July 13 – Author of “The Golden Legend”

July 11, 2013

Bl. Jacopo de Voragine


Archbishop of Genoa and medieval hagiologist, born at Viraggio (now Varazze), near Genoa, about 1230; died 13 July, about 1298. In 1244 he entered the Order of St. Dominic, and soon became famous for his piety, learning, and zeal in the care of souls. His fame as a preacher spread throughout Italy, and he was called upon to preach from the most celebrated pulpits of Lombardy. After teaching Holy Scripture and theology in various houses of his order in Northern Italy, he was elected provincial of Lombardy in 1267, holding this office until 1286, in which year he become definitor of the Lombard province of Dominicans. In the latter capacity he attended a chapter at Lucca in 1288, and another at Ferrara, in 1290. In 1288 he was commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV to free the Genoese from the ban of the Church, which they had incurred for assisting the Sicilians in their revolt against the King of Naples. When Archbishop Charles Bernard of Genoa died, in 1286, the metropolitan chapter of Genoa proposed Jacopo de Voragine as his successor. Upon his refusal to accept the dignity, Obizzo Fieschi, the Patriarch of Antioch whom the Saracens had driven from the see, was transferred to the archiepiscopal See of Genoa by Nicholas IV in 1288.

Title page of the 1497 edition of the Sermones de sanctis showing Bl. Jacobus de Varagine as a preacher.

Title page of the 1497 edition of the Sermones de sanctis showing Bl. Jacobus de Varagine as a preacher.

When Obizzo Fieschi died, in 1292, the chapter of Genoa unanimously elected Jacopo de Voragine as his successor. His again endeavoured to evade the archiepiscopal dignity, but was finally obliged to yield to the combined prayers of the clergy, the Senate, and the people of Genoa. Nicholas IV wished to consecrate him bishop personally, and called him to Rome for that purpose; but shortly after the arrival of de Voragine the pope died, and the new bishop was consecrated at Rome during the succeeding interregnum, on 13 April, 1292. The episcopate of Jacopo de Voragine fell in a time when Genoa was a scene of continuous warfare between the Rampini and the Mascarati, the former of whom were Guelphs, the latter Ghibellines. The archbishop, indeed, effected an apparent reconciliation between the two hostile parties in 1295; but the dissensions broke out anew, and all his efforts to restore peace were useless. In 1292 he held a provincial synod at Genoa, chiefly for the purpose of identifying the relics of St. Syrus, one of the earliest bishops of Genoa (324?). The cult of Jacopo de Voragine, which seems to have begun soon after his death, was ratified by Pius VII in 1816. The same pope permitted the clergy of Genoa and Savona, and the whole Order of St. Dominic, to celebrate his feast as that of a saint.


Jacopo de Voragine is best known as the author of a collection of legendary lives of the saints, which was entitled “Legenda Sanctorum” by the author, but soon became universally known as “Legenda Aurea” (Golden Legend), because the people of those times considered it worth its weight in gold. In some of the earlier editions it is styled “Lombardica Historia”, which title gave rise to the false opinion that this was a different work from the “Golden Legend”. The title “Lombardica Historia” originated in the fact that in the life of Pope Pelagius, which forms the second last chapter of the “Golden Legend”, is contained an abstract of the history of the Lombards down to 1250 (Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script., XXIV, 167 sq.). In the preface to the “Golden Legend” the author divides the ecclesiastical year into four periods, which he compared to four epochs in the history of the world, viz. a time of deviation, renovation, reconciliation, and pilgrimage. The body of the work, which contains 177 chapters (according to others, 182), is divided into five sections, viz. from Advent to Christmas, from Christmas to Septuagesima, from Septuagesima to Easter, from Easter to Octave of Pentecost, and from the Octave of Pentecost to Advent. If we are to judge the “Golden Legend” from an historical standpoint, we must condemn it as entirely uncritical and hence of no value, except in so far as it teaches us that the people of those times were an extremely naive and thoroughly religious people, permeated with an unshakable belief in God’s omnipotence and His fatherly care for those who lead a saintly life.

Crucifixion showing Bl. Jacobus de Voragine with his book the Golden Legend in his hands. At the Chapel of the Trinci Palace, Foligno, Italy. Photo by JoJan

If, on the other hand, we view the “Golden Legend” as an artistically composed book of devotion, we must admit that it is a complete success. It is admirably adapted to enhance our love and respect towards God, to foster our devotion towards His saints, and to animate us with a holy zeal to follow their example. The chief object of Jacopo de Voragine and of other medieval hagiologists was not to compose reliable biographies or to write scientific treatises for the learned, but to write books of devotion that were adapted to the simple manners of the common people. It is due to a wrong conception of the purpose of the “Golden Legend” that Luis Vives (De causis corruptarum artium, c. ii), Melchior Canus (De locis theologicis, xi, 6), and others have severely denounced it; and to a true conception that the Bollandists (Acts SS., January, I, 19) and many recent hagiologists have highly praised it. That the work made a deep impression on the people is evident from its immense popularity, and from the great influence it had on the prose and poetic literature of many nations. It became the basis of many passionals of the Middle Ages and religious poems of later times. Longfellow’s “Golden Legend”, which, with two other poems, forms the trilogy entitled “Christus”, owes its name and many of its ideas to the “Golden Legend” of de Voragine.

Bernard Guidonis (d. 1331), also a Dominican, made a vain attempt to supplant it by a more reliable work of the same character, which he entitled “Speculum Sanctorum”. In 1500 as many as seventy-four Latin editions of the “Legenda Aurea” had been published, not counting the three translations into English, five French, eight Italian, fourteen Low German, and three Bohemian. The first printed edition was in Latin, and was produced at Basle in 1470. Many succeeding editions contain additions of the lives of later saints or of feasts introduced after the thirteenth century. The best Latin edition was prepared by Graesse (Dresden and Leipzig, 1846, 1850, and Breslau, 1890). The first English edition was printed by William Caxton at London in 1483 from a version made about 1450. It was inscribed:

The Golden Legend. Fynysshed at Westmere the twenty day of Novembre/ the yere of our Lord M/CCCC/LXXXIII/. By me Wyllyam Caxton.

Page from Legenda Sanctorum (Golden Legend).

Page from Legenda Sanctorum (Golden Legend).

In this edition some of the less credible legends of the original are omitted. The publication was made at the instance of the Earl of Arundel, who agreed to take “a reasonable number of copies”, and to pay as an annuity “a buck in summer and a doe in winter” (see Putnam, “Books and their Makers in the Middle Ages”, New York and London, II, 1897, 118). Caxton’s edition was re-edited and modernized by Ellis (London and New York, 1900). The first French version that appeared in print was made by Jean Batallier, and printed at Lyons in 1476. A French translation, made by Jean Belet de Vigny in the fourteenth century, was first printed at Paris in 1488. Recent French editions were prepared by Brunet, signed M. G. B. (Paris, 1843 and 1908); by de Wyzewa (Paris, 1902); and by Roze (Paris, 1902). an Italian translation by Nicolas Manerbi was printed in 1475, probably at Venice; a Bohemian one was printed at Pilsen between 1475 and 1479, and another at Prague in 1495; a Low German one at Delft in 1472, and at Gouda in 1478. A German reproduction in poetry was made by Kralik (Munich, 1902).

Another important work of Jacopo de Voragine is his so-called “Chronicon Genuense”, a chronicle of Genoa reaching to 1296. Part of this chronicle, which is a valuable source of Genoese history, was published by Muratori in “Rerum Italicarum Scriptores” (Milan, 1723-51), IX, 5-56. Concerning it see Mannucci, “La cronaca di Jacopo da Viraggio” (Geneva, 1904). He is also the author of a collection of 307 sermons, “Sermones de sanctis, de tempore, quadragesimales, de Beata Maria Virgine”. They have been repeatedly printed, both separately and collectively. The earliest edition of the whole collection was printed in 1484, probably at Venice, where they were published a second time in 1497 and repeatedly thereafter. His remaining literary productions are “Defensorium contra impugnantes Fratres Praedicatores” (Venice, 1504), which is a defence of the Dominicans against some who accused them of not leading an Apostolic life; “Summarium virtutum et vitiorum” (Basle, 1497), which is an epitome of a work of the same title, written by William Peraldus, a Dominican who died about thirty years before Jacopo de Voragine. A theological work, entitled “De operibus et opusculis Sancti Augustini”, is also generally ascribed to him, but its authenticity has not yet been sufficiently established. It is known that he was a close student of St. Augustine. Some, relying on the authority of Sixtus of Siena, ascribe to him also an Italian translation of the Bible, but no manuscript or print of it has ever been found.

MICHAEL OTT (Catholic Encyclopedia)

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