Friday, April 17, 2015

Thoughts on Disney's Cinderella (2015)



A few weeks ago, at the behest of some overwhelmingly positive reviews from friends, Madame and I went to a movie theater for the first time in nearly a year to see Disney's Cinderella (2015). I'm normally the sort to lambast Hollywood's lack of new ideas and the endless onslaught of remakes, but I have a confession to make: I've never actually seen the classic animated Cinderella from 1950, or any other cinematic treatment of the story. So for me, along with millions of little girls around the world, I experienced the story of the magical glass slipper on the silver screen for the first time.
The story of Cinderella, in its basest elements, isn't unique to any one time period. As with so many other fairy tales, the main theme of the suffering heroine under abusive family members recurs throughout the ages, from Rhodopis in ancient Greece, to Cordelia (daughter of King Lear) in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, to Bawang Putih in Indonesian folklore, and of course, the first appearance in print of Cinderella herself under the name Cenerentola in Naples, in the Pentamerone (1634).
 
The latest film iteration is directed by Kenneth "the Shakespeare guy" Branagh, with a cast of actors from every popular British television series on right now. Lily James (Rose from Downton Abbey) is the title character. Her dad is played by Ben Chaplin (Edward II in World Without End; sorry for the spoiler). We've got sophie McShera (Daisy from Downton) as one of the evil stepsisters, Richard Madden (Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) as the prince, and Stellan Skarsgård (Dr. Selvig in one of Branagh's other hits, Thor and its sequels) as the grand duke. Of course Helena Bonham Carter is the fairy godmother, and who else but Derek Jacobi be the wise old king?
 
But of all these well-known faces, it's Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine, who steals the show. The moment she steps out of her carriage onto the grounds of her new home, clad in her official, severe, stepmotherly garb, you know we have a villain we love to hate. And yet, this isn't a modern-minded retelling of the tale. It's not Maleficent's side of the story, nor one about the triumph of sisterly love and girl-power (though Cinderella does open with a short sequel to Frozen). The plot is refreshingly straight: once upon a time, a common girl falls on hard times when her parents die, but by the power of courtesy and kindness (and a little bit of help from magical Helena Bonham Carter), the heroine goes to a royal ball in style, dances with a prince, leaves her slipper behind, and eventually gets a major upgrade in social status and lives happily ever after, just as you expect it to. (And no, for the fairy tale-literate, there isn't any cutting of toes to fit into the slipper, gouging of eyes by doves, or other such Teutonic embellishments.)

Costumes are lavish in true Branagh style. They capture the courtly style of the later 19th century, channeling in part Branagh's Hamlet (1996), and two more parts "fairy tale days" as imagined by 1950's directors. The musical score, composed by Patrick Doyle (from Henry V, Hamlet, and Thor, among others) is also suitably grand, though I'm disappointed that there weren't any true musical numbers. You'd think that the guy who wrote the stirring Non nobis from Henry V could whip up a good tune or two.
 
Perhaps this is just the first step in getting old, but I was a bit annoyed by the overly bombastic CGI effects surrounding the transforming of the pumpkin to a carriage and back. I'm glad I at least watched it in theaters, for if I had seen the movie at home for the first time, even though my home theater setup is better than some cinemas I've gone to, I would have probably been visibly irritated by all the sparklies. I need to step back for a moment and chant to myself over and over: I'm not the target demographic for this film. I'm not the target demographic for this film.



I'm out of time for today, so I won't bother to end this entry with a proper analysis, but at the time I'm writing this, Cinderella is still playing in most theaters. If you haven't seen it already and you need an idea for a simple date night, go ahead and check it out with your loved one tonight. You can thank me later.


Cinderella, by pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones
 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The painted churches of Texas

 
 
Texas is a big place. It's larger than several of the most powerful nations in history (Britain, Germany, and France). There's no surprise, then, that whenever I take a day trip one or more hours outside of where I live, I find treasures I never imagined could exist before. Yesterday's road trip was taken chiefly with the intent of making it to the small town of Brenham and going on a tour of the original Blue Bell Creamery (a brand of ice cream sold mainly in the southern US). That mission was a success, but it was crowned by an even greater discovery: a little church off a country lane, more resplendent than virtually any church in our major metropolis areas. This was Saint Mary's, High Hill, the "queen of the painted churches".
 
The German and Czech immigrants who settled in central and east Texas throughout the mid-late 19th century, though poor, had little taste for the simple "Mission" style architecture which the Catholic bishops of the century in Texas promoted. They were determined to recreate the glorious church architecture they had known in the Fatherland here in the wilderness. The community hired a San Antonio architect, the son of a German immigrant and the closest thing Texas has to an Augustus Welby Pugin: Leo M. J. Dielmann.
 
San Antonians probably don't recognize the name, but they've all seen his works: the Fairmount Hotel across from Hemisfair Park, the City Council building (the tall building next to San Fernando Cathedral, which was formerly the original Frost Bank Tower), the nuns' chapel at Our Lady of the Lake University, the chapel at Fort Sam Houston, and the Hermann Sons Grand Lodge.
 
The Hermann Lodge, San Antonio
Born 1881, Dielmann studied architecture in Germany for two years in 1900-1901, and was in Europe just in time to attend the great Exposition Universelle in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Dielmann dabbled with the art nouveau that was introduced at the Exposition and used Art Deco in several of his civic designs (like the Hermann Lodge). For sacred architecture, though, he was convinced of the superiority of Gothic over the Baroque and Rococo styles that were popular in German-American communities elsewhere in the United States.
 
Dielmann's first church commission was for the tiny community of High Hill (doomed to forever remain small, as they refused to allow a railroad to run nearby) in 1906. You'll see in these images that the community's limited means required Dielmann to create the illusion of groin vaults by the careful application of paint. It's precisely the rich decorative painting of Saint Mary's, High Hill, though, which make it the "queen of the painted churches" of east-central Texas. San Antonian admirers of this church's paint will like to know that the team of painters, Ferdinand Stockert and Hermann Kern, were also responsible for the interior of Saint Joseph's church in downtown San Antonio.
 
As for Dielmann, he shortly found commissions for churches all over Texas, especially among German immigrants: Saint Mary's in Fredericksburg, Saint Mary's in Brenham, and Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Antonio, among others. As for the rest of his life, the Texas State Historical Association describes him as quite the civic leader:
"Dielmann was a member of the Texas Society of Architects and of the board of trustees of the San Antonio Public Library, president of Harmonia Lodge of the Sons of Hermann in Texas, and committeeman for the Home for the Aged of the Sons of Hermann at Comfort. He belonged to the San Antonio Liederkranz, the Beethoven Männerchor, the Order of the Alhambra, and St. Joseph's Society. He was a member of the Democratic party and St. Joseph's Catholic Church in San Antonio. Dielmann married Ella Marie Wagner on April 25, 1911. They had three children. He died on December 21, 1969, in San Antonio."
 
 
A swinging screen door between the vestibule and the nave

Note the German script in the vestibule

Too bad about the carpeting. Like Saint Joseph's in downtown San Antonio, it would deaden the sound of any chant or choral music.






 
 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A reader asks: how can I start a Vespers group?

 
An acquaintance recently posed the following problems and questions to me:

-How do I start a group for the regular singing of Vespers?
-What type of church is most likely to host one? (diocesan TLM, Anglican Use, SSPX, western Orthodox, etc.)
-For the sake of actually getting people to attend, is it better to use the vernacular for the psalms, or should we be Latin-only purists?


Some of you may recall that, a few years ago, I wrote an article called The Divine Office as a Foundation of Culture: Why It Must Be Restored. Once upon a time, Matins, Lauds, and Vespers were considered virtually part of the Sunday obligation, alongside hearing Mass. Even in the United States, where (it seems) the Divine Hours were never observed in our cathedrals with any great devotion, the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore promoted the teaching of Gregorian chant in parochial schools so that "the greater part of the people shall thus learn to sing Vespers and the like with the ministers and the choir". The Second Vatican Council went so far as to say:
"Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually." (Sacrosanctum Concilium 100)

Here are my suggestions, in brief:



How to start a Vespers group

I propose looking to the members of your church's altar society and Gregorian chant schola and pitching Vespers as a once-a-month devotion to start. Think about it this way: most likely, you never have all the altar servers on your roster all together at the same time. The only exception is if you make use of choir stalls or some other sort of in choro arrangement, which can either be good (all servers not fulfilling any other function are singing the Mass with your schola chanters) or bad (they're neither singing nor serving, but are merely there for show).

Vespers is the perfect opportunity to use the "good" version of a liturgical choir. Once a month, all of your church's servers and chanters can sit within (or just outside, if there's a lack of space) the sanctuary to sing the psalms of Vespers antiphonally, one side of the church in response to the other. Traditionalists like to say that altar service is the wellspring of priestly vocations. Why not give them a glimpse of the daily regimen of prayer that seminarians sing, day and night?



What type of church is most likely to host one?

As you probably know, the public Office is effectively dead in the western Catholic Church. We can thank the influence of the Jesuits in particular, who from their inception were never bound to pray the Office, for removing quires from church spaces and banishing the Office to the realm of private priestly devotion. The Divine Hours disappeared from the public eye, making way for private devotions to fill the void. (In fact, so I've heard, most diocesan priests simply ignore their Office obligation altogether, which seems to imply that we have a crisis of priests living perpetually in a state of sin. This little aspect of the ongoing crisis in the Church is beyond the scope of my article today, though. Instead, we're going to merely think of ways to restore the Office to your own community.
 
In theory, all churches in the west are game for a restoration of the public Office because, unless your resident clergy are Jesuits, they're probably bound to recite the Office at least privately, anyway. In practice, even though all the Hours can be prayed by laymen alone, your priest's support is still necessary to get a public Vespers off the ground, and it may not necessarily be forthcoming. They may be afraid of having a specific time commitment, or they might have some guilt over having not prayed any of the Hours since seminary. This is why you should restrict yourself to proposing that Vespers be held just once a month to start, not every Sunday.
 
Churches run by traditional Latin Mass societies should, in theory, be easy to convince by appealing to tradition. The FSSP, SSPX, and Institute of Christ the King all have at least one church where Sunday Vespers is an established practice. On the other hand, Sunday Vespers doesn't usually pop into mind when old-timers reminisce about the days prior to Vatican II, and if there's no popular demand for it, these priests might feel it's a waste of energy. In this case, I would suggest pairing Vespers with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, as is done at the Shrine of Christ the King in Chicago. Traditional Catholics usually have a great devotion to our Lord in the Eucharist, so the chance to adore God in Benediction is a good "reward", if one could possibly call it that, for attending Vespers.
 
Anglican Use and Ordinariate churches are probably the easiest places to promote the public Office because the Anglican world has maintained a continuous tradition of attending Evensong up to the present day. Cranmer's hatchet-job to pre-Reformation worship in England is atrocious, but we have to give him credit for making the evening Office accessible enough for people to still enjoy attending right through the 20th century. By this, I mean reducing the number of psalms and generally making Evensong's structure less monastic in character. So, if praying Evensong is an option, I don't think you'll find much resistance from clergy here since, if the clergy and faithful are converts from Anglicanism, they'll probably remember it fondly from the days of their youth, especially when visiting the great cathedrals of England.
 
For those consigned to exist among the common hordes of the "Ordinary Form" world, I'm afraid I don't have any words of consolation for you. That the reformed Liturgy of the Hours was supposed to open the Office wide open to the lay faithful will probably forever remain a "nice idea". Breviaries are expensive, and the licensing for making printouts for the people in the pews can be tricky; the monthly psalter is even more frustrating than the weekly cycle of old; and even if you got past all that, the organizers would be put off by the atrocious translations and musical settings. I've never personally seen the Liturgy of the Hours sung anywhere other than at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. Otherwise, it probably remains the preserve of a very small and dying breed of reform-of-the-reformers at conservative Catholic universities.
 


Is it better to use the vernacular for the psalms, or should we be Latin-only purists?

The answer will depend on who's hosting. Let's start with the TLM communities. My opinion is that the ideal for a parochial Vespers would be vernacular psalmody and Latin for the Magnificat, antiphons, and common responses. Even regular TLM-goers are overwhelmed by five all-Latin psalms back to back, and very unlikely to join in singing them. Still, even if you followed my ideal schema at a parish dedicated to the traditional Latin Mass, any priests or deacons you got to lead the Vespers would have to pray it again in private because (assuming we're talking about the 1961 Breviary) even a partly-vernacularized service wouldn't count for their daily obligation.
 
For Anglican Use and Ordinariate churches, Evensong is certainly best when prayed in English according to traditional English compositions. Of course, Latin settings can and should be frequently used for the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. I believe it's also possible to incorporate the traditional Gregorian antiphons for the psalms, and in that case, they should be sung in Latin, too.
 
For anyone unfortunate enough to use the Liturgy of the Hours, at least it's perfectly licit to mix Latin and vernacular and still have it count as part of one's daily obligation. In this case, more Latin is to be preferred if only to avoid the horrors of the English translation. I only wish the translations of the Psalms themselves could be substituted, and as far as I know, that's not possible.
 
 
Still, these are all just ideas off the top of my head, based on observations of human nature. I've never been able to actualize them myself. Anyone out there have a success story to share?
 
 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Linking to your page

Please leave a comment or message me if you'd like your own blog or webpage to be added on the right. I'm only now coming to revise the list, after not having touched it for over a year.

The only criterion is that it must have some connection, however remote, to the rediscovery, restoration, or revival of medieval ideas or styles. I've made some exceptions for close personal friends, but that's it.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Paschal candle

 
 
The Paschal candle, made afresh every year and inscribed with the date and the symbols alpha and omega, is a sign that Easter remains with us: not just for one day, or forty days, but all year long. After Pentecost, the Paschal candle is moved from its place in or around the sanctuary to the baptistery, where it stands beside to be burned whenever a christening is to take place. There's not much I can add to this which you can't read about in the Catholic Encyclopedia, but I wonder if any of you noticed how much larger the candles appear to be in those Exultet scrolls from yesterday's post? I highlight one passage from the Encyclopedia's article below:
"Naturally the medieval tendency was to glorify the paschal candle by making it bigger and bigger. At Durham we are told of a magnificent erection with dragons and shields and seven branches, which was so big that it had to stand in the centre of the choir. The Sarum Processional of 1517 directs that the paschal candle, no doubt that of Salisbury cathedral, is to be thirty-six feet in height, while we learn from Machyn's diary that in 1558, under Queen Mary, three hundred weight of wax was used for the paschal candle of Westminster Abbey. In England these great candles, after they had been used for the last time in blessing the font on Whitsun Eve, were generally melted down and made into tapers to be used gratuitously at the funerals of the poor (see Wilkins, "Concilia", I, 571, and II, 298)"
 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Weird Wednesday: Montague Summers, vampirologist and priest (maybe)

This little entry probably seems wildly out of character compared to my recent posts on the ceremonies of Holy Week, but I can't help myself. A friend mentioned to me the legacy of one Montague Summers to me this morning, regarded by some to be a medievalist, and this fellow is simply too weird not to share.

Augustus Montague Summers, born in 1880 in England to a wealthy and respectable family, initially followed the piety of his youth by studying to be an evangelical Anglican minister at Oxford. There, he discovered the full fruits of the Oxford movement and embraced the ritualism of the Anglo-Catholic party. (The book Decadence and Catholicism by Ellis Hanson describes his time at Lichfield Theological College thus: "he was known to burn incense in his rooms and to wear purple silk socks during Lent".) Summers was ordained a deacon in 1908 and apprenticed as to a church in Bitton, where he became embroiled in a scandal involving charges of sodomy and pederasty with choirboys. Summers was acquitted, but the case would follow him to some degree or another for the rest of his life.

Summers's path through holy orders grows hazy after this. A year after the scandal, he converted to Roman Catholicism and was apparently ordained as a Catholic deacon. Not long thereafter, he presented himself to the world for the rest of his life as a priest: the "Reverend Alphonsus Joseph-Mary Augustus Montague Summers". Widespread confusion persists on whether Summers was actually a priest, since he appears in no rolls of clergy in England or elsewhere, and he never publicly offered the sacraments at home (though he did offer them publicly when traveling on the Continent, suggesting that either he had valid credentials from some bishop, or they were forged). Some sources suggest that he was ordained by an "Old Catholic" bishop while, as a young adult, he spent a number of years living in Italy and France for "health reasons".

In 1926, Summers entered the public sphere as an authority on the occult by publishing The History of Witchcraft. In an era obsessed with progress and scientific achievement, Summers stood alone as a true believer in the reality of witches, vampires, werewolves, and Church-sanctioned methods of destroying them. An excerpt from the introduction to his book:
"In the following pages I have endeavoured to show the witch as she really was – an evil liver: a social pest and parasite: the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed: an adept at poisoning, blackmail, and other creeping crimes: a member of a powerful secret organisation inimical to Church and State: a blasphemer in word and deed, swaying the villagers by terror and superstition: a charlatan and a quack sometimes: a bawd: an abortionist: the dark counsellor of lewd court ladies and adulterous gallants: a minister to vice and inconceivable corruption, battening upon the filth and foulest passions of the age." (The History of Witchcraft)

Two years later, Summers gave the world the first English translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous witch-hunting manual written by Heinrich Kramer in 1486. The same year, Summers debuted a work of his own, The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. 1933 saw the publication of The Werewolf, and in 1946, Witchcraft and Black Magic. (Just to name a few.)

Just how did this man come to learn so much about the world of witches and monsters, anyway? It's speculated that Summers's years abroad for matters of "health" actually marked a period of his life spent dabbling in occultic circles. Virtually nothing is known about the years in between his departure from Anglicanism and his return around 1916 to England. If Summers did dabble, it must have left a have sour taste in his mouth, or perhaps even a true experience of the horrific. For in all his works on the supernatural, Summers takes on the role of the modern-day witch hunter, a more fashionable version of Malachi Martin.

And yet, Summers was clearly fascinated by supernatural evil in ways beyond mere spiritual combat. Among the many other specialties he acquired, Summers was renowned for being an expert on Gothic horror fiction from the late 18th century. The seven gothic novels suggested by Isabella Thorpe in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey were long thought to have been merely inventions of the authoress's imagination. It was Montague Summers, of all people, who demonstrated that books like Horrid Mysteries and The Necromancer were real, if obscure, works in circulation in the early 19th century. Summers re-published incomplete editions of the two books I just named.

So, did Montague Summers really believe in any of this stuff in the first place? Many people who encountered him in real life thought him a charlatan, a man play-acting a character that had long since passed into extinction. Returning to Decadence and Catholicism, we read:
"... although Summers was a brilliant conversationalist, he had always a thick carapace of artificiality in his demeanor, a kind of mask that recalled the studied falsity of the classic dandy, not to mention the distrustful reserve of Walter Pater and John Gray. His style was decidedly aristocratic, Continental, and decadent, with the inevitable intimation of sexual impropriety. His friend writes of him, 'He would often meet me with such an expression as Che! Che!, accompanied by a conspiratorial smile; or he would look closely at me and murmur, 'Tell me strange things'."

Let's add to that a description from Summers's biographer, Friar Brocard Sewell:
"During the year 1927, the striking and somber figure of the Reverend Montague Summers in black soutane and cloak, with buckled shoes--a la Louis Quatorze--and shovel hat could often have been seen entering or leaving the reading room of the British Museum, carrying a large black portfolio bearing on its side a white label, showing in blood-red capitals, the legend 'VAMPIRES'."

For my own part, I'm mostly convinced that the good "Reverend" truly believed he was living on the set of a Van Helsing movie, or perhaps, one of Gothic horror stories he so often wrote about. Perhaps the obsession with vampires and the like was simply one of his eccentricities (every proper English clergyman must have at least one), though one he played up to more than full effect. And, perhaps, his priesthood was a fraud. He certainly never exercised any regular ministry throughout his lifetime. Still, no one doubts that he actually held deep, orthodox religious convictions. The actress Sibyl Thorndike wrote:
"I think that because of his profound belief in the tenets of orthodox Catholic Christianity he was able to be in a way almost frivolous in his approach to certain macabre heterodoxies. His humour, his 'wicked humour' as some people called it, was most refreshing, so different from the tiresome sentimentalism of so many convinced believers."
I will, however, contest the title of "medievalist" that many writers have given him. Montague Summers is better described as a Romantic. Of course, medievalism and Romanticism are greatly entwined, and the medievalism of the mid-19th century which gave birth to the Modern Medievalists listed to the right of my page all descend, literally or intellectually, from the Romantics of the late 18th century who first rebelled against the Age of Reason and its tyranny of order and disbelief.
Still, as he even said of himself, Summers remains an 18th-century man. The buckled shoes, the colored silk socks, the hair styled in the fashion of a powdered wig, and especially his signature cane topped with a figurine Leda being raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, are all signs of the consummate clerical decadent. His appended name; after his confirmation saint, Alphonsus de Liguori; and his religious works on Lourdes and Counter-Reformation figure Saint Anthony Maria Zaccaria all suggest a Tridentine spirituality. Next to the occult, Summers's greatest contribution to posterity was in his monumental (and successful) efforts to revive the forgotten plays of John Dryden and other playwrights from the Restoration (the late 17th century). Montague Summers is, at best, a good fit for the Institute of Christ the King and a throwback to an age when priests were also arbiters, makers, and preservers of high culture a la Antonio Vivaldi; at worst, a "daughter of Trent" who, if he ever actually was a priest to begin with, wasted his vocation on trivialities rather than the cure of souls .
Even Summers's work in translating the Malleus Maleficarum is more an indicator of his own fixations than the spirit of the age whence it came. The age of the organized witch hunt is not a part of the medieval legacy, but rather, of the Reformation, the court of Versailles, and the colonial era. When the Malleus's author, the Dominican friar Heinrich Kramer, tried to start an inquisition against witches, he was actually thrown out by the local bishop for his eccentricities and for spreading superstitions. The official position of the Church had been established by the 10th-century canon Episcopi, which held that the "magic" performed by witches and sorcerors were merely delusions of the mind and had no effect on the physical world. The Malleus Maleficarum, then, was an anachronism in its own time (in 1486). Though its preface purports to have been given the approval of the University of Cologne's Faculty of Theology, the truth is just the contrary: the book was actually condemned by the university's review and, in Kramer's zeal to hunt witches, was printed anyway. Three years after the Malleus hit shelves, the Church officially condemned the book.
The Malleus Maleficarum's dubious origins and authenticity is a fitting reflection for our own subject today. Still, the "Reverend Alphonsus Joseph-Mary Augustus Montague Summers", whatever his faults, makes for a striking character study. We'll close this story with a quote from Summers's introduction to The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which I found at the end of another biography. Though I've denied him the title of "medievalist", I'll let him have the last word on that debate.
"There is in the Romantic revival a certain disquietude and a certain aspiration. It is this disquietude with earth and aspiration for heaven which inform the greatest Romance of all, Mysticism, the Romance of the Saints. The Classical writer set down fixed rules and precisely determined his boundaries. The Romantic spirit reaches out beyond these with an indefinite but very real longing to new and dimly guessed spheres of beauty. The Romantic writer fell in love with the Middle Ages, the vague years of long ago, the days of chivalry and strange adventure. He imagined and elaborated a mediaevalism for himself, he created a fresh world, a world which never was and never could have been, a domain which fancy built and fancy ruled. And in this land there will be mystery, because where there is mystery beauty may always lie hid. There will be wonder, because wonder always lurks where there is the unknown. And it is this longing for beauty intermingling with wonder and mystery that will express itself, perhaps exquisitely and passionately in the twilight moods of the romantic poets, perhaps a little crudely and even a little vulgarly in tales of horror and blood."

The Exultet scroll: the Powerpoint of medieval Italy

 
 
Yesterday, I posted two articles on the Easter Vigil: one on the glory of observing the Vigil on the night of Holy Saturday, and another on that great hymn which attests to its nocturnal character (for the deacon sings the phrase "this is the night" five times), the Exultet. Today, I bring to you a glimpse of a unique tradition that developed in southern Italy: the proclaiming of the Exultet by means of an illuminated scroll.
 
By the 10th century, the scroll, as a means of putting words down to posterity, fell out of fashion in favor of a handy little invention called the book. But today, we have 28 surviving, magnificently decorated scrolls from places in Italy such as Benevento and Salerno that attest to their persisting use on the holiest night of the year. What's more remarkable is that the scrolls are designed to be read vertically. Those who are familiar with the Torah scrolls still used in the synagogue know that a scroll is typically read horizontally, whether right-to-left or left-to-right. We can tell from the Exultet scrolls' structure, and some of the artworks themselves, that their holy pictures were meant to be seen by the lay faithful as the deacon sang the hymn.
 
There appears to have been two methods to show the scroll off to the laity. In the first, the text and neumes (the notes for the chant) were written one way, and the pictures were illustrated upside-down. The deacon sang the Exultet from the pulpit facing the people, and as he unraveled the scroll, it spilled down the face of the pulpit with the pictures correctly oriented so that the laity could see the story of salvation unfold before their eyes; quite useful in an era when the Exultet was sung in Latin to an illiterate mass.
 
Singing from the pulpit, or ambo
 
 
In the second method, the neumes and pictures both faced the same way. This required two deacons: one stood below the pulpit with the people, facing the same direction. The other stood at the pulpit, unraveling the scroll so that the deacon below could sing it from bottom to top.
 
Singing with the people below (note the two candlebearers helping the deacon below to see)
 
In yesterday's article, I alluded to the Exultet's role as an ode to the bees which produced the wax for the Paschal candle. Many of these scrolls appropriately have entire scenes devoted to the bees. See below:
 
Of course, this looks more like a horror scene than a moving religious image. All I can think of is that scene in The Wicker Man where Nicholas Cage's character is eaten alive by bees.
 
Below, we have the beginning of an Exultet scroll where we can easily see how the text is upside-down.
 
Even if we might find reading medieval script difficult, we can see that the illuminated initials are on the right.
 
 
Is the art of the Exultet scroll lost forever? So far, I've found two modern nods to this tradition on the world wide web. The first is a recreation I came across on someone's Flickr album. You can find the album here, but I'll also share a couple of images directly below. The artist began it in 2006 and the page notes that only a quarter of the text was done at the time. I wonder if she ever finished it.
 
 
 




 
The last item I found is not a scroll at all, but an attempt to bring the illuminative tradition back to the Exultet in the form of a book. I imagine that, where the Exultet is sung today, it's usually sung from a simple binder of sheet music. A few years ago, a deacon and iconographer in Alaska, awed by the Exultet scrolls of medieval Italy, set to work on illuminating a book from which to sing the hymn. The product is now for sale from under the title The Illuminated Easter Proclamation for $70 on Amazon. The version used is the revised English text for the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. It has 28 Byzantine-style icons throughout. Of course, since this is a book, the faithful can't see them during the liturgy itself, but the icons are also sold on a CD (here) which, I suppose, could be used to print them out onto bulletins which can be distributed to the congregation.
 
I've shared the first icon below: Jonah being swallowed by the whale.
 
Not the most obvious choice for us today, but the medieval would have remembered how Jonah had to spend three days in the darkness of the whale's belly; a foreshadowing of Christ's rest in the tomb.