Thursday, May 09, 2024

The Ascension of the Bleeding Christ in Medieval Popular Piety

The Christian liturgical tradition envisions the Ascension of Our Lord as a climactic event in which the risen Christ, magnificent with His glorified Body, makes a triumphant return to the heavenly kingdom. In the Roman rite, the hymn, antiphons, and responsories of Matins would have ensured that these themes and images were prominent from the earliest hours of the great feast day: “Alleluia. The Lord Christ hath ascended up into heaven. O come let us worship Him. Alleluia”; “Thy magnificence is elevated above the heavens, O God, alleluia”; “The Lord is in His holy Temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven, alleluia”; “℣. God is ascended with jubilee, alleluia. ℟. And the Lord with the sound of trumpet, alleluia.” The iconographic tradition likewise emphasizes radiance, strength, and grandeur.
The Ascension, by Benjamin West (d. 1820); oil on canvas. The composition of this fine piece evokes Psalm 67: “Sing ye to God, sing psalms to his name, / make way for him that rideth on clouds.”

We find a profound counterpoint to these Ascension motifs in a collection of religious drama known as the Chester Cycle. The cycle plays of medieval England – in modern times often called “mystery” plays – were among the West’s most extraordinary manifestations of Christian folk culture. Produced on a local scale and performed mostly by amateurs, they brought craft guilds, poets, and civil authorities together in an attempt to dramatize salvation history and Christian doctrine. They were a living catechism written in charming, homely verse and illuminated with poignant vignettes and deeply human characters. As a supplement to sacred liturgy, they were an invaluable means of making the Faith enjoyable, inspiring, and memorable for ordinary people living in the world.

A depiction of a fifteenth-century Crucifixion play.

The Ascension play performed in Chester, a cathedral city in northwest England, included features that are unique among the surviving cycle-play texts. The stage directions indicate that Christ will ascend while singing (further specifying that “God singeth alone”), but He pauses in His ascent and stands “above the clouds,” and then His head, limbs, and clothes appear bloody as though He is in the midst of His Passion. An angel asks who it is that comes “bloody” within the bliss of heaven, and the dialogue continues as given below (I have modernized the language where possible and adapted the meter to modern pronunciation):

I that did speak righteousness,
and have brought man out of distress,
redeemer called I am and was
of all mankind through grace.
My people, that were from me rafte [stolen],
through sin and through the devil’s craft,
to heaven I bring—good never one left—
all that were in hell.

Tertius Angelus
Why is thy clothing now so red,
thy body bloody and also head,
thy clothes also, all that are ledd [worn],
like unto pressers of wine?

Because of the devil, and of his power,
that brought mankind to great danger,
through death on cross and blood so bright,
them I have made all mine.
These bloody drops that ye now see,
fresh they all reserved shall be,
until I come in my majesty,
to judge on the last day.
This blood I shed bears witness to me,
I died for man upon the Rood-tree,
and rose again within days three—
with such love always I loved thee.

This scene’s mysterious uniting of glory and anguish must have created an intense dramatic effect, especially if the play’s producers decided to reinforce the dialogue with stage blood, which at that time could have been real blood (from an animal). The text also offers some insight into popular devotion to Christ’s sacred Blood, which is presented as a precious substance that paid the debt of sin and allowed Our Lord to reclaim mankind as His own: “through death on cross and blood so bright, / them I have made all mine.” Furthermore, this Blood is not a historical artifact that was shed only once during an enclosed, finalized act of redemption. Rather, it must stay “fresh”: flowing and gleaming with Christ’s eternal love, bearing witness to His power, and sanctifying the human race until He comes in majesty “to judge on the last day.” This imagery resonates with the Precious Blood as medieval Catholics perceived and experienced it in the Holy Eucharist.

A nineteenth-century depiction of a fifteenth-century Passion play performed at Coventry, England.

More directly, however, the playwright was drawing from a long poem called the Stanzaic Life of Christ, which was composed at Chester in the fourteenth century, and which in turn was influenced by the Golden Legend of Bl. Jacobus de Voragine. William Caxton’s 1483 translation of the latter includes the following in the chapter on the Ascension:

Thus seemeth it that ... three questions were made to the angels [when] Jesus ascended. Who is this that cometh from Edom, his clothes dyed of Bosra? This word Edom is as much to say as full of blood, and this word Bosra is to say anguish and tribulation.... The second question is that which the first and sovereign angel made to Jesu Christ saying: Why is thy clothing red, and thy vestments as trodden or fulled in a press? Our Lord hath his clothing and his body red, all covered with blood, because that yet when he ascended he had his wounds in his body.

The Worship of the Five Wounds, by Simon Bening (d. 1561). Tempera, gold paint, and gold leaf on parchment.

The Ascension of the bleeding Christ has no support in the New Testament accounts, and one wonders what the pre-Reformation ecclesiastical authorities thought about the Chester play’s embellished version of the Ascension narrative. (We need not wonder about the post-Reformation ecclesiastical authorities; they were displeased with all the mystery plays, which by the seventeenth century had been terminated.) However, since our dear Lord brought His five sacred wounds with Him to the courts of heaven, I see no harm in a poetic amplification that imagines Him ascending in twofold glory: that of His divine splendor, and that of His human blood, shed amidst love and agony for our salvation.

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