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

onsdag 26. august 2015

The Mannerist Saint Louis


Yesterday, August 25, was the feast of St. Louis of France who died in 1270 and was canonised by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297. Louis is an immensely fascinating character, and I have written about him elsewhere as a saint rather than as a living monarch (see here, here and here). The cult of Saint Louis became very widely disseminated in Europe, largely thanks to the family ties of the Capetian dynasty which introduced him to Spain, The Kingdom of Neaples, Bohemia and Hungary. (1) As a consequence, Louis is endowed with a rich iconography which has received input from changing trends in art. In this brief blogpost, I give you a rather late rendition of the royal saint, painted by El Greco c.1586. El Greco was influenced by the Mannerist movement, but in his own version in which the the shapes are more voluble and elongated, and the use of perspective is applied more playfully and with less rigour than in the Italian schools of the sixteenth century. As we see in the image below, El Greco also employs shadows and light in a way reminiscent of the chiaroscuro technique perfected by Caravaggio but which had been developed since the late fifteenth century or so.

El Greco's Saint Louis, c.1586
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Louis as we see him here has greater resemblance to the Renaissance princes that were so often subject of mannerist portraits, and when compared with the medieval illuminations below we see that El Greco has brought out Louis' personality more acutely. This is of course unsurprising since completely different iconographic rules applied to Mannerist painting and manuscript illuminations of the high and later Middle Ages. It is nonetheless interesting to note that the Louis seen in the illuminations are more serenely beatific, almost as an embodiment of the perfect Christian king, whereas in El Greco's painting he is more reminiscent of the worldly king. El Greco's Saint Louis has no halo to suggest sanctity, and only his sombre, almost sad, expression and his thin, almost scrawny face might give a hint of the strict mendicant lifestyle he is said to have embraced.

Saint Louis standing serene
Châteauroux - BM - ms. 0002, f.298v, breviary, use of Paris, c.1414
Courtesy of

The liturgical Saint Louis
Paris - Bibl. Mazarine - ms. 0344, f.242, breviary, Use of Paris, c.1318
Courtesy of

Naturally, the image of Saint Louis changed over the years, both in art and in literature, and this is the normal progression in saints' cults. When comparing to so diverse expressions of imagery as the medieval illumination and the sixteenth-century painting we see how differently one saint might be imagined. The important thing about this difference need not be the medium through which these images come down to us. Naturally, illumination and painting work differently and have different audiences and purposes, which also means that they have different messages in their iconography. But we also could argue that aside from the iconographic rules intrinsic to the various pictorial genres, we see here how the king and saint has been envisioned in different milieus and different spiritual climates. The medieval illuminations belong to a period close to the canonisation and close to that widespread enthusiasm which found expression both in lay and monastic art. The mannerist depiction by El Greco, however, belong to the Counter-Reformation and its more sober, restrained approach to the cult of saints, which might more than anything else account for Louis' dark, gloomy appearance.

1) For the cult in Spain and Neaples, see Gaposchkin 2010: 210ff; for the cult in Bohemia see Marosi 2011: 188; for the cult in Hungary see Szakács 2011: 222.


Gaposchkin, Cecilia, The Making of Saint Louis, Cornell University Press, 2010

Giorgi, Rosa, Saints in Art, translated by Thomas Michael Hartmann, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003

Marosi, Erno, "Saints at Home and Abroad: Some Observations on the Creation of Iconographic Types in Hungary of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries", printed in Gecser, Ottó; Laszlovszky, József; Nagy, Balázs; Sebók, marcell; Szende, Katalin (eds.), Promoting the Saints – Cults and Their Contexts from late Antiquity until the Early Modern Period – Essays in Honor of Gábor Klaniczay for His 60th Birthday, CEU Press, 2011

Szakácz, Béla Zsolt, "Palatine Lackfi and his Saints: Frescos in the Franciscan Church of Keszthely", printed in Gecser, Ottó; Laszlovszky, József; Nagy, Balázs; Sebók, marcell; Szende, Katalin (eds.), Promoting the Saints – Cults and Their Contexts from late Antiquity until the Early Modern Period – Essays in Honor of Gábor Klaniczay for His 60th Birthday, CEU Press, 2011

mandag 24. august 2015

Saint Bartholomew and the devil - the legend of Bartholomew in the Old English Martyrology

Today is the feast of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle, who is famous for his grisly method of execution, namely being flayed alive. For this reason his attribute is a flaying knife, and his saintly patronage extends to tanners and other craftsmen in skin and hide. For the feast of Bartholomew I will here give the legend as it was rendered in the Old English Martyrology, translated and edited by Christine Rauer. Here the date is given as August 25, but that is either a mistake made by the scribe or evidence of a different practice in tenth-century England.

Bartholomew with his knife
MS Harley 2449, prayers for saints' vigils with calendar, Netherlands, c.1276-c.1296
Courtesy of British Library

On the twenty-fifth day of the month is the feast of the apostle St Bartholomew; he was Christ's missionary in the country of India, which is the outermost of all regions, on whose one side lies the dark land, on whose other side lies the world ocean [or 'Oceanus'], that is Garsecg. In this country he cast out idols which they had previously worshipped there. And an angel of God came to them there and revealed to the people what their god was, whom they had worshipped previously. He showed them an enormous Egyptian whose face was blacker than soot, and his beard and hair reached down to his feet, and his eyes were like hot irons, and spakrs came from his mouth, and a foul stench came out of his nostrils, and he had wings like a Thorny broom, and his hands were tied together with fiery chains, and he cried out with a terrible and loathsome voice and fled away and never appeared again anywhere. that was the devil, whom the people had earlier worshipped for themselves as a god, and they alled him Astaroth. Then the king of that people received baptism and his queen too, and all the people who belonged to his kingdom. Then the pagan bishops went and complained about that to the king's Brother; he was in another kingdom, and he was older than he was. He therefore ordered Bartholomew, the servant of Christ, to be flayed alive. Then the believing king came with many people and took his body and transported it away with great splendour, and put it in a fantastically large church. And the king became insane, who wanted him killed, and all the pagan bishops became insane and died, who had reported him.
- From
The Old English Martyrology, edited and translated by Christine Rauer, D. S. Brewer 2013

The flaying of Bartholomew
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0838, f.104, Martyrology, Notre-Dame des Prés de Douai, 13th century
Courtesy of

The story of Bartholomew is an exciting and intersting story for many reasons, but perhaps especially its solid portion of exoticism and gore. From an academic point of view, this tale provides another set of details that are worth commenting. To me, for instance, it is interesting to note the geographical setting which places India as the outermost realm, and as a neighbour to the dark land, which is possibly meant to be Ethiopia which was confused with India all they way up to the sixteenth century. Bartholomew is placed in India already by Eusebius and in the Roman martyrology, although the latter gives Armenia as his place of of martyrdom.

Another significant thing here is the appearance and description of the devil. That the devil is said to be worshipped by the Indians as Astoreth harkens back to an old Christian tradition which claims that the old pagan gods were in reality fallen angels who had taken up residence on earth as gods, a treatment which is beautifully summarised in John Milton's Paradise Lost. Although it is an angel of God rather than Bartholomew in person who casts out the devil, he is associated with conquering the devil. This is something we find in the tradition around Saint Guthlac of Croyland, who came to his wild fens and established his hermitage on the feast of Bartholomew and henceforth dedicated himself to Bartholomew's patronage. Guthlac's vita was written by Felix already in the eight century, but the story was expanded by a local tradition at Croyland in the twelfth century which had Guthlac chastise demons with a scourge given to him by Saint Bartholomew.

A final point I want to comment on here is the appearance of the devil, described as a black Egyptian. The portrayal of the devil as a black man as an old tradition in Christian hagiography, and can be found already as early - and perhaps earlier - as Athanasius' Life of Antony, written in the fourth century. Here Antony struggles with his fight against a demon, and after a heavy bout of prayer, the demon finally gives in and materialises for Saint Antony:

he appeared, as was fitting, in a form that revealed his true nature: an ugly black boy prostrated himself at Antony's feet, weeping loudly and saying in a human voice, 'Many have I led astray, many have I deceived, but now I have been defeated by your efforts as I was by other holy people.' When Antony asked him who it was who was saying this, he replied, 'I am the friend of fornication. I have used many different kinds of shameful weapon to attrack young people and that is why I am called the spirit of fornication (...)'.
Life of Antony, translated by Carolinne White, Penguin Classics, 1998

The flayed Bartholomew
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0838, f.104, Martyrology, Notre-Dame des Prés de Douai, 13th century
Courtesy of

For similar blogposts, see these:

Antony and Guthlac compared

Guthlac using liturgy as a weapon against demons

The bearded women of the far East


Farmer, David, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004

Rauer, Christine, The Old English Martyrology, D. S. Brewer, 2013

White, Carolinne, Early Christian Lives, Penguin Classics, 1998

fredag 21. august 2015

Sanctity in Milan, part 2 - Nazarius and Celsus

In my previous blogpost I gave a brief account of the legend of the Gervasius and Protasius whose bodies were allegedly discovered by Ambrose of Milan in 386. In this blogpost I want to continue the series of blogposts on Milanese saints by talking about another pair of martyrs found by Ambrose: Nazarius and Celsus.

Nazarius and Celsus with the generic palm of martyrdom
Chambéry - BM - ms. 0004 , f.546, Franciscan breviary, c.1430
Courtesy of
The bodies of Nazarius and Celsus were found by Ambrose in 395, nine years after the discovery of Gervasius and Protasius, but unlike his first discovery, Ambrose does not mention these two saints in his writings. The story of how these saints were found comes down to us from Paulinus who was Ambrose’s biographer and who claims to have been present at the inventio of these two saints. According to Paulinus, a body of a martyr was found in a sepulchre in a garden outside Milan. There was no way of telling when the martyr had been killed, but the head had been cut off and its blood still seeped out of the body which was as intact as if it had been recently prepared for the burial. These signs of a very recent death were taken to mean that the body belonged to a holy man, because although they did not know the date of its death – an important emphasis – Ambrose and Paulinus were certain that this was not a man recently killed. Considering that Christianity had been legal in the Roman Empire for more than eighty years at the time of this discovery, we can understand why a man who bore a hallmark of martyrdom – decapitation – could not have been martyred recently as there had been no persecution in decades in Milan.

After the discovery, the body of the alleged saint was carried to the Basilica of the Apostles, and then Ambrose, Paulinus and a retinue of clerics went back to the garden to pray. There they meet the keepers of the garden who tell them that there is a treasure buried there, and the treasure in question turns out to be another sainted body, that of Saint Celsus. The newly-found body was also taken to the Basilica of the Apostles and there they interred the two martyrs with the due rites. During this ceremony, a person possessed by a demon interrupted Ambrose’s sermon, but the demon turned silent when it was verbally chastised by Ambrose.

The story of the inventio of Nazarius and Celsus is the earliest source we have for the two saints, and although we might cast a sceptical eye towards the circumstances of these finds, the fact that Paulinus was an eyewitness means that we can be certain that two bodies were interred by Ambrose and that they were venerated as saints.

                                       Nazarius and Celsus (with Victor and Innocent)
                        Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.257, Roman missal, c.1370, Bologna
                                                   Courtesy of

The story of Nazarius and Celsus, however, developed as a Milanese tradition over the years. At some later point there was composed a legend which purported to give an account of their lives and passio, but this is of no historical value to the actual historical account of these saints, whose historicity is as dubious as that of Gervasius and Protasius. However, the legend is interesting for its own sake, and I will here give a short version based on the story as it is transmitted by Jacobus de Voragine in Legenda Aurea. According to Jacobus, one tradition claims that Ambrose learned about these two saints from an account of the story of Gervasius and Protasius, which in turn was found in a book buried together with the saints. There is also another tradition, Jacobus tells us, that claims that “a certain philosopher who was devoted to Nazarius wrote his passion, and that Ceratius, who buried the saints’ bodies, placed the writing at their head” (Jacobus de Voragine 2012: 405). This latter tradition probably draws on the legend of Gervasius and Protasius, and it is interesting to see how the legends of these to saint-pairs are brought together and become intertwined, almost to the point where the legend make up part of a Milanese mythology. For instance, in his account of Gervasius and Protasius, Jacobus de Voragine refers to the tradition where Nazarius and Celsus are thought to be contemporaries of Gervasius and Protasius. This places Nazarius and Celsus at the time of Nero, for it is established already at Ambrose’s time that Gervasius and Protasius suffered under him. In Legenda Aurea, we are told that Gervasius and Protasius stayed with Nazarius while he was “building an oratory near Embrun” (p. 326). The three men and Celsus who is Nazarius’ apprentice are arrested for being Christian and brought before Nero. The young Celsus was crying and a soldier hit him. This enraged Nazarius who criticised him, and then the soldiers beat the man and threw him in jail, but later when he was thrown into the sea to die he was miraculously rescued and later came to Milan.

In the chapter dedicated to Nazarius and Celsus, Jacobus de Voragine tells us that Nazarius was African by birth, son of a noble Jew and the Roman Christian noblewoman Perpetua “who had been baptized by Saint Peter the Apostle” (p. 405). After evaluating the different religions of his parents, Nazarius chose the faith of his mother and was then baptised by Linus, Peter’s follower and the second pope. Jacobus alerts us to some inconsistencies in the tradition, because the legend calls Linus pope at a time before Peter’s death. This suggests that the temporal setting of this legend is a much, much later addition.

Since Nazarius had become a Christian, his parents feared for his life and sent him out of Rome “with seven mules laden with his possessions” (p. 405). As a good Christian, Nazarius distributed his wealth along his journey. Eventually he came to Milan “where he learned that Saints Gervasius and Protasius were detained in prison. It became known that he was visiting these martyrs and exhorting them to perseverance, and he was denounced to the prefect” (p. 405). When he was confronted with his actions, he stood firm in his faith in Christ and was “beaten with cudgels and driven out of the city”. He then led an itinerant life which brought him to Gaul where he was asked to baptise a young boy called Celsus and to take him with him on his travelling. When the prefect of Gaul was told about this baptism he had the two arrested and tortured, but the prefect’s wife – presumably in imitation of the wife of Pilate – told her husband that these two were innocent and persuaded him to release them. Unlike Pilate, the perfect of Gaul listened to his wife and after their release Nazarius and Celsus went to Trier where he converted many people and built a church. The governor in Trier found out about this and reported the two Christians to Nero, and they were then arrested and sent to Rome.

Nazarius and Celsus walking on the sea
Clermont-Ferrand - BM - ms. 0069, f.486, Roman breviary, c.1482
Courtesy of

While Nazarius and Celsus languished in prison Nero was busy deciding how best to torture his prisoners. Suddenly, a pack of wild beasts which had been captured for the circus burst into his garden and killed and wounded many people. Nero was himself wounded and thought there might be a connection between this and the arrest of Nazarius. Consequently, he had Nazarius and Celsus brought before him, and when the emperor saw a shining lustre on Nazarius face he thought that the saint was a wizard of some sort. Nazarius was then brought to the temple and asked to sacrifice to the idols, and Nazarius asked everyone else to go outside of the temple while he remained there praying. As he prayed the pagan idols crumbled to dust, and Nero ordered him to be taken to the sea and thrown into the water , a topos perhaps most famous from the legend of Saint Clement. Jacobus describes the scene accordingly:

Nazarius and Celsus were therefore put into a ship, carried out to sea and thrown overboard. At once a violent storm broke out around the ship, while a perfect calm surrounded the two saints. The ship’s crew feared for their lives and repented the wrongs they had done the saints; and behold, nazarius and Celsus came walking over the water and boarded the ship. The crew professed the Christian faith, Nazarius prayed, the sea fell calm, and the whole company landed at a place not far from the city of Genoa.
- Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger-Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012: 406

From Genoa Nazarius made his way to Milan “where he had left Gervasius and Protasius” and when the prefect learned about this he ordered Nazarius to go into exile. Celsus was placed in the custody of a Milanese matron. Nazarius then went to Rome and reunited with his father who had then become a Christian. In Rome he got into trouble with the pagan priests and came once more back to Milan where and Celsus were brought before the judged. They were then taken outside the Porta Romana and brought to a place called Tres Muri where they were beheaded. On the following night they appeared in a dream to Ceratius and adviced him to bury them under his house – a motif probably taken from the story of Gervasius and Protasius.

Jacobus then recounts some of the miracles and quotes Ambrose in his account of the inventio. In his book on Ambrose, F. Homes Dudden claims that Ambrose never referred to these saints in his own writing (Dudden 1935: 319), and it is likely that Jacobus’ quote is from the Pseudo-Ambrosian tradition. This tradition is relatively extensive as many works have been ascribed to Ambrosius which were composed much later. Good examples of this are a letter which describes the inventio of Gervasius and Protasius and a sermon for their dies natalis.

Nazarius and Celsus
Detail from the Averoldi Polyptych by Titian, 1520-22, comissioned by Altobello Averoldi
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The story of Nazarius and Celsus is an interesting legend for many reasons, perhaps especially in the way it is woven into the already established legend of Gervasius and Protasius, and how it thus creates a collegium of Milanese saints. Although these Milanese legends became widely distributed throughout the Middle Ages, it is interesting to note that in the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, which is a compilation of legends of saints mainly from Italy, neither of these four saints are mentioned. Nonetheless, as evidenced by their inclusion in Legenda Aurea and references in several European liturgical documents, their cult remained strong also outside Milan.

Nazarius on a horse
Fresco, 1480, San Nazzaro and Celso Abbey, Novara, Italy, attributed to Giovanni Antonio Merli
Courtesy of Wikimedia


Dudden, F. Homes, The Life and Times of St. Ambrose, Clarendon Press, 1935
Gregory the Great, Dialogues, translated by Odo John Zimmermann, The Catholic University of America Press, 1983

Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger-Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

onsdag 19. august 2015

Sanctity in Milan, part 1 - Gervasius and Protasius


In September, the Centre at which I’m working, the Centre of Medieval Literature in Odense and York is going on a work trip to Milan. In preparation for this, I’m familiarising myself with the cult of saints in the city, and in what I hope to be a long series of blogposts I will delve into the subject. First up are the protomartyrs of the city, Gervasius and Protasius.

Gervasius and Protasius
MS Egerton 3763, Prayerbook of Archbishop Arnulph of Milan, between 998 and 1018
Courtesy of British Library

Gervasius and Protasius first emerge into recorded history in 386 when their beheaded bodies were found by Ambrose, bishop of Milan. Nothing is known about their history, and their historicity remains a dubious matter. According to the legend, they showed themselves to Ambrose while he was praying in the Church of Felix and Nabor, which was raised over the relics of two martyrs from the Diocletian persecution of the early fourth century. In Legenda Aurea, Jacobus de Voragine records the event as follows:

Ambrose was at prayer in the church of Saints Nabor and Felix, and was neither wide awake nor sound asleep when two handsome youths, dressed in white tunics and mantles and shod with short boots, appeared to him and prayed with him. Ambrose prayed that if this apparition was an illusion it would not occur again, but if it was a true one it would be repeated. At cockcrow the two youths again appeared in the same way, praying with him; but on the third night, fully awake though his body was worn out with vigils, he was astonished when they appeared to him with a third person, who looked like Paul the apostle in the painting Ambrose had seen.
- Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea (translated by William Granger-Ryan), 2012: 327

Ambrose inspired by Saint Paul
Paris - Bibl. Mazarine - ms. 0562, f.001, collection of Ambrosian writings, 16th century
Courtesy of

Paul, for indeed it is him, then goes on to explain to Ambrose who these men are and where he can find their bodies, namely in a coffin twelve feet under the earth. In this coffin, Ambrose would also find a book containing the history of these martyrs. After discussing the matter with some other local bishops, Ambrose decided to dig for the relics and indeed found them where Saint Paul had said they would be, a feat which earned him the patronage of archaeologists (shared with Damasus and, I believe at least in Spain, with Helena).

The legend of Gervasius and Protasius tells us that the saints were the twin sons of Saint Vitalis and his wife Valeria. Since they were children of Christians, and since they lodged with Saint Nazarius, they were soon persecuted by the pagan authorities and brought before Nero. The twins were then later taken to Milan, and here they received the enmity of the pagan priests.

At the time when Gervasius and Protasius came to Milan, a military leader called Count Astasius also came there on his campaign against the Germanic tribe of the Marcomanni. Astasius was then told that the gods would be deaf to his prayers unless he forced Gervasius and Protasius to offer sacrifice to them, and Astasius had the twins brought forth to perform the rites. True to the topos of such saint-stories, the two men refused to offer sacrifice and blasphemed the pagan idols as being deaf and dumb. Gervasius then said that Astasius would only receive victory from God and the count responded by having him beaten with leaded whips until he died. Then Protasius was summoned, and he mocked the count for all the fuss he made about the two Christians. For this, Astasius had him hung on the rack but Protasius kept mocking him and was eventually beheaded. The bodies of the twins were then collected by a Christian called Philip, who buried the stone coffin secretly in his house and who wrote the book which he placed at their relics.

Gervasius and Protasius with the instruments of their passion
Mans (Le) - BM - ms. 0254, f.044v, Missal, Use of Le Means, between 1495 and 1503
Courtesy of

The relics of the two martyrs were placed in the Church of Felix and Nabor by Ambrose, and these two saints became the centre of the Milanese cult of saints. The cult of Gervasius and Protasius is fascinating, particularly because of its inception. Ambrose lived in a time when Milan had been an important imperial city since the third century, and when the imperial power was weakening and local episcopal power was on the rise. It was also a time when aristocratic Christians, especially Christian matrons, expanded their own prestige by collecting relics of saints and constructing private mausoleums in their gardens. These features were common to the Western Roman Empire, and we see them also in the papacy of Damasus I (366-84). It is therefore possible that Ambrose either invented the legend of Gervasius and Protasius or exploited a local oral tradition in his establishment of their cult. For example, it is interesting to note that the martyrdom of these saints are set two the first Christian persecution, i.e. about 250 years earlier than the deaths of Felix and Nabor who were then replaced by a new – but older – saintly couple. Thus, Gervasius and Protasius not only become protomartyrs of Milan, but provide the bishop with saints of greater antiquity and prestige than the saints hitherto venerated in Milan by its local nobility.
Gervasius and Protasius with the palms of martyrdom
Chambéry - BM - ms. 0004, f.502, Franciscan breviary, c.1430
Courtesy of


Brown, Peter, The Cult of the Saints, University of Chicaco Press, 2015

Farmer, David, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004

Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger-Ryan, Princeton, 2012

Sághy, Marianne, "Pope Damasus and the Beginnings of Roman Hagiography", printed in Gecser, Ottó; Laszlovszky, Józef; Nagy, Balázs; Sebók, Marcell; Szende, Katalin (eds.), Promoting the Saints – cults and their contexts from Late Antiquity until the Early Modern Period, Central European University Press, 2011