The Golden Legend, Paperback Book
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


One of the central texts of the Middle Ages, The Golden Legend deeply influenced the imagery of poetry, painting and stained glass with its fascinating descriptions of saints' lives and religious festivals.

By creating a single-volume sourcebook of core Christian stories, Jacobus de Voragine (c. 1229-98) attracted a huge audience across Europe. This selection of over seventy biographies ranges from the first Apostles and Roman martyrs to near-contemporaries such as St Dominic, St Francis of Assissi and St Elizabeth of Hungary.

Here, witnesses to the true faith endure horrific tortures; reformed prostitutes win divine forgiveness; while other women live disguised as monks or nobly resist lustful tyrants.

Lucid and compelling, The Golden Legend offers an enthralling insight into the medieval mind.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • ISBN: 9780140446487

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This year I travelled to Italy for the first time in my life and spent many hours peering at Renaissance and pre-Renaissance art in cathedrals and galleries in Rome, Siena, and Florence. Coming from a Protestant upbringing I felt vastly ignorant of the rich tradition of saints and saints' lives, and I decided on the spot that I would do some remedial reading this year. The short introduction to Renaissance Art that I next read put me on to this text—as the back cover summary says, "The Golden Legend deeply influenced the imagery of poetry, painting and stained glass with its fascinating descriptions of saints' lives and religious festivals."But, oddly enough, as I have read my way through all 71 of the saints' lives included in this edition, I haven't really found myself thinking back to specific paintings or stained glass portraits, at all. It's quite possibly true that I was simply blind to a lot of visual details, having not had the background traditions at my disposal that would cause me to take notice of specific references. So perhaps the next thing I need to do, if I want to start making some linkages, is look at some big compendia of Gothic and Renaissance art while keeping this text open in one hand.What I did find very striking was the intensity of the violence perpetrated on the martyrs in some of these accounts. So much commentary has already been devoted to the extreme sado-masochism that seems to run through martyrological narrative but there really is nothing like reading one source text after another to get the full effect of the gougings, burnings, pourings of hot oil and coals, amputations, and so forth. And indeed there is some dark amusement to be found in the way that the various enemies of the faith try all of these tortures to no effect on the willing Christians, only eventually to find the only method of dispatch that seems to have been reliable—beheading.Reading these narratives really does open a window in a very strange worldview—the benefit was not it was not what I thought it would be, but I'm glad I took the time to read them.

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