Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Long Lost Life of Pope Gregory I

The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great: By an Anonymous Monk of Whitby, translated by Bertram Colgrave. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1968. Pp. ix, 180.

Born in Ireland in 1889, Bertram Colgrave died at Cambridge, England in 1968, the year this book was published. Much of his academic career was focused on the production of facsimiles and critical editions of the lives of saints. For many years, he served as founding editor-in-chief of the series titled Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile.

In The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, Colgrave's "Introduction" takes up the biggest share of the book (1-70). It includes a section on the world into which the anonymous writer was born, a brief critical biography of Gregory the Great, and helpful information about the history of the Benedictine double monastery at Whitby, home to our author. Regarding date, Colgrave argues that the Whitby writer produced his work sometime between 704 and 714, and that traditions about Gregory that circulated at the monastery represent the writer's primary source, along with a "saga tradition" that likely came from Canterbury.

The Whitby writer also knows the Bible, which he quotes or echoes quite often. Colgrave tells us that although our anonymous monk could tell a pretty good story, he is no Latin stylist. In fact, at a number of points in the text the translator has a hard time knowing what the author was trying to say. Colgrave takes up the question of a possible relationship between the writings of Bede and the work produced by the Whitby writer, and concludes that there is no literary connection between the two. He explains that once Bede had finished his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, it immediately overshadowed the work of the Whitby writer, which fell into obscurity. In the modern era, no complete text of the work was issued until 1904.

Next, Colgrave presents the Latin text and his own translation of the work as one would find in the Loeb Classical Library: the original appears on the left side of an opening with the translation on the right (71-139). As the reader discovers, while some of the stories in this life are a bit pedestrian, the Whitby writer is able to include a few entertaining episodes connected to Gregory. For example, once he was identified as the next Pope, Gregory resisted by hiding, going so far as to hire a few local merchants who carried him out of the city in a casket (ch. 7). Above all, and throughout, the writer celebrates Gregory's devotion to the English people. It was by Gregory's distant influence that England became subject and devoted to the authority of the Roman Church.

The text and translation are followed by an impressive set of "Notes" (140-65) and a "Select Bibliography" (166-67), which supplements the works found in Colgrave's list of "Abbreviations" (viii-ix). The "Appendix" is essentially an index of biblical and other ancient sources that the Whitby writer quotes, or to which he alludes. This part of the book would be especially helpful to students who want to investigate the writer's handling of Scripture, or his knowledge and use of the patristic tradition. A good "Index" of places, names, and topics concludes the book (173-80).

Colgrave's work is the ideal, self-contained study of this particular life. Since its publication, it has no doubt raised scholars' awareness and use of this significant document from the eighth century. The work of the anonymous Whitby writer, with apparently no hagiographical sources behind it, provides a good contrast to Bede's Ecclesiastical History, which, in terms of sources, falls at the opposite end of the spectrum.

After reading this fine study, I still have one question: Why is it that "the earliest life of Gregory the Great" was written at least a century after he died?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What Were Byzantine Icons Up To?

Mosaic icon of St. John Chrysostom

Henry Maguire, The Icons of Their Bodies: Saints and their Images in Byzantium. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996. Pp. xviii, 222.

A longtime associate of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C., Henry Maguire is an expert in Byzantine art, literature, and culture. The Icons of Their Bodies, one of his many works, is a satisfying study of Byzantine sacred iconography. The book is written at a level suitable for the novice and is richly illustrated by 167 black-and-white figures.

In his "Introduction," Maguire states that his goal is "to analyze the logic of the saint's image in Byzantium, not from the perspective of a social historian but from that of an art historian. In other words," he says, "it is my main intention to discuss not the role that icons had in Byzantine society but rather the role that society had in the design of icons" (3).

In Chapter 1, "Likeness and Definition," Maguire raises and responds to basic questions like, Did Byzantine artists really know what a particular saint looked like? If so, how did they know? And, why do the saints in Byzantine art look more like caricatures than photographs to us moderns? He answers that people of the Middle Ages were not so naive or unsophisticated that they simply could not produce what moderns would call a genuine likeness, an impression of reality that artists call illusion. Instead, what Byzantine artists succeeded in producing was an impression that would be easily recognized.

In Chapter 2, "Corporality and Immateriality," Maguire begins by noting the differences between typical depictions of soldiers and monks who were saints. While soldiers appear to swagger, monks face the viewer full on, and seem much more two-dimensional. The author asserts that such differences are the result of design. In short, the icons are calculated to communicate that, while the lives of soldiers are filled with action, the lives of monks are pretty straightforward and flat. In this way, he proceeds to discuss the images of ascetics and bishops, evangelists, apostles, and the Virgin Mary. Throughout, his argument is that the nature and activities of different kinds of saints were communicated by their icons through varying "degrees of corporality, motion, and emotive response" (65).

Chapter 3, "Naming and Individuality," sets out to explain how and why Byzantine images differed before and after the Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries. According to Maguire, works of art before iconoclasm sometimes depicted the same saint numerous times and lacked inscriptions. By contrast, following the controversy, in the artistic period known as Middle Byzantine, icons appear to be standardized and included inscriptions. The author attributes these changes to church authorities who feared that many people connected the older images to popular magic. In short, change occurred at least in part because the church reacted against heresy and extra-ecclesial power.

The argument of Chapter 4, "Detail and Deficiency," is similar to that of the second chapter. Here, Maguire compares the "visual narratives of the saints," specifically, Saints Nicolas and George, with portrayals of the Virgin and of Christ. While the depictions of the two saints' lives are relatively spare, more abstract, those of Christ highlight both his "special divine status" and "his human nature." The status of the Virgin seems to fall somewhere in between. Although a unique person, compared to Christ, she is depicted in ways that are "more detailed and earthbound" (193-94). Again, the point is that the nature and function of the saints and, in this case, the Virgin and the Christ, strongly influence the ways in which they are depicted.

In a brief, "Conclusion," Maguire provides an overview of his book, and emphasizes that understanding and analyzing the "formal values" of Byzantine art represent the key to understanding it and its reception (199).

The Icons of their Bodies is characterized by simple, straightforward language accompanied by interesting, illuminating figures. This is the way that art history should be communicated.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Lord's Supper Meditation

On Zion's glorious summit stood
A num'rous host redeemed by blood!
They hymned their King in strains divine;
I heard the song and strove to join.

The poet who penned those words, about the year 1800, was a man named John Kent. With those words he wrote the the essential biography of every boy and girl, every man and woman who ever placed their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ; every person who ever committed himself to obeying the Son of God in all things.

It's clear that John Kent had been reading the Book of Revelation. In that book a much earlier John, the author of Revelation, caught a glimpse of heaven. There, he saw what he tells us was "a great multitude which no man could number."

There have been a few preachers in my past who sometimes made me think that about 83 people were going to make it to heaven. The Bible says that the real number is untold millions. I like the Bible version better, don't you? It makes me think that I might be there too someday. It helps me understand what Jesus meant when he told his disciples that "God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world; but so that the world through him might be saved." The gospel is good news for sinners!

This is what the Lord's Supper is all about. Jesus left it for us as a reminder. What this reminder says is that, in spite of your sins, if you want to be a part of the family of God; if you want to live for the Lord and make him proud to own you; if you want to be finally saved and live in the presence of God forever, you can.

Having heard the song they're singing in heaven, you can strive to join those blessed people, and make it; all because of what Jesus did when he went to the cross and died for us; when he have gave his body and his blood for you and me.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A Philosopher, a Hermit, and a Rabbi

Kirschner, Robert. "The Vocation of Holiness in Late Antiquity." Vigiliae Christianae 38 (1984): 105-124.

At the time this article was published, Robert Kirschner taught in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. More recently, he has become the Director of the Skirball Cultural Center Museum in Los Angeles.


Kirschner begins his article by asserting that the transition from the world of classical antiquity to that of late antiquity marks a shift from the individual as a cell in the body politic to a more autonomous individual. This change created an atmosphere in which the distinctly holy man, the personification of a connection between heaven and earth, became more common. With that in place, Kirschner states his purpose: "The present paper discusses the vocation of holiness in late antiquity with reference to the pagan philosopher, the Christian ascetic, and the rabbinic sage. It seeks to describe the basic dimensions of each model of holiness" (105).


The "pagan vocation of holiness" was founded upon paideia, a good classical education (106). Pagan holy men tended to come from the circles of independently wealthy people who had plenty of time for study and contemplation. Yet, they were also ascetics who embraced things like celibacy and vegetarianism (106). Such discipline brought to them extraordinary powers, and, in fact, the consummate philosopher might be regarded as the son of a deity (107). Typically, the status of the philosopher showed up in his physical appearance. There was something about his face, eyes, manner, etc. that was different.


By contrast to the philosopher, who lived in the society of the governing class, Christian holy men lived in the place of anti-culture, the desert (109). This can be seen as the philosopher's renunciation taken to an extreme. While the pagan philosopher did not indulge, the Christian ascetic completely cut himself off. While the philosopher might identify demons, the Christian ascetic engaged them in battle (109). The hermit rejected society, which led to apatheia, the absence of feeling, so that one could adequately deal with the demons. The ascetic's power became equal and even superior to that of demons. The physical accomplishments of the hermits were astonishing (111). One way in which the monk was like the philosopher is that both were familiar with the illustration of the athlete in training (111-12). Also, as with the philosophers, "the Christian holy man's personal conduct and demeanor were carefully observed by his disciples" (112). In fact, for the disciple to see the holy man was, in itself, a significant part of the training he sought (113-14). "Having passed beyond human society and the human condition, the Christian holy man spoke powerfully to both. By departing from the flawed orbit of ordinary men, but waging heroic battle against the demons, he recovered the primeval perfection of Adam that existed before the fall from grace. His arduous and unearthly vocation made him visibly holy" (114).


Unlike the pagan philosophers and Christian holy men, rabbis of late antiquity did not have biographers. Thus, in order to make any comparisons the historian is forced to sleuth other kinds of sources, like the Mishnah, Tosefta, the two Talmuds, and the Midrashim. Because these texts are typically juristic, they are unlikely sources of biographical information. Nevertheless, they do relate that the rabbis became much more significant after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. It was then that the rabbis concluded that the authority of Judaism's priesthood, which could no longer function, had been handed over to them (115). Study of the Torah and Mishnah became paramount and made the sages invincible. Attachment to the rabbinic sage, in the minds of some, superseded the disciple's first loyalty to his own father. The student's father brought him into this world, but his rabbi ushered him into the world to come (116). One difference between the Jewish holy man and the other two types is that, in this case, asceticism was rare and mild. Rabbis married, fathered children, lived in houses, and enjoyed good food and drink, albeit kosher. One pattern of continuity is that, with the rabbis as with the other two types, the holiness of the person was visible and important (117). In Judaism, the desire to witness the rabbi in every phase of life was sometimes taken to odd extremes. A student might follow the rabbi into "the bathroom" to see how he took care of his business there. Another would hide under the rabbi's marital bed to learn about his teacher's love-making. (One can only imagine how the rabbi's wife felt about that). The point is that even the rabbi's private actions and gestures were considered instructive and normative. He was in all phases of life the conduit of the divine revelation.


In the classical era, someone becoming holy, or a divine being, was truly exceptional. "[B]ut in Hellenistic and Roman society it was the aspiration of every poet, thinker, and artist to be divinized, to become a 'man of the Muses' " (119). The rabbinic sage, although he represents a separate tradition, "crystallizes a crucial attribute of the holy man: the paradigmatic impact of his person. Down to every detail of his being, the holy man is a divine revelation" (120).

This article is a succinct, concise survey of its topic. It is well written and contains a large number of interesting quotations from primary sources.