Saturday, October 14, 2023

Obrecht’s Mass of St Donatianus

The Martyrology notes today as the feast of a Saint called Donatianus (‘Donatien’ or ‘Donat’ in French, ‘Donatiaan’ or ‘Donaas’ in Dutch), who served as the seventh or eighth bishop of Reims in France from roughly 360-90. Alban Butler’s original Lives of the Saints has no information to offer about him, other than a mention of the translation of his relics to Bruges in 863; in the revised modern edition, he is not included at all. He was adopted as the local patron Saint, and a large collegiate church was dedicated to him. When Bruges became the seat of a bishopric in 1562, this church was made the cathedral, but it was destroyed when the city was overrun by the French revolutionary army; in France itself, the church from which he was translated, the royal abbey of St Nicasius outside Reims, was also destroyed.

The Madonna with Ss Donatianus and George, and Canon Joris van der Paele, ca. 1435, by Jan van Eyck. (Joris is Dutch for George.) Donatianus’ instrument, in addition to his mitre and crozier, is a wheel with five candles on it; this comes from a legend that he was thrown into the Tiber while visiting Rome, but saved from drowning by the pope, who threw him a wooden carriage wheel which he was able to use as a flotation device. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons; click to see in high resolution. The painting has its own article on Wikipedia, which offers a lot of interesting detail about its history.)
The cathedral of St Donatianus in Bruges in 1641 (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The royal abbey of St Nicasius of Reims. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In the later 15th century, there lived in Bruges a very successful and wealthy fur merchant named Donaas de Moor, who was active in civic life, and, along with his wife Adriane de Vos, a magnificently generous benefactor to the poor; he was dean of the fur traders’ guild, and by turns alderman, mayor and treasurer of the city, as well as a guardian of a pilgrim hospice, and founder of an almshouse. The couple were equally generous to their parish, the church of St James the Apostle, to which they donated the altarpiece of the high altar and the choir stalls, and maintained a chantry chapel behind the high altar, dedicated to their name Saints.
Triptych of the Deposition from the Cross, ca. 1475, by the anonymous Netherlandish painter known as the Master of the St Lucy Legend. This was commissioned for the altar of the de Moors’ chantry; on the side panels, Donaas de Moor and Adriane de Vos are shown kneeling with their respective name Saints behind them. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The de Moor almshouses in Bruges. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Marc Ryckaert, CC BY-SA 4.0
However, in May of 1483, Donaas de Moor was exiled from Bruges for political reasons; he retired to a country estate, and died only four months later. In his will, he left provision for the creation of a Mass in honor of his Patron Saint, which was then commissioned from the Flemish composer Jacob Obrecht (1457-1505), and sung for the first time in the church of St James on the Saint’s feast day in 1487.

Here is a splendid recording of a concert performance of the Mass done by the Tallis Scholars in that very same church in 2018; the video also gives a decent tour of the building.

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