As a child in the 1950s I had a collection of pocket reference books published by Collins – pond life, birds, breeds of dog, aircraft, warships, stamps – so I was delighted to be asked to contribute a volume to the modern successor of that series, the Collins Gems. Saints is a selection of the most popular individuals regarded by the Christian church as saints – apostles, teachers, martyrs, missionaries, contemplatives.
At an everyday level, most people in our society are still linked to a saint because they are named after one. But those who, like me, grew up as Catholics formed a special relationship with the saints – or with particular ones. Saints were not just a remote mythology, but a spiritual reality present in the world. They were also the superstars of the religious past. Their lives were endlessly interesting; Christians revered them, and identified with them; they could sometimes even do things in the world – make changes, work miracles. But the book wasn’t only for religious readers. Anyone interested in art history must learn about the saints, for so much of Western art is impossible to interpret without them.