Thursday, December 15, 2022

A Legend of Pope St Sergius I

On this day in the year 687, St Sergius I was elected to the papacy; he would reign for nearly 14 years. He is a prominent figure in the history of the liturgy, since he added the last of the fixed chants to become part of the Roman Ordo Missae, the Agnus Dei. I have described elsewhere how this was part of the Roman church’s response to the so-called Quinisext Council, which was called by the Byzantine emperor Justinian II, and which pretended to legislate for the whole Church, including the Western patriarchate. One of its canons had forbidden any representation of the Lord as an animal, and therefore Pope Sergius placed images of the Lamb of God in various Roman churches, and added the invocation of Him to be said during the fraction of the Mass.

Sergius’ other major contribution to the liturgy was the adoption from the Byzantine Rite of the first four feasts of the Virgin Mary: that of Her Birth on September 8th, the Annunciation on March 25th, the Purification on February 2nd, and the Assumption on August 15th. He died on the first of these, Sept. 8, in the year 701.

Towards the end of his reign, St Lambert, the bishop of Maastricht (now in the Netherlands), was assassinated; the precise circumstances of the murder have been the subject of a great deal of scholarly debate. Sergius therefore figures in a medieval legend of how Lambert’s successor, St Hubert, was chosen. The story goes that Hubert was on pilgrimage to Rome when the murder took place; that same night, an angel appeared to the Pope in a dream to tell him what had happened, giving him Lambert’s miter and crook to pass on to Hubert, and thus designating him as the successor to his see. On waking, Sergius found these items in his bedroom, and thus knew the dream to be true; Hubert was duly consecrated and sent back to Maastricht as its new bishop. He would later transfer both the body of St Lambert and his see to Liège; the new cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the new martyr, was essentially the foundation of that city.
In the late 1430s, the painter Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1400 – 1464) depicted this legend on a wing of an altarpiece of St Hubert for the church of St Gudule in Brussels. Following the convention of the times, the Pope is shown sleeping in his best cope and miter. It is particularly interesting to see here how a northern European artist represents some of the monuments of the Eternal City which he has never seen in person. The Castel Sant’Angelo on the right is shown as a perfectly cylindrical structure, while the old St Peter’s basilica is proportionally much taller than it really was, in the manner of a northern Gothic church. The obelisk which now stands in the middle of the Piazza San Pietro is shown next to the church, as it was at the time, but is much slimmer than it is in reality. (Click to enlarge. A darker version of the image can be seen in extreme close-up on the website of the Getty Museum, which owns the panel.)

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