I was in Bologna last week, and a couple of churches had an inscription about their dedication to a saint. To my surprise, they used the word divus instead of sanctus. For example, a church may be dedicated to divus Paulus instead of sanctus Paulus.

Is this typical? Is sanctus in this use as well? I faintly recall so. Is there a difference between these words, or is it just a matter of preference?

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Superb question!

Divus is a term used to refer to Roman deities or highly esteemed individuals (e.g. emperors). L&S give some classic Latin quotes, and you can also see books about Divus Augustus, Divus Titus, Divus Claudius, and etc.

Now, as many things in Christianity inherited from Roman customs and language, it seems divos was also used for saints. A partial analysis of this, related specifically to the word divos, seems to be in this pamphlet, published in 1865 in Italian, titled "Sulla deificazione nel senso pagano e nel senso cattolico ... relativi all'uso della voce latina "divus" nell'epigrafia cristiana". This can be translated as "On the deification of the pagan meaning and the catholic meaning ... relative to the use of the Latin term "divus" in christian epigraphy."

Now, I do not know Italian, but some few hints from a quick glance at it:

  • a famous epigraphist, Stefano Morcelli, wrote "expressly condemning in Christian epigraphy the use of the word divus".

  • "in this writing we have set out to do with greater clarity those same reasons, for which it seems to us however, the Latin word Divus for "Saint in paradise" is appropriate."

  • the author refers to an inscription in a certain Church of Saint Francis, stating DIVO FRANCISCO ASSISIATI SACRUM. There are also many churches with such epigraphs (e.g. here (bottom right) and here).

  • apparently, part of the argument against the use of divus was that Divi is too similar to Dei, and thus it might lead to the indication of the deification of saints to the level of God, a clear heresy.

Now, what can I gather from all this? There were indeed many books in Latin using divus to denote saints (e.g. here, here, and many more here). This might have been a "late" practice (I only found books or inscriptions dated from the second millennium), and might have died out after a debate (reflected in the text above) emerged. Still, more needs to be researched to reach a comprehensive answer.

  • Stefano Morcelli was an epigraphist. I spent about a minute trying to figure out what an "ephigraphist" might be. A biographer of Ephialtes? That would be a very specific job... Also, divi and dei aren't just similar, they are variations on the same root word! – Malvolio Jun 13 at 3:15
  • @Malvolio Indeed. Thanks for the remarks. Which is the root word you are referring to? – luchonacho Jun 13 at 16:24

Based on preliminary research, it seems safe to say that divus - and not sanctus - was the preferred choice in Neo-Latin.

You are not the first person to come up with this observation - sorry to disappoint you:

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from Thompson (1997) comments to Erasmus:

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  • Given that Erasmus was consciously emulating classical patterns, I don't think his use of sanctus for Cicero and Socrates is especially telling, though it is quite interesting! – brianpck Jun 14 at 3:11
  • Thanks! I am not disappointed at all; I do not expect to be first to wonder about the things that puzzle me in Latin, but I do like to know where similar wondering has lead others. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jun 18 at 17:29

Besides confirming (by experience, though) what Pavel and luchonacho say, I can add a couple of ideas:

  • In Greek tradition, there are two words for Saint: άγιος ([h]agios) and ὅσιος ([h]osios). The latter means is specifically reserved for monastic saints.
  • The same cannot be said of the pair divus/-a, sanctus/-a. Although I can't rule out an ancient correlation between divus and hosios, in its origin the former means someone that has become of divine nature. On one hand, iif interpreted literally, calling a saint divus is plain heresy in Christianity. On the other hand, people can only become holy by the help of God, who makes men somewhat god-like, so it could be used as an analogy. I think that is the reason why divus could have been used in antiquity, and why it became less and less used with time to avoid confusion (especially perhaps after the Reformation, to remark the veneration of saints is not intended as a form of idolatry?).

I was writing this answer as luchonacho's popped up. I think it still adds a nuance, so I chose to finish it anyway, trying not to repeat was he already said.

"Sanctus" is the most common term for a saint, used universally.

"Beatus" used to be a common synonym in Middle Ages, but was slightly broader (it could be used for people venerated but not canonized as saints) and later it became a technical term for the "blessed" - a "lower degree of sanctity" necessary before being proclaimed saint.

I don't know much about "divus", I never saw it except for the title of "Divus Thomas" journal. The word had a pre-Christian meaning somewhat similar to a Catholic "saint". As far as I know, it was popular in some regions only.

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