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Reviewed by:
  • Saints Alive: Word, Image, and Enactment in the Lives of the Saints
  • Ann W. Astell (bio)
David A. Williams . Saints Alive: Word, Image, and Enactment in the Lives of the Saints. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 2010. 226 pp. ISBN 978-0773037088, $95.00.

This is an impressive book that opens up a new chapter in the study of saints' lives. Thomas J. Heffernan's landmark work, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (1988), helped several generations of scholars to read the medieval lives of saints with a new appreciation for the literary conventions and rhetorical strategies of that historical genre. Heffernan discussed saintly iconography vis-à-vis the narrative of the saint's life—that is, the movement of "pictures into print" and, vice versa, the movement of symbolic scenes from the legenda into the visual images of veneration—but he did so only very briefly, devoting only a few pages to the liturgical remembrance of the saints in ritual actions. For Heffernan, the saint's life is the biography. Williams, by contrast, insists that the verbal narrative of a saint's life-story is only part of the "holistic text" or "total text" or "living text" of the saint's life, in which such narratives are (and must be) complemented by iconography and ritual performance if they are to fulfill their intended purpose for the community.

Williams's thesis is spelled out in a theoretically rich and accessible Introduction, in which he draws (in various ways) upon both the reader response theory of Stanley Fish and the psychologically sophisticated work of Margaret Miles on image-reception. Chapter One develops the theoretical implications of William's thesis by considering the strengths and limitations of each of the expressive forms out of which the saint's "total life" is constructed: word, image, and enactment. The verbal account (in Williams's understanding) forms [End Page 538] the basis of the "holistic text," which is a "weaving together" of all three forms. "In the case of hagiography," he writes, a "verbal account is augmented by image and enactment to produce a text that transcends the limits of the written word" (24). Whereas the word points to something that has taken place (and thus has sign value), image and enactment render that same thing—the saint's life—actually present. In hagiographic tradition, then, icon and enactment follow the verbal narrative in a way that effectively extends and transcends it through the process of its own fulfillment in another form. Williams draws upon the work of art historian Michael Camille to suggest that the modern reversal of this hierarchy—a reversal through which the image became merely a decorative servant of the word, "marginal" in place and questionable in value—led to the disintegration of the vital, interactive relationship between the three expressive forms, to the iconoclasm of the Protestant movement, and to its rejection of the cult of the saints.

Williams's thesis of a "holistic text" then determines his method of approach to the three saints' lives he studies respectively in Chapters Two, Three, and Four—namely, those of Saint Anne, Saint Thomas Becket, and Saint Maximilian Kolbe. Inspired by his practice in a course taught at McGill University, the book conveys the shared excitement of a master teacher in conversation with his students. Each chapter begins with a study of the extant narrative(s) of the saint's life, making no evaluative distinction between history and fiction. Williams then turns to the iconography of the saint, emphasizing how visual representations of the life in question have expanded upon it, adding or altering the narrative to enhance its transcendent quality or to interpret its theological significance. Finally, Williams considers what he calls the "enactment" of the saint's life by the community in ritual gestures and dramatic performances.

An attractive feature of the book (and fundamentally necessary to its argument) are the many illustrations upon which Williams comments. The chapter on St. Anne, for example, contains twenty-seven figures, ranging from reproductions of visual images from the Middle Ages and Renaissance to a still-shot from the 2005 Canadian film La Neuvaine (The Novena...


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pp. 538-540
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