Saints: Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?

Madonna and Child with saints

This book by Robert Bartlett is a massive work of scholarship on the story of sainthood, based on a dazzling array of primary sources. The name is taken from a question posed by St Augustine, writes Helen Fulton.

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation, by Robert Bartlett (Princeton University Press)

The extraordinary discovery in August 2012 of the bones of Richard III, king of England until his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, is a timely reminder that the cult of relics lives on. 

Richard's bones are viewed as the mute witnesses of his physical presence, his personality and appearance, and the manner of his death, all refracted through a celebrity culture that is older than we might think.

The story of Richard's bones confirms a number of the themes set out in Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?, Robert Bartlett's encyclopedic survey of the Christian cult of saints from antiquity to the Reformation.

The book is organised into two parts, the first a brief diachronic history of sanctity up until the Reformation and the second a lengthy synchronic discussion of the 'dynamics' of sainthood and its various manifestations through feast days, miracles, relics, shrines, forms of worship, imagery and literature.

The earliest focus of the cult of saints was the martyr's tomb, where annual rites honoured those persecuted for their beliefs.

From the mid 4th century AD, after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the relics and remains of martyrs were moved or 'translated' into urban churches, thus breaking a taboo of separation between the living and the dead that sharply differentiated Christian practice from that of the Jewish and Islamic faiths.

Common to both sections of the book is a firm taxonomy of types of saints, including angels, apostles, martyrs, confessors, lay saints, virgins and local saints.

Bartlett's chapter on images takes us on an art-history tour of Byzantine iconoclasm and Western portraits of single or multiple saints in narrative formations, supported by numerous examples and some fine photographic reproductions of icons, reliquaries and altarpieces.

This weighty tome is, above all, a book of evidence – evidence about who the saints were, how they were worshipped, the nature of pilgrimage, examples of miracles and their reception, the influence of saints on personal and place names, and the operations of heresy and authority in 'policing the saints.'

Read full book review: A thread of celebrity weaves through a masterful study of cults of Christian icons, Helen Fulton finds (Times Higher Education)


Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? - Review by Peter Marshall (The Tablet)

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? - Review by Diarmaid MacCulloch (The Guardian)

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