The Cult of Saints: An Interview with Curator Thom Kren

Manuscripts curator Thom Kren speaks on saints, miracles, and relics on the occasion of the new exhibition The Cult of Saints, which presents images of saints from the Getty's collection of medieval hand-painted books.

Saint Christopher / M Guillaume Lambert

Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child (detail), Master of Guillaume Lambert, 1478
Tempera colors and gold on parchment

What was the cult of saints?
"The cult of saints was a hugely popular form of religious expression in Europe during the Middle Ages. People petitioned saints for aid in times of need and looked to them for models of behavior.

"The cult of saints spread across Europe, so you find examples from all over—England, France, Germany, Italy. And saints still play an important role in the lives of many people today."

Who were the saints in real life?
"More often than not, saints were real people. Some of the best-known saints, such as Saint Christopher, may not actually have been historical figures. But Christopher remains popular as the patron saint of travelers, which is why many people still carry his image in their cars."

St. Denis / M. Sir John Fastolf
Saint Denis Holding His Head, Attributed to the Master of Sir John Fastolf, about 1430–1440
Tempera colors and gold on parchment

What made saints so popular?
"Praying to saints was considered an additional way of communicating with God, making the act of prayer more personal. Many saints were also particular to a certain region and provided a link to the Church in Rome. Saint Denis, for example, was popular in Paris, where he was martyred in about the year 250. According to legend, he carried his own head from the place of his execution to his chosen burial site just outside Paris, where the church of Saint Denis was later built.

"And various cities across the United States were named after particular saints though we often don't think of them that way, such as Saint Louis, Santa Barbara, and San Diego."

What kinds of miracles did saints perform?
"The best-known miracles were cures that took place at the tombs of saints. Relics, which are the physical remains of saints, were believed to possess the same miraculous powers that the saint had while alive. That's why the graves of saints became centers of pilgrimage. The relics of Saint Anthony Abbot, for example, were believed to have the power to cure a horrible skin disease called 'Saint Anthony's Fire.'

"Even now, thousands of people each year travel to Lourdes in France to benefit from the healing powers of a water spring where the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared to a young girl in the 19th century."

St. Anthony / M. St. Veronica

Saint Anthony Abbot Blessing the Animals, the Poor, and the Sick (detail), Master of St. Veronica, about 1400–1410
Tempera colors, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment

How did saints provide models of behavior?
"Saints were models because they overcame many challenges and hardships in their own lives. Catherine of Alexandria, for example, was imprisoned for refusing to worship pagan idols and was left without food or water for 12 days. Because of her faith and fortitude in the face of hardship, angels came to her cell and ministered to her wounds."

Who owned the books we see in this exhibition?
"Books were rare and very expensive objects in the Middle Ages. They were produced for the aristocracy and for the hierarchy of the Church. An average person may have never even glimpsed such a book."

How were the images of saints in these books used?
"These images often accompanied prayers to the saints. These prayers invoked a whole series of saints for different needs—there was even a saint to pray to for toothaches. Prayers to the saints were a regular part of daily life."

Who is your favorite saint?
"Truth to tell, I live in Santa Monica, named for the mother of Saint Augustine, but the saints that interest me most are those who inspired the most beautiful images, such as Saint Christopher, Saint Barbara, and Saint Catherine.

"I hope visitors will be surprised by the extraordinary quality of the works of art that the saints' stories inspired."

The Cult of Saints is on view at the Getty Center, Museum, North Pavilion, through July 16, 2006.

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