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

mandag 29. september 2014

Chants for Saint Michael

Michaelmas is drawing to a close, and in celebration of this day I will here present a selection of chants and images of Saint Michael, the archangel who commands God's celestial army in the fight against Satan, and who will weigh the souls of the dead. He was a popular saint in the Middle Ages and is found in a great array of medieval iconography. Many religious houses were dedicated to him as well. For instance, one of the first monasteries in Norway - Munkeliv in Bergen, established before 1110 by King Øystein Magnusson - was dedicated to Saint Michael. 

Give him, The Archangel Michael, the power over the souls of the just as well as of the sinners
Lewis Psalter, Paris, 1225-50, Lewis E 185, The Free Library of Philadelphia
Courtesy of Katharine C. Chandler

The selection of chants found below comprise the first nocturn of Matins in the 14th century antiphoner A-Gu30 from the abbey of St Lambrecht in Steiermark, Austria. The texts are gleaned from the Cantus Database, and have been translated into Latin by myself. These texts would be sung as the first of the Matins service after midnight - most likely around three in the morning - which was the longest and most important office in the liturgy of the hours. Since the texts are antiphons, they would be sung before the psalms of the nocturns.

The accompanying images have been brought to my attention to Damien Kempf and Katharine C. Chandler, whose thanks I owe for these splendid illustrations. 

Michael and the devil
Gallica BnF, Latin 757, 1300
Courtesy of Damien Kempf

MA1: I will enter into your house, O God, and I will worship in your holy temple

MA 2: An angel stands by the altar of the temple; in his hand he has a thurible of gold

MA 3: Give him much incense to burn it before the golden altar which is before the eyes of God

Morgan Library, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c.1440
Courtesy of Damien Kempf

MA 4: From the hands of the angel fragrant smoke ascends to the visage of God

MA 5: Give him, The Archangel Michael, the power over the souls of the just as well as of the sinners

MA 6: Angel, archangel Michael, messenger of God of the just souls, alleluia, alleluia

Widener 5, Free Library Philadelphia, early 15th century, Book of Hours, Use of Paris
Courtesy of Katharine C. Chandler

lørdag 27. september 2014

Evil cast triumphantly to ground - dragonslayers in Odense

It is roughly a month since I came to Denmark to start my PhD, and in this time I have had some opportunities to explore the city centre with its charming streets, its lovely old-fashioned houses and its beautiful churches. Odense is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Denmark, and although much of today's cityscape is predominantly early modern, we find everywhere sundry reminders of the city's importance in the Middle Ages, like the statue of the sainted King Canute IV, the streets named after Franciscan and Dominican monasteries and the preponderance of places and institutions named after Saint Alban, whose relics were taken from England to Odense in the 11th century by the Danes.

Denmark has long been a Protestant country and the medieval vestiges are now mostly kept within a larger Protestant nostalgic framework, a framework of regional pride and romanticism towards the past. However, there is also the Catholic Church of Saint Albans, built in the early 20th century, and several streets still bear the name of saints such as Anne and Clara, illustrating that the medieval past is still a living part of the city. I have also found two dragonslayers in Odense, and in this blogpost I wish to present them to you.

St Alban's Church, Odense

St George and the dragon

The dragonslayers I encountered were different renditions of St George, the legendary fourth-century martyr from Cappadocia who became increasingly popular in the west from the 12th century onwards, and who became the patron saint of England in 1351. I have written a bit about him earlier (herehere and here), and he continues to fascinate me, largely because of the evolution of his iconography. In Scandinavia he is referred to as Sankt Jørgen (in Denmark and Norway) or Sankt Göran (in Sweden), and although his cult in the north is not yet fully examined, there are several tantalising hints about his popularity. One of these hints can be found in St Alban's Church in Odense, a Catholic church that was begun in 1906 and consecrated, although unfinished, in 1908 to St Albans, the Virgin and St Canute IV. The church became in this way a successor to the medieval St Alban's church where Canute IV had met his martyrdom in 1086. The church possesses some beautiful stained glass windows, which were crafted by Georg Schneider from Regensburg, the royal glass painter. One of these windows depicts Saint George. The window can be found to the far left as you enter the church, situated at the end of one of the side parts of the nave (German: Seitenschiff; Norwegian: sideskip). As can be seen below, George is here depicted as a blonde, clean-shaven knight, an iconographic composition harkening back to the Middle Ages which invokes the ideas of George as a virgin martyr, and at the same time conflating his office as a soldier with the image of the miles Christi, the soldier of Christ. (For more on this church - in Danish - see here.)

The iconography of Saint George is probably influenced by the iconography of Saint Michael, the slayer of Satan in the battle at the end of times as prophecised in the Bible. To some people, perhaps especially soldiers, George may have become a more accessible helper in the Middle Ages, in part because he had been a human, not an archangel and therefore differently placed in the celestial hierarchy, but perhaps also because his past as a soldier made it easier for knights to identify with him.

The second rendition of George and the dragon can be found on a house corner at the junction of Klaregade (St Clare's street) and Skt Anne gade (St Anne's street). The statue of Saint George is cast in bronze, but I don't know by whom or when. The state of the metal suggests a fairly late date, and as can be seen below it is masterfully positioned which gives a very good three-dimentional effect. That the statue in question is of Saint George rather than Saint Michael is suggested by the statue's lack of wings.

tirsdag 16. september 2014

Sunset in Denmark

Mother, give me the sun!
- Ghosts, Henrik Ibsen

To be a Norwegian in Denmark requires a lot of adjustment. It means adjusting to new customs and new ways of doing things, like riding a bike everywhere or being tempted with diabetes because of the country's enormous candy industry. It also means adjusting to a new scenery, especially for a Westerner like myself, born and raised among tall, narrow mountains. Denmark is not mountainous in the least, and for that reason I find it very amusing that "bjerg" is such a widely used toponym, particularly because back home a "berg" (the Norwegian spelling) is a rocky protrusion in the terrain, often of somewhat significant height. In Denmark, however, "bjerg" appears to be used for the summit of a slope or minute elevation in the terrain, a place from which the bike will roll on its own accord if you let it.

The Danish flatness of ground is not a bad thing, it is indeed quite charming, especially with its numerous woods and some beautiful fields. There is also a great benefit about this feature, namely that it brings the sun much closer to the earth, unlike in the Norwegian fjords where the mountains push it away into the void. I discovered the full extent of this yesterday evening as I was riding my bike back home after a long day at university. The sun was about to set, and I was standing at the end of a field which opened the scenery to me. I had never seen the sun so big as it set among a distant row of oaks and chestnut trees. Sadly, I had not brought my camera. Today, however, I decided to rectify this, and the following series of pictures is from my trip back from campus this evening. I've already become very fond of Danish sunsets.

Solen er rød og rund
- Svantes Lykkelige Dag, Poul Dissing

søndag 7. september 2014

Perseus and the devil

One of the most iconic medieval depictions of a saint is the scene of Saint George slaying the dragon, perhaps most famously rendered by Paolo Uccello. This is a popular motif, although it goes against the original legend in which the dragon is tamed by the saint and paraded around as a living proof of God's power. The dragonslayer-motif was given a perhaps inevitable chivalric twist in the later Middle Ages, as George became a paragon of knighthood in popular imagination. It was no wonder, therefore, that the garter-knights, established in the 1300s, should take Saint George as their patron, and that he became the patron saint of England in 1351. This iconographic evolution was also facilitated by the iconography of Michael the Archangel, often depicted while fighting the devil in the shape of a dragon. Although Michael has a higher rank in the hierarchy of saints, his angelic nature made him less suited for an equestrian depiction, and this might have helped to bring George into the culture of chivalry.

George is among the early Christian saints whose historicity is doubtful, and seems more to be a myth having grown out of earlier stories, possibly based to some extent on the Persian hero Rostam. In this blogpost, however, I focus on another mythical conflation, namely a depiction of the classical hero Perseus in the manner of St George. The image in question is an illumination from BL MS Harley 4431, an early-fifteenth miscellany of works by Christine de Pizan, including Épître d’Othéa, which includes among other things a selection of moral musings on mythological motifs. One of these motifs is a depiction of Perseus saving Andromeda from a sea-monster. Curiously, however, Andromeda is not present, and the scene is left entirely to the hero and the monster - here rendered as a dragon - and a handful of birds.

Perseus and the dragon
Courtesy of British Library

I am indebted to Robert Miller for introducing me to this image and thus facilitating this blogpost
The episode is well-known and antedates the legend of Saint George, but in this early-fifteenth-century rendition - which in turn antedates Uccello's famous painting - the episode has taken on the chivalric features so typical of the legend of Saint George. Perseus is a knight with a coat of arms, a sword at his side and full armour. The sea-monster has become a land-based dragon presumably intended to represent the devil rather than the brute beasts void of any cosmological purpose found in Greek mythology. That Perseus is on foot rather than on horseback makes no difference in this regard, as George also was depicted on foot from time to time, as seen below in a mid-fifteenth-century stained glass window from Holy Trinity Church, York.

George the knight
From BL MS Royal 2 A XVIII, prayers to the saints, c.1401-15

This chivalric appropriation of Perseus is furthermore not a unique occurrence, but a part of the late medieval and early modern formulation of the hero, and this can perhaps be seen most poignantly in Ludovico Ariosto's use of this myth as the basis for his episode in
Orlando Furioso where Ruggiero astride on the hippogriff saves the beautiful Angelica from an orc. Ruggiero is essentially Perseus as a soon-to-be Christian knight (Ruggiero is raised among Saracens), and in a sense this is the apogee of the chivalrisation of Perseus which is suggested in the illumination from Épître d’Othéa above.

Ruggiero saving Angelica by Gustave Doré
Courtesy of Wikimedia

For more on Saint George, see this blogpost on the high-medieval evolution of his cult, and this blogpost for a nineteenth-century appropriation of his iconography by Hungarian artist Károly Lotz.