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

onsdag 30. september 2015

When September Ends

 As September draws to a close I'm putting up the final blogpost for this month, and in the spirit of transition I give you three items from the Old English Martyrology which marks the change from September to October. All translations are by Christine Rauer and taken from her edition of The Old English Martyrology, D. S. Brewer. 2013: 195. As will be seen, the transition is marked by the feast of Saint Jerome (c.341-420), one of the most formative Christian writers of one of the most formative periods in the shaping of Catholic theology. His most notable contribution to Christian culture was his translation into Latin of the Old and the New Testament, but also his letters were of great importance as they lent his authority to a range of theological matters. For instance, in his letter to Vigilantius, a Christian from Aquitaine, Jerome strongly defended and expounded the orthodoxy of the cult of relics, which no doubt help garner an intellectual acceptance of this aspect of the nascent cult of saints.

September, the month of sowing
MS Additional 21114, French psalter, betewen 1255 and 1265
Courtesy of British Library

Cambrai - BM - ms. 0965, f.001, Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea, 1155
Courtesy of

On the thirtieth day of the month is the feast of the priest and noble scholar Jerome, who lived in the Jewish city of Bethlehem. St Arculf says about him that he saw a small church outside the city of Bethlehem, in which the body of Jerome was placed, covered with stone, and above that a lamp was placed which burned day and night.

Jerome writing, inspired by the Holy Spirit
Avranches - BM - ms. 0003, f.001, Bible, between 1200-1210
Courtesy of

When the month which we call Haligmonað ['Holy Month'] comes to an end, the night is twelve hours long and the day likewise.

Jerome and the lion, defaced by pious kisses
Besançon - BM - ms. 0172, f.001, Epistulae, 15th century
Courtesy of

There are thirty-one days in the tenth month of the year. In Latin it is called Octember, and in our language Winterfylleð ['Winter Full Moon'].

October, the time for wine-making
MS Additional 21114, French psalter, betewen 1255 and 1265
Courtesy of British Library

lørdag 26. september 2015

Sancity in Milan, part 3 - Thomas Becket in Chiaravalle

A few weeks ago I started a series of blogposts concentrating on the cult of saints in, about and from Milan (the two previous posts can be found here and here). The occasion for this was a long weekend work trip arranged by the Centre for Medieval Literature where I work, and in future blogposts I will talk more about my experiences in Milan and related topics.

In this blogpost, however, I will present a maybe somewhat unexpected example of Milanese veneration of saints, namely a depiction of the death of Thomas Becket, found in a seventeenth-century fresco in a Cistercian monastery.

The martyrdom of Thomas Becket

The day after our arrival, on the suggestion of a friend and colleague who went with us, I and a few others took a little excursion to the Cistercian monastery of Chiaravalle, situated a few kilometers outside Milan. The monastery was founded in the twelfth century by Bernard of Clairvaux after he had been sent to Milan on a diplomatic mission. Disgusted with the pomp and riches of the Milanese clergy, Bernard founded the Chiaravalle monastery whose name is an Italian rendition of Clairvaux.

Chirarvalle is situated in a beautiful meadowland outside the city, and true to the Cistercian tradition it was placed in what was then wilderness. When the grounds were being prepared and the first livestock was introduced, the Cistercians were plagued by mosquitoes from the nearby marshlands as they carried disease with them. Eventually, however, they managed to get rid of the insects by draining the marshes and the land could be properly cultivated. A legend arose that Bernard had excommunicated the mosquitoes, which ensured that they stayed away from the monastery. In recent years, however, the ban must have been lifted or simply ignored, because I was bitten by several mosquitoes during our visit.

The interior of the abbey church is beautifully decorated with sumptuous frescoes, quite unlike what you usually expect in a Cistercian house, known as they are for the lack of ornament. The frescoes, however, are from the Early Modern Period and display the sentiments of the Counter Reformation rather than Bernard of Clairvaux's rather Spartan approach to art. This is not to say that Chiaravalle was only decorated after the Counter Reformation. In the fourteenth century an artist known to us as"Il Primo Maestro di Chiaravalle", and who was inspired by Giotto, decorated the interior of the dome with a series of saints. These were, however, not easily visible to the ministrant monks down below and although impressive they might perhaps be seen more as art addressing the saints than the monks. These frescoes were supplemented by other works placed lower down, attributed to "Il Secondo Maestro di Chiaravalle".

The first cycle of frescoes on the ground level, however, were painted by Bartolomeo Roverio, also known as "Il Genovesino" and two brothers called "Fiammenghini", the Flemings, because their father was from Antwerp. Their names were Giovanni Battista and Giovanni Mauro della Rovere. These frescoes portray the history of the Cistercian order with important martyrdoms displayed in the left transept, which is where we find the rendition of Thomas Becket's martyrdom.

The martyrdom of Thomas Becket (dressed in Cistercian clothing and given a blonde beard)
Painted by the Rovere brothers, I Fiammenghini, in 1615

The story of Thomas Becket should be well-known to most of my readers, and additional information can be found in blogposts here and here. Becket is an interesting figure and a saint with a very wide dissemination in the European cult of saints. What is most curious here, however, is that he is included in a cycle of Cistercian saints, for Becket himself was archbishop of Canterbury, a Benedictine house. Nonetheless, it is small wonder that he has been appropriated by the Cistercians in this way, because during his exile in France Becket resided with Cistercian communities and partook in their life and rituals which was very much at odds with the expected lifestyle of an archbishop. One of the most famous features in the claim for Thomas Becket's sanctity was that he had been found wearing a hairshirt under his archiepiscopal paraments, a sign of his austere secret lifestyle which was very much in tune with the form of self-mortification espoused by the Cistercians. Consequently, we find Becket here in Chiaravalle, depicted in a Cistercian-white garment and equipped with blonde beard perhaps to signify that he comes from the North.

For similar blogposts, see these.

A brief introduction to the cult of Thomas Becket

A song for Thomas Becket

Saint Louis IX rendered in the Mannerist style

Saint Edmund of East Anglia in Legenda Aurea

Two frescoes of Saint Sebastian

A fresco of Edward the Confessor

onsdag 16. september 2015

Call for papers - Leeds 2016

Call for papers, Leeds 2016 – Spiritual nourishment on the medieval peripheries

We are seeking papers that explore aspects of spirituality on the peripheries in any part of the medieval period. The papers should focus on the idea of nourishment as food for the soul, and engage with the notion of the geographical periphery in the Middle Ages. They should discuss the cult of saints or hagiographical literature, and topics can include (but are not limited to) missionary work, the use of saints in history, the liturgy of saints, saints’ vitae, or the role of the cult of saints in the religious life of the peripheries.


Abstracts for your papers should be sent to or no later than September 29, 2015.

Saint Olaf of Norway, Överselo Kyrka, Sweden
Courtesy of

fredag 4. september 2015

Postcards from Palermo, part 1 - Songs for Saint Rosalia

Today is the feast of Saint Rosalia of Palermo, a recluse of the twelfth century who according to liturgical sources died in 1160 at the age of 35. (1) Most of what is known of her life has been assembled from several sources and put together at a later date, so it can sometimes be difficult to entangle her historical life from her legend, especially because she shares a range of hagiographical topoi with other saints. Rosalia was of a noble family, but spurned the wealth of her parents and left to live in a cave. She later moved closer to her native Palermo and spent the rest of her life in a hermitage on Monte Pellegrino. After her death, it is believed that a local cult took hold of Palermo relatively quickly, but no reliable and detailed sources remain from this first period, although church dedications from 1237 suggests that her cult enjoyed some stability. (2) The basic elements of her legend are typical of other female recluses of roughly the same period, such as Christina Markyate in England or Verdiana of Castelfiorentino in Tuscany. This might be seen as an argument against the historicity of her legend, but it should also be considered as evidence of a spiritual trend to which young Rosalia adhered. In any case, it is difficult to say for certain, since the first account of her life was written by Valerius Rossi (c.1590). (3)

Rosalia crowned by angels
Anton van Dyck (1599-1641), currently in Palermo
Image credits: José Luiz Ribeiro (wikimedia)

Few details are known of her cult in the later Middle Ages, but in the sixteenth century she attracted greater interest among certain Franciscans. The viceroy Giovanni Medina facilitated the establishment of a convent by the grotto which had been her hermitage. The convent was run by The Reformed Franciscan Order of Santa Rosalia at Monte Pellegrino. (4)

The veneration of Santa Rosalia received a great boost following events which began in 1624. It was in this year that an old woman called Girolama Gatto reportedly had a vision in which a woman dressed in white told her to go to Monte Pellegrino in order to get rid of her quartan fever. Girolama did so together with two friends and there she had another vision of the girl who told her that her name was Rosalia and that her relics were buried there.

The Franciscans at the nearby convent were told about this vision and began to excavate the area. On July 15, 1624, almost two months after Girolama had received her vision, the brethren found some bones four meters in the ground. This day remains the feast of her relics. The bones were brought to the city on the orders of archbishop Giannettino Doria and doctors and theolgians were set to examine the bones to decide whether they were genuine. The result of the commission was positive, but the archbishop was not convinced and ordered another examination. Shortly after, a plague struck Palermo and this was seen as punishment for undue scepticism on the part of the archbishop. The plague was lifted after the bones of Rosalia had been paraded around Palermo three times. (5)

Santa Rosalia intercedes for the plague-stricken Palermo
Antoon van Dyck, 1629, now at Museum of Art of Ponce
Image from wikimedia

Santa Rosalia was appointed patron saint of Palermo, and in 1626 a church was built at her old hermitage on Monte Pellegrino which remains a destination for pilgrims even today. (6) During this first period of Rosalia's patronage of Palermo, the Dutch painter Antoon van Dyck was in Palermo and painted several paintings depicting the holy recluse, some of which are used here. Rosalia has enjoyed a stable and long-lasting cult in Palermo, and every year on her feast day there are grand processions where statues of the saint are paraded around the city. Recently, she has become a symbol of the opposition to the Sicilian mafia, which has granted Rosalia increased relevance and popularity.

Songs are also sung, performed and even composed in her honour, as can be seen in the videos below. When I was in Palermo last year as part of a work trip, I serendipitously heard a band playing a song to "sacra Rosalia" in one of the cafès in the city. I am still trying to find a recording of that song.

Simulacrum of Rosalia (note her garland)
Statue from the procession in Palermo on her feast day, 2007
Image from Wikimedia







6) Farmer, David, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004: 461-62

For blogposts on similar saints, see these:

Fina di San Gimignano

Verdiana da Castelfiorentino

Margherita da Cortona

Agnese da Montepulciano