In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Art and the Cult of Saints

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Saints in Late Antique/Early Christian Art
  • Images of Saints in Byzantium
  • The Cult of Saints in Early Medieval West
  • Pilgrimage and Medieval Visual Culture
  • Relics, Reliquaries, and Shrines
  • Cult and Images of the Virgin
  • Miraculous/Cult Images of Saints

Art History Medieval Art and the Cult of Saints
Elina Gertsman, Dominique DeLuca
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0149


It can be said that medieval art, in great part, is predicated on the engagement with the cult of the saints. Between the 5th and 16th centuries, saints and their images grounded Christian belief and shaped its practices. Patron saints formed a crucial part of the devotee’s spiritual life, believed to provide intercession, work miracles, and model pious behavior. Countless churches and shrines were dedicated to well-known as well as local saints, their visual programs coalescing around reliquaries that held the bodily remains or contact relics of holy men and women. The faithful undertook pilgrimages to holy shrines in order to secure saints’ help and to petition them with prayer. Saints’ likenesses were fashioned in wood and metal, paint and stone, ivory and textile; their lives were narrated and visualized in scores of manuscripts. In other words, to explore a history of medieval art and the cult of saints one would have to write a history of medieval art as a whole. The following bibliography provides but a sample of key studies that address specific topics with a focus on Western medieval and Byzantine art: images of saints in churches and monasteries; art along pilgrimage roads; relics and reliquaries; and saints and piety. It does not include sources that treat sacred spaces dedicated to saints—churches, shrines, chapels—as a whole.

General Overviews

There is a plethora of general studies on the cult of the saints, and the art and patronage associated with them. Some studies focus on the foundation of its cult and its subsequent transformation, as in Brown 1981, while others specifically focus on visual production associated with the cult and its reception, as discussed in Abou-el-Haj 1994. One important area of study that has gained currency in the last two decades is an illustrated hagiography (e.g., Hahn 2001), although studies on the subject already appeared in the middle of the 20th century, most notably Wormald 1952. Stained glass proved to be another fruitful area of study, in particular windows dedicated to saints at such churches as Chartres and Bourges, as explored in Manhes-Deremble 1993 or Kemp 1997. Reference works abound that study saints’ attributes as they appear in art, especially in medieval and early modern periods; those are arranged as visual encyclopedias accessible to lay readers, such as Giorgi 2003, or indices aimed at specialists, such as Rochelle 1994.

  • Abou-el-Haj, Barbara. “The Audiences for the Medieval Cult of Saints.” Gesta 30.1 (1991): 3–15.

    DOI: 10.2307/767005

    The article focuses on the 11th and 12th centuries, and complicates the concept of what the author calls “the one-dimensional, enthusiastic but docile public” by exploring four instances when public ceremonies produced an effect that was both varied and very distinct from what the sponsors of these ceremonies intended.

  • Abou-el-Haj, Barbara. The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    The book explores the cult of saints in medieval Europe between the 4th and 12th centuries by examining a multitude of hagiographic cycles in manuscripts, stained glass, reliquaries, and metalwork. A special focus is on the Saint-Amand d’Elnone monastery between 1066 and 1180.

  • Belting, Hans. Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst. Beck, 1990.

    Belting’s masterwork traces the history and transformation of the Christian image through vast temporal and topographical geographies. Among his many in-depth interrogations about the place of image in medieval culture(s) is a set of explorations of images of saints. Several chapters in particular explore the cult of saints and its various materializations: cult and votive images of saints within the context of funerary portraits; early and middle Byzantine icons and iconostases; and western medieval images of saints as well as icons brought to the west from Byzantium. Translated as Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

  • Brown, Peter. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

    Not an art historical text, the book is nonetheless a required reading, which traces the origins and the development of the medieval cult of the saints after the fall of the Roman Empire, and discusses the cult’s contribution to the patronage of the arts.

  • Giorgi, Rosa. Saints in Art. Translated by Thomas Michael Hartmann. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.

    A visual encyclopedia of sorts that explores saints’ attributes as they appear in Western art, with examples predominantly drawn from medieval and early modern art.

  • Hahn, Cynthia. Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

    Discusses illustrated saints’ lives with a special focus on manuscripts; explores development and changes in narrative structures of both texts and images; discusses creators, patrons, and audiences of hagiographic pictorial narrative.

  • Kaftal, George. The Iconography of the Saints in Italian Painting from Its Beginnings to the Early XVIth Century. 4 vols. Florence: Sansoni, 1952–1985.

    Seminal four-volume series: Iconography of the Saints in Tuscan Painting (1952); Iconography of the Saints in Central and South Italian Painting (1965); Iconography of the Saints in the Painting of North East Italy (1978); Iconography of the Saints in the Painting of North West Italy (1985).

  • Kemp, Wolfgang. The Narratives of Gothic Stained Glass. Translated by Caroline Dobson Saltzwedel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    The author explores narrative forms and structures in this study of stained glass in Gothic France and England, focusing on the cathedrals in Chartres, Bourges, and Sens. Suggests the different ways medieval spectators engaged with the medium of stained glass and with the narratives it conveyed.

  • Manhes-Deremble, Collette. Les vitraux narratifs de la cathédrale de Chartres: etude iconographique. Paris: Léopard d’Or, 1993.

    Extensively illustrated study of the stained glass windows of Chartres cathedral. The author advocates that the narrative images in the windows throughout the cathedral should be understood as a coherent whole, and contextualizes the iconography against the theological and political motivations of the cathedral’s clergy who, the author argues, were responsible for designing the iconographic program.

  • Rochelle, Mercedes. Post-Biblical Saints Art Index: A Locator of Paintings, Sculptures, Mosaics, Icons, Frescoes, Manuscript Illuminations, Sketches, Woodcuts, and Engravings, Created from the 4th Century to 1950, with a Directory of the Institutions Holding Them. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1994.

    A reference work, arranged by saint’s name; includes attributes, connection to particular religious order, dates of feast and death, and martyrdom, along with a list of images that depict any given saint, followed by an institution that have these images in their collection. Slightly outdated but still very usable.

  • Wormald, Francis. “Some Illustrated Manuscripts of the Lives of Saints.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 35 (1952): 248–266.

    DOI: 10.7227/BJRL.35.1.10

    One of the earliest studies to pull together a list of the so-called libelli manuscripts that focus on the life of a particular saint, or several related saints. Locates the height of this tradition, at least in Europe, between the 10th and 13th centuries, and contextualizes the manuscripts within a variety of social developments centered on the cult of saints as promoted by monasteries. The article proved to be an inspiration for scores of subsequent studies, including Hahn 2001.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.