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

fredag 31. mai 2019

Stenløse Church

One of the great things about being a medievalist in Denmark is the plethora of medieval churches that are open to the public. Last week my parents came to visit me in Odense, and so we took the time to explore some of the many churches situated in the vicinity. This blogpost is a brief introduction to one of them, namely Stenløse Church.  

The oldest part of the church, which is comprised of the nave, the choir and the apsis, is built in the Romanesque style and dates to the 1120s or 1130s, while the roof and the tower are of late medieval origin. The dating of the oldest part of the church is interesting in light of its location on the island of Funen as well as its vicinity to Odense. By the time the church was built, the entire island was part of the bishopric of Odense - which is still the case - and the centre of this bishopric was the Benedictine abbey church of Saint Knud in the city. This was the cult centre of Saint Knud Rex who had been killed in Odense in 1086 and the cult was maintained by a community of Benedictine monks who were attached to episcopal church. The time in which this church was built was towards the end of the period in which the cult of Saint Knud Rex enjoyed its greatest popularity in all of Denmark, and it is possible that the building of the church should be understood in light of either the cult activity or the income generated for the Benedictine community in Odense. It should, however, be pointed out that the church appears to have been dedicated to Saint Clement (it was noted as such in 1291), and as such it is not directly linked with the veneration of the martyred king in Odense. However, the time of its construction and its proximity to Odense allow us to speculate about whether the cult had an impact on the building of the church. What we do know about the relationship between Stenløse Church and the Benedictines at Saint Knud's Church is that in the thirteenth century, the Benedictines appear to have had some control over the church's income. We can guess as much from a letter - Diplomatarium Danicum II, 2, no.289 - according to which the monks at Saint Knud's Church attempted to have the income from this church allotted to stipends for Odense monks studying in Paris. Stenløse Church was, however, not formally annexed by the abbey church until 1316. These details concerning the relationship between the episcopal abbey church and Stenløse Church are also interesting for the brief insights they give into the community of monks in Odense.     

While the foundation of the church and its earliest layer is early twelfth century, the vaulting and the roof are both late medieval. In the early sixteenth century, the vaults were likely covered in wall-paintings, but only a few fragments of these have been discovered and restored. However, from these fragments we can surmise that the church was once richly decorated, both because the fragments appear to be details in a grander whole and because such extensive iconographical programmes were relatively common in late-medieval Danish parish churches. The best preserved fragments are the ones shown above from the vault just immediately before the choir, one showing the resurrection of Christ and His defeat of the devil, and the other showing the doubting of Thomas. Underneath these scenes are coat of arms belonging to the local noble family who were the patrons of the church.

Like so many medieval parish churches of Denmark, Stenløse Church houses a lot of minor treasures from various parts of its long history. Below are two of my favourite details as we were explore the church. The first is a Romanesque baptismal font with vegetal decoration, now standing on a new plinth. Fonts like this one were common in medieval Denmark, and although the decoration is worn and difficult to make out, it gives a good indiciation of the craftsmanship that went into making it. The second detail is the pulpit, made in oak in 1584 and containing a brief encomium for the donors and beautifully carved details. What is particularly interesting about this pulpit is that its text is in Latin, even though it was made forty-eight years after the Reformation was implemented in Denmark-Norway. However, while it is interesting it is neither strange nor peculiar, because Latin was still widely in use by this time, especially on tombstones, but it is does date from a transitional period that would, in the seventeenth century, give way entirely to Danish as the language of obsequies and commemorations.

Stenløse Church is a beautiful building and contains several treasures, even though the modern-era whitewashing of the wall is still the dominating feature of its interior. Even so, when one carefully explores the church space, one finds a number of very pleasing details that provide some notion of past times.

tirsdag 28. mai 2019

Achronicity and the lives of saints - the case of Saint Martin of Tours at Skive Church

Last week I visited Skive Church in Northern Jutland, a beautiful stone church built around 1200 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. What brought me there were the early sixteenth-century wall paintings covering the vaults of the nave and the choir, which is an impressive catalogue of saints similar in selection and execution to the wall paintings of Roskilde Cathedral, which likely were painted by the same workshop of artists. There are many beautiful details in the iconographic programme of Skive Church, but here I want to touch on one particular issue that really struck me as I was examining the various figures, namely how medieval art often employs achronicity to convey a saint's life in a single image. This use of achronicity is a very effective way of telling a saint's story through an assemblage of key aspects of that story. In so doing, the medieval artists fused various times, or perhaps rather various temporal moments, into one unit. The result is similar to what we often find in liturgical offices, where past and present commingles in a way that effectively - to use a beautiful phrase by Henry Parkes in a 2014 article - collapses time. In Skive Church I saw this particularly clearly in the depiction of Saint Martin of Tours.

Vor Frue Kirke, Skive, c.1200

Martin and Roch
Skive Church, Northern Jutland, early fifteenth century

The story of Saint Martin was widely known in the Middle Ages, as he was one of the oldest of the major non-biblical saints in the calendar, and as his cult was disseminated throughout all of Latin Christendom. In short, Martin was a Roman soldier of Pannonian origin who converted to Christianity, abandoned the army and settled as a hermit in some old ruins outside of Tours. When the bishopric of Tours became vacant, Martin was approached to become the next bishop, a position he very unwillingly accepted. His unwillingness later became the foundation for a story about how he hid among geese so as not to be found, but the geese made such a fuss about it that he was found. This story is neither in the first life of Martin by Sulpicius Severus (before 397) nor in any of the miracle accounts recorded in the sixth century by Gregory of Tours, Martin's successor and most efficient promoter. The most famous story from Severus' Life of Martin is arguably the story of how he divided his cloak while he was a soldier in order to give half of it to a beggar. This scene - usually featuring an equestrian soldier cutting his cloak with a sword - is found in many media of art throughout the medieval period. This scene is also used in the depiction of Saint Martin at Skive Church.

What struck me about Saint Martin at Skive, however, was that it was not the soldier on horseback who divided his cloak with his sword, but the bishop in full regalia who performed this act of charity. In terms of the legend of Saint Martin, this is a historical impossibility since Martin only became a bishop at a much later stage in his life. But in the narrative, achronic logic of medieval art, it makes perfect sense. The people attending services in the church who knew the story of Saint Martin - and such people were most likely in an overwhelming majority to those who did not - would easily recognise Martin from his particular act of charity, and they would know that he is to be remembered as a man of the church rather than a soldier saint. Because even though Saint Martin was a soldier, his story is only concerned with this aspect of his life to a minor degree. His most iconic act took place in this period, but it was also this act which prompted Martin to leave the army, as he afterwards had a vision of Christ praising him for his Christian charity. To put it in a different way, the deeds of Martin were carried out mainly as a bishop and his Christian acts were predominantly enacted as a man of the church. This is unlike soldier saints such as Mauritius and the Theban Legion who were martyred as soldiers and therefore enacted their sainthood as soldiers. This means that in the painting at Skive Church, Martin's role as an ecclesiastical saint is emphasised, and his saintliness is not given a militaristic tinge, so as to make clear his saint-type as a bishop and confessor, not a soldier and martyr.

In this way, we see how achronicity serves to summarise the key points of a saint's story - in this case by fusing one specific act with the profession he held at a later point - and at the same time provide the correct typology for the saint in question. Various temporal points in Saint Martin's life are merged into a symbolic, achronic here-and-now. It is, however, not timeless - at least not in the way liturgical narrative is often timeless by fusing past with the present and sometimes even with an apocalyptic future through references to Judgement Day - because both of the aspects represented in this image are of the historic, past Martin. However, there is still a sense of timelessness in what we see here as well, because this achronic representation of a historical person is also there to serve as a reminder that he, the saint, is always present and ready to receive the supplications of the faithful. In other words, while the image itself represents two separate stages of the past, it also contains in itself the promise of aid in the present as well as in the future, forever and ever, in saecula saeculorum.

This is, in short, a reminder of how wonderfully complex and sophisticated medieval art could be.    

Bishop Martin dividing his soldier's cloak
Skive Church, Northern Jutland, ealry fifteenth century

onsdag 15. mai 2019

Whose Utopia is it anyway? – some brief reflections on the inherent vice of the ideal society

Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951), presumably showing the country's coat of arms

For several years I have been fascinated with the various forms of Utopian societies and how they have been imagined by writers through the centuries. As a general rule, I hold that a Utopian narrative is interesting mainly for what it can reveal about its author, and not so much for what it can offer for the sundry societal ills of our own time. Indeed, the majority of the Utopian societies I have read about are practically dictatorships where one person’s preferences and pet peeves have a disproportionate impact on people of different tastes and views. Such an impact becomes all the more problematic in those cases where the Utopian society in question is described in minute detail, something which inevitably makes the whole narrative a catalogue of the author’s obsessions and blind spots. In most cases, these blind spots highlight that the creators of these Utopian societies predominantly are not women – with some notable exceptions such as Margaret Cavendish – and so there are several problems affecting mainly or only women that are either not dealt with or that are dealt with immensely poorly. For instance, I do not recall having read any Utopian narrative that addresses problems such as domestic violence or rape, or admit to the possibility that such crimes might occur in any given society. This is just one of the elements which show to what extent Utopian narratives are predominantly about the critique and lampooning of a select bundle of issues, and not a literary genre that can provide much practical guidance. It is also one of the elements which suggest that an author of a Utopian narrative very rarely ought to be in a position of power. Quite the opposite, I argue that one way to keep people away from power would be to ask them to describe their own idea of a Utopian society, and then have the atrocious ones disbarred from any future participation in the government.

Title woodcut from a sixteenth-century edition of Thomas More's Utopia
Courtesy of Wikimedia

It is both impractical, unrealistic and, to be frank, completely undesirable to make use of Utopian narratives as wholesale guidebooks to how a society should be organised, above all because of how the faulty ideas of the creators tend to bleed into the very structures and foundations of these imagined perfect societies. As an example, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) relies on slave labour, and even though these are criminals and soldiers from other countries taken prisoners in war, the very existence of a slave class shows that even the prototype of all later Utopias has something very rotten at its core. Granted, More does say at the end of his book that he does not agree with all aspects of Utopian society, but I find little reason to think that the use of slave labour is one of those aspects.

Another example can be found in Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602), where the Utopian state practices extensive eugenics and consequently does not operate with the concept of love and infatuation. It therefore is of little use that both More and Campanella criticise very severe problems of the respective societies in which they themselves lived, because they have allowed other types of problems to be an integral part of their imagined ideal societies. In other words, Utopian narratives can provide excellent vehicles for identifying individual societal problems and even identify the main causes, but because these narratives are the products of individual authors it is no wonder that the Utopias usually fall short of providing any real solutions. Hence the question in the title of this blogpost: Whose Utopia is it anyway?   

Utopias are not always political, however, and often the name Utopia takes on the meaning of a kind of paradisiacal society where it is the sensual rather than the logical which serves as the linchpin. Such imaginary societies predate the publication of More’s Utopia by centuries, and they are an important part of medieval satirical culture. One of the most famous of these societies is the Land of Cockaigne, where everything is made of food and the very raison d’etre appears to be gastronomical excess. Then there is the land of Cornucopia mentioned in Boccaccio’s Decameron (c.1353) (day 8, third story), which can count among its distinctive geological features a mountain made of parmesan cheese. Stories such as these are often interpreted as a kind of earthly counterpart to Paradise, where it is the stomach rather than the soul which is rewarded, but they can also be employed to lampoon the base and myopic desires of those who are more concerned with earthly gain than spiritual gain, and are unable to see beyond the diameter of their own stomachs. An example of this is the island of Narragonia, situated just beyond Spain, which is the destination of the eponymous vessel in Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools (1494).

Enter Plutopia
Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

These two different types of societies – the political Utopia and the sensual paradise – are often overlapping or mixed together in modern popular culture, where the name Utopia can easily be used as a shorthand for a paradise not in Heaven. One such case from the twentieth century is the Disney short Plutopia from 1951, as seen in the illustration above, and it was this cartoon that prompted me to reflect on the inherent vice of ideal societies, namely that– with few exceptions such as Potu in Ludvig Holberg’s Niels Klim’s Journey Under Ground (1741) – they rarely benefit every individual and rarely function without the suffering of others. While the cartoon is not, and does not set out to be, a political commentary, it nonetheless serves as an example of this fundamental flaw of Utopias where the well-being of some depends on others paying a significant price for that well-being.  

The cartoon relies on the paradisiacal connotations of Utopia, rather than the social connotations. In other words, the name of More’s ideal society is here used as a shorthand for a land devoid of trouble and problems. This is demonstrated very clearly throughout the cartoon, as Mickey and Pluto travel to Camp Utopia, the sportman’s paradise. Already here we see that this particular kind of paradise necessitates the potential suffering of others – a trait mainly of the political Utopia – while we also see that the focus is on the gastronomical pleasures of the sensual paradise of medieval literature. When Mickey and Pluto arrive, Pluto picks a fight with a cat, but when the cabin rules dictate that Pluto be kept on a leash and given a muzzle, the cat enacts his revenge by eating the dog’s food and sleeping in his place. This leads Pluto to wander off into his dreams, in which he is brought to Plutopia, and although the cartoon does not at all suggest it, I consider this to serve, in effect, as a subversion of the medieval dream vision whereby the heavenly Paradise has been accessed. This, I suspect, is an occupational injury that comes with being a medievalist.

Welcome to Camp Utopia
Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

Plutopia is a dog’s sensual paradise, symbolised by the plethora of fire hydrants and bones, and because it is a paradise serving the needs and desires of dogs, it also contains a cat servant, who in this case happens to be the cat who ate Pluto’s food at Camp Utopia. This feline fellow is excessively servile, and demands to be bitten as punishment for tripping and losing a delicious bowl of cream. Although Pluto at first hesitates, he soon becomes accepting of this punishment, because in return for these bites the cat gives him food in overabundance, feeding him by the bedside in exchange for a painful nibble on the tail. Eventually, Pluto wakes up, Mickey finds the two animals sleeping together on the porch, and so he remarks that this is truly is a Utopia, with a nod to the image of Paradise as a place where the lamb and the lion, sworn enemies, lie down together.

A dog's paradise
Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

We've struck bones!
Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

The royal hall of Plutopia
Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

What fascinates me about this cartoon is precisely how it manages – despite even trying to do so – to showcase one of the most important faults in any ideal society, the existence of potentially violently exacted hierarchies. The nature of such hierarchies differs from case to case, and the sadistic demarcation line between the classes is rarely, if ever, a feature of Utopian societies – rather, they appear in dystopian fantasies of forgotten and debauched civilisations. However, Pluto’s punishment of the cat for his own gastronomical benefits – which is hardly a punishment since nothing is actually being punished – does serve as a reminder that ideal societies tend to be impossible not only because of how radically they reimagine reality, but also, and primarily, because they are ideal societies to a minority of one, i.e. their creator. This inherent vice is something shared by most Utopias, whether they are imagined as a critical mirror of sixteenth-century England or just the vengeful dreams of a hungry dog.

A second or third breakfast in bed
Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Het Luilekkerland (1567), Alte Pinakothek, München
Courtesy of Wikimedia

tirsdag 14. mai 2019

Terribilis est locus iste - a fascination revisited

In preparation for a talk I'll be giving next week, I have spent some time revisiting some of my favourite fragments from the special collection at the library of the University of Southern Denmark. The talk will be a general presentation of some of the liturgical fragments that I have been researching, and I was reading through my notes and looking through my pictures in order to find a good angle for presenting the wealth of material contained in the fragments in question. It is always challenging - albeit in a good way - to present liturgical fragments to people who are unfamiliar with liturgy, its vocabulary, its structure, and its abbreviations. Accordingly, I was trying to find some element that would allow me to gather a lot of the main points under one heading. As I did so, I was reminded of my fascination with the office for the dedication of a church. This was a liturgical celebrationcommon to all Latin Christendom which was held on the anniversary of the consecration of the church in question. Consequently, the feast had no fixed position in the liturgical calendar. However, the feast served one common purpose, namely to connect the newly consecrated church typologically with the Temple of Solomon and further back to the first consecration of a location in the Bible, namely the site where Jacob wrestled with the angel. I have written about the typology of Jacob in an earlier blogpost, so I will not say more about this here.

The typological connection between any given medieval church and the Temple of Solomon, however, was expressed in many ways throughout the series of chants and readings that comprised the office for the dedication. One such example is the antiphon "Tu domine universorum", whose initial is pictured below. The text of this antiphon is a paraphrase of 2 Machabees 14: 35-36, in which the temple is described, and thus the antiphon invoked the typological connection between the church in which the chant was being sung and the temple built by King Solomon. Such a connection emphasised how the newly consecrated church was a part of the same historical branch reaching back through the centuries.   

Initial for the antiphon Tu domine universorum (CID: 005199)
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA Musik M 4

As I was reading through the chants contained in one of the fragments of Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA Musik M 4, I kept recalling a detail from Paul Gauguin's painting Vision after the sermon which shows the scene of Jacob and the angel. I learned of this painting through the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, both because it is used as the cover image for the edition of his collected poems from 1985. The reason for this cover image is a reference to it in one of his poems from the collection Tenebrae (1978), and to which my mind was transported after a quick immersion into the medieval typology of churches.

Terribilis Est Locus Iste

Gauguin and the Pont-Aven School

Briefly they are amazed. The marigold-fields
mell and shudder and the travellers,
in sudden exile burdened with remote
hieratic gestures, journey to no end

beyond the vivid severance of each day,
strangeness at doors, a different solitude
between the mirror and the window, marked
visible absences, colours of the mind,

marginal angels lightning-sketched in red
chalk on the month's account or marigolds
in paint runnily embossed, or the renounced
self-portrait with a seraph and a storm.

And with this poem - one I enjoy tremendously - the fascination with the story of Jacob is brought to our modern times, showing again how gripping this story is, and how it has continued to have an impact on cultural expressions through the ages.