And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

torsdag 4. desember 2014

Saint Sabinus the Warrior

In the medieval historical understanding, the early fourth century after the birth of Christ was a period that produced a great number of saints, many of whom enjoyed a significant longevity, either locally or throughout the entirety of Christendom. Historically, this era was the time of persecutions of Christians carried out under the auspices of Diocletian and Maximinian, so it was perfectly natural to situate these saints, whose historicity was uncertain and in most cases probably non-existent, in an age where martyrdoms were common. Most of the virgin martyrs, for instance, belong to this period, such as Barbara, Agnes, Catherine and Lucy. Also Sebastian and Cyprian of Antioch were situated in this time, and so was Sabinus of Spoleto, also known as Sabinus of Assisi. Whether he was a historical figure is highly uncertain, but he was known to his devotees as bishop and martyr, and he was claimed by several Italian cities as their bishops. There is conflicting information concerning his feast day, but it is commonly set to December, with December 7 as the earliest alternative. Although it is a few days left until the seventh, I here present to you an anecdote concerning St Sabianus which is found in Paulus Diaconus' Historia Langobardorum, written in the late eighth century. The following excerpt is my rendition into English of a Norwegian translation of the original Latin text, and the Norwegian translation was done by Anne Katrine Frihagen and Bjørg Tosterud. Their edition of Historia Langobardorum was issued in 2003 as part of the Norwegian series "Thorleif Dahls kulturbibliotek".

Passion of SS Sabinus and Cyprian
Fresco from Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempte, c.1100
Courtesy of Wikimedia

In the following year [i.e. 602] duke Ariulf died, who had succeeded Farvald in Spoleto. When this Ariulf waged war against the Romans at Camerino and had won a victory, he asked his men who the man was whom he had seen fight so bravely in this war. When his men replied that they had seen no one there who fought more bravely than the duke himself, the duke said: “Yes, I saw another there who was much better than me in every way, a brave man who always protected me with his shield every time an enemy tried to cut me down.” But when the duke came to Spoleto, where the church of the holy martyr Bishop Sabinus rests, and where his glorious body rests, he asked to whom this splendid building was consecrated. By the pious men he was told that it was the martyr Sabinus who rested there. To him the Christians used to call for aid every time they entered battle against their enemies. Ariulf, who still was a heathen, replied: “Can it be possible that a dead man can provide any form of help to the living?” When he had said this, he stepped down from his horse and entered the church to inspect it. While the others were praying, he began to admire the images in the church. When he saw a painting that showed the holy martyr Sabinus, he immediately swore that the man who had protected him in the war had looked exactly like that. Then it was understood that it was the holy martyr Sabinus who had given him aid in the battle.
- Paulus Diaconus,
Historia Langobardorum, Book 4, Chapter 16

SS Sabinus and Venustatus
From the Maestà by Duccio, Siena, 1308
Courtesy of Wikimedia

There are several interesting things about this little anecdote. One noteworthy aspect is the central role given to a pictorial rendition of the saints at this early time in the Middle Ages. We know from other sources that this was common - as seen in the sixth-century mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna - but it is nonetheless fascinating to see this referred to in a historical chronicle. What is more, it appears that these renditions commonly were sufficiently individual in their depictions as to allow for recognition. We should not take this anecdote at face value, of course, but to Paulus, writing almost two centuries after Ariulf's reign, seems to have found this entirely plausible.

A second interesting aspect which I would like to emphasise here, is the portrayal of Sabinus - a bishop and martyr - as a militant saint. In the medieval sanctorale there are several saints who were known to give aid in battle and protect one of the sides in a conflict. The most famous example is perhaps St James the Greater, the alleged apostle of Spain, who became known as Santiago Matamoros - Killer of Moors - in the late medieval Spanish grand narrative. Other examples are Thomas Becket, who purportedly ensured Henry II the victory over the Scots in 1172, and Olav Haraldsson of Norway who guarded his Varangian devotees in a battle recorded in the twelfth-century Passio et Miracula Beati Olavi. Even Edward the Confessor, whose reign was known as a golden age of Solomonic peace, was reported to appear before Harold Godwinson in a vision and helping him win the Battle of Stamford Bridge. These examples are all from the Central Middle Ages and pertain to Northern European cults. Thus, the perhaps most significant aspect of Paulus' anecdote is that the saint-type of the militant protector goes back several centuries prior to these examples, but also that it is a saint-type not singularly located in the Northern European devotional landscape.

Martyrdom of Saint Sabinus
Carlo Cogrossi, Duomo Ivrea, 18th century
Courtesy of Wikimedia

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