And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 31. juli 2017

Coral, by Derek Walcott


To end the month of July, I give you a short and beautiful poem of Derek Walcott, a poet whose verse always makes me think of the summer months back home in Norway.

Coral

This coral's shape echoes the hand
It hollowed. Its

Immediate absence is heavy. As pumice,
As your breast in my cupped palm.

Sea-cold, its nipple rasps like sand,
Its pores, like yours, shone with salt sweat.

Bodies in absence displace their weight,
And your smooth body, like none other,

Creates an exact absence like this stone
Set on a table with a whitening rack

Of souveniers. It dares my hand
To claim what lovers' hands have never known:

The nature of the body of another.

lørdag 29. juli 2017

Saint Olaf in Rome



Today is the feast of Saint Olaf of Norway, a day which in Norway is known as Olsok, coming for Old Norse "Olavsvaka", meaning the wake or vigil of Saint Olaf. To mark the day, I give you one of the more curious manifestations of the importance of Saint Olaf to the Norwegian imagination and the Norwegian identity, namely the painting of the altar of Saint Olaf in Rome.

This altar is found in the church San Carlo al Corso, dedicated to Saint Carlo Borromeo (d.1584). It was dedicated April 9, 1893, and the altar painting was carried out by the Polish painter Pius Welonski (d.1931). The altar itself was established on the initiative of Norwegian Catholics and was intended to mark that it was fifty years since Pope Leo XIII had been ordained as a bishop (although he would only become pope in 1878).


Olav, King of Norway
Painting in the church of San Carlo al Corso, by Pius Welonski
Courtesy of this website


The painting depicts Olaf with his axe and his royal orb, standing on a defeated dragon in a very Norwegian landscape. As such it fits in a tradition in the depictions of Olaf from the late fourteenth-century onwards, in which Olaf is positioned on top of a beast, often interpreted as a dragon. It is clear that Welonski had some very good directions for how Olaf should be depicted according to how late-ninteenth-century Norwegian Catholics expected to see him.

From the lower half of the left-hand side of the frame and to the lower half of the right-hand side of the frame, one can read the legend "S. Olavus Martyr Norvegiae Rex et Patronus", Saint Olaf Martyr, king and patron of Norway. This is perfectly in keeping with how Olaf was understood in the contemporary mindset. However, when seen from the angle of the medieval Olaf iconography and its development, it is noteworthy that the image fuses two separate stages in this development. On the one hand we see Olaf as patron and king of Norway, a presentation and interpretation of Olaf which appeared in the mid-twelfth century under the auspices of Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson (reigned 1161-88). On the other hand, we see Olaf situated on top of a beast, which is a tradition that only emerged later in the Middle Ages, and possibly outside Norway, meaning that it might have its conception in stories of popular origin or stories which were generated outside the control of the Norwegian medieval church. This fusion of Olaf the patron and Olaf the dragon-stander had by the nineteenth-century become perfectly canonical to the Norwegian mind, and this is the version presented to the Catholics of the world who enter the San Carlo church. But this fusion hides a complex and long-winded evolution which has merged elements originating in very different milieus and at very different times, and made it the modern idea of the medieval Olaf.


Bibliography

Kari-Anne Bye, Å drepe dragen, MA thesis, NTNU, Trondheim, 2011

http://www.katolsk.no/tro/tema/historie/artikler/olavsalt 

http://www.olaviroma.no/index.php?sid=2197









onsdag 26. juli 2017

The Summer Office



Academic summers are not like other summers, and for me who am now at the tail-end of my PhD work this summer has been particularly marked by the need to get thesis work done. I have eschewed conferences to gain more time, although I have allowed myself time off in the first two weeks of July. Now, however, I have had to resume my work, and since I am currently living in the house of my late grandparents, I'm making use of my grandfather's room as my office. I am very happy for this temporary office, as the room is bright and the desk - which I bought during my university days for my student apartment - is situated so that I can see the mountains descending into the fjord, the lake by the side of the house, and the ripening cherries which are just out of reach for anyone but the thrushes who feast on them.














mandag 17. juli 2017

To a tyrant - a poem by Joseph Brodsky


I am in my native village of Hyen for the month of July, and when I am home I have a selection of poets whose verse I especially enjoy as I think them particularly suitable to be enjoyed in this setting. One of these poets is Joseph Brodsky, whom I only read in Norwegian or English translations. Among those of his poems which have stayed with me the most strongly, is the poem "To a tyrant" from his collection A Part of Speech, and it is this poem I wish to present to you here. Although I first read this poem in a beautiful Norwegian rendition - and therefore always read it in this rendition - I here give you the translation into English as published in Collected poems in English, published by Carcanet in 2001. It is not specified which of the various translators of the volume who wrought the translation of "To a tyrant", or whether it was Brodsky himself who did all of it.

To a tyrant

He used to come here til he donned gold braid,
a good topcoat on, self-controlled, stoop-shouldered.
Arresting these café habitués -
he started snuffing out world culture somewhat later -
seemed sweet revenge (on Time, that is, not them)
for all the lack of cash, the sneers and insults,
the lousy coffee, boredom, and the battles
at vingt-et-un he lost time and again.

And time has had to stomach that revenge.
The place is now quite crowded; bursts of laughter,
records boom out. But just before you sit
you seem to feel an urge to turn your head around.
Plastic and chrome are everywhere - not right;
the pastries have an aftertaste of bromide.
Sometimes before the place shuts down he'll enter
straight from a theater, anonymous, no fuss.

When he comes in, the lot of them stand up.
Some out of duty, the rest in unfeigned joy.
Limp-wristed, with a languid sweep of palm,
he gives the evening back its cozy feel.
He drinks his coffee - better, nowadays -
and bites a roll, while perching on his chair,
so tasty that the very dead would cry
"Oh, yes!" if only they could rise and be there.

torsdag 29. juni 2017

The apochryphal saint-king and the king who never was




When researching the cult and literature of saints, one is very often dealing with figures whose historicity is doubtful, and sometimes even figures that clearly have not existed. In some cases, the non-existent figures were not the saints themselves, but instead people featuring in the stories about them. These secondary figures of historical non-existence very often contribute to obscuring that kernel of the saint's legend which does seem to have some historical basis. This is the case with Saint Richard and King Otto of England.

In my research I recently came across the story of Saint Richard in an incunabula housed at the university library of the University of Southern Denmark (Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek). According to the front matter of the book, replicated by hand after the original printed front matter was somehow lost, the book is a collection of saints' lives in German called Das Leuend der Hÿlghen, or The Lives of the Saints, printed in Lübeck in 1492.


Saint Richard, son of King Otto of England
Das leuend der hÿlghen, a collection of stories about saints, Lübeck, 1492
Incunabula RARA M 15, Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek


I was quite intrigued to see this story of Saint Richard. I had never heard of him, and since I have been working quite a bit with English saints I was excited to learn of one more. As the vignette to the story indicates, Richard was noted as a pilgrim, shown by the pilgrim's hat and the pilgrim's badges of the scallop, which is the symbol of Santiago in Compostela, but which is also seems to be used as a shorthand for denoting the pilgrim in medieval iconography. I was, however, very surprised to read that he was the son of King Otto of England, because there has never been any such king in the history of the kings of England.

As for the historical nature of Saint Richard, this is, according to David Farmer, a name that is given to the father of Saint Willibald, Saint Winnibald, and Saint Walburga, three figures whose historicity is certain, and who were Anglo-Saxons pilgrims who became important ecclesiastical figures in Germany. The story of their pilgrimage were written down by the nun Huneberc of Heidenheim (fl.780) in the book Hodoeporican, and Reginald of Eichstatt (d.991) appears to be the one responsible for introducing Richard as their father. According to the legend, Richard died at Lucca where his relics were venerated "at least from the twelfth century" (Farmer 2004: 454).

Accordingly, Saint Richard is a figure of dubious historicity, woven around the possible fate of the historical father of the three Anglo-Saxons who became saints in their turn. It seems clear, however, that Richard was not at any point a king. What then, of the mystical King Otto of England?

It is possible that Otto is here the result of an intended German translation of Offa. This is a name of two historical kings, the eldest being a king of the East Saxons who was active around 709, the youngest being the more famous king Offa of Mercia (d.796). Chronologically speaking, if Otto is indeed Offa, it is likely to be Offa of the East Saxons. But even if this is the intended identity of Richard's father, it is safe to say that Richard himself does not appear to have ever been the son of Offa, and that this is rather a product of later legends accrued around the cult of Saint Richard who was venerated not only in Lucca but also in Eichstatt where Reginald wrote his legend.





Bibliography

Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004

Huneberc's Hodoeporican:  https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/willibald.asp

Das leuend der hÿlghen, a collection of stories about saints, Lübeck, 1492 (Incunabula RARA M 15, Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek)



tirsdag 27. juni 2017

Music for writing a thesis



I am nearing the end of my PhD thesis, at least that is what the calendar tells me. For the next few months I will be shoulder-deep in writing and editing, trying to tie together the loose ends and bringing three years of research to an orderly and legible conclusion. I also want to combine this with continuous blogging, which has provided me with a great outlet for thinking of and reflecting on my work and various things related to my work. But how to write blogposts when you're so tired of writing, and when you don't want to write about the things you really want to write about out of fear that it will take too much time? For this reason, I'm now cheating a bit and present to you two albums which have been of great relish to me in the past few weeks during my thesis writing.

The first one is a collection of twelfth-century chants, some of which are taken from Santiago de Compostela and are composed in honour of Saint James the Greater, also known as Santiago, while some are taken from the monastery of Saint-Martial in Limoges.

The second album is a collection of chants for the office of Saint Louis IX of France (d.1270) who was canonized in 1297 and who became a saint of major importance in fourteenth-century France.

These albums have brought me much happiness and much calm in the past weeks, so I leave it to my faithful readers to explore their wonders on their own.





The martyrdom of Saint James the Greater
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, RARA M 15
German translation of Legenda Aurea with additions, Lübeck, 1492







Chants from Santiago de Compostela, and Saint-Martial in Limoges



Chants for the office of Saint Louis IX







fredag 23. juni 2017

From Derek Walcott's Midsummer


For the Vigil of Saint John the Baptist, which is when Norwegians and Danes celebrate midsummer with a great bonfire, I give you an extract from Derek Walcott's book-length poem, Midsummer, printed in 1984 and here taken from Collected Poems - 1948-1984, printed by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986.


From Midsummer

XI

My double, tired of morning, closes the door
of the motel bathroom; then, wiping the steamed mirror,
refuses to acknowledge me staring back at him.
With the softest grunt, he stretches my throat for the function
of scraping it clean, his dispassionate care
like a barber's lathering a corpse - extreme unction.
The old ritual would have been as grim
if the small wisps that curled there in the basin
were not hairs but minuscular seraphim.
He clips our moustache with a snickering scissors,
then stops, reflecting, in midair. Certain sadnesses
are not immense, but fatal, like the sense of sin
while shaving. And empty cupboards where her dresses
shone. But why flushing a faucet, its vortex
swivelling with bits of hair, could make some men's
hands quietly put aside their razors,
and sense their veins as filth floating downriver
after the dolorous industries of sex,
is a question swans may raise with their white necks,
that the cockerel answers quietyl, treading his hens.