Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Saints |
Role models for the ages

Saints is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 54, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Saints like Christopher, Barbara, Catherine and Christina left sparse records, but their deaths in the persecutions flowered in Christian lore

Saints - Role models for the ages

Saints - Role models for the ages
In a detail from a sixth-century mosaic (Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy), a group of saints processes to the altar bearing crowns of varied design, symbols of martyrdom.

The mid-third and early fourth centuries furnished the Christians with a broad inventory of saints, most of them martyrs, who would serve as role models and a focus for devotion for centuries to come. The Decian persecution and those that followed immediately were responsible, along with the Diocletian persecution that took place some fifty years later, and then the vicious crackdowns of Galerius and Daia.

It was during this period that some of the most cherished names in Christian history made their appearance. Their lives and deeds are sometimes documented, but frequently so little is known about them that their stories are little more than legends.

Dangling from the rearview mirrors or attached to the dashboards of countless automobiles in the twenty-first century, for instance, are “Christopher medals,” representing the motorist’s unspoken prayer to St. Christopher, long the patron saint of travelers. The real St. Christopher is believed to have suffered martyrdom under Decius, somewhere in Asia Minor. Almost nothing of historical credibility is recorded of him.

In the legend that grew up around him, he was a huge man who earned his living by carrying travelers across a river. Once he was called upon to carry a little boy, and found himself bent double under enormous weight. The name “Christopher” means “Christ-bearer;” the boy turned out to be Christ, who was himself bearing the weight of the world.

Similar permanent popularity attaches to St. Barbara, listed as virgin and martyr, indicating that she must have died in the Diocletian era or earlier. However, there is no mention of her whatever in the ancient records. By the seventh century, legends about her had accumulated, and large numbers of Christians had developed a devotion to her. An account of her martyrdom, dating from the ninth century, describes a young woman who becomes Christian. Her wealthy pagan father has her tortured and condemned, then carries out the death sentence himself and beheads her. The father is thereafter struck by lightning and dies. The eighteenth-century Franciscan mission on the California coast, and the graceful city that grew from it, preserve her name.

The history of St. Catherine of Alexandria is also obscure. She, too, is among the most widely venerated of women saints, and tradition dates her martyrdom to the early fourth century. The first account of it does not appear until the tenth century. It tells of a bright young woman of noble birth, highly educated, who rebukes the emperor Maximian for his persecution of Christians. To dissuade her from her faith, he pits her against some of the best logicians in the court, whom she bests in one dialectical contest after another. Maximian has her thrashed and imprisoned. The Catherine wheel, which has spikes projecting from the rim, is named for the way she was tortured. When she successfully converts her jailers, he has them executed with her.

Tradition ascribes a particularly gruesome death to another female saint from the period, Christina of Tyre, who refuses her mother’s pleas to apostatize and is, according to the legend, unsuccessfully burnt in a fire that instead kills hundreds of pagan onlookers. She bleeds milk instead of blood when her breasts are cut off; continues to preach after her tongue is cut out; throws the tongue at the judge, permanently blinding him; is tossed into the sea, where she is baptized by Jesus and returned safely to land by Michael the Archangel; and is finally killed by an arrow.

This was also the period of the famous Pantaleon or Panteleimon, whose ability to cure diseases has been called upon by devout believers for seventeen centuries. The existence of Pantaleon is certain, as is the fact he was martyred under Diocletian around 305. He was an unmercenary healer, treating people free of charge and thus winning people to Christianity.

Shakespeare’s Henry V made famous Saints Crispin and Crispinian, by legend two Roman Christian brothers who fled to Soissons in Gaul during the Diocletian era. There, they became shoemakers, taking nothing for their work except what was freely offered. Finally caught, they were put to death. Shakespeare conflates the two names into “Crispian” and has Henry fire up his troops for the Battle of Agincourt, fought on “St. Crispin’s Day,” October 25, 1415. Henry’s speech (“For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother”) serves as a memorial to veterans of all wars in all ages.

This is the end of the Saints category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 54, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Saints from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at