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

tirsdag 31. desember 2013

Pope Sylvester and the Dragon

Today, the last day of the year, is the feast day of Pope Sylvester (d. 335), whose legendary afterlife had an important place in the Middle Ages. According to a later forgery, known as the Donation of Constantine, Pope Sylvester received all worldly power in the West from the emperor, presumably in gratitude for having cured him of leprosy (or so the legend goes), and this document was an important tool in the investiture struggle and the other skirmishes between Pope and Emperor that marked the High Middle Ages. This document was later proved to be a forgery by Lorenzo Valla (c.1407-57), and this critical refutation has by some been seen as the starting point of the literary aspect of the quattrocento humanist Renaissance.

Sylvester resuscitating the dragon's victim, Maso di Banco (d.1348)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sylvester binding the dragon, Battista da Vicenza (15th century)

Another legend concerning Pope Sylvester tells that a dragon once terrorised Rome with a noxious vapour which killed the citizens. In the Middle Ages, bad smell was a sign of wickedness, and this dragon was indeed a force of evil. Pope Sylvester then made his way to the dragon's lair, bound it in the name of God and brought its victims back to life. There are also other legends, some of which can be read about more thoroughly here.

It is in a way fitting that the last day of the year is the feast of a saint bringing the dead back to life, as the New Year mark our long way toward spring and the return of life. Best wishes for 2014.

lørdag 28. desember 2013

Upon the Infant Martyrs - a poem for Childermas

The orders issued by a Herod's hand
MS. Yates Thompson 45, French Book of Hours (Use of Paris), last quarter of 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

In the Catholic sanctorale, today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the infants slaughtered upon King Herod's command as described in the Gospel of Matthew 2:16-18. This tragic incident is one of the most heart-wrenching parts of the Christmas story, and has given great force to the Christian imagination, resulting in several artistic renditions or literary meditations.

The historicity of the massacre, however, is a matter of dispute among historians, especially since Matthew remains our only source. It has also effected religious debate, and for some it has been difficult to reconcile that the sacrifice of these children was linked to the good tidings of the Incarnation of the Word. One of those who were troubled by this, was the English poet Richard Crashaw (1612-49), and this can be seen in one of his poem, which is presented in this blogpost. The text is taken from poetryfoundation.

The Flight to Egypt and Massacre of the Innocents
MS. Royal 1 D X, English psalter, 13th century (before 1220)
Courtesy of British Library

Upon the Infant Martyrs

To see both blended in one flood,
The mothers’ milk, the children’s blood,
Make me doubt if heaven will gather
Roses hence, or lilies rather.

Particularly heart-wrenching rendition, even the marginal hybrid seems disturbed
MS. Stowe 12, English breviary, Use of Sarum, 1322-25
Courtesy of British Libary

onsdag 25. desember 2013

The Burning Babe - a poem for Christmas Day

Since it's Christmas Day, I find it proper to post one of the perhaps most cherished religious poems from Elizabethan England, namely Robert Southwell's The Burning Babe, published in 1595 in his collection St. Peter's Complaint. Allegedly, Ben Jonson once stated that he would rather have been the author of this particular poem than the entirety of his own bibliography. I, for my part, have a great fondness for the poem, especially because of the religious intensity conveyed in the metrics and the rhyme-scheme. The text is taken from

Nativity with a particularly effulgent Christchild
MS. Egerton 2045, c.1460-c.1470, Central France, book of hours, Use of Rome
Courtesy of British Library

As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow ;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear ;
Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I !
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns ;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defilëd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas day.

fredag 20. desember 2013

Et in Arcadia ego

in Arcadia there were born
A shepherd
- The Faithful Shepherd, Giambattista Guarini (translated by Richard Fanshawe)

Les Bergers d'Arcadie, Nicholas Poussin (1637-38)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In my previous blogpost I gave a brief introduction to the development of the vanitas motif in art, and this blogposts examines another step in this evolution, namely the motif of death in Arcadia, collectively known as Et in Arcadia ego. This artistic genre draws on a long legacy of bucolic writing reaching back into Greek and Roman literature, with Vergilius' Bucolica and Georgica, pastoral eclogues detailing the idyllic life of shepherds, as perhaps the most important works. They retained their popularity throughout the Middle Ages, and Vergilius' position in the eyes of the medieval learned is perfectly exemplified by his role as Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory.

In the 16th century pastoral poetry gained increased momentum with the critical debates concerning Aristotle's Poetics, which had been translated into Latin late in the preceding century. Aristotle's rules of drama gave rise to the modern theatre, and also caused a lot of controversy among literary theorists who sought to reconcile the Poetics with Horatius' Ars Poetica, and some of the key points of tension were whether the satyr play and the shepherd play were the same, and whether either could be seen as a genre of its own on par with the tragedy and the comedy. As these definitions were tried and experimented with, a significant body of pastoral literature arose. This occurred primarily in Italy, but several important works were also written in England. These pastoral works were often composed for the court, and frequently contrasted the deceits of courtly life with the simplicity of the pastoral scene, often represented by Arcadia, a region in Greece that had become synonymous with The Pastoral Idyll.

Woodcut from second eclogue of Spenser's Shepheardes Calender, 1579
Courtesy of this website

Among the most important literary works to shape the late medieval and early modern pastoral were the plays Aminta (1573) by Torquato Tasso and The Faithful Shepherd (1590) by Giambattista Guarini. These were not only texts to be performed, but statements in the ongoing debate on genre, where the views of the playwright were put to paper and then executed on stage. The Arcadian scene was already a long-standing feature in Italian literature, from Jacopo Sannazzaro's very influential poem Arcadia from 1504 and onwards. This tradition also influenced English writers of the times, and among the foremost are Edmund Spenser, who wrote his Shepheardes Calender in 1579 in imitation of Vergilius, and Sir Philip Sidney, whose The Duchess of Pembroke's Arcadia drew on Sannazzaro's poem, among others.

In the 17th century, this pastoral tradition was merged with the contemporary vanitas motif in art, and resulted in some beautiful and deeply unsettling paintings, where the pastoral idyll was disrupted by the discovery of death's presence, even in the blissful Arcadia. The first example of this sub-genre, that I know of, is a painting by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri executed in the the period 1618-22. Barbieri, also known as Guercino, or the Squinter, here depicts two shepherds discovering a human skull, the proof that death also lurks in the blessed Arcadia. This sinister composition is given extra gravity when compared with another of Guercino's paintings, Apollo and Marsyas, where the same shepherds are witness to Marsyas' penalty, as seen below.

Et in Arcadia Ego, Guercino (1618-22)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Apollon and Marsyas, Guercino (1618)
Courtesy of Wikigallery

The most famous rendition of death in Arcadia was painted by Nicholas Poussin in 1637-38 and titled Les Bergers d'Arcadie, The Shepherds of Arcadia, as seen above. This iconic painting of shepherds examining a tomb was, however, a later variation of the theme, and the first painting was finished in 1627 with a slightly different composition as seen below.

Les Bergers d'Arcadie, Nicholas Poussin (1627)

These doleful meditations on death's omnipresence are a very beautiful confluence of the vanitas motif and the literary pastoral, evoking the mythological register of Arcadia while playing on the symbolism of the vanitas in a manner worthy of the rising Baroque of the first half of the 17th century, giving a contemporary touch to elements of a rich and long-standing history.


Hagen, Margareth,
1500 - poetikk, intertekst og sjanger i italiensk 1500-tallslitteratur, 2013

Hayward, Malcolm, introduction to Torquato Tasso's
Aminta, 1997:

Penman, Bruce, Five Italian Renaissance Comedies, Penguin Classics, 1978

lørdag 14. desember 2013

Vanity of vanities

vanity of vanitites; all is vanity
- Ecclesiastes 1:2

No state in erd here standis siccar;
As with the wind wavis the wicker,
So wavis this warldis vanitie
- Lament for the makaris, William Dunbar

Why then doth Flesh, a Bubble-glass of Breath,
Hunt after Honour and Advauncement vain,
And rear a Trophee for devouring Death,
With so great Labour and long-lasting Pain,
As if his Days for ever should remain?
Sith all that in this World is great or gay,
Doth as a Vapour vanish and decay.
- The Ruines of Time, Edmund Spenser

One of the most prevalent and, to my mind, fascinating themes in 16th- and 17th-century culture is the vanitas, the meditation on human transience and the inherent futility in any human endeavour when faced with the brevity of life. This theme relies of course on the great philosophical heritage of the Judeo-Christian tradition (with Ecclesiastes as the most immediate and influential source) and also the Latin tradition as exemplified by the stoicism of Seneca. However, that this should burgeon into a category of its own in art and poetry in the 16th century, can only be explained by various meditations on death in late-medieval culture that appeared after the Black Plague, and in a way one might consider the vanitas to be the natural conclusion to and the apex of a cultural current that began in the 14th century, where the potential imminence of death and its ubiquity served as a reminder that one should keep one's life in order and not stray from the narrow path, a memento mori keeping the fickle nature of mankind in check in the expectation of God's final judgement. This evolved into the cultural expression of vado mori, I go to die, which had as its core the idea that as you lived, so would you also die, and the trick was to live a good, Christian life lest one should fare very badly.

From the Hours of Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere
MS Yates Thompson 7, Central Italy, c.1480
Courtesy of British Library

From the Hours of Rene d'Anjou
MS Egerton 1070, France, c.1410
Courtesy of British Library

In the 16th century this mode of thought grew into a coherent, pronounced theme which was called vanitas, which often was presented through a collection of symbols with connotations of transience and brevity, such as the flickering or extinguished candle or lamp, the skull, the fading flower, the empty glass and so on. In some cases also the cultural or political pursuits of mankind were represented, either through musical instruments, a globe or political paraphernalia. Very frequently this was expressed in still lives, but could also be executed in more dramatic paintings, as seen below in Juan de Valdés Leal's (1622–1690) In ictu oculi from 1672. The title comes from 1 Corinthians 15:52 and means "in the blink of an eye".

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pieter Claesz, 1630
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The vanitas genre also had a sub-genre known collectively as homo bulla est, man is a bubble, where one single metaphor was expressed in various ways, often with a putto blowing bubbles, showing painfully well the fragile nature of life. One of the most well-known and emblematic renditions of this sub-genre can be seen below, made by Hendrik Goltzius around 1594.

Courtesy of this website

These paintings are just a few examples of this wide-spread and long-lasting genre of art, and there are many other beautiful renditions of the theme to be found. I find it very interesting that this mode of thought should be expressed through a medium that is of itself a symbol of man's transience and futility along with so many other human pursuits like music or poetry. The painters must have been aware of this, and this reflection can also be found in literature as well. Remember that this is the time when Edmund Spenser had his Colin Clout break his pipe and Shakespeare made Prospero bury his books "deeper than did ever plummet sound", both of which have been interpreted as renunciations of the poetic pursuit.

This is, as stated, merely an introduction to this cultural phenomenon, and maybe I'll put up a few more in time. In any case, in a year when the word "selfie" as become Oxford Dictionary's word of the year, and when exhibitionism appears to be more or less unbridled, it is sometimes nice or at least useful to cast one's eyes a bit wider than the immediate moment.

søndag 8. desember 2013

Mermaid and merman

These days I'm preparing for my exam in a course on Victorian medievalisms and my mind is often in the 19th century. This course has covered a wide number of aspects from Victorian culture, two of which were the Pre-Raphaelites and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Since I like to keep a regular posting of four blogposts a month, I thought it proper to share some 19th-century culture, namely two poems by Tennyson and John William Waterhouse's paintings which appear to be based on these poems. The subject is not specifically medieval, but very, very Victorian.

I was inspired to put up these works after listening to a programme on BBC Radio 3 produced by medievalist Sarah Peverley. The programme is no longer available, but the playlists can be found here.

The poems are taken from

The Mermaid, John William Waterhouse
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Mermaid

Alfred Lord Tennyson


Who would be
A mermaid fair,
Singing alone,
Combing her hair
Under the sea,
In a golden curl
With a comb of pearl,
On a throne?


I would be a mermaid fair;
I would sing to myself the whole of the day;
With a comb of pearl I would comb my hair;
And still as I comb'd I would sing and say,
Who is it loves me? who loves not me?
I would comb my hair till my ringlets would fall
Low adown, low adown,
From under my starry sea-bud crown
Low adown and around,
And I should look like a fountain of gold
Springing alone
With a shrill inner sound,
Over the throne
In the midst of the hall;
Till that great sea-snake under the sea
From his coiled sleeps in the central deeps
Would slowly trail himself sevenfold
Round the hall where I sate, and look in at the gate
With his large calm eyes for the love of me.
And all the mermen under the sea
Would feel their immortality
Die in their hearts for the love of me.


But at night I would wander away, away,
I would fling on each side my low-flowing locks,
And lightly vault from the throne and play
With the mermen in and out of the rocks;
We would run to and fro, and hide and seek,
On the broad sea-wolds in the crimson shells,
Whose silvery spikes are nighest the sea.
But if any came near I would call, and shriek,
And adown the steep like a wave I would leap
From the diamond-ledges that jut from the dells;
For I would not be kiss'd by all who would list,
Of the bold merry mermen under the sea;
They would sue me, and woo me, and flatter me,
In the purple twilights under the sea;
But the king of them all would carry me,
Woo me, and win me, and marry me,
In the branching jaspers under the sea;
Then all the dry pied things that be
In the hueless mosses under the sea
Would curl round my silver feet silently,
All looking up for the love of me.
And if I should carol aloud, from aloft
All things that are forked, and horned, and soft
Would lean out from the hollow sphere of the sea,
All looking down for the love of me.

The Merman, John William Waterhouse
Courtesy of this website

The Merman

Alfred Lord Tennyson


Who would be
A merman bold,
Sitting alone,
Singing alone
Under the sea,
With a crown of gold,
On a throne?


I would be a merman bold,
I would sit and sing the whole of the day;
I would fill the sea-halls with a voice of power;
But at night I would roam abroad and play
With the mermaids in and out of the rocks,
Dressing their hair with the white sea-flower;
And holding them back by their flowing locks
I would kiss them often under the sea,
And kiss them again till they kiss'd me
Laughingly, laughingly;
And then we would wander away, away
To the pale-green sea-groves straight and high,
Chasing each other merrily.


There would be neither moon nor star;
But the wave would make music above us afar --
Low thunder and light in the magic night --
Neither moon nor star.
We would call aloud in the dreamy dells,
Call to each other and whoop and cry
All night, merrily, merrily;
They would pelt me with starry spangles and shells,
Laughing and clapping their hands between,
All night, merrily, merrily:
But I would throw to them back in mine
Turkis and agate and almondine:
Then leaping out upon them unseen
I would kiss them often under the sea,
And kiss them again till they kiss'd me
Laughingly, laughingly.
Oh! what a happy life were mine
Under the hollow-hung ocean green!
Soft are the moss-beds under the sea;
We would live merrily, merrily.