Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Medieval Allegories of the Divine Office

I have often had occasion to quote the medieval canonist and liturgical scholar William Durandus, bishop of Mende in France, who was born in a small town in Provence in 1237, and died at Rome in 1296. His treatise titled “Rationale Divinorum Officiorum – Explanation of the Divine Services” may well be described as a “Summa Liturgica”, for it provides a summary at once general and thorough of the Church’s liturgy, (covering both text and rite), as his contemporary St Thomas Aquinas did for theology in the two Summas. (Click here for information about a recent project of translating the Rationale.)

The tomb of Durandus in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. On the left side, he is presented to the Virgin and Child by St. Privatus, the patron saint of his see; St. Dominic is on the right.
Like earlier medieval writers on the liturgy, (of whom there are not a great many,) Durandus simply takes it for granted that the Church’s received liturgical texts are full of allegories, and may be explained as having a mystical significance greater than their mere letter. In this, his attitude to the liturgy is similar to that of the Church Fathers to the Holy Scriptures, and that of the Biblical authors themselves to earlier parts of the Bible. An interesting example of this is his explanation of the readings of Matins in the period after Pentecost.

The system of Scriptural readings assigned to the Office goes back to the 6th century; it originated in the ancient Roman basilicas, but we know nothing about how it was devised. When it was extensively revised in the Tridentine reform, the basic pattern of readings (Isaiah in Advent, St Paul after Epiphany, Genesis in Septuagesima etc.) was not changed, but completed and expanded. Following the feast of Pentecost, the readings are from the books of Kings until the first Sunday of August, when the Church takes up the Sapiential books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus. In September are read Job, Tobias, Judith and Esther, followed by the two books of the Maccabees in October, and Ezechiel, Daniel and the twelve minor prophets in November.

As he goes through the liturgical texts of the individual Sundays after Pentecost, Durandus is particularly concerned to explain both the mystical significance of the readings taken from a particular book, and their connection with the Sunday Masses. Of course, the date of Pentecost changes every year, ranging from May 10th to June 13th; therefore, the Office readings, which are tied to the calendar months, coincide with a different Sunday every year. Durandus’ allegorical links between these readings and the Sundays assumes a period of only 24 weeks between Pentecost and Advent, although there can be as many as 28. This section of the Rationale is quite long, and I here give only a few selection from the more interesting passages, all from the sixth book.

On the first Sunday after Pentecost
By Septuagesima we signify the human race’s expulsion from the fatherland of Paradise; by Lent, the people’s servitude under Pharaoh; by Easter, the immolation of the Lamb; by the forty days of Eastertide (i.e. from Easter to Ascension), the forty years in the desert; by the Rogations, the entrance into the promised land; by the seven days of Pentecost, in which seven gifts are apportioned, the division of the land; from the season which begins today, we signify the affliction of the people, and the governance by judges and kings. Therefore, there follow the four books of Kings. …

And here begins the fourth time of pilgrimage, because we are on the way to return to the fatherland. But because we have enemies before we arrive there, namely, the flesh, the world and the devil, the readings are taken from the books of Kings, which treat of wars and victories, that we may have victory, as the Jews did against the Philistines, …

But because war is not waged well without discretion, in the period that follows come the books of Solomon. Again, because vices arise, against which patience is necessary, the history of Job comes after that.

(Referring then to the principal personages whose stories are told in the Books of Kings) Saul is proposed to us as an example, who by disobedience lost (the rule of) the kingdom, that we may not be disobedient as he was, and lose the eternal kingdom. But David was humble in all his works, …

Saul and David, by Rembrandt, ca. 1655
David is preaching, and by the sling of preaching the devil is cast out of the heart of men, … Therefore, because men obtain victory through humility, at the Mass the Introit (of the First Sunday after Pentecost) begins “Lord, I have hoped in Thy mercy” – this shows David’s humility – “my heart hath exulted” – this is the joy of his mind, and through these two things is the battle won.

On the seventh Sunday after Pentecost
(The Sapiential books) are read from the beginning of August to the beginning of September, because this month is hot, and signifies the heat of the vices, in which we must rule (ourselves) wisely, as in the midst of a wicked and perverse nation. Or otherwise, because this month, August, is the sixth month (according to the ancient Roman calendar), whence it was called Sextilis before the time of Augustus Caesar, and our true Solomon (i.e. Christ) came in the sixth age of the world, Who made both one, and was the might of God, and the wisdom of God, and who taught us to live and teach wisely.

On the ninth Sunday after Pentecost
The book of Wisdom is read. Wisdom is to think about heavenly things, and lift the heart up to them, … and because a man cannot lift himself above himself, but must be drawn by the Lord, therefore the Introit says, “Behold God is my helper: and the Lord is the protector (‘susceptor’) of my soul”, that is, one who taketh upwards (‘sursum captor’.) ”

King Salomon, by Pedro Berruguete, ca. 1500
On the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
The twelfth Sunday is about prayer, and Job, as it were is portrayed, praying and sitting upon the dung heap (Job 2, 8) complaining about his false friends. … Job upon the dung heap is symbolically the soul in mortal sin, … and while it remains there, can only pray God to deliver it thence; wherefore the Introit begins “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” …

But in the Offertory is shown the efficacy of prayer, and the whole text is the prayer of Moses, taken from Exodus (chapter 32), when he prayed for the children of Israel, who made the golden calf for themselves, … which proves that the merits of the Saints benefit us.

On the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The book of Tobias is read, by whom the human race is represented, made blind by the sin of the first parent, which can only be healed by the bitterness of the Passion, which is signified by the gall (placed on Tobias’ eyes to heal them in chapter 11). … it says in the Introit, “Look, o Lord, upon Thy covenant, … and forget not to the end the souls of thy poor.” And this is what Tobias said to his son, “Fear not, my son: we lead indeed a poor life, but we shall have many good things if we fear God.”

On the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(T)he Church reads and sings about the Maccabees, who suffered many things under Antiochus and seven (foreign) nations. And by this it is held that the temple, which was polluted by those peoples, was purified by the Maccabees. By this it is signified that the soul, which is the temple of God, once polluted by the seven deadly vices, cannot be purified unless it be purified of sin.

Heliodorus Driven from the Temple (2 Maccabees 3), by Bertholet Flémal, 1658-62, following Raphael’s depiction of the same subject in the Stanza di Elidoro in the Vatican Museums.

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