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Conciliar Conversations

By Madeline McMahon

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Canones & Decreta sacrosancti…Concilij Tridentini (1564)

Canons and decrees are like the conference proceedings of church councils—polished, authoritative, and reflective of conversations, formal and informal, that nevertheless are often elided in the process of editing. As a meeting place for theologians, historians, and ecclesiastical authorities, the church council is an obvious site for intellectual history. Yet it can be tricky to chart that history, to disentangle the individual voices that contributed to the definitive, disembodied statements uttered by “the holy council” (mandat sancta synodus). After the Council of Trent ended in 1563, for instance, its decrees were published across the Catholic world. Revisions of liturgical texts—the missal and the breviary—soon followed in accordance with those decrees. So did a new catechism, a revised Vulgate, and the Index of prohibited books. These publications took on lives of their own as they were further revised, and, in some cases, revered or reviled. Yet what about the records from the council that did not get published? How can we recover the conversations that eventually became canons?

Sometimes we get a sense of the discussion from eavesdroppers. In 1416, the humanist Poggio Bracciolini attended the public hearing of the Hussite Jerome of Prague at the Council of Constance (1414 – 1418). In a letter to Leonardo Aretino, Poggio described how he listened, captivated, to “the eloquence and learning of the defendant.” Poggio quoted Jerome’s indignation at not being allowed to give a general defense speech rather than respond to each accusation one at a time. But it may be more accurate to say that the humanist, like a good classical historian, put words into his subject’s mouth. At one point, like a Cicero redivivus, Jerome exclaims to the ecclesiastics assembled, “O conscript fathers!” (patres conscripti). Compared with a quasi-official transcription from the council, Jerome incriminates himself far less in Poggio’s account (Renee Neu Watkins, “The Death of Jerome of Prague: Divergent Views,” 107). Yet Poggio also inserts specific readings of church fathers as well as the style of pagan orators into Jerome’s recorded speeches, suggesting, for example, that Jerome and Augustine had disagreed and that this was an argument for religious toleration (ibid., 108). Poggio’s depiction of Jerome’s stance thus differed substantially from the Hussite’s own. As Renee Neu Watkins put it, Jerome “believed…that he and Hus alone stood for the one just cause, the cause of the Church. Poggio suggests that eloquentia—that is, the classical moral tradition—offers another standard of justice” (120). This recorded conversation thus tells us as much about Poggio’s views as about Jerome’s.

Reading as well as speech feature in reports recording the 1529 Marburg Colloquy between Luther, Zwingli, and other Protestant reformers. Unlike the finished Articles, which stress the theologians’ agreement, an anonymous report begins with Luther acknowledging that in their “published pamphlets…they disagree” on important doctrinal issues and that he had even discovered by letter that “some Strassburgers” were saying that the fourth-century heretic Arius had taught more correctly on the Trinity than Augustine (“Anonymous Report,” trans. David Luebke 2). In addition to getting a sense of the earlier debate in print and rumors of theological contention on the street, these reports let us overhear an exegetical debate about the Eucharist at the colloquy itself. When arguing over the meaning of “this is my body,” Jesus’s words at the last supper, Zwingli demanded to know why Luther wants to understand the words literally. Oecolampadius, in support of Zwingli, cited Augustine’s exegesis of John’s gospel “that the body of Christ in which he rose must be in one place.” Luther, in turn, rejected the applicability of Oecolampadius’s reading to “this is my body”: “I say to this passage from Augustine…that it has nothing to do with the Lord’s Supper” (Heinrich Utinger report, Luebke, 13). The reports show the work of reading and discussion being done, while the Marburg Articles merely reference the friendly state of aporia the group reached: “at this time, we have not reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless, each side should show Christian love to the other” (ibid., 17).

Pasquale Cati, Council of Trent (1588 painting in Santa Maria in Trastevere). Behind the allegory with the Church personified are a number of smaller discussions.

Like Heinrich Utinger’s report at Marburg, Gabriele Paleotti’s diary of the last two years of the Council of Trent, the Acta concilii Tridentini, is a semi-official account. Paleotti, a forty-year old judge at the Roman Rota, was sent to the council without voting power (Hubert Jedin, Das Konzil von Trient, 37). Joining the ranks of a number of other recorders, he kept eight notebooks on the final eight sessions, from January 15, 1562 to December 4, 1563 (ibid.). His Acta are immense—they take up over five hundred folio pages in the modern edition (Concilium Tridentinum…Collectio, III.233 ff.). His entries provide a glimpse of heated arguments between intellectuals of various national and linguistic backgrounds and theological and political convictions. The French delegates, for example, arrived even later than Paleotti, in November 1562; Paleotti’s diary depicts the crucial intervention of Charles De Guise, cardinal of Lorraine, on issues such as images and relics.

Another issue that occupied the Tridentine reformers in the final months was the appointment of bishops. Even before De Guise’s arrival, the French cardinal was rumored to believe “crazy things” about bishops—that they should be elected to office (Sebastiano Gualterio, quoted in Robert Trisco, “The Debate on the Election of Bishops in the Council of Trent” 262). In France and in much of Catholic Europe, rulers had often been granted the right to nominate successors to vacant sees in their territories. De Guise himself had been royally named an archbishop at the tender age of thirteen when his uncle, the previous archbishop of Reims, resigned (Trisco, 261). Yet on May 13, 1563, he stood before the council and argued that “election by the clergy took place according to the most ancient law out of the traditions of the apostles, although the confirmation was done by archbishops” (Paleotti, III.612, my translation). It was “absurd that even women, as in England and Scotland, who can neither teach nor speak in a church, nominate as bishops whomever they want” (III.613, my translation). (It is worth pointing out that the regent of France at this point, the ruler who had sent De Guise and his fellow French bishops to Trent, was Catherine de’ Medici.) To protect the church from the decisions of incompetent monarchs—whether minors or women—De Guise advocated for a return “to the form of the ancient church” (ibid.). Others immediately balked: “when the emperor, kings, and every commonwealth submitted to the decrees of this holy council,” that would be safeguard enough—as well as their due reward for the political support that the council needed (III.617).

The ultimate decision, delayed until November 1563, was to maintain the status quo but to impose higher standards: “Without wishing to change any arrangements at the present time, the council exhorts and charges all who have any right under any title from the apostolic see in the appointment of prelates, or assist the process in any way, to have as their first consideration that they can do nothing more conducive to the glory of God and the salvation of the people than to have every concern to appoint good shepherds who are fitted to guide the church” (ed. Tanner II.760). The tentative language hints at the contested nature of the decree—and the way in which the conversation developed to articulate what an ideal bishop should be like. Years later, when Paleotti was a bishop, he worked to revise his Acta of the council for publication. Such a publication would have been a kind of contemporary church history. But the changing and contested reception of Trent made it difficult, even impossible, to publish notebooks like Paleotti’s (Jedin, 39). The fluidity behind the final decrees was obscured, left for us to reconstruct from the letters, notes, and other records for an intellectual history of church councils.

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Representing Material Evidence: The Catacombs in Print

by Madeline McMahon

bosio1632 frontispieceAntonio Bosio’s Roma sotterranea was published posthumously in 1634. Bosio’s original manuscript, now in the Biblioteca Vallicelliana, was finally brought to print by the Oratorian scholar Giovanni Severano. The book would have cost a fortune—it was over six hundred folio pages long and heavily illustrated—but it became enduringly popular (Simon Ditchfield, “Reading Rome,” 189). It covered much more than the underground world of the Roman catacombs for which it is now known. It detailed how the martyrs’ bones had been preserved by providence for future believers (book I) and discussed early Christian material evidence from construction sites as well as excavations proper in books II and III. But the vast majority of the visual evidence for which the book is so famous and the detailed analysis of that evidence in book IV were primarily the work of the editor Severano rather than Bosio (Ditchfield, “Text Before Trowel,” 346). Severano’s team of engravers recreated Christian sarcophagi, catacomb paintings, lamps, and inscriptions, often from multiple angles.

In the catacombs, as Jerome reflected dramatically in the fourth century, “So great is the darkness that the language of the prophet seems to be fulfilled—‘Let them go down quick into hell.’” How did one bring the catacombs to light in print—how did one depict the material evidence that was so often fragmentary but also charged with devotional meaning? Severano’s interests were clearly iconographical. His added fourth book addressed the typical representations of biblical figures and the symbolism used in the catacomb art. Iconography could both help and hinder understanding of early Christian art. It helped the engravers fill in destroyed or only partially visible carvings and paintings. Typically they did not call attention to it, but sometimes they did.

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Reconstructing a damaged wall painting, with a hypothetical restoration (p. 271)

Here, for example, they have taken the liberty of showing a corresponding figure in the orans pose on the other side of good shepherd where a piece of plasterwork had fallen off. But they have also taken care to show both their addition and the damaged area. Yet their expectations for iconography could also blind them, leading them to expect the instruments of martyrdom (p. 433) or subtly shaping their depiction of a bust-length portrait of Christ (p. 253).

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 5.18.40 PMThe way in which they depict text is especially fascinating in light of Severano’s attempts to depict and describe early Christian iconography. As he noted in IV.31, “the ancient Christians not only represented our Lord with various images, as we have seen, but his most holy name was expressed in different mysterious ways,” including the monogram (cifra) of the Chi-Rho (p. 629), comprised of the Greek letters Χ (chi) and Ρ (rho). Letters could function like images—to such an extent that Severano included the symbol in the book’s index under “X” rather than “C,” so that befuddled readers could learn what this common sign meant.

This awareness of text as image sometimes influenced the reproductions of epitaphs on sepulchers. Although many of the reproductions only imitated original inscriptions through their use of capital letters, Severano’s team occasionally reproduced visual elements in the text, such as the exaggerated size of T’s (probably referring to the association of the Greek letter Τ (tau) with the cross) in some (p. 300). As in the case of the praying figure on broken plaster, they also tried to indicate damage, either by replicating cracks in the stone or including ellipses in the transcription. While they frequently attempted iconographically based reconstructions of missing parts of paintings or imperfect sarcophagi, textual frammenti were left incomplete. In one instance, on a marble stone that was especially “worn out,” they simply confessed, “Il resto non si può leggere” (p. 400).

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A broken inscription and an inscription with exaggerated T’s (p. 151)

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 5.24.59 PMWhile even simple capital letters in a square are evocative of the material object they represent, there are a few instances in Roma sotterranea when Severano clearly felt that the script was integral to the artifact. One was a broken sepulchral inscription found by the Via Portuense catacombs—one of many fragments “from which one could not extract any sense” (p. 125). Perhaps its very difficulty made it necessary to reproduce with greater attention to the placement of the text on the stone. Text, with symbols like palms, doves, and the Chi-Rho, also features as part of the reconstructions of the sepulchers carved out in the catacomb walls. One page in particular includes an attempt to copy the curved, messy writing on an anonymous grave: “Rest in peace. Kalends of December” (Sabbato in pace KK decembris) (p. 214).

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Tombs with inscriptions (p. 214)

Although Severano’s appreciation of script was not as sophisticated as his understanding of early Christian iconography, the two are not unrelated. As William Stenhouse has shown, earlier contemporaries of Bosio and Severano had begun to contextualize classical inscriptions and reproduce them to scale, differentiating between different kinds of writing. They had even made attempts to reconstruct fragmentary inscriptions. In many ways, Roma sotterranea follows these trends more closely in its engravings of catacomb paintings than in its reproductions of Christian inscriptions and epitaphs. Nonetheless, there were certain instances in which image and text were treated as one. The inhabitants of “Underground Rome” had envisioned Christ in many guises—as a Good Shepherd, as an Orpheus, and even as collections of letters. Their own writing was part of the material evidence that Bosio encountered, and these textual objects became part of a new one when Severano brought the book to press.

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Holy Portraits: New Icons and Ancient Likenesses after Trent

by Madeline McMahon

The Salus Populi Romani in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
The Salus Populi Romani in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

In the fifteenth century, a rash of treatises were written by Italian clerics ascribing local icons of the Madonna and Child to St. Luke. Manuscript treatises such as that by the Roman canon Giovanni Baptista not only lent a prestigious provenance to icons like the Salus Populi Romani (claiming that it had been the icon Gregory the Great used in 590 to protect the city from plague) but also reinvigorated those icons’ cults (Nagel and Wood, Anachronic Renaissance, 109). The legend that the evangelist Luke had left behind visual as well as written testimony (that is, as a painter as well as a gospel writer) can probably be dated to the iconoclastic debates of the eighth century. Because Luke had made a portrait of the Virgin, this meant that all paintings of the Madonna and Child had “an apostolic pedigree” (Maniura, 90). But it also meant that some paintings, at least, offered an authentic likeness of the Mother of God. Whereas the bodies of saints were often physically accessible, it was believed that the Virgin had been assumed to heaven. A Lucan icon of the Madonna was a relic of the evangelist as well as a point of contact with Mary herself. As Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood have argued, in the medieval period there was a double awareness that a Lucan icon could be “at once substituting for its immediate predecessor in the replication chain and also retaining an attribution to St. Luke” (72). This changed in the middle of the fifteenth century, when venerated images became more like relics—nonsubstitutable and historic—and more icons were given venerable histories.

In 1563, in the final days of the Council of Trent, a decree on the veneration of sacred images and relics was hastily put together that upheld “due honour and reverence” towards images of Christ and the saints “because the honour showed to them is referred to the original which they represent: thus, through the images which we kiss and before which we uncover our heads and go down on our knees, we give adoration to Christ and veneration to the saints, whose likenesses they bear” (emphasis mine, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, II.775). Bishops were entrusted with instructing and overseeing the appropriate veneration of images—and with interpreting the finer points of the decree, such as what was meant by the saints’ “likenesses” (similitudines). What did bishops after Trent make of sacred images purportedly taken from life, like the Lucan icons?

The 1594 Latin edition of Paleotti's discourse (Google Books).
The 1594 Latin edition of Paleotti’s discourse (Google Books).

In his Discourse on Sacred and Profane Images (1582), Gabriele Paleotti, bishop of Bologna, included in his definition of sacred images both any paintings that depicted sacred subject matter and miraculous images like the volto santo, the cloth in Rome upon which Christ’s face was imprinted en route to his crucifixion (trans. McCuaig, 99 – 100). But aside from pointing specifically to the volto santo in St. Peter’s, he did not identify any biblical or apostolic works of art. The tradition that St. Luke had painted the Virgin was important to him, but primarily as textual proof that Christians’ use of images had ancient precedent. Like Nicephorus, the ninth-century patriarch of Constantinople he cited for his references to the Lucan icons, Paleotti felt the need to “prove the use of sacred images” against those who might contest it. While Protestant iconoclasts were not a problem in the diocese of Bologna, they seem to have been on the bishop’s mind.

But Luke’s painting of the Virgin had another important role in Paleotti’s demonstration that, over the centuries, “men of piety have striven to have the most lifelike images of [the saints] they possibly could in order to spur themselves more effectively with such images to imitate the road leading to heaven that those saints, while alive, had shown them” (212). Paleotti’s insistence that saints be portrayed “with the effigy they had in life, if that is known, or in a verisimilar fashion, or at any rate as typically good and intelligent persons who look the way they are likely to have looked” reveals his pastoral concern that images lead people to live the saintly lives they see depicted. He worried that a wicked face might make someone laugh or that a luxuriously dressed, well-fed saint would mislead viewers.

In 1624, Federico Borromeo, a mentee of Paleotti and cardinal-archbishop of Milan (like his more famous cousin before him), wrote his own work On Sacred Painting. Borromeo, too, did not point out specific Lucan icons. He mentioned the acheiropoieton image of Christ on the Holy Shroud of Turin, but brushed aside debate on its composition: “this is not the place to investigate how or by what technique it was made. There is at least no doubt at all that the image was made from life and with the greatest care” (trans. Rothwell, 71). Like Paleotti, Borromeo is interested in early Christian images made from life, but did not turn to icons to learn about them. Instead, as Paleotti did, Borromeo turned to texts, citing Nicephorus on the images painted by Luke and then quoting, in full, Nicephorus’s description of these images. Christ was blond with black eyebrows, just like his mother (73 – 5). Borromeo’s quotation was meant for painters: “I hope that painters who are making portraits of Christ and the Mother of God remember this one thing, which all early Christians believed and which the Church Fathers have handed down: that the face of the Savior was notable for its striking similarity to that of his Mother.” The description itself was important “to help painters render more life-like portrayals,” but so was the verisimilitude that a son should look like his mother (93).

When Borromeo did turn to early images, he looked to the recently reopened Christian catacombs and early medieval church paintings. Charlemagne’s visage could be recovered from the church of Santa Susanna in Rome, and could be verified by its similitude to images on seals, in an old codex of the Bible, and the description of Charlemagne’s biographer, Einhard (113 – 15). Unlike the relic-icons in the fifteenth century that were preserved as they were, Borromeo felt that these remaining ancient portraits were fleeting. He collected copies of them, imitating Varro’s collection of the portraits of famous men by preserving what was sometimes destroyed in his own lifetime (103, 113). He lamented, too, the opportunities to capture contemporary saints’ images, noting that “an almost unlimited amount of money was spent on images” of his recently canonized cousin Carlo “after his death, whereas virtually no one bothered to paint [his] face while he was alive” (107).

At the turn of the seventeenth century, there were new possibilities to learn about early Christian art—below ground in the catacombs and in new scholarship. Paleotti and Borromeo were both highly attuned to what might be accurate and appropriate in a religious painting. While they took note of some of the more famous medieval images of Christ, they tended to be silent about the icons of the Madonna and Child that had been so important in the fifteenth century. But instead of projecting either newly discovered or long-venerated images to the status of irreplaceable relics, they sought likenesses that could become the basis for new holy portraits. What mattered was the visage of St. Carlo Borromeo, or the sacred symbols that early Christians used to symbolize human figures or beliefs in the catacombs—an “ancient practice” that “we should uphold…and use more often” (Federico Borromeo, 99). The remains of early Christian art were important as material evidence, but also as information that directed living artists’ work.

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Passage and Place: Loci in Humanist Travel Writings

by Madeline McMahon

12th-century Church of the Sepulchre of Mary, Jerusalem (Wikimedia
12th-century Church of the Sepulchre of Mary, Jerusalem (Wikimedia)

After midday on August 14, 1483, the Dominican friar Felix Fabri and his fellow pilgrims to Jerusalem began to prepare for their celebration of the feast of the assumption of Mary. They constructed a small kind of tent around the altar in the very “place from whence the blessed Virgin was carried off” to heaven after her death and created “a beauteous holy grove,” adorned with “leafy boughs of olive and palm trees, strewed with grass and flowers.” In the evening, incense intermingled with the scent of the branches, and the pilgrims sang “Et ibo mihi ad montem myrrhae.” After the service, a group of Eastern Christians used the same space, although Fabri was unimpressed with their hymns: “they seem to wail rather than to sing.” Nevertheless, the liturgical calendar dictated when both Fabri’s Western Christian companions and their Eastern Christian neighbors celebrated this particular feast. But because they were in Jerusalem, the actual place associated with the Virgin’s death also played a central role in their liturgical celebrations: they circled her sepulchre in a procession and sat vigil around it throughout the eve of her feast (Fabri, Evagatorium, trans. Stewart, 7.193-4).

Later in his journey, Fabri returned to where “Mary departed from this world,” but described it very differently. On a walking tour, Fabri’s group “came at no great distance to another place enclosed with a higher dry stone wall, wherein tradition says that the house of the blessed Virgin stood, wherein she lived a domestic life for fourteen years” (8.328). Rather than singing solemnly and adorning the place with branches, Fabri elaborated on the tradition surrounding the Virgin’s life after the death of Jesus. In fact, his understanding of that tradition is perhaps surprisingly inclusive (although mediated and confirmed by a Christian source, Nicholas de Cusa): “We are told in the Alcoran of Mohamet that she only survived five years [‘after our Lord’s ascension’], and that her years in all were fifty-three, as is said also by Nicholas de Cusa, Book II, chapter xv” (ibid.). The physical location (or locus) of Mary’s house led Fabri to cite two passages (loci) in order to solve—or at least state possible answers to—a chronological conundrum. Two meanings of the Latin word locus, textual passage and physical place, overlapped.

As the center of the liturgical celebration, Mary’s grave might be seen as a lieu de mémoire, a site for formally memorializing a long-ago and otherwise inaccessible event (Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, 26 (1989), 7-24). But in Fabri’s walking tour, Mary’s house functioned as a kind of commonplace heading on the topic of her life after Christ and death. By analogy, the landscape could become a commonplace book, with each new holy site a potential topical heading to organize various related texts and relevant oral knowledge. Text could be inscribed on the terrain.

A book inflecting the way space was approached was nothing new, of course—that was the essential premise for pilgrimage itself. Petrarch populated his 1358 Itinerarium to the holy land with famous literary figures. He celebrated the cities on route to Jerusalem for being where Vergil wrote the Georgics, or Pliny the Elder died in volcanic ash (trans. Cachey, 10.3). And he assumed that his reader was comparing his itinerary with the words of famous authors ringing in their ears: “It should not surprise you that Virgil in the third book of the divine poem [the Aeneid] apparently placed [Scylla and Charybdis] otherwise. He was describing in fact the voyage of one who was arriving while I the voyage of one who is departing” (12.1). He also expected them to see “everything through the Gospel, which is fixed in your mind as you look” (16.4). But the reader’s familiarity with scripture often meant Petrarch felt he could pass over enumerations of minor holy sites and instead recount classical texts and histories. In contrast to Fabri’s later narrative, Petrarch’s imagined itinerary did not elicit the same references to specific texts, though he referred readers to Josephus for further information on a historical point (16.6). His guide to the holy land was meant to help his reader appreciate the landscape. The itinerary itself only loosely organized the texts that Petrarch alluded to reference to it.

Cyriac of Ancona's drawings of stone carvings on the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Agia Triada, Greece (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Cod. Trotti 373, f. 115r,
Cyriac of Ancona’s drawings of stone carvings on the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Agia Triada, Greece (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Cod. Trotti 373, f. 115r,

Sometimes, though, the landscape could provide textual loci of its own. Cyriac of Ancona (1391 – 1452) traveled for mercantile business from a young age in the Mediterranean and was struck by the remains of classical and (to a lesser extent) Christian antiquity. He wrote six travel diaries, describing how his friends and hosts in Frankish towns and Venetian colonies guided him through fields to inspect “remnants” (reliquiae or monumenta) of antiquity, including ancient temples, floor mosaics, and hundreds of inscriptions (Diary V, trans. Bodnar, II.307 – 9). He believed, as his lifelong friend Francesco Scalamonti wrote, that “the stones themselves afforded to modern spectators much more trustworthy information about their splendid history than was to be found in books” (Scalamonti, Life, trans. Mitchell, Bodnar, and Foss, I.48 – 9).

Nonetheless, Cyriac frequently made use of texts to make sense of objects in the landscape. He identified the iconography of the Parthenon—then dedicated to the Virgin Mary— “from the testimony of Aristotle’s words to King Alexander” (quoted in Brown, Venice and Antiquity, 84). The landscape induced both Fabri and Cyriac to turn to texts, but Cyriac was more concerned with the material buildings and remains than Fabri, who used pilgrimage sites in his account to recount memories or textual loci. Texts made the landscape interesting to Petrarch, but both fifteenth-century travellers toggled back and forth between physical and textual loci to make them speak to each other. Cyriac even replicated the loci in the landscape for his friends, sending drawings and transcriptions of monuments across the Mediterranean. Most of his own manuscripts are now lost—as are many of the inscriptions he copied. But his writings circulated widely through scribal copies in his circle, preserving the landscape that so fascinated him in text.

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Making a Case for Bishops’ Authority in the Second and Seventeenth Centuries

By Madeline McMahon

Later (c. 1000) depiction of Ignatius’s martyrdom (Menologion, Wikimedia)

In 1644, James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, published the letters of two early Christian martyrs: Polycarp and Ignatius (Polycarpi et Ignatii Epistolae (Oxford: Lichfield, 1644)). Both were bishops in the eastern Roman Empire and both met their deaths (one at the stake, the other apparently “as food for wild beasts”) in the early second century. Not unusually, Ussher’s edition had a facing Latin translation as well as the original Greek. The Latin text was an “old” translation taken from the collation of three manuscripts, but even more exciting was the “other ancient version of the Ignatian letters, published now for the first time from two manuscripts found in England” that Ussher added (ibid., title page, my translation). While not the Greek original, this “ancient verison” was a translation of the authentic letters of Ignatius—a group of documents that had been (and continue to be) plagued with scholarly doubts about interpolation (Louth, 55). Ussher attributed the Latin translation he discovered to the thirteenth-century English bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste, because Grosseteste’s quotations of the letters matched the Latin in this manuscript and because before his time Ignatius was only cited through other sources in medieval England.

(c) National Trust, Hatchlands; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
James Ussher in 1654. (c) National Trust, Hatchlands; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Ussher’s discovery of an authentic version of Ignatius’s letters in the translation of a learned English bishop had political ramifications—or so he hoped. Ignatius’s letters, in addition to containing the first recorded uses of “Christianity” and “catholic church,” are also among the earliest texts about bishops. Ignatius repeatedly insisted that congregations he wrote to obey their bishop. Such demands took on new meaning in the debates of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. While Ussher’s new version dismissed the spurious “Long Recension,” which Catholics quoted frequently (Louth, ibid), Ussher also hoped that Ignatius’s letters would speak to his fellow Protestants. He was making a last stand for episcopacy, and of a particular kind. In November 1640, the Long Parliament discussed the powers of the English bishops and wound up revoking the power of Convocation (a kind of committee of English bishops) to create canons and directives without parliamentary appeal. In March 1641, the Lords voted to create a committee to discuss religious matters, including church government. Ussher was among the divines advising that committee. He circulated his manuscript of the Reduction of Episcopacy to the form of Synodical Government, a kind of reconciliation of episcopacy with presbyterian synods, around this time (Abbott, “James Ussher and ‘Ussherian’ Episcopacy, 1640 – 1656”). He further promoted primitive (or limited) episcopacy by having books supporting episcopacy printed in Oxford. Just a few years before the edition of Ignatius, he published writings by stauch defender of episcopacy, Jacobean bishop of Winchester Lancelot Andrewes and others that upheld the antiquity of bishops. Yet Ussher’s eagerness to find texts supporting episcopacy meant that he published works that conceived of bishops very differently from his particular model.

The letters of Ignatius might seem an obvious text for anyone defending the role of bishops in the church. The Syrian bishop’s most popular epistle is a rather gory and unusual appeal to the Romans: “pray leave me to be a meal for the beasts” (trans. Staniworth and Louth, 86)! All of Ignatius’s letters were written en route to his martyrdom, on a journey that took him from his diocese of Antioch to Rome. Along the way, the Christian populations of various cities welcomed him or sent representatives to wish him well along the way. He thus met a number of bishops—including the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp—and also seems to have sensed dissent from the orthodoxy they defined. Ignatius conceived of the bishop as part of an earthly hierarchy that mirrored that of heaven: “it is for the rest of you to hold the deacons in as great respect as Jesus Christ; just as you should also look on the bishop as a type of the Father, and the clergy as the Apostolic circle forming His council; for without these three orders no church has any right to the name” (Letter to the Trallians, 79). The church on earth corresponds to the divine. According to Henry Chadwick in a classic short article, it is this Hellenistic and even gnostic idea that makes sense of Ignatius’s repeated praise of bishops’ silence (“The Silence of Bishops in Ignatius”). Ignatius’s claim that “[t]he more reserved a bishop is seen to be, the more he ought to be respected” seems at odds with his demand that a bishop should dictate orthodoxy and that the prayer of “the bishop together with his whole church” is especially potent (Letter to the Ephesians, 62). It is also very different from the late Roman bishops who coopted the figure of the classical philosopher in order to speak truth to power (Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity). In Chadwick’s view, though, “God is silence; therefore when men see their bishop silent, the more reverence they should feel towards him, for it is then that he is most like God” (171-2).

Scholarly debate on Ignatius’s silent bishops continues, but we should not ignore that Ignatius was a bishop himself. We have no letter from Ignatius to his own diocese of Antioch, but he mentioned his flock, asking the Trallians to “[r]emember my Syrian church in your prayers (though I do not deserve to be called a member of it, since I am the last and least of them all)” (82). He told the Philadelphians, “News has come to me that, in response to your prayers and your loving sympathy in Christ Jesus, peace now reigns in the church at Antioch in Syria. It would therefore be very fitting for you, as a church of God, to appoint one of your deacons to go there as God’s ambassador…to offer them your felicitations” (95). It is possible that Ignatius acted as a scapegoat of some sort to ease intra-Christian tensions in Antioch by going to Rome (Brent, 44-5). This might help explain why he usually had rhetorical recourse to his identity as a soon-to-be martyr rather than as bishop. When asking the Trallians to obey their bishop, “whose very gentleness is power,” he notes, “I am measuring my words here…I could well write more forcibly on his behalf, if it were not that as a condemned prisoner I have not thought myself entitled to use the peremptory tone of an Apostle” (80). For Ignatius, authority was a paradox.

Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than his chains, which literally spoke for him: “These chains which I wear…utter their own appeal to you to continue in unity” (81). As a criminal condemned to death, he is a holy figure, transient and marginal but therefore accorded special honor. Ignatius is probably the prototype for the later holy men Peter Brown describes carrying chains, “associated in the Near East…with the status of a political prisoner fallen from his high estate” (Society and the Holy, 182). He highlighted the role of bishops, but spoke from outside that role in order to do so. In fact, he leveraged his civil and legal status as a prisoner. Like his seventeenth-century editor, he circulated texts in order to defend the role of bishops in a volatile religious moment. Ultimately, he did so very differently—where Ussher argued from precedent, Ignatius used paradox.

Think Piece

Reflections on “Treasured Possessions” and Material Culture

by Madeline McMahon

Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment,” an exhibit at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, folds the viewer into the fabric of life in early modern Europe. Street venders hawked their fare and pharmacists displayed their wares, and men paraded around in the latest fashion while women stepped into slippers to protect their elaborately embroidered heels from the mud and dung of the city. In the relative quiet of the house, people cooked, ate, drank, sewed, prayed, and saved money, all aided by or in the setting of their material belongings, which, of course, they also spent time arranging. Much in the same way an early modern household would display its finest objects for view, the exhibit shows off some of the Fitzwilliam’s fantastic collection of decorative arts.

The exhibit is also an instance of historians in the museum: it was co-curated by three historians from Cambridge’s faculty—Melissa Calaresu, Mary Laven, and Ulinka Rublack— and the keeper of applied arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Victoria Avery. Thanks to this collaboration, “Treasured Possessions” responds to recent historiographical developments in the study of cultural history and reflects their own research interests. Objects, not just archives, can teach us about the past—about production, acquisition, possession, and use. This exhibit is an homage to the rise of the study of material culture and it makes a strong case for that study’s importance by putting material evidence before the public. The cases and commentary do not merely display objects but also create a historical narrative around them—setting them into their local and larger contexts, while focusing on no one country or region in particular. The rooms depict the consumer revolution as Neil McKendrick and others have envisioned it since the 1980s, but with important addenda, noting, for example, that “alongside the production of worldly goods…[there was] a simultaneous surge in the production and consumption of items of religious significance” (case 18).

In fact, the case of “Spiritual Belongings” (18) especially captured my imagination (in part thanks to my own interest in early modern religious history). The case is in the final section of the exhibition, “At Home and On Display.” The exhibit as a whole gradually takes the viewer from the marketplace (a 17th-century print of Roman venders and their cries adorns the right-hand wall at the entrance) into the home, but to show devotional objects used in private versus those used in public—that is, in a church—is a helpful intervention. We would expect a cross or crucifix in many early modern churches, but to see the scene of the crucifixion on a bright green lead-glazed stove tile from late sixteenth-century Germany is almost startling. The tile is telling—Christ made his way into the early modern kitchen—but also obscure: we can’t be sure whether that stove fed and heated a Protestant or a Catholic family (Treasured Possessions, 241). Yet many of these objects were nonetheless crucial to confessional identity, as Laven observes in the catalogue (244). An 18th-century Dutch wall panel bearing an inscription from Paul’s letter to the Phillipians was likely Protestant, while a tin-glazed earthenware statuette of the Virgin and Child would have been a treasured possession in a Catholic home. Perhaps more than other items, religious objects reveal the limitations as well as the possibilites of the study of material culture: ultimately we cannot recreate precisely what they meant to early modern owners, even if aided by signs of use and the help of accompanying text or images.

Text and images, after all, are objects, too. Early moderns recorded their own use of objects—as in Matthäus Schwarz’s “book of fashion,” a manuscript in which he recorded his outfits for forty years—and they were eager to capture the material culture of the world around them, as the prints of venders and costume books attest. They were even interested in the material culture of the past, as we are in theirs. They also used and displayed books in much the same way they showed off their other stuff. A pendant in the shape of a book, with biblical scenes as pages, and a book of hours would have worked in much the same way, and both were deluxe goods that signalled material well being as well as spiritual.

The mere survival of early modern objects can speak volumes. Many treasured possessions were ephemeral—such as tulips and camellias, and food and drink (although some trendy foods were represented in surviving objects, such as the this pineapple-shaped teapot, the container for an even trendier drink). Textiles and leather easily disintegrated: the only full suit of clothes in the exhibition is a reconstruction, and we are fortunate to have this worn pair of sixteenth-century leather shoes. But the objects that lasted despite their delicate nature, such as the many items from the Fitzwilliam’s impressive porcelain and maiolica collection, were clearly conserved thanks to the people who treasured them in the early modern period and after. The collection and display of objects are in so many ways distinctively early modern, and the exhibit captures and plays on that, like a modern Wunderkammer of ordinary and luxury goods.

“Treasured Possession from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment” is open at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK until September 6, 2015.