Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Hagiographical Strategies

A Comparative Study of the Standard Lives of St. Francis and Milarepa

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Massimo Alessandro Rondolino
  • New York, NY: 
    , February
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This is a well-conceived and meticulous study that takes a critically comparative approach to explore how “common knowledge” about saintly figures comes into being. By considering two figures from quite different and unrelated traditions (Roman Catholic and Tibetan Buddhist), the author encourages his readers to reflect on the value that saintly figures hold for people who remember them and how that value is invoked in different ways over time. This perhaps could have been documented by observing a only one saint, but Rondolino’s comparative project raises the stakes of the discussion, to address a set of common narrative moves that get used to construct the “standard lives” of revered figures. This is a timely book that participates in a rising wave of self-reflective comparative religious studies scholarship.

The introduction engages thoughtfully with critics who dismiss basic English terms in religious studies (religion, saint, hagiography) as too rooted in Euro-American Christianity to be applied elsewhere in the world. Rondolino argues that, with critical awareness of their genealogies, the words still may function as “markers of metalinguistic categories.” The category he focuses on is the set of narrative tropes that authors deploy to represent an earlier revered figure in ways that bolster the authors’ own claims of authority.

Rondolino’s preferred method of comparative engagement follows the advice that Michael Serres gave to Bruno Latour: to get up quickly and start running when others argue about why it is impossible. Working intensively with Latin and Tibetan sources, Rondolino highlights common dynamics of legitimation that he observes across cultures and languages, as authors craft the remembered lives of saintly figures in ways that appealed to wider audiences while reshaping the saints’ personas and significances along the way.

The structure of the book is remarkably symmetric, with a theory-rich introductory chapter (chapter 1) and conclusion framing the six core chapters that are divided into two parts. The three chapters in the first part examine early renditions of the two saints’ lives. Chapter 2 traces portrayals of St. Francis of Assisi in nearly a dozen 13th-century texts but especially several by Thomas of Celano. Chapter 3 similarly sketches the earliest renditions of Milarepa’s life, especially the anonymous 13/14th-century text known as the Buchen Chunyi. In chapter 4, Rondolino highlights contextual aspects of these early works that shaped the way they were composed, and he briefly offers some comparative reflections on hagiographical processes. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the saints’ lives of Francis and Milarepa as they were portrayed in later hagiographies that became the widespread, “standard” accounts, as composed by Bonaventure of Bagnoregio and Tsangnyön Heruka, followed by a chapter on considerations that shaped these latter hagiographical reformulations. The four chapters on the saints (2, 3, 5, and 6) all adhere to the same sequence, analyzing hagiographies’ portrayals of the saints’ youth, conversion, community, and transfiguration—a set of common narrative tropes that Rondolino sees as typical of a common hagiographical strategy across cultures, languages, and religions.

As aesthetically elegant as the book’s structure is, some readers may find its pedagogical impact to be mixed. At least I did. This approach of tacking back and forth between Francis and Milarepa effectively foregrounds the author’s main concern—the comparative endeavor itself. However, this to-and-fro can feel overwhelming, since the reader’s attention is shuttled rapidly between intricate discussions of, for example, Franciscan institutional politics in thirteenth-century Italy and Kagyü sectarian polemics in fifteenth-century Tibet. That Rondolino maintains a firm grasp on both disparate contexts is admirable, but some readers will find the sheer amount of unfamiliar information (about at least one tradition, if not both) to be challenging to track. In light of how dense the saint-focused chapters are, the reflective analyses at the end of each chapter and part feels rather brief. After pushing through the underbrush of entangled narratives and intricate contextual details that impinged on portrayals of the saints, it would be edifying to spend more time in the clearings at the chapter and part conclusions, where the author’s well-made comparative observations are easier to see and consider.

If properly comparative study of sainthood must attend closely to individual languages, contexts, genres, and traditions (and I agree that it should) yet still be able to zoom out to super-contextual conclusions, it would be helpful to dwell more extensively on these conclusions and the intellectual space in which they are possible. For example, how ought we understand the nature and function of the “metalinguistic category” that underlies this comparative project? By studying the hagiographical process, just what kind of knowledge are we pursuing: literary, philosophical, political, sociological, a post-Eliadean conception of sanctity, a combination of these, or something else? The author concludes the book by suggesting ways in which his project may serve as a model for future comparative research on saintliness. These are indeed provocative, perhaps including as directions that the author may take his own comparative analysis of Francis and Milarepa in the future.

Readers of Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Hagiographical Strategies can expect to be challenged as they follow the author through unfamiliar territories and cultures, even while knowing that they are being led through it all by a trustworthy guide. Such fine-grained study of two vastly different subjects is unavoidably difficult. Those who stick with Rondolino for the entire journey, however, will be rewarded by witnessing a well-grounded example of critical comparative study and by coming away with a more expansive view how hagiography is composed. Published in Routledge’s Sanctity in Global Perspective series, this book illustrates the “global” aspect exceedingly well and invites further comparison. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jon Keune is assistant professor at Michigan State University specializing in South Asian traditions.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Massimo Alessandro Rondolino is assistant professor of philosophy and adjunct professor of religious studies at Carroll University.


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