The Golden Legend has become known as one of the greatest works on the lives of the saints, and became one of the most influential works of the middle ages. The only book more widely read was the Bible. The Golden Legend is still read today by the faithful around the world.
The work of the saints’ lives, liturgical and doctrinal teachings was compiled by the blessed Jacobus da Varagine (1229-1298), and was originally intended to serve as a companion to priests, in order to inspire and bolster their sermons. The Golden Legend is a collection of hundreds of hagiographies.
This collection has become the basis for which future compilers have built upon, when adding new stories of saints for future complete volumes of hagiographies. As more saints are made, they are added to the hundreds of stories that came before them, as Jacobus’ original collection continues to grow.
The work of Jacobus was simply entitled Legenda Sanctorum (Readings on the Saints) at first, but it’s reputation led it to become known as Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend).
Jacobus became a Dominican in 1244. After gaining notoriety throughout Italy as a reverend and theologian, he went on to become provincial of Lombardy (1267–78 and 1281–86), after which he became the archbishop of Genoa, until he died in 1298. He was beatified by Pope Pius VII in 1816 and his feast day is recognized as July 13.
Despite his rise to fame as the author of the Legenda, he also wrote other notable works on Gospel readings, saints’ feast days, and the Virgin Mary, as well as a chronicle of Genoa.
The text went on to inspire numerous works of Christian art, from poetry, to paintings and stained glass, Jacobus de Voragine’ work reached far and wide across the European continent. The great poet Chaucer took from the section of St Cecilia, and adapted it in his Canterbury Tales, as well as Caxton who published an expanded English version in 1483.
As Christians gained access to a single volume which contained stories of the saints, and the terrible punishments they had to endure, the Golden Legend has become vital in securing these stories to be passed on to future generations. Stories ranging from the first Apostles of Christ, to saints such as St Dominic, St Francis of Assisi and St Elizabeth of Hungary.
During the Reformation, the work became obsolete, as it was classed as a work which could not be proven as historical, so it was dropped by academics and a new wave of educational material was introduced.
The Golden Legend is still read today, and is available to buy in ebook or paper format.