Saturday, March 30, 2019

An Early Medieval Biblical Narrative - The Story of Susanna Carved in a Crystal

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent is the day on which the Roman Rite traditionally reads the longest epistle of the year, the story of Susanna in the thirteenth chaper of the book of Daniel; I have previously written on the history of this passage’s liturgical use.

One of the most interesting artistic representations of this story is a carved piece of rock-crystal, made for King Lothair II, a great-grandson of Charlemagne, and ruler of a large part of the latter’s divided Empire. An important part of his history, and that of the Church in the mid-9th century, involves his attempts to rid himself of his sterile wife, Teutberga, and replace her with his long-time mistress. He was granted an annulment by a complaisant synod of bishops, but Pope Nicholas I overturned their decision, and declared his original marriage valid: an important witness to the sanctity of marriage in an age where all too many of the clergy were at the beck and call of the spirit of their age. Partly under political pressure from his uncles, who ruled the rest of the Carolingian Empire, and partly under threat of excommunication by the Pope, Lothair was (temporarily) reconciled with his wife in the year 865. The British medieval scholar Valerie Flint believed that the carved crystal represents a vindication of Teutberga, whom Lothair had accused of sexual immorality, (specifically, incest with her brother), just as Susanna was accused of adultery, and proven innocent by the Prophet Daniel. (Click image to enlarge.)

The Lothair Crystal, also known as the Susanna Crystal, ca. 865 A.D., now in the British Museum in London. The 15th century bronze frame may have been added to turn it into a morse, the large clasp that closes a cope at the front. The crystal was cracked when the monastery where it had been kept for centuries was sacked during the French Revolution, and it was thrown into the Meuse River. The holes in the frame formerly held jewels. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Ashley Van Haeften: CC BY 2.0
The story as depicted here starts on the upper left and runs clockwise; the latticed enclosure is the garden where the two elders have accosted Susanna as she bathes. To the right of the lattice (in the upper part of the crack), two servants turn to Susanna’s aid as she cries out for help. In the middle of the right side, the two elders stand before Joachim’s house, demanding that Susanna be brought forward for judgment; immediately below, they accuse her by placing their hands over her head, while the bystanders express their astonishment. Beneath that, an official with a staff in his hands leads Susanna off to execution, but is stopped by the Prophet Daniel. On the lower left side, Daniel reproves the first elder, and above that, convicts the second of lying. The two elders are then stoned to death. In the central medallion, Susanna stands before the judgment seat of Daniel, her arms stretched out in a gesture of thanksgiving, with two other men (one perhaps her husband) on the left.

The art historian John Beckwith correctly noted that “Susanna was regarded in early Christian times as a symbol of the persecuted Church … and there can be no doubt that an early Christian model was at hand when the crystal was carved.” (Early Medieval Art, p 68). In point of fact, the elders accusing Susanna by placing their hands on her head, and Susanna giving thanks for her delivery with arms outstretched, are both portrayed in exactly the same way in the Catacombs of Priscilla, in an image dated to the early decades of the 3rd century.
The so-called Greek Chapel (really a funerary chamber) within the Catacombs of Priscilla, ca. 225 A.D. On the right side, the elders lusting after Susanna, pointing at her mid-riff. One the left side, (further from the camera) the elders accuse Susanna by placing their hands on her head; on the right, Susanna and Daniel (not seen here) give thanks for her deliverance.
A drawing made in 1880 of the fresco seen above on the left side of the Greek Chapel, in which the accusation of Susanna, and Susanna giving thanks for her deliverance, are represented much as they are on the Lothair crystal over 600 years later. 

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