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

onsdag 30. januar 2019

The hagiographic function of liturgy - the case of a motet for Saint Sebastian

Our modern minds, so accustomed to neat categorisations and precise labels, are often struggling to understand the fluidity between medieval genres of text. This is especially apparent in the traditional approach to the term “hagiography”, widely used as a synonym to a saint’s life written in prose. However, because the cult of the saints was such a fundamental aspect of medieval life, formulations of a saint’s story – their life, passion, death, related miracles – could be found in many different renditions in medieval media. The art historian Cynthia Hahn has even argued, in her monograph Portrayed on the heart, that medieval art depicting the lives of saints should be understood as “pictorial hagiography”. I agree completely with this, as paintings, statues, textiles and carvings could display condensed representations of the legend of a saint, highlighting the most important scenes or iconographical details.         

Just as the hagiographic quality of medieval art is sometimes overlooked, it is similarly common to overlook that liturgy in the honour of a saint likewise serves to tell the saint’s story. The main venue for this liturgical retelling of a saint’s legend is in the office for the saint’s feast-day, in which chants and readings are combined in a cycle of performed text and music in which the most important aspects of the saint are highlighted and told. An important aspect of the liturgical office is that it teaches the performers, as well as those few non-performing listeners who comprehend Latin sufficiently well to understand what is being said, about the saint’s legend. Another, and just as crucial, aspect is that the liturgical office serves as a form of communication with the saint. In this communication with the saint, it appears to be very important to allude to the most important aspects of the legend and the iconography, most likely as a way to demonstrate to the saint that their story is known and venerated. In short, a liturgical performance aimed at thanking or placating the saint – who served as the community’s ambassador before the throne of God – must also demonstrate knowledge of the saint’s legend on the part of those who are beseeching the saint for their intercession.

Martyrdom of Sebastian -
Aix-en-Provence - BM - ms. 0016, f.278, Book of Hours, Use of Paris, between 1480-90
(Courtesy of

As an example of the importance of displaying knowledge of the saint, I will here rely on a motet by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), who spent the 1420s and part of the 1430s in Italy, where he came into contact with the d’Este family who ruled the city state of Ferrara. The motet in question, O sancte Sebastiane, is traditionally held to have been composed for the city of Ferrara following an outbreak of plague, and it addresses Saint Sebastian who was considered one of the foremost patron saints to help against the plague. It is unclear whether the motet was composed with the purpose of calling for Sebastian’s help, or whether it is a motet of thanksgiving after the plague had left Ferrara.

While there is much to say about this motet, I will here limit myself to one point striking at the heart of what I’m addressing in this blogpost, namely the function of liturgy as a venue for presenting the legend of a saint. The text of the motet consists of three parts, one for each of the voices: triplum, motetus and contratenor. Of interest to us here is the text for the triplum voice, which consists of four strophes. The first strophe is an address to Sebastian, exhorting him to guard against the plague with lines such as “Me protege and conserva”, protect and preserve me. The second strophe continues, opening with “Tu de peste hujusmodi / Me defende et custodi”, defend and protect me against the plague in your manner, and continues the exhortation. In the third and four strophes, however, the content of the text shifts from the purely exhortative address to what is in effect a condensed rendition of the legend of Sebastian.

O sancte Sebastiane
Motet by Guillaume Dufay

The third strophe signals this shift by addressing Sebastian as “Tu Mediolanus civis”, you citizen of Milan, thus demonstrating to the saint that the singer is well acquainted with the legend. It is tempting to suggest that the version of the legend on which Dufay based his motet was that of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea, in which the opening of the legend – after the customary etymological explanation of Sebastian’s name – states that Sebastian was a native of Narbonne and a citizen of Milan. After establishing the singer’s knowledge of Sebastian’s citizenship, the text continues the exhortation for the saint to rely on his meritum – i.e. the merit accumulated in the course of the saint’s earthly life – and beseech God for His help against the plague.                   

In the fourth strophe of the triplum voice, the text returns to the hagiographic description, referring to the first miracle God performed through Sebastian, namely the healing of the muteness of Zoe, the woman in whose house Sebastian preached Christianity during Diocletian’s persecutions. Then the second and third strophes allude to the healing of Zoe’s husband Nicostratus, while the rest of the triplum text addresses how Sebastian consoled others who were to be martyred, reminding them of the eternal life that lay ahead.         

What we see here in this cursory overview of the motet O sancta Sebastiane is that the legend of the saint is an important foundation for the singer’s pleading with the saint. While the first two strophes of the triplum voice attempt to persuade the saint through straightforward exhortation, the last two strophes demonstrate the singer’s knowledge of Sebastian’s story and thus shows part of the reason why the saint should come to the singer’s aid: This is not some idle request, this comes from someone who is intimately familiar with the saint’s legend and therefore turns to the saint out of veneration and knowledge.    

Saint Sebastian comforting Marcus and Marcellinus in prison
Amiens - BM - ms.0108, f.219, Bible and legends of the saints, 1197, Pamplona
(Courtesy of

In this way, we see how knowledge of the life of a saint served an important function in what we might call the negotiating process, whose endpoint was to have the saint serve as the ambassador in Heaven and bring about help through the intervention of God. In other words, liturgy – even in such a brief form as the motet – served a hagiographic function, and it also served to convey history.

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