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Afterlives of the Saints
by Colin Dickey

Although to many Catholics, the saints remain objects of veneration and worship, to many others they have become curious, mythical figures. Why do these holy beings appear half-naked and studded with arrows, like Saint Sebastian, or carrying a pair of eyes on a plate like Saint Lucy? In a series of essays, Colin Dickey examines several of the saints most prominent in art or with especially bizarre attributes in an attempt to understand what made these men and women so important in their day, and the influence they've had over the generations that followed in their footsteps.

Since I'm studying art history in school, some of these saints were extremely familiar to me. Saint Jerome appears in many Renaissance and Baroque paintings by some of Europe's greatest painters, but the emphasis is always on his asceticism and devotion to translating the Bible. The author here paints a very different picture of Jerome with his words – Jerome the librarian, carefully compiling and preserving information. In this single essay, he connects Jerome to the 20th century writer Jorge Luis Borges, Caravaggio, memento moris / “remember death” images in art, and the father of modern skepticism, Michel de Montaigne. But several of the other saints were quite obscure. Sure, Jerome is fairly recognizable, but how many people know of his female companion, Paula? Saint George remains the popular patron of England, but Saint Foy, despite her prankish nature, is largely forgotten.

I was greatly entertained by the evolution of several saints over the years. Saint Sebastian has found a new place in modern culture as an icon of homosexuality, and Saint Barbara has somehow become associated with artillery and explosions. Saint Lawrence met his end by being cooked alive on a giant grill; today he is the patron saint of barbeques and stand-up comedians.

There's nothing particularly religious about this book; it has a much more anthropological approach to the tales of the saints. The chapters sometimes ramble as the author moves from one idea to the next. But it's like a traveler hiking through the woods on a sunny day – the things you see along the way makes the essay worth the read.

4 out of 5 stars

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