Christianity to 843
#15 Saints and the Holy

Published by Professor Alan L. Hayes, Wycliffe College

Back to Home Page

Some references

Old lecture notes

Here are brief notes on the topic from an old lecture on transitions in spirituality.

Sacred art and architecture

Christopher Witcombe of Sweet Briar College has resources on early Christian art.

Peter Brown on early Christian holy people

The distinguished Peter Brown's 1971 article on "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity" has been very influential. He argues that although from one point of view the heroic, eccentric eastern saints who went out to live in remote places look isolated, they filled a vacuum of social leadership and acted as mediators and arbitrators in their communities. If you have online access to the U of T libraries, here it is.

Peter Brown revisited the topic 25 years later, talked about his reasons for writing it, and allowed that in some respects he overreached himself. Again, you'll need online U of T access to read this.

Brown's work has inspired quite a bit of research, both building on it and critiquing it. In 2000 historian John Howe of Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, wrote a review of the literature; it's in Catholic Historical Review 86.4 (October 2000); you can look it up if you have online U Of T library access.

Andrew Louth, an eminent Orthodox scholar now retired from Durham University, wrote a fine chapter in 2011 on "Holiness and Sanctity in the Early Church," which you can access from the link if you have UTL credentials. He argues that Christian understandings of holiness derived not from the veneration of Christ or St. Mary, but of martyrs.

Derek Krueger of the University of North Carolina discusses how early Christian writing was organized around the representation of holiness.

Particular saints

Here's Wikipedia on the church located on the site of Simeon's pillar.

Paulinus of Nola (d. 431) is obscure today but was prominent in his time. Sr. Maria M. Kiely, O.S.B., has written about his shrine in Journal of Early Christian Studies (2004), but, again, in order to access it, you need U of T library credentials.

The appeal of holiness

Late antiquity — especially the fourth and fifth centuries — was a special period for the quest for the holy. Holiness is a quality of being set apart from the world, and so closely associated with God as to participate in God's power and purity. The Scriptures are holy. Places can be holy if they connect with holy people, and especially with Christ: Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem and the site of his Resurrection are holy places of prayer and pilgrimage. Things that are connected with holy people, such as the chalice of the Last Supper, are holy. Things used liturgically can be holy. Times of year, such as Lent, are holy. There are activities that are holy, such as fasting. Engaging ourselves in these holy books, places, things, times, and activities can open us to holiness, and gradually sanctify us.

In the East in Christian late antiquity, holiness was found particularly in the holy man or woman who, Peter Brown says, adopted "stances that were the exact inverse of those connected with the exercise of real power," that is, worldly political and commercial power. A hermit who lived on top of a pole for decades was very much the opposite of an Emperor in a palace, and it was the hermit that throngs of people wanted to approach in faith, and through whom they could feel the presence of God. In the West, people typically sought the holy not among the living but among the relics of the holy dead in certain special places, the shrines. On this webpage we'll look at two shrines, one in Rome and one in Nola, and briefly at one Holy Man, Simeon.

St. Peter's shrine

Well, to tell the truth, it's not 100% certain that this is St. Peter's shrine. But it could be. The sketch represents the conjectured original "aedicula" (a shrine for a small statue) which was uncovered during excavations under St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City in 1939. It appears to date from the second century and, to judge from the graffiti, it was the focus of popular veneration. It was apparently part of an old Roman cemetery.

On the site of this shrine, the Emperor Constantine ordered the construction of a basilica in about 323. Below is a representation of what "the old St. Peter's" looked like. One reason for thinking that this church was deliberately sited over a place that was already considered holy is that it's sited in a location that was awkward to build on: it's on the slope of a hill. Perhaps this is where St. Peter was understood to have been buried in around CE 64. The original aedicula is in the far wall.

In the sixteenth century "old St. Peter's" was razed to the ground, and the current St. Peter's Basilica began to be built. Since the Romans called the hill on which the basilica is built "Vatican Hill," the Roman Catholic papal governance and administrative complex built around St. Peter's is commonly called "the Vatican."


One of the greatest Christian building projects of the fifth century was a basilica for the remains of Felix, a bishop of Nola who had died during the Decian persecution. Today it would be rare for anyone to have a clue who Felix was. He was technically a confessor rather than a martyr, since he did not die in the process of confessing his faith (though his treatment during the persecution did hasten his death), and he was one of the first confessors to receive a saint's shrine. This shrine was the special interest, if not obsession, of one Paulinus (d. 431), a poet of high birth who converted to Christianity and took on a quasi-ascetic and philanthropic lifestyle. Paulinus networked with some prominent contemporary Christians, including Augustine, Jerome, and Melania. In Augustine's time this shrine was perhaps the foremost pilgrimage destination in the western Empire, aside from St. Peter's in Rome. You can find the remains of his basilica in "Cimitile" (shown here), a cemetery quarter of Nola, about 25 km. north-northeast of Naples. A letter of Paulinus' is in Hayes' Church and Society in Documents, though it's not on the syllabus for the course.

Thanks to Sergio Sommese, a web visitor from Cimitile, Italy, for the following information and pictures as well!

The area now called Cimitile was a necropolis and rustic village in the early Imperial age. The confessor Felix was buried here at the end of the third century, and a shrine was built next to his grave some years after that. The development of the whole complex had its climax after Paulinus, a rich Roman senator, and his wife Terasia, settled near Felix' grave in 395. Paulinus restored the religious buildings that were already there and built a new basilica, houses for the poor, and a monastery. He and several other Christian writers composed poems every year to celebrate Felix' festival. When in 409 Paulinus became bishop of Nola , he continued to live near the shrine, where after his death in 431 he was also buried. The town of Coemeterium (i.e., Cimitile) was founded in the area surrounding the shrine. Nola was an episcopal seat till the end of the 16th century. The monumental complex is made up of seven paleo-Christian and medieval buildings dedicated to Felix and several other saints. The shrine is decorated with paleo-Christian mosaics, and the basilicas with medieval frescoes, and the apse of St.John's Church with rich marble.

Simeon (or Symeon) the Stylite


In the fifth century Simeon sat forty years on a pillar in the Syrian desert. When people could visit Syria, you could see the remains of the basilica of Simeon sixty kilometers from Aleppo, Syria. The basilica was built around Simeon's pillar after his death. A bit of his pillar is still there, but it has been worn down by centuries of pilgrims who took pieces of it home.

Simeon may seem to us an oddity, and indeed his form of witness was condemned and prohibited in the West. But he remains one of the heroic saints of Eastern Orthodoxy. Simeon was followed by hundreds of other pillar saints over the centuries; the last one recorded was a nineteenth-century Russian stylite.

Below is a picture of the church that was built on the holy site associated with Simeon.