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St Helena, Evelyn Waugh, and the Finding of the Cross

In 1950, the English writer Evelyn Waugh published his only historical novel, Helena, a fictionalized account of the life of the Emperor Constantine’s mother, and her discovery of the relics of the True Cross. For well over a millennium, this event was celebrated with a feast day on May 3rd, the Finding of the Cross; Waugh’s introduction to the novel begins with a funny story based on the Latin version of the feast’s title, “Inventio Crucis.”

“It is reported … that some few years ago a lady prominent for her hostility to the Church returned from a visit to Palestine in a state of exultation. ‘I got the real low-down at last,’ she told her friends. ‘The whole story of the crucifixion was made up by a British woman named Ellen. Why, the guide showed me the very place where it happened. Even the priests admit it. They call their chapel “the Invention of the Cross.” ’ ”

“a British woman named Ellen” refers to a medieval tradition that Helena was the daughter of a chieftain in Roman Britain, which Waugh incorporates into the story. He always regarded it as his best work, a fact which may well surprise those who know him for much more famous books like The Loved One or Brideshead Revisited. The latter was made into a critically acclaimed mini-series, and several of his other works have likewise been brought to film, although none as well or successfully. Helena, on the other, has not only never been filmed, but is in fact the only one of his novels that ever fell out of print, although the age of electronic books has brought it back.

(Evelyn Waugh in 1940: public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Two years after its publication, Waugh was invited by Claire Booth Luce, a prominent convert to Catholicism, to contribute to a collection of essays called “Saints for Now”, and chose St Helena as his subject. His essay, essentially a summary of the theological point of the novel, is deeply insightful, especially considering that the author had no pretense of any sort to be a theologian.

What he correctly saw was that in the 4th century, once Christianity had been legalized, it was in danger of being assimilated to (if not into) the numerous other cults that existed in the ancient Roman world. Much about Christianity was already very congenial to the Roman religious mind: “(a)nother phase of existence which select souls enjoyed when the body was shed; a priesthood; a sacramental system, even in certain details of eating, anointing and washing—all these had already a shadowy place in fashionable thought. Everything about the new religion (i.e. Christianity) was capable of interpretation, could be refined and diminished…” And the then-fashionable version of the Creed, Arianism, which most of the Emperors after Constantine adopted, was just such an interpretation, refinement and diminution: the translation of Christianity into Platonism, with God the Father as Plato’s One, and God the Son as the demiurge of the Timaeus.

But Waugh goes on to specify that everything about Christianity was capable of being interpreted in such a fashion “except the unreasonable assertion that God became man and died on the Cross; not a myth or an allegory; true God, truly incarnate, tortured to death at a particular moment in time, at a particular geographical place, as a matter of plain historical fact.” And thus, in the novel, St Helena herself (a classically British self-assured older woman who could well be played by Maggie Smith if it were ever filmed), says to the Pope, St Sylvester I, “Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it… there’s a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against. I’m going off to find it.”

(St Helena and the True Cross, 1495, by Cima da Conegliano; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)d

Fr Athanasius Kircher

One of the most notable figures of Rome’s intellectual history, Fr Athanasius Kircher, was born on this day in 1602, in a small town in central Germany. As was so often the case in those days, he was baptized immediately, and given the name of the Saint on the liturgical calendar, Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (died 373). Although the Jesuit order, which he entered at the age of 16, had and deserved a reputation for learning from its very foundation, Kircher did much to solidify and perpetuate that reputation. He was known and respected by both Catholics and Protestants alike as one of the most learned men of his age, corresponding with hundreds of other scientists and scholars throughout Europe. For several years, beginning in 1634, he taught physics, mathematics, and oriental languages at the Jesuit college in Rome, a position from which he was later released to devote himself full time to research.

(Portrait of Fr Kircher, ca. 1664)

Fr Kircher’s interests covered an extraordinary breadth of subjects; he published forty lengthy books, all in Latin, of course, to guarantee their accessibility to fellow scholars throughout the world. Among them are works on medicine and biology, including a description of plague-causing agents which he identified with a very primitive microscope; on geology, volcanism, a subject in which he took a special interest from an early age (he even had himself lowered into the crater of Mt Vesuvius when it showed signs of an imminent eruption); the study of fossils; and magnetism. He was also known for putting these studies to practical, or at least interesting, applications, constructing improved versions of the projection device known as a “magic lantern” (the invention of which is often mistakenly attributed to him), a magnetic clock, a wind harp, and a speaking automaton. Gathering together reports sent back to Rome by his fellow Jesuits serving as missionaries in China, he compiled an encyclopedia known as “China Illustrata”, which was immediately translated into several languages, including English and Dutch, notwithstanding the deep hostility of both the English and the Dutch to his religious order.

Over the course of his long career (he died in 1680 at the age of 78), Fr Kircher amassed an enormous collection of plant, animal and geological specimens, antiquities of various kinds, archeology and technological curiosities, artworks, musical instruments (sound being another field of his interest, and the subject of one of his books), etc. This collection, known as the Museum Kircherianum, was housed at the Jesuit college, and one of the most popular attractions in Rome in the 17th and 18th centuries, but was subsequently dispersed through various other museums owned by the Italian state.

Today, he is perhaps best known as a pioneer in the field of Egyptology; he was first scholar to identify Coptic as the last stage in the history of the ancient Egyptian language, and the author of the first Coptic grammar. He also created a system for deciphering hieroglyphs, and “translated” several ancient Egyptian inscriptions, including those on the obelisk which was raised on top of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona in Rome. These purported translations have no real relationship to the original texts, and his method, which based on a rather fanciful guess, has been sharply criticized by later scholars. Nevertheless, the information which Fr Kircher gathered about hieroglyphs would later prove very useful to Jean-François Champollion, who correctly deciphered them after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

(The Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona, Rome. Fr Kircher’s purported translation of the each of the four inscriptions is carved into the square base on which it rests. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Tango 7174, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Vocabula Mira: “Melos”

The Greek word “melos” underwent an interesting evolution before it entered the Latin language. It originally meant “limb”, although in the earlier writers, it only occurs in the plural. From this it came to mean a “musical member or phrase” and thence “a song”, a use which first occurs in roughly the 6th century B.C., in the Homeric Hymn to Pan, followed by Pindar, Herodotus etc. Aristotle and Plato both use it to mean “the music to which a song is set.” It was also compounded with the noun “aoidē” or “ōidē”, related nouns such “aoidos – singer”, and the verb “aoidiaō – to sing”, to make “melōidē” etc., the origin of the English word “melody.”

In Latin, it was taken on as early as the 3rd century BC (by Naevius, and in the following century by Cato and Pacuvius), but only in the later, musical sense, along with some of the compounds like “melodia.” The Church Fathers often pair it with the adjectives “dulcis” or “suavis”, both of which mean “sweet”, which seems to have been inspired by its similarity to the Latin word for “honey – mel (mellis).” St Jerome, for example, writes in a letter to a friend of his named Heliodorus, speaking of the conversion of formerly barbarous nations to Christianity, that they “have broken their hissing into the sweet song of the Cross.” (stridorem suum in dulce Crucis fregerunt melos). Likewise, a sermon mistakenly ascribed to St Augustine includes the phrase “ut musicum melos sonis dulcibus reddat – that he may render a musical song with sweet sounds.” In his book of Etymologies, St Isidore explicitly connects it with “mel”: “euphonia est suavitas vocis; haec et melos a suavitate et melle dicta – ‘euphony’ is sweetness of voice; which is called both ‘song’ from its sweetness and from ‘honey.’ ”

In the Middle Ages, particularly after the 6th century, knowledge of Greek declined very greatly in western Europe (as knowledge of Latin did in eastern Europe), but never vanished completely. In some periods, especially the Carolingian Renaissance, there was even a kind of vogue for using Greek words in certain genres, one of them being the composition of liturgical hymns. A later imitator of this fashion, St Fulbert, bishop of Chartres in the early 11th century, uses the word “melos” with a Latinized form of the genitive (“meli”) in a hymn which he wrote for the Easter season. Here is the original Latin text, and a translation by the Anglican cleric John Mason Neale (1818-66), who is rightly regarded as one of the best translators of Latin hymns into good poetic English.

(This manuscript of the mid-11th century (British Library, Cotton Vesp. d. xii; folio 74v, image cropped), is one of the two oldest with the text of this hymn.)

Chorus novae Jerusalem,
Novam meli dulcedinem,
Promat, colens cum sobriis
Paschale festum gaudiis.

Quo Christus, invictus leo
Dracone surgens obruto
Dum voce viva personat
A morte functos excitat.

Quam devorarat improbus
Praedam refudit tartarus
Captivitate libera
Jesum sequuntur agmina.

Triumphat ille splendide
Et dignus amplitudine
Soli polique patriam
Unam facit rempublicam.

Ipsum canendo supplices
Regem precemur milites
Ut in suo clarissimo
Nos ordinet palatio.

Per saecla metae nescia
Patri supremo gloria,
Honorque sit cum Filio
Et Spiritu Paraclito. Amen.

Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem!
To sweet new strains attune your theme;
The while we keep, from care releas’d,
With sober joy our Paschal Feast:

When Christ, Who spake the Dragon’s doom,
Rose, Victor-Lion, from the tomb,
That while with living voice He cries,
The dead of other years might rise.

Engorg’d in former years, their prey
Must Death and Hell restore to-day:
And many a captive soul, set free,
With Jesus leaves captivity.

Right gloriously He triumphs now,
Worthy to Whom should all things bow;
And, joining heaven and earth again,
Links in one commonweal the twain.

And we, as these His deeds we sing,
His suppliant soldiers, pray our King,
That in His Palace, bright and vast,
We may keep watch and ward at last.

Long as unending ages run,
To God the Father laud be done;
To God the Son our equal praise,
And God the Holy Ghost, we raise.

The Arch of Septimius Severus in Leptis Magna

Since yesterday we looked at the triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius in Oea, the modern Tripoli in Libya, today we will see another such arch in the ruins of Leptis Magna, roughly 75 miles to the east. Like Oea, Leptis was founded by Phoenician colonists in the 7th century BC, and like the rest of north Africa, came under Rome’s control after the defeat and destruction of her great rival Carthage. (It was called “Magna” to distinguish it from “Leptis Parva”, which was much closer to Carthage.) Already a prominent and prosperous place in the last years of the Roman Republic, it continued to thrive in the early years of the Empire, and was elevated to the status of a “municipium”, a self-governing city, under Nero, and a “colonia” under Trajan, entitling it to important tax exemptions.

This was the native place of the Emperor Septimius Severus, who reigned for a bit less than 18 years, from 193 to 211. On coming to the throne, he bestowed many new privileges on the city, and immediately began several major building projects: a second and larger forum, in addition to the older one of the Augustan period; a massive basilica (over 300 feet long by 130 wide); a port (which, however quickly silted up); and a long colonnaded street leading up to a monumental fountain. A large market building of the Augustan era was also rebuilt. The population rose to around 100,000, making it a rival to the two other great cities in Roman Africa, the rebuilt Carthage, and Alexandria in Egypt.

(The ruins of the Severan Basilica in Leptis Magna; image from Wikimedia Commons by SashaCoachman, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Preparatory to an official visit by Severus and his family, a triumphal arch was erected in 203 at the intersection of the two main roads that define every Roman city, the cardo and the decumanus. Like its counterpart in Rome, this arch celebrates the Emperor’s victories over the Parthians on the empire’s eastern border, but its form is much closer to that of the Marcus Aurelius in Oea, and gives us a good idea of what the latter would originally have looked like. The attic is well-preserved, where at Oea, it is now missing, exposing the outside of the cupola. Unlike the Roman arch, the two African ones are “tetrapylons”, which is to say, built on four columns, and essentially square, since they sit at the intersection of two roads. The Leptis arch’s most unusual element is the so-called broken pediment on each side, better described as “incomplete”, something which is rarely seen in Roman architecture, but was common in the East. A triumphal procession of Septimius and his sons Geta and Caracalla is shown on the attic stage of the side that faces towards Oea; as on the Roman arch, there are several reliefs with symbolic figures of the goddess Victory, military trophies, and depictions of barbarians subjugated by the Romans.

However, many of these are in very poor condition, much worse than those on the Roman arch. In point of fact, by the time the kingdom of Italy took over Libya from the Ottomans in 1911, the arch had completely collapsed, with only the base left sticking out of the sand. The surviving pieces were recovered after several years of excavation by Italian archeologists, and reassembled as they are seen today in 1928.

The Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Tripoli, Libya

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was born on this day in the year 121, just under 40 years before he acceded to the imperial throne. Despite his prominence as heir apparent to Antoninus Pius (138-61), and his own rule of almost twenty years, very few public monuments of his reign survive. We have recently looked at the famous equestrian statue of him that now stands in the main piazza of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, and the large columnar monument in the city center that celebrates his military campaigns. Close by the column, there once stood a triumphal arch that celebrated the same campaigns; this no longer exists, but eight relief panels were saved from it by being recycled into the Arch of Constantine near the Colosseum, and three others are now preserved in the Capitoline Museums. Like most Roman Emperors managed a half-way decent reign, Marcus Aurelius was divinized after his death, and a temple was built to honor him as a god in the same area, but nothing of it survives.

However, across the Mediterranean from Italy, in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, there survives a small triumphal arch dedicated to him, although it has suffered much from the vicissitudes of time. This city was founded in the 7th century BC by the Phoenicians, who also founded Rome’s great rival, Carthage, to the west and north along the African coast. It was originally called Oyat, which was Latinized as “Oea” after the Roman conquest in the wake of the last Punic War. Its modern name “Tripoli”, meaning “three cities”, comes from its proximity to two other major centers, Sabratha and Leptis Magna, both of which are now no more than archeological zones.

The arch was built in 165 by an official of the city named Gaius Calpurnius Celsus, to commemorate the victories of Marcus Aurelius and his adoptive brother and co-emperor Lucius Verus over the Parthians in Armenia, as recorded in its dedicatory inscription. Drawings from the 19th century show remains of the original attic, which is now destroyed; its absence reveals externally a small octagonal cupola, a very unusual feature in Roman architecture. Prominent relief sculptures show the city’s patron gods, Apollo and Minerva, riding chariots pulled by griffons and sphinxes. The empty niches on two of the four faces of the arch formerly held statues of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus; one of the latter was rediscovered during excavations conducted in the area in the nineteenth century.

(The Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Tripoli, as it appear in 1803; engraving by Luigi Mayer, from the book Views of the Ottoman Empire. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The internal cupola and one of the external relief sculptures. Both images from Wikimedia Commons by Dr Esam Tabone, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Great Rogations and Plague-Causing Dragons

Today is traditionally both the feast of St Mark the Evangelist, and the observance known as the Greater Rogations. The latter is a penitential procession instituted by Pope St Gregory the Great at the very beginning of his reign (590 A.D.), to beg God’s mercy for the end of a terrible plague that struck Rome and environs, and killed his immediately predecessor, St Pelagius I. Although the plague and the institution of the procession are well attested facts, various legends accrued to them over time.

One such legend is that the Pope divided the populace into seven groups, which were to start processing towards St Peter’s Basilica from seven different parts of the city. When the seven processions converged at the Pons Aelius, the Archangel Michael appeared over the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian and sheathed his sword, a sign that the plague was over, just as happened to King David. (2 Samuel 24). Because of this episode, the late medieval fortress which was built over the tomb is now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo (castle of the holy angel), and the bridge in front of it as the Ponte Sant’Angelo, and to this very day, there is a statue of the Archangel Michael on the top of the tomb.

(The Castel Sant’Angelo seen from the Ponte Sant’Angelo, with the statue of St Michael on top. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Radomil, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Dominican friar named Jacopo da Voragine (1230 ca. – 1298), who became the archbishop of Genoa in 1292, produced a famous collection of such stories known as the Golden Legend, and include this tale about the origin of the plague, one of several in which dragons play a prominent role.

“The Tiber river once overflowed its banks so far that it came over the city walls and destroyed a great many of houses. Then also a multitude of serpents with a great dragon came down by the Tiber river to the sea, but were smothered by the waves and cast onto the shore, and with their corrupted all the air.

And thus, the terrible plague which they called “the groin plague” (i.e bubonic) followed, so that arrows were seen coming down from heaven and striking various people. And first of all, it struck Pope Pelagius and killed him at once, but afterwards, raged through the population so fiercely that it left many houses empty in the city, since their inhabitants had been killed.

But because the Church of God could not be without a leader, the people unanimously elected Gregory, although he made every effort to refuse. Therefore, since he had to be consecrated, but the plague was devastating the people, so he preached a sermon to them, and organizing a procession, he instituted the litanies, and exhorted everyone to beseech God the more intently. While the entire people, being gathered together, besought God, the plague itself raged to greatly that in one hour ninety men died; but Gregory did not in any way cease to urge all the people to persist in prayer, until the divine mercy should drive away the plague.”

(The Procession of St Gregory the Great, by an anonymous Sienese painter of the mid-16th century.)

Vocabula Mira: “Pascha” and “Phase”

Between roughly 250 and 130 B.C., Greek-speaking Jews in the diaspora communities of the Eastern Mediterranean produced the translations of the Sacred Scriptures collectively known as the Septuagint, which are still used by many of the Eastern churches to this day. These translations seem to have been made mostly in Egypt, but were not the result of a unitary project, and vary considerably from each another in many ways. The translators regarded a number of Hebrew and Aramaic words as technical terms which were best left untranslated, one of which was the Hebrew noun “pesach” (derived from the verb “pāsach – to pass over”), the name of both the feast of Passover and the sacrifice offered during the feast. In the Greek version of the Pentateuch, this word appears 20 times in a transcribed form derived from Aramaic, “paskha”.

This usage carries over into the Gospels, which were of course written in Greek, and all four of the Evangelists use it in connection with the narratives of the Lord’s Passion, which took place at Passover. But even before then, St Paul had used it in the sense of “the sacrifice offered at Passover”, when he writes in 1 Corinthians 5, 7, “τὸ Πάσχα ἡμῶν ἐτύθη Χριστός”, which we can translated most literally as “Christ was sacrificed as our Passover sacrifice.”

Since Passover was the time of Christ’s Passion, i.e. suffering, early Greek-speaking Christians very naturally associated the name of the feast, Paskha, with the verb “paskhein – to suffer.” This is attested in the very first surviving sermon on Easter, preached by St Melito, bishop of Sardis in the mid-2nd century. “What is the Pascha? It’s name is called from its characteristic (or “that which happened on it”); from ‘to suffer’ (τὸ παθεῖν) comes ‘suffering’ (τὸ πάσχειν). Learn, then, who is the One who suffers…” (parag. 46)

(An Egyptian papyrus of the 4th century, the lower part of which has the beginning of St Melito’s sermon on Easter; Chester Beatty Library BP XII, f.13v. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Following the lead of their Greek predecessors, the anonymous Latin translators of the New Testament simply kept the word as a transcription, “Pascha”, which is the origin of the word for Easter in the Romance languages. (Ital. “Pascua”, Fr. “Pâques”, etc.) By the time St Jerome revised the Latin text of the Gospels in the 380s, this usage had become too well established to change, and so he left the word “Pascha” alone.

However, Jerome was perfectly well aware of the fact that the association of “Pascha – passover” and “paskhein – to suffer” was, as it were, a folk etymology based on a phonetic coincidence. In his commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew, he says, “The word ‘pascha’, which is pronounced ‘phase’ in Hebrew, does not come from ‘passion’, as most people think, but from ‘passover’, since the destroying angel, seeing the blood on the doors of the Israelites, passed over them and did not slay them.” (cit. Ex. 12; Lib. 4 in Matt. 26, 2; PL 24, 190C) Therefore, in his Old Testament translations made directly from Hebrew into Latin, he replaces the transcription “pascha” with “phase.”

He must have also realized that this would sounds strange to Latin-speakers who were used to hearing the word “pascha”, and so in the very first occurrence of it in Exodus 12, 11, he also adds an explanatory note, which is still part of the Vulgate. “est enim Phase (id est, transitus) Domini. – for it is the ‘phase’, (that is, ‘the passing-over’) of the Lord.” In the traditional liturgy of Good Friday, both versions, “phase” and “pascha”, still occur, the former in the Epistle, Exodus 12, 1-11, and the second in the reading of the Passion of St John.

(St Jerome in His Study, 1451, by Antonio da Fabriano (1420-90); Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

How I Celebrated Rome’s Birthday 25 Years Ago

Apart from events like birthdays and wedding anniversaries, I suspect people very rarely know exactly where they were and what they were doing on any given day one year ago, never mind a quarter of a century ago, but I do remember exactly where I was on the evening of April 21, 1997. This day is traditionally marked as the anniversary of the founding of Rome; and in 1997, it was a jubilee anniversary, 2750 years from the conventional date of 753 BC. On that day, I was on the Capitoline Hill, waiting for the unveiling of a copy of the great statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius that dominates the central piazza of the hill, in front of Rome’s city hall.

In the early 1980s, it was discovered that the original, which had been outdoors for over 18 centuries at that point, was suffering badly from exposure to the elements, and so the decision was made to bring it into the Capitoline Museums, and replace it in the piazza with an exact copy. This is an aspect of the field of art restoration and preservation at which the Italians excel; the copy is incredibly precise, made by measuring every bump and notch of the original with lasers. Once the copy had been made, it was set up in the piazza, and the official unveiling of it planned for Rome’s 55th jubilee.

A crowd had gathered in the piazza, waiting for the mayor to come out at 5pm, make a speech, and announce the unveiling; when I arrived at about 4:30, the statue was completely covered by a large tarpaulin. Then, in classic Italian fashion, 5pm arrived, but the mayor did not. The minutes passed… 5:10 … 5:20 … 5:30… The crowd became restive, and like all restive Roman crowds, filled the air with a great many sarcastic and highly uncomplimentary remarks about the mayor. 5:40… 5:50…

Rome can get very windy around sunset, especially in the spring, and every once in while, a gust of wind would shake the tarp quite strongly, and the crowd would start to cheer, hoping that it would do what the people in charge of the event could not decently do until the mayor arrived. Then finally! a powerful gust of wind ripped the tarp almost completely off; the crowd cheered, and mostly left. The mayor finished whatever had been keeping him until then and came out about 10 minutes later, to the sight of an almost empty piazza. Evviva!

(Image from Wikimedia Commons by Burkhard MückeCC BY-SA 4.0)

Studium Urbis – The Foundation of the University of Rome

On this day in the year 1303, the last of his reign, Pope Boniface VIII issued the bull “In supremae praeeminentia dignitatis”, establishing the University of Rome. The university’s official motto is “Studium Urbis – the study of the city”, “studium” being the word most broadly used in the Middle Ages for academic institutions; since the mid-16th century, it has been nicknamed “La Sapienza”, Italian for “wisdom.” It is now considered very prestigious, and rated one of the best in the world for the study of both classics and ancient history, but for much its existence, its fortunes have vacillated considerably. Its reputation often came out the worse in competition with other academic institutions in the Eternal City, and in the days of the Papal state, more than one Pope thought of closing it. Plans for providing it with new buildings were begun during the reign of Alexander VI (1492-1503), but not brought to completion until the reign of the next Pope of that name (1655-67), although the final results include one of the splendors of the Roman Baroque, Francesco Borromini’s great church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza.

(The dome of Sant’Ivo exemplifies Borromini’s fondness for unusual geometrical forms and his dislike of color. Six-pointed stars were a traditional symbol of wisdom, and the building is permeated with patterns based on the number six. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Architas, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

The opening paragraph of Pope Boniface’s Bull is not just an excellent expression of the role of a university, but also a fine piece of Latin writing, in the best tradition of Roman rhetorical elegance, one to which our own poor effort at translation does no real justice.

“In supremae praeeminentia dignitatis divini dispositione consilii constituti, ad universas fidelium regiones nostrae vigilantiae creditas tanquam pastor Dominici gregis aciem Apostolicae considerationis extendimus, ad earum profectum quantum nobis ex alto permittitur intendentes: sed ad urbium Urbem, Romanam videlicet civitatem, quam divina clementia statuit caput Orbis, eo attentionis (attentius?) meditationis intuitum retorquemus, quo principalius in eadem nostri sedem Apostolatus caelestis dispositio stabilivit, et firmavit Ecclesiae fundamentum. Hanc profecto nimirum inter caeteras urbes sub Christianae religione fidei militantes, uberioris affectionis praerogativa prosequimur, studiosius Apostolicis munimus praesidiis, et condignis libentius gratiis honoramus, ideoque ferventi non immerito desiderio ducimur, quod eadem Urbs, quam divina bonitas tot gratiarum dotibus insignivit, scientiarum etiam fiat foecunda muneribus, ut viros producat consilii maturitate conspicuos, virtutum redimitos ornatibus, ac diversarum facultatum dogmatibus eruditos, sitque ibi fons scientiarum irriguus, de cujus plenitudine hauriant universi literalibus cupientes imbui monumentis.

Having been placed by the arrangement of God’s counsel in the foremost place of supreme dignity, as the shepherd of the Lord’s flock we extend the attention of our Apostolic regard to all those regions of the faithful entrusted to our vigilance, looking to their advancement as much as is permitted to us from above. But to the city of cities, namely, Rome, which the divine clemency appointed the head of the world, we turn the gaze of our consideration the more attentive, since there above all did the arrangement chosen by heaven establish the seat of our Apostolate, and fixe the foundation of the Church. Most assuredly do we attend this city, among all those that strive under the religion of the Christian faith, with the prerogatives of a richer affection, protecting it the more zealously with our Apostolic guardianship, and honor it the more willingly with becoming favors. Therefore, not undeservedly are we led with fervent desire that the same city, which the divine goodness had marked with so many gifts of grace, should become also rich in the works of knowledge, so that it might produce men outstanding for the maturity of their counsel, crowned with the ornaments of the virtues, and learnèd in the teachings of the various fields, and that there may be therein an overflowing fountain of the knowledge, from the fullness of which all those who desire to be fully educated in the great works of letters may draw.” (Magnum Bullarium Romanum, vol 1, p. 205; Borde, Arnaud et Rigaud, Lyon, 1655.)

(A contemporary portrait of Pope Boniface by Giotto; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, by Sailko; CC BY 3.0)  

Paul the Deacon

Today marks the anniversary of the death of one of the most important literary figures of the Carolinigan era, a monk who is generally known as Paul the Deacon; the exact year of his death is uncertain, from 796 to 799. Born ca. 720, and originally called Winfrid, he was descended from a noble family of the Lombards, who had migrated into the north of Italy in the late 560s and early 570s, and extended their domain much further south in the following decades. In 774, the northern territories of their kingdom were conquered by Charlemagne, at which point Winfrid is believed to have entered first a monstery in the north, and then to have moved down to Monte Cassino, the burial place of St Benedict, in southern Latium. There he would later meet Charlemagne in person, a great patron of arts and letters, and become an important contributor to the great cultural flourishing known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Paul became his name in religious life, and he is called “the deacon” as an epithet since in those days, it was the custom that fairly few monks were ever ordained.

Among his more significant works are a History of the Lombards, which give the chronicle of his people from their migration down through Europe from Scandinavia to the death of their king Liutprand in 744. He also wrote a continuation of the Breviarium of Eutropius, a widely used 4th century compendium of Roman history, bringing it down to the middle of the Byzantine reconquest of Italy, and adding many details about the Church which were left out by the original author, a pagan. A biography of Pope St Gregory is attributed to him, and the translation from Greek of the life of a Saint widely venerated in the East, Mary of Egypt.

Two of his works retain a notable place in the Church’s liturgy to this very day, one of which also occupies a very notable place in the history of music. He wrote the hymn “Ut queant laxis”, which is sung in the Divine Office on the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. Guido di Arezzo, a monk who born about 200 years after Paul’s death, created the diatonic scale by identifying the rise of one note in each part of the stanzas of this hymn. He therefore named the notes in succssion from the first syllable of each of these parts: “Ut quaeant laxis resonare fibris / Mira gestorum famuli tuorum”, etc. The Italians later changed “ut” to the more musical sounding “do”, and “si”, from “Sancte Ioannes” to “ti.”

Paul the Deacon also composed a collection of sermons and homilies from the early Church Fathers for use in the Divine Office; this collection forms the basis of the corpus of such texts used in the traditional form of that prayer to this day.

(Paul the Deacon represented in a manuscript of the 10th century, Laurentian Plut. 65.35, fol. 34r. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)


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