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Saints Primus and Felician, from a 14th century manuscript of the Golden Legend.
Saints Primus and Felician, from a 14th century manuscript of the Golden Legend(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Golden Legend

There is no mention of Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend,[i] or Legenda aureain my list of other illuminated manuscripts, my last post.  Yet hagiographies and martyrologies, the lives of saints and martyrs, were among illuminated manuscripts and the Golden Legend, compiled around the year 1260, was the bestseller of the Middle Ages.

Jacobus de Voragine (c. 1230 – July 13 or July 16, 1298), also known as Giacomo da Varazze, Jacopo da Varazze and Jacques de Voragine, was an Italian chronicler and, reluctantly, the Archbishop of Genoa.  As a chronicler, he wrote a Chronicle of Genoa. However, he is also the author of Sermones de omnibus evangeliis, discourses on all the Gospels, and several other texts.  In fact, Voragine was a prolific writer and may have translated the Bible.  If he did, that translation has disappeared.  In short,  although it is illuminated, the Golden Legend, or Légende dorée, is first and foremost a text.

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English: "Crucifixion" (showing also...
“Crucifixion” (showing also the archbishop Jacobus de Voragine with his book the Golden Legend in his hands), by Ottaviano Nelli, Chapel of the Trinci Palace, Foligno, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hagiographies and Martyrologies

However, as a text, the Golden Legend was not just any text.  In the Middle Ages, lives of saints and martyrs were a favourite.  Saints perform miracles and some kill mythical animals.  St George slayed a dragon, which made him a popular saint during the Middle Ages.  Miracles are manifestations of the supernatural and dragons, a mythical creature born of the collective human imagination.  The Golden Legend has an apocryphal St Sylvester who goes down a dungeon, tames a dragon and climbs out carrying the dragon.

The Subject Matter

So, there can be little doubt that the Golden Legend owes its popularity in part to its subject matter.  Hagiographies belong, to a large extent, to that special realm of literature we call the “fantastic” and, in Voragine’s case, a Christian fantastic, or “merveilleux [marvellous] chrétien,” a term used by scholars to describe “fantastic” aspects of French medieval literature.  In short, Voragine wrote legends, golden legends.  Miracles and martyrdom constitute another “reality.”

Fiction: a Legend

Moreover, Voragine wrote extremely well.  He knew the merits of fiction and style, which may be the real key to the success of the Golden Legend.  Other authors wrote hagiographies and martyrologies, but not in a way that truly engaged readers.  As for Jacobus, he “embellished” his texts to the delight of readers.  Voragine is also said to have “borrowed” from other writers such as Jean de Mailly[ii] and Bartholomew of Trent,[iii] but did he “borrow” or retell?

Vincent de Beauvais, the author of the Speculum Maius (The Great Mirror), “the compendium of all of the knowledge of the Middle Ages” also borrowed from Mailly, Bartholomew of Trent and other authors.  (See Speculum Maius, Wikipedia.)   Borrowing need not be plagiarism.  Although a large number of La Fontaine’s Fables are Æsopic in origin, Jean de La Fontaine is one of the finest French authors.

A Calendar

Finally, the Golden Legend was yet another calendar, a liturgical calendar.  Every day of the year, a saint or an event, such as the birth of Christ, is commemorated.  Voragine himself was beatified in 1816 and his feast day is July 16th.  The Golden Legend’s calendar is divided into five seasons.

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Jacobus de Voragine
A Golden Legend illumination (Photo credit: Google images)

An Illuminated Manuscript and an Incunable

Yet, The Golden Legend was illuminated, not by Voragine but by several Italian artists.  Moreover, it was copied (calligraphy), again not by Voragine, but by different scribes, probably monks working in a scriptorium.[iv]  So The Golden Legend could have been listed in Other Illuminated Manuscripts as several copies were made between 1260 and 1450, the year Johannes Gutenberg  (c. 1395 – February 3, 1468) invented the printing press.  However, it also constitutes an incunable (sometimes called a “fifteener,” fifteenth century).

Incunables or incunabula (incunabulum, singular: “in the cradle”) are books printed between 1450 and 1501, of which the best known is the Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible, the Mazarin Bible or the B42).  To see the facsimile, click on Gutenberg Bible.  Another famous incunable    is the Hartmann Schedel Weltchronik (a German translation of the Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle).  But The Golden Legend is also, and not negligibly, an incunable.

One characteristic of incunables is that the printer often left room on the printed page  so an artist could illuminate the text.  For instance, incunables often featured rubricated (from red) letters.  Rubricated letters are slightly different than historiated letters, a matter that can be discussed later.

Page from Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia, printed in red and black by Peter Schöffer (Mainz, 1471). The page exhibits a rubricated initial letter "U" and decorations, marginalia, and ownership stamps of the "Bibliotheca Gymnasii Altonani" (Hamburg).

Page from Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia, printed in red and black by Peter Schöffer (Mainz, 1471). The page exhibits a rubricated initial letter “U” and decorations, marginalia, and ownership stamps of the “Bibliotheca Gymnasii Altonani” (Hamburg).  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I will pause by saying that The Golden Legend tells far more than the lives of saints and martyrs and does so because Voragine embellished his accounts to the point of creating saints and martyrs.  He was a storyteller and that may well be the reason his hagiography has endured.  However, for the record, The Golden Legend is

  • the bestseller of the Middle Ages, 
  • an illuminated manuscript,
  • an incunable and, after 1501,
  • a printed book. 
[i] Online text, The Golden Legend (Fordham University)
[ii] Abbreviato in gestis miraculis sanctorum (Summary of the Deeds and Miracles of the Saints)
[iii] Epilogum in gesta sanctorum (Afterword on the Deeds of the Saints)
[iv] It would appear that the scriptorium was a series of recesses located in a monastery and not a room.
composer: Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300 – April 1377)
form: Virelai
piece: Douce Dame Jolie
Sermones de Sanctis

Sermones de Sanctis

© Micheline Walker
11 February 2013