Sunday, January 25, 2009

Medieval Triumphs (2 of 5)

In the first post of this series I talked about the two main meanings of "triumph" and the many forms by which these meanings were represented. During the Dark Ages and the High Middle Ages some of the ancient motifs, originally intended to represent military victories and political dominion, were assimilated by the Roman Church and converted into Christian triumphs. These ideas were closely associated with other archetypal concepts such as lordship and fealty, social hierarchy, and class obligations. It may helpful to remember that although many such archaic notions have been discarded since the Enlightenment, we still have triumphs. A few days ago, millions of people took part in a modern version of this ancient drama. Barack Obama, having defeated his enemies in a highly ritualized form of combat, indulged a triumphal procession along with his coronation as the 44th President of the U.S. Triumphal celebrations always presuppose a triumph over some adversary.

Both victory and the glorification of the victor were shown in several ways during this period. The most common allegorical examples of victory in battle were literary and artistic triumphs of Virtue over Vice. The most pervasive historical victories were the triumphs of Christ over the Devil (by virtue of his crucifixion) and over Death (by virtue of his resurrection). The Roman triumph itself, as an honorific procession announcing lordship, was reflected mainly in the Christian processions of popes, especially the inaugural possesso. Thus, even before the revival of triumphalism by Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, triumphs and triumphal processions remained a vital and diverse tradition.

Related Motifs

Prudentius' Psychomachia was the great example of allegorical triumph during this period. Psychomachia was the triumph of Virtue over Vice, and it became the foundation of medieval moral allegory in general, as well as personified allegorical figures in medieval art and literature and the central allegorical battle between virtue and vice. (The earliest precursor was Prodicus' 5th-century BC Hercules at the Crossroads, which remained popular for two millennia!) Psychomachia was also used as an introductory text in the Liberal Arts curriculum and was cited as authoritative on certain doctrinal questions right along with the Fathers of the Church. The design of the poem is a series of battles, with personified virtues triumphant over vices. Both the text and illustrations were primarily concerned with the violent conflict. Virtue's victory (triumph), however, was also stated and depicted (right) as the outcome. As an aside, Luxuria's chariot (below) was not a triumph but an extravagance.

Helios and Elijah were common examples of the chariot motif in medieval art. Depictions of charioteers, vaguely akin to a triumph but lacking the actual processional aspects which distinguish the Roman triumph, did exist. Most common were Helios in his quadriga, used as a symbol of the Sun, and the fiery chariot of Elijah, from the Bible. (Mars in his chariot, cherished by occult Tarot enthusiasts, does not seem to have been common, at least if we judge from the dearth of period examples given by those same writers.) The glorification of Elijah in 2-Kings 2:12 was a triumph, albeit in an unusual sense.

And Eliseus saw [Elijah], and cried: My father, my father, the chariot of Israel [currus Israhel], and the driver thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own garments, and rent them in two pieces.

Two Nikes holding a roundel depicting the emperor is another classical motif of triumph. Some striking examples of this being adapted as Christian symbolism are on the ivory covers of the Codex Aureus of Lorsch, also called the Lorsch Gospels.

The scheme had been transposed in the early Christian period to depict Christ in Majesty and was of frequent occurrence by the Carolingian period.... It is notable that in the Lorsch ivory book covers, c.810, the arcade is surmounted in one case by flying angels supporting a cross in a roundel. The classical prototype of the roundel and the flying angels lost none of its triumphalist intention when adapted to Christian art.
Peter Clemoes, Anglo-Saxon England

On the back cover (above) a cross is shown in the roundel, held by a pair of angels. The central figure is Christ standing triumphant over (trampling) symbolic animals, flanked by another pair of angels. "Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk; and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon." (Psalms 90:13, Douay-Rheims.) On the front cover Christ, also in a medallion held by angels (below), is depicted over the central figure of a Madonna.

Religious Processions

Papal inaugural processions through Rome were the grand example, with the pope riding on a white horse, recalling the eschatological rider: "And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and with justice doth he judge and fight. ...and his name is called, the Word Of God." (Revelation 19:11-13.) The pope was honored as "the father of princes and kings, the ruler of the world, the Vicar on earth of our Saviour Jesus Christ, whose honor and glory shall endure throughout all eternity." Near the front of the procession was displayed the Body of Christ, while at the end was the Vicar of Christ. Although ending at St. John Lateran cathedral, the pope's procession through Rome was modeled on the ancient Roman triumphs.

A similar traversing of Rome's topography as a ritualized means of proclaiming political and spiritual purpose was central to papal coronations rites. With the conclusion of the actual consecration ceremony in St. Peter's, the newly crowned pope marched in procession to St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome. This ceremonial passage was known, significantly, as the possesso (literally, taking "possession"). Originating in the ninth century, the possesso had been gradually embellished in the course of the Middle ages, reaching high points of pomp and splendor in the coronations of Innocent III [1198] and Boniface VIII [1294]. Even during the Great Schism the possesso continued to be performed by popes in Rome, but from Nicholas V on, and particularly in the coronations of Alexander VI and Leo X, it became ever more elaborate in its pageantry, and more purposeful in articulating the ideals, expectations, and intentions of individual popes.

The route of the possesso, known as the Via Sacra or Via Papalis, went from Piazza S. Pietro to Castel Sant' Angelo, then crossed Ponte Sant'Angelo to Monte Giordano, passed close to the southern end of Piazza Navona, proceeded to the church of S. Marco, traversed the Capitoline Hill, threaded through the Roman Forum, marched past the Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum, then ran uphill past S. Clemente and S. Quattro Coronati to the Lateran. The cortege, the exact composition of which was specified in the Ceremonial books, acquired added splendor in the course of the fifteenth century. Papal servants, the captains of the rioni of Rome each with the flag of his district, representatives of the Knights of St. John and other military orders, the Roman barons, papal secretaries, the papal singers, non-Roman clergy, abbots from the city's monasteries, the cardinals, and the heads of the various papal tribunals and other members of the Curia—all had their designated places in the hierarchically arranged order of procession. Near the front the consecrated host was carried on a white horse surmounted by a baldacchino. The pope, coming near the end, was also born on a white horse, and his presence, too, was dignified by a baldacchino. The sacramental real presence of the Body of Christ and the person of the Vicar of Christ thus were accorded equal treatment and marked the focal points of the procession. In addition, the colorful garb of men and horses, the fluttering standards, the glittering gold of the processional cross and thuribles, and the dazzling jewels of the papal triple tiara—all contributed to the overall sense of splendor.
Charles L. Stinger, The Renaissance in Rome, 1998.

Processions displaying holy relics were a far more common form of procession than papal inaugurations. These were also essentially triumphal, and they became an event embodying civic pride and promoting tourism. Superstitious people would make pilgrimage for such events, hoping to glimpse a miraculous object. Such objects were often dismembered body parts claimed to be from a local patron saint, pieces of the True Cross, or even the blood of Christ.

Corpus Christi processions were another common form of religious triumph, although developing later. The increased emphasis on the Holy Eucharist in the late Middle Ages was reinforced with these processions in celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi beginning in the 14th Century. The rise of dramatic performance and pageants is another aspect of the later medieval religious procession and liturgy, and was associated with Corpus Christi.

The period from the tenth to the sixteenth century saw a remarkable development of dramatic forms documented over all of Europe, uninfluenced by classical Greek and Latin drama, and themselves without appreciable influence on the more elevated tradition of the later European theatre. Medieval religious drama has its origin in certain innovatory forms of embellishment, musical additions to the authorised liturgy, known as tropes, which served to intensify the emotional appeal of particularly importants moments in the Mass. ... The drama was transposed from its original context in the church, in the context of the liturgy (especially the Easter liturgy), into the streets and squares of the town, where it was often accompanied by a procession from one site to the next, and later into the villages. The range of subject matter was extended to include not only the events of Easter but also Christmas, the Last Judgement, the lives of saints and religious legends as well. The performers, originally clergy, came to encompas the urban laity (including members of the tradesmen's guilds), and in a village context the peasants.... Some of the late medieval plays had elaborate sets (such as those attested for Lucerne) and were performed over a period of several days, and they thus came to be major events in the life of the community.
Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly, The Cambridge History of German Literature.

Return of the Roman

The classical Roman triumph was occasionally remembered in a more explicit form, even during the Middle Ages. A pictorial example comes from the 13th-century Liber Ystoriarum Romanorum, showing Caesar's triumphant entry.

There is also a manuscript, produced in the last two decades of the 13th century, which most probably was commissioned by a member of the upper senatorial echelon in Rome, if not by Charles of Anjou himself. This is the so-called Liber ystoriarum romanorum, with its many miniatures based on antique models. The picture of the Triumph of Caesar is derived from antique models such as the Triumphal Entry into Rome in the passage-way of the Arch of Titus or from the Triumph of Marcus Aurelius on the relief in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Whether it follows one or the other model, it is important to note that it harkens back to a classical theme, the classical triumphal entry with the quadriga and personifications. This has to be distinguished from related (religious) scenes with similar chariots, such as the Ascension of Elias, or other representations of the quadrigae of Sol or Luna in a religious context that were known throughout the Middle Ages. It is comparable, however, with the Vision of the Fire Chariot with Saint Francis in a cocchio as depicted in the Assisian Legend. In Assisi, the classicizing chariot pulled by horses appears in a visionary context. Its iconography is certainly indebted to models similar to those mentioned above. The Assisian scene, however, does not illustrate a biblical text, but describes and authenticates a visionary episode.
Jens T. Wollensen, "Images and Texts in the Early Trecento", in
Petrarch's Triumphs: Allegory and Spectacle.

Dante's Triumph of the Church was a climactic event in the Commedia. This was influential both directly and indirectly, via Boccaccio and Petrarch: "each of the three crowns of Florence made use of some aspect of the Roman military triumph as a poetic device to honor their beloveds while proclaiming basic truths regarding the human condition.". Boccaccio and Petrarch will be discussed in the next post of this series, but Dante represents the turning point, the revival of the Roman triumph.

While battle imagery was not uncommon in the love lyric of the Middle Ages, the use of the Roman military triumph as a literary device had never, to the best of my knowledge, been employed as elaborately as it was in 14th century Italy following its initial appearance in Dante's Commedia, and especially at the conclusion of his Purgatorio. The idea of adapting the form of a Roman triumph at perhaps the most critical juncture in the Commedia in order to provide the protagonist with the insights needed to qualify for the journey to the godhead was a brilliant artistic stroke. s the highest honor paid by ancient Rome to her victorious generals and by the Roman Empire to her emperors and poets, the triumph celebrated the most solemn moments in the evolution of the Sacred City that for the medieval mind reflected the earthly Jerusalem. It was therefore a most appropriate means of depicting the supreme moment of transition in Dante's Commedia when, at the summit of Purgatory in the Garden of Eden, under the guidance of Matelda, symbolizing the innocent active life, the wayfarer must grasp the full import of how and why the Church suffering and the Church militant strive and are destined to become the Church triumphant. But the real stroke of genius was having the poet's beloved, Beatrice, play a central role in the unfurling of the triumph. What better way for the poet to celebrate the triumph of chaste human love than by showing how it fuses with divine love?
Also S. Bernardo, "Triumphal Poetry: Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio", in
Petrarch's Triumphs: Allegory and Spectacle.

Giotto's depictions of Elijah and St. Francis in chariots are mentioned here because both had more in common with medieval chariot motifs than with the subsequent revival of Roman triumphalism. The figures must be noted primarily because of Giotto's influence on Petrarchian iconography, which will be discussed in the third post of this series. Beyond that, as noted above the vision of St. Francis and the translation of Elijah both have aspects of a triumph, specifically the triumph of the spiritual over this life.

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