Saturday, March 30, 2013

Exult! – The Easter Proclamation

Image of the lighting of the Paschal Candle
from 12th century Exultet Roll

The gathering darkness of the evening of Holy Saturday finds the Church assembled in joyful expectation around the makings of a fire. A spark is struck, the fire is lit and from that fire a large candle.

A procession, centered on that large candle, moves through the church, stopping three times to proclaim “The Light of Christ”. From that candle smaller candles are lit and, little by little, the light gathers strength until it illumines the entire church. These actions speak through symbols of the dawning of a new day, the first day of a new creation, the Kingdom of the Risen One, the Light of the World.

The candle is placed in a prominent position near the altar and a deacon (or cantor) steps forward and begins to sing an ancient song, the Exsultet (or Exultet), which, in the newest English translation, begins:

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, the Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound our mighty King’s triumph!

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.

Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.
Image of Mother Church (Mater Ecclesia) 
From the Barberini Exultet Roll
Italian (Montecassino), ca. 1087
Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
MS Cod.Barb.Lat. 592

The song recounts the stories of the Fall, the Passover and Exodus, and the new Passover of the Lord. Memorable passages include:

O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!

O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
Harrowing of Hell 
From Barberini Exultet Roll
Italian (Montecassino), ca. 1087
Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
MS Cod.Barb.Lat.592

And the recently restored

On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
Praise of the Bees
From the Barberini Exultet Roll
Italian (Montecassino), ca. 1087
Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
MS Cod.Barb.Lat. 592
This candle, the Paschal Candle, is at once both a large, decorated candle made of wax, and a symbol of the Risen Jesus, present among us in a special way.

This chant and the accompanying actions are, like the Easter Vigil in total, a kind of “insect in amber”. Performed only once each year they have come down the centuries without much change, shortened here and there, time shifted, restored, translated, but never entirely altered. They connect us with an earlier world, more aware of the powerful but silent speech of symbols.

Opening of an Exultet Roll
Notice that the text and the picture move in opposite directions

Indicative of how little things have actually changed are a series of rolled manuscripts, known collectively as the Exultet Rolls. Specific to medieval southern Italy, from about the 10th to the 12th centuries, they were decorated scrolls from which the deacon, standing in the ambo (pulpit) of the church, sang the chant.1

One extremely interesting feature is the fact that the illustrations and the text face in opposite directions. This is so that both parties involved in the ceremony could understand the meaning. For, while the deacon read the words and notes, the congregation could see the pictures that illustrated his words as the scroll unfurled.

Another example of the different directions for text and image
From an Exultet Roll

Several of the images from different scrolls illustrate the very action they contain, showing the church setting, the candle in place, the clergy and congregation assembled and the deacon singing,

Deacon Singing the Exultet 
From an Exultet Scroll
In this scene he gestures toward the Paschal Candle, which is being incensed
Italian (Montecassino), ca. 1072

Another Exultet Scroll showing the deacon singing

A slightly later image of the deacon singing the Exultet 
From an Exultet Roll

Tonight, those who attend the Easter Vigil will assemble in exactly the same way to repeat an ancient process and proclaim an eternal joy.

2021 update:

 See the video below for a beautifully proclaimed Exsultet from the Easter Vigil of 2020 at St. Peter's Basilica.  Due to the fact that the basilica, like all churches in Italy and in most of the world, was closed due to the pandemic lockdowns, the Vigil was held, not at the main altar, located above the tomb of Saint Peter, but at the Altar of the Chair, with the mighty Cathedra Petri by Gianlorenzo Bernini in the background.  For information on the Cathedra, see here.

A Happy and Blessed Easter!
1. and

The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery – The Crucifixion

Andrea da Firenze, The Crucifixion of Jesus
Italian, 1365-1368
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Cappella Spagnuolo

"There they crucified him, and with him two others,
one on either side, with Jesus in the middle."

(John 19:18)

Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to John – Excerpt from Gospel Reading for the celebration of the Friday of the Passion of the Lord (Good Friday)

The subject of the Crucifixion is one of the most difficult of all subjects to write about because it is so ubiquitous. Scenes of the Crucifixion have abounded in almost every Christian culture and time period. I can only touch on some of the varying ways that it has appeared in this article.

Somewhat surprisingly, given its central importance, the Crucifixion as an iconographic subject was a bit late in getting started. This is, perhaps, not astonishing, when one recognizes that it was not until the late 4th century, following the conversion of Constantine and the declaration that Christianity would be the religion of the Roman Empire, that crucifixion was suppressed as a punishment within the Empire.

The earliest known appearance of a direct reference to it is found in the wooden doors of the church of Santa Sabina in Rome.

4th Century Wooden Doors
Late Antique, 430-432
Rome, Basilica of Santa Sabina

They are original to the church, which was built in the 5th century and are dated to 430-432, or roughly a generation and a half from the suppression of the punishment. Further, the image from Santa Sabina is more schematic than realistic. Christ stands between the two thieves, His image larger than theirs because of His greater importance. However, His face is immediately recognizable, already set in the way it would be seen thereafter. No crosses are in evidence. Only the extended arms of the three figures suggest the subject matter. They stand in front of what appears to be a series of walled, pedimented spaces. The survival of these fragile, precious, late antique doors is an amazing gift from the past to us.

Like the subject of the Carrying of the Cross and many of the other subjects associated with the Sorrowful Mysteries, the images of the Crucifixion tend to fall into three main themes:  the narrative, the devotional and a group of hybrid images.

There are scenes that are principally narrative, giving an overview, more or less realistically, of the words in the Gospel accounts of the Passion.  These scenes include the figures traditionally believed (based on the Gospels) to have been present at Calvary: the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, St. John the Evangelist, and other possible women disciples. They may also include soldiers, members of the Sanhedrin, local citizens and the occasional donor portrait.

Duccio di Buoninsegno
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Giotto di Bondone
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel

Jan van Eyck
Flemish, 1420-1425
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Masolino da Panicale
Italian, 1428-1430
Rome, Basilica of San Clemente

Piero della Francesca, from Polyptych of St. Augustine
Italian, ca. 1460
New York, Frick Collection
Italian, 1465
Florence, Museo Nazionale del Barghello
Veit Stoss
German, 1477-1478
Cracow, Church of St. Mary
Maerten van Heemskerck
Dutch, 1545-1560
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Italian, 1565
Venice, Scuola di San Rocco
Pieter Brueghel the Younger
Dutch, 1617
Budapest, National Museum
Franz Anton Maulbertsch
Austrian, 1758
Suemeg, Parish Church
Costantino Brumidi
Italian, 1870-1880
New York, Church of the Holy Innocents

There are also devotional images, stripped of narrative or background elements. In these we may see the figure of Jesus alone, displayed solely for our meditation and prayer or in company with one other figure who acts as an observer, as our surrogate. Such an image may be found in a prayer book, a devotional book or a liturgical book. It may even be a painting, either large or small.  It appears early and persists alongside the narrative mode.
Page from Sacramentary of Charles the Bald
French, ca. 870
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1141, fol. 6v
Giovanni Bellini
Italian, 1501-1503
Private Collection

Lucas Cranach the Elder
German, 1536
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art
Anthony van Dyck
Flemish, ca. 1622
Venice, Church of San Zaccaria

Francisco de Zurbaran
Spanish, 1627
Chicago, Art Institute
Bartolome Murillo
Spanish, 1675
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Salvador Dali
Spanish, 1954
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

And then, there is a third, hybrid, category. These images seem to be compounded of the devotional image writ large. They are stripped of much of the narrative elements, but may include other figures. Most importantly, they are on a larger scale than that of the true devotional image. Often they are altarpieces. One might think of them as a series of “just the facts” images.
Byzantine Ivory Plaque
Byzantium, ca. 950
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Apse Mosaic
Italian, 1130s
Rome, Basilica of San Clemente

Italian, ca. 1426
Naples, Museo Nazionale di Copdimonte
Rogier van der Weyden
Flemish, ca. 1445
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Andrea del Castagno
Italian, ca, 1455
Florence, Church of Sant'Apollonia

Raphael Sanzio, Citta di Castello Altarpiece
Italian, 1502
London, National Gallery
Matthias Gruenwald, Isenheim Altarpiece (center, first face)
German, ca. 1515
Colmar, Musée d'Unterlinden

Lucas Cranach the Younger
German, 1555
Weimar, Stadtkirche Sankt Peter und Paul
This painting, known as the Weimar Triptych, illustrates that, at the beginning, the Reformation  retained many features of the past, even while introducing new interpretations.

Annibale Carracci
Italian, 1583
Bologna, Church of Santa Maria della Carità

Simon Vouet
French, 1622
Genoa, Church of the Gesù

Hendrick Terbrugghen
Dutch, 1624-1625
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Francesco Conti
Italian, 1709
Florence, Church of San Lorenzo
The Crucifixion offers much to think about. It should not be glossed over. For, if Jesus did not die this cruel and bitter death, there would be no resurrection. “And if Christ has not been raised your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19) It is through the Crucifixion that we reach Resurrection.

© M. Duffy, 2013

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery – The Carrying of the Cross

Giotto, Via Crucis
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel

"Then Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself, he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha."

(John 19:16-17, Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ According to John, Reading for Good Friday)

Every one of the Gospels includes the story of the Carrying of the Cross, though they differ slightly in one detail. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) include the story of Simon the Cyrenean, a man plucked from the street to carry the cross, presumably because Jesus was so weakened by the tortures He had received that He was unable to bear that burden by Himself. The writer of the Gospel of John seems to have considered this a somewhat irrelevant detail and is, in fact, at pains to state that Jesus carried the cross Himself. Tradition has conflated the two points of view and insists that both things happened. Jesus began carrying the cross Himself, but that after falling several times (a detail not found in any Gospel) Simon was impressed by the soldiers to carry the heavy load.

Images of the Carrying of the Cross (also called the Via Crucis) can generally be divided into two categories: narrative images and devotional images. The narrative images relate at least some of the details of the journey to Calvary (Golgotha) and involve other individuals. The specific incidents and number of people involved vary considerably, however. It may be as few as one person or a cast of thousands.
Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Belgium (Hainaut), ca. 1395-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquistion francaise 16251, fol. 37v

Simone Martini
Italian, 1333
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Jean le Noir, from Petites heures de Jean de Berry
French (Paris), ca. 1375
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 86v (detail)
Hans Memling, Scenes from the Passion (detail)
Flemish, 1470-1471
Turin, Galleria Sabauda
Adam Dircksz, Prayer Nut
Dutch, ca. 1500
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Italian, 1520
Cremona, Cathedral

Matthias Gruenwald
German, 1523-1524
Karlsruhe, Kunsthalle

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Italian, 1737-1738
Venice, Church of Sant'Alvise
James Tissot
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

Sometimes the actual action of carrying the cross seems lost in a vast quantity of other incidents going on at the same time.

Hieronymous Bosch
Dutch, 1480s
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Perhaps the best known of these images is that of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. In keeping with some other images by him, the actual event seems almost buried among the day-to-day goings on of the indifferent world.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder
Flemish, 1564
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

The devotional image, however, is much simpler and quieter. It generally involves the action of only two individuals – Jesus with his cross and the viewer who gazes on the painting. Jesus is posed in a solitary space, usually against a simple background, though sometimes in a landscape. It is to some extent a vision of Christ close in spirit, if not in form, to an icon. It is for contemplation and prayer.
Alvise Vivarini
Italian, No Date (died in 1503)
Venice, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Jan Gossaert
Flemish, 1520-1525
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

El Greco
Greco-Spanish, 1590s
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are a few images that seem to combine elements of both. Among them are works by Hieronymous Bosch and Titian. These works include the multiple figures of the narrative, but presented in a way that opens us up to the same contemplation and prayer as the quieter devotional works. Sometimes there is an almost claustrophobic character to them that is unpleasant for the viewer. In this way, the painter may have hoped to arouse feelings of empathy in Christ’s pain in our own hearts.

Hieronymous Bosch
Dutch, 1515-1516
Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Lorenzo Lotto
Italian, 1526
Paris,  Musée du Louvre

Italian, ca. 1565
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Italian, 1570-1575
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

All the images make worthy points for meditation on this Mystery.

© M. Duffy, 2013