In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Saints and Mystics: After Trent

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Imagining the Saints: Sacred Art and Iconography
  • Saints and Martyrs in Confessional Conflict
  • Mystics and Mysticism

Renaissance and Reformation Saints and Mystics: After Trent
Erin Kathleen Rowe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0100


The period following the Council of Trent (1545–1563) ushered in sweeping changes in early modern sanctity. Devotional renewal was well underway by the time the council ended its long work, but the post-Tridentine period brought efforts by the Catholic Church to promote new saints that embodied new models of sanctity while simultaneously overhauling the system through which holy people where recognized as saints. Thus the reforms in cultic devotion begun by Sixtus V affected veneration to all holy people, living and dead, official and popular. Those reforms had two arms: institutional (in the procedure of canonization and beatification, increasing centralization of approval of cults) and what may be called “moral,” the post-Tridentine church’s desire to promote certain saints that typified certain types of virtues. This latter was particularly important because it signaled an effort by the church to focus on “heroic virtue” over the miraculous. At the same time, the miraculous remained key to devotional life, as it had in the Middle Ages. The post-Tridentine period was one of both rupture and deep continuity. In addition to these changes, the church faced attacks on the cult of the saints from Protestant reformers who declared the intercessory power of the saints null and in more radical cases considered the veneration of the saints to be tantamount to idolatry. Thus, the cult of the saints became one of the key conceptual battlegrounds of the emergent wars of the religion, and the saints emerged soldiers mobilized for ideological and propagandistic as well as spiritual purposes. Twentieth-century scholarship tended to focus on the church’s response to the threat of Protestant reform and the Council of Trent. More recent scholarship, inspired in part in Burke 1987 (cited under General Overviews) and by the turn to cultural history in the 1980s, has given new vibrancy to the study of saints and mystics in the early modern period. The majority of saints canonized and beatified during this period were Spanish and Italian, with French holy people third. The post-Tridentine period was one in particular in which the inhabitants of the Spanish monarchy suddenly appeared on the scene in great force, following the immense reach of the Spanish monarchy itself as it moved to create a vast global empire (following the Portuguese empire, which the Spanish monarchy encompassed from 1580 to 1640). The first Jesuits to fan out across the globe were Spanish and Portuguese. Thus, the Spanish played a major role in fashioning and disseminating post-Tridentine goals and norms. Major trends in 21st-century scholarship on saints include: gender and holy women, the relationship between center and periphery in the Catholic Church, science and the holy, the intersection of sanctity and colonialism, and the saints in a transconfessional context.

General Overviews

The process of canonization had medieval roots, but sweeping series of reforms were instituted by the papacy in the 16th century, beginning with Sixtus V’s creation of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, entrusted with the task of overseeing the entire process of canonization and the institution of the process of beatification, a step preceding canonization. More reforms followed under Urban VIII, who completed the process of centralization. Accompanying these centralization efforts was a strict eye to evidence, both for the claims of miracles associated with the death of a holy person and for the validation of historical evidence for older cults. Both trends led to a crisis for local churches, who found their local saints and holy people facing greater scrutiny and questioning. Burke 1987 and Weinstein and Bell 1982 provide overviews on the typology of saints. Copeland 2012, Gotor 2002, and Hsia 2007 discuss the Catholic Reformation, including the process of canonization. Delooz 1983, a seminal article, argues that saints were cultural constructs, a topic that is expanded on in Ditchfield 2009 and Worcester 2010.

  • Burke, Peter. “How to Be a Counter-Reformation Saint.” In The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy: Essays on Perception and Communication. By Peter Burke, 48–62. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    Provides an overview of canonizations in the early modern period; breaks down canonizations by pope as well as nationality. Argues that the religious orders were the prime movers of canonization processes in the early modern period.

  • Copeland, Clare. “Saints, Devotions and Canonisation in Early Modern Italy.” History Compass 10.3 (2012): 260–269.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2012.00834.x

    Short essay that argues that even in the post-Tridentine period of stricter rules governing cultic devotion, many holy people were unofficially venerated for miracles they purportedly performed, which challenges traditional views of centralized religious devotion during the 16th and 17th centuries.

  • Delooz, Pierre. “Towards a Sociological Study of Canonized Sainthood in the Catholic Church.” In Saints and Their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History. Edited by Stephen Wilson, 189–216. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    Foundational study that helped to transform the study of saints and sanctity. Its main contribution is the idea that all saints are socially constructed. While some are “real,” all are transformed by the process of canonization into an idealized reflection of society’s values, which shift over time.

  • Ditchfield, Simon. “Thinking with Saints: Sanctity and Society in the Early Modern World.” Critical Inquiry 35.3 (Spring 2009): 552–584.

    DOI: 10.1086/598809

    Provides a broader roadmap for the ways in which scholars need to explore how “saints and sanctity were constructed, imagined, represented and used” (p. 164) for ideological and cultural purposes.

  • Gotor, Miguel. I Beati del Papa: Santità, Inquisizione e obbedienza in età moderna. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2002.

    Exploration of institutional reforms within the church of the process of beatification and canonization. Looks at cases reviewed by the Congregation of the Beati in the 17th century, divided into the categories of successful cases and unsuccessful cases, in order to understand the factors that helped transform people into saints.

  • Hsia, R. Po-Chia, ed. Reform and Expansion, 1500–1660. Cambridge History of Christianity 6. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Overviews of crucial elements of post-Tridentine sanctity, including Bireley on Catholicism beyond Trent (pp. 143–161), Donnelly on new religious orders for men (pp. 162–179), Zarri on female sanctity (pp. 180–200), and Ditchfield (pp. 201–226) on institutional reform of saints, including the breviary, the martyrology, and reforms in the canonization process.

  • Weinstein, Donald, and Rudolph M. Bell. Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000–1700. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

    Foundational work on the history of saints from the Middle Ages through the early modern period. Breaks down canonizations based on sex, religious order, and social class (and how these statistics changed over time). Includes appendix listing all 864 individuals included in the study.

  • Worcester, Thomas. “Saints as Cultural History.” In Exploring Cultural History: Essays in Honour of Peter Burke. Edited by Melissa Calaresu, Filippo de Vivo, and Joan-Pau Rubiés, 191–206. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010.

    Expands on Burke’s pathbreaking essay (Burke 1987) by arguing that saints reflect the cultural values of the era in which they were canonized, rather than the era in which they lived. Focuses on how cults changed over the centuries, using the specific example of Saint Louis in 17th-century France.

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