bible, obviously, is foremost. After that, the book that I pull from the shelf most often is the Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century encyclopedia that collects, organizes and expands the contents of medieval martyrologies. Although usually described as a compilation of saints’ lives, it contains also a wealth of information related to the feasts of the temporal cycle. Blessed James of Voragine is the author.

As I wrote in my essay on Hagiography and the Benefit of Doubt, I consider the contents of most traditional martyrologies worthy of belief. Nowadays, they are more commonly treated with sneering condescension. In the present day, the Golden Legend is presented as an amusing curiosity, a collection of outlandish stories that cannot be taken seriously. That is partly because of an irrational bias against believing in certain kinds of miracles (as if omnipotence were in some way qualified), and partly because few have read the book in its entirety.

Blessed Jacobus was not irrationally credulous. In the Golden Legend, he readily admits when a story is based on a doubtful source. In several places, he writes that he is telling a story (such as that of the childhood of Pontus Pilate) for the record, but considers it unworthy of belief. In others, he acknowledges contradicting versions of a story, and presents both (sometimes passing judgment on which he considers correct, sometimes not). In others, he makes a theological criticism of a tradition (for example, in his entry on the Feast of the Circumcision, he argues that all of the divine body of Christ was assumed into Heaven, and that purported relics of the Christ Child’s foreskin are therefore false).

The Golden Legend is a a work of erudition and insight, the work of a smart and holy man who yet had a healthy generosity in his consideration of tradition. It contains none of the eager dismissiveness that is found throughout the revised editions of Butler’s Lives of the Saints.

In the entire Golden Legend, I find fault only in perhaps a dozen sentences. There are some places where married life and the company of women are excessively (I believe) disparaged, which is common enough in medieval and patristic writings intended mostly for priests and monks; a few infelicitious uses of the term Ethiopian to describe a pitch-black demon; and one occasion (in the legend of St. Margaret of Antioch) where Blessed Jacobus is more skeptical than I think necessary.

The Golden Legend is not altogether comprehensive: for example, many of the Irish saints are not included. Certain saints (such as Barbara and Roch) who attained their widespread popularity after the thirteenth century are absent.

But the Golden Legend nevertheless summarizes, better than any other single book, the spirit of devotion to saints that spanned all of Christendom for most of history under the New Covenant. The idea expressed therein of what a saint is, and what sort of things a saint does, is the only idea that can truly be called traditional, handed down from the time of the Fathers and the time of the Apostles. To adopt another, contradicting idea of what a saint is or does is to profess faith in a different thing altogether, even if the same word is used to name it, even if many of the old figures are grandfathered into the new definition.

The Golden Legend has not only enormous religious value, but enormous cultural value as well. It summarizes one of the major cycles of Western literature. These are heroes and stories that, for centuries, everyone knew. The art and thought and literature of those centuries are indecipherable without some knowledge of these heroes and stories. That knowledge gives content and context to other products of traditional Christian civilization such as Scholastic philosophy and Gothic architecture. Without it, they are like empty, nestless eggshells. I cannot take seriously any list of the great books of the Western world that does not include the Golden Legend near its top.

The Golden Legend was first translated into English in 1483, by William Caxton. This is the translation that William Morris published at the Kelmscott Press in 1892. I enjoy reading 15th-century English, and value this work highly. It is more of a paraphrase of Blessed Jacobus than a direct translation, and it includes new material (such as the legend of St. Barbara and a long liturgiological treatise on the Mass). It can be read online at Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook.

William Granger Ryan translated the 13th-century text in its entirety into modern English. This is the version that I have on my shelf, in two volumes. I have also seen a one-volume edition of the same translation for sale. It is an exceptionally useful book for a religious artist. And I cannot help but smile to see that it has an imprimatur!

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