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

fredag 30. mai 2014

Allegory of Venice

Venice is one of those cities whose mythology will captivate you, and whose place in history has ensured a rich cultural heritage that will continue to amaze and enthrall. I have never been to Venice, but my fascination for the city goes back a long way, ever since one of my mother's aunt told me - I must have been about seven - about the bridge of sighs, which featured on a piece of cloth she had bought there once. From then on, my fascination has increased with every new piece of information.

I'm currently reading Salley Vickers' beautiful novel Miss Garnet's Angel which is set in Venice, and which wonderfully weaves the plot into the very fabric of Venice, which is always half-legendary. In the course of this reading I as reminded of a painting by Giambattista Tiepolo, seen below, in which Neptune gives his gifts to La Serenissima, the city of Venice. It is a beautiful painting with that pale colouring so often seen in Tiepolo's paintings. It is a perfect allegory of Venice's lordship of the seas, Neptune, the ocean god, offering his cornucopia overflowing with pearls, corals and gold, while Venice arrogantly receives him in her bedchamber, flanked by the lion of St. Mark, the city's patron saint. But there is also a sinister undertone. Venice is pointing towards Neptune, almost to keep him at arm's length as if he is too eager, to unpredictable to embrace, and as she does this, her arm forms a shape reminiscent of the Venetian lagoon which is that borderland where sea and city meets. This serves, perhaps, as a chilling reminder that although Venice is the queen of the seas, she is also at the sea's mercy, which threatens to overflow the buildings and to force the structures underwater.

When first I saw this painting in 2010 I was amazed by the beauty and succinctness of the composition, and this as the time when I was just learning to appreciate Tiepolo's art. In response to this I wrote a poem titled Allegory of Venice, in which Tiepolo's allegory is further fleshed out, including a wider range of Venice's inhabitants. The poem takes its metre and rhyme scheme from Robert Browning's A Toccata of Galuppi's which also deals with Venice.

The pictures in this blogpost are all taken from Wikimedia.

Neptune bringing Venice his gifts
Giambattista Tiepolo, c.1750

Allegory of Venice

For Giambattista Tiepolo

Ah, dear Venice, noble city of the crystalline lagoon,
Once she ruled a splendid kingdom, fickle as the changing moon;
Hark to me, my dearest reader, as I sing her with my tune.

See her leaning on the lion, yet in truth she is the beast;
Of a thousand mundane vices love of gold is but her least,
Scores of servants, high and lowly, come to partake in her feast.

See there's Neptune, ancient sea-king, how he prances like a whore,
Gold and amber, pearls and jewels, taken from his ocean's store
While his pallid eyes are captive to the maid who asks for more.

Said I maid? Hah! Falsely spoken, she's a wench as Neptune is,
Kings and angels seek to please her, they would kill to catch a kiss
And then bring her spoils of slaughter, asking gently: “like you this?”

There's the pope in his tiara with a sceptre in his hand,
He attempts to be her master, catch her in a nuptial band
But his hopes will sift through fingers like the fine Venetian sand;

And the clergy, born of Venice, deacons, bishops, cardinals
Change their paraments for garlands, singing mundane madrigals,
All to please their mother city and her lavish festival.

Piazza San Marco and the Doge's palazzo
Now the Doge with his ringlet, followed by a train of ten,
Comes to wed the sea and city with the bravest band of men,
What a mistress is then Venice who must wed and wed again?

After him the six remaining of the city's oligarchs,
Chosen by the lesser council, wont to wander in the dark,
Rooting evil in the making, rarely do they miss their mark,

While the captain, Neptune's squire, master of the mighty fleet
Issues with his galeases from the Arsenal to greet
This the loveliest of cities where the water paves the street;

And from out the canalettos come gondolas one by one,
Bearing gifts of Eastern riches and the Oriental sun;
Each aspire to be greater than her other bastard sons.

Ponte di Rialto
Then the merchants, mundane monarchs, all emerge in rank and file,
Dressed in pomp, displaying riches, tossing ducats with a smile
And fair Venice feigns to love them with her maiden-mother guile,

While they tread on dead and dying to excel in tradesmen's art,
Blood and semen, knaves and merchants constitute a kingdom's heart,
They all hoard to last for ever, not preparing to depart.

And the women! Ah! The women! Decked with gems and rimmed with gold,
Wives and mothers, sisters, daughters, cheering Venice in her fold,
Both her children and her rivals, mistresses of bought and sold,

See their baubles and their trinkets, worlds have died to place them there;
If their faces are like suns, then all their jewels must be spheres,
Each a universe of vanity, greed, deception and despair.

Then the guilds with waving banners enter in the proud parade,
Bearing relics, sacred remnants, and the produce they have made:
Books and crystal, frail and fragile, doomed to wither, break and fade;

Much like Venice, situated, like all transitory things,
On a throne of brittle pillars in the fashion of a king
Whose good deeds are meant to shadow all the misery he brings.  

Grand Canal from Palazzo Flangini
Canaletto, c.1738
Here the painters, ah, the painters, lapdogs to the Ocean Queen
Dressed in colours gay and lively, golden, blood-red, blue and green,
Come to make their queen immortal, come to paint the festive scene.

Now the citizens in costumes, some like wild men of the woods,
Some with twigs stuck in their head-dress, some in grey monastic hoods,
Some like guildmen, some like brewers wont to taste their own sweet goods.

Ah, the masks, the men, the women! Fornicators hid in veils;
Painted in a crimson colour or a deadly tint of pale,
“Life is short, we must enjoy it, time is cruel, man is frail.”

There among them move the harlots, painted faces, verdant sleeves,
Who can tell them from the ladies masked and dyed, ah who will grieve,
It's the carnival, dear reader, tell a lie, it is believed. 

So they prance along the water mirroring the azure sky,
“Venice surely lasts forever, it will never fade or die,”
This they say and they believe it, as I said: tell but a lie.

But a black-cloaked ancient sire moves about them with a train
Of disciples dread and hoary, they know such a hope is vain;
It is Death and all his aspects come to shake the lion's mane. 

Here is Greed with gilded daggers, stabbing blindly in his rage, 
Here is Lust who pricks his arrow in the hearts of fool and sage,
Here is Plague with blots to blight them regardless of their name or age,

Here is Envy to consume them on his everlasting pyre,
Here is Hatred to destroy them and his twin named Blind Desire,
Here is Malice to corrode them with an inward kind of fire;

These and others, all Death's minions, come to take them, man or maid, 
Some will drown in crystal water, some will die at point of blade,
Even Venice, maiden-harlot, and her glories all will fade. 
- June 25 – August 09 2010

Canal Grande
Francesco Guardi, c.1760

søndag 25. mai 2014

Slayer without a dragon - Károly Lotz' frescoe of St. Ladislas of Hungary

But she was not the bishop's daughter

Sed illa filia episcopi non fuit
- Chronici Hungarici compositio saeculi XIV, printed in
Scriptores Rerum Hungaricarum tempore ducum regumque stirpis Arpadianae gestarum, ed. by Imre Szentpétery, vol. 1: 369

In a recent blogpost I wrote about Hungary's three medieval king-saints, Stephen, Emeric and Ladislas. In this blogpost I will present a fresco of St. Ladislas, whose composition bears a striking resemblance to the dragon-slayer motif from late medieval Italian Renaissance paintings. The fresco in question was painted by nineteenth-century Hungarian painter Károly Lotz in the Matthias Church in Budapest. (My thanks to art-historian and blogger Nóra Vézpremy for helping me with the ascertainment of its provenance.)

The fresco depicts one of the most famous episodes from the hagiographical material of St. Ladislas. The legend takes as its starting point the Battle of Kerlés in 1068 which was waged against the pagan Cumans, and tells of a daring and chivalrous feat of King Ladislas. Although the story is set in the mid-eleventh century, the legend itself is significantly more recent. According to Gabor Klaniczay, the legend is a "thirteenth-century interpolation of the twelfth-century original" (Klaniczay 2002: 190), brought to us from a fourteenth-century source. Naturally, this story conveys the chivalric ideal of the 1200s rather than eleventh-century preoccupations.

The story goes that Ladislas spotted a Cuman warrior riding away with a beautiful Hungarian woman, whom he thought to be the daughter of the bishop of Várad. Despite being wounded in the battle, the chivalrous and saintly king set after the pagan and almost managed to get close enough to stab the fleeing pagan with his lance. The horse could go no faster, nor did the other horse slow down, and Ladislas then called out to the Hungarian lady to grab hold of the Cuman and to throw herself to the ground. When Ladislas made ready to lunge his lance into the unhorsed enemy, the girl pleaded for his life, and the chronicler comments that this was surely sign of some illicit love between the two. The Cuman is nonetheless killed following a fight with Ladislas, and the girl turns out not to be the bishop's daughter.

St. Ladislas and the Cuman Warrior
Károly Lotz, 19th century

The episode was very popular in the cult of St. Ladislas, and it has been the subject of several renditions in both text and image. One of the most important medieval examples is perhaps the fourteenth-century Angevin Legendary.

In terms of time, Károly Lotz's fresco is far removed from the origins of this legend, but as a Hungarian he must have been very familiar with the story, and he also had a long tradition of art to draw from in his depiction. As mentioned above, the fresco is remarkably similar to certain depictions of the legend of St. George as it was portrayed in late-medieval art. The poise of the knight in the saddle is the most obvious feature, while the defeat of the Cuman being positioned in the forefront of the scene makes for interesting parallels with the vanquished dragon from the legend of St. George.

There are, of course, also differences. In most of the depictions of St. George, the lady is situated comfortably a little way away from the main action, whereas Lotz has placed her in the forefront along with the Cuman warrior. This placement also draws the woman into the action itself, making her not only more visibly positioned, but also a vital part of the conflict itself.

I can not claim that Károly Lotz drew on this treasure trove of imagery in his composition of the St. Ladislas fresco, and even if he did, I can not with any certainty suggest from which images he drew his inspiration. However, to highlight the similarities between Lotz's fresco, I will present some late-medieval depictions of the famous scene of George fighting the dragon, and the readers can decide whether they agree or disagree. All pictures are taken from Wikimedia.

St. George (Sant Jordi) fighting the dragon
Bertan Martorell, 1434-35

Rogier van der Weyden, before 1464

Altar wing from a church in Praha, c.1470

Raphael, 1505-06

fredag 23. mai 2014

Goofy chivalry - A charming piece of mid-twentieth century medievalism

To be a medievalist means, in part, to be aware of how the period we call the Middle Ages has been understood, interpreted and re-enacted by later periods, and in many cases, being a medievalist entails to present a counter-narrative or a more nuanced understanding to this post-medieval view. The reception history of the Middle Ages is an interesting view into historical periods and will give a small glimpse of the history of the mentality of an age past, although not the Middle Ages themselves. Sometimes, the reception of the Middle Ages can be marked by an idealised view of the social order, as can be seen in the 19th-century depictions by Walter Scott in Ivanhoe or Alfred Lord Tennyson in Idylls of the Kings where the code of chivalry is one of the major currents. A more gloomy picture can be found in the late-18th-century Gothic literature, such as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto or Matthew Lewis' The Monk, where darkness, evil monks and bloodfeuds are key elements. These elements are combined with a fundamental anti-Catholic tone of voice, which may stem more from Jacobean drama than anything else. The receptions are very interesting to a medievalist, but they can also be exasperatingly wrong.

Poster for Knight for a Day (1946), Walt Disney Productions
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Some receptions of the Middle Ages, however, are more entertaining than others, and in this blogpost I present to you a short cartoon released in 1946 by Walt Disney Productions. The cartoon, Knight for a Day, was directed by Jack Hannah and written by Bill Peet, and was one of the earliest cartoons I remember from my own childhood. This is the story of a squire-turned-knight in a tournament against the undefeated champion, set in Canterbury sometime in the 15th century

Knight for a Day
As in the case of most interpretations of the Middle Ages, anachronisms abound in this little piece, but unlike most of these cases, this is not a problem. While medievalisms often are political in tone or purpose, and often to such a degree that it becomes painfully obvious, this short cartoon is seemingly meant for pure entertainment, and the numerous anachronisms are deliberately used for comical purpose - such as a cigar and a jackhammer - while no pretension to accuracy is ever suggested. Even a grumpy historian like myself, ready to jump at the throat of anachronism whenever it rears its head, can relax and utterly enjoy a beautiful little piece of animated storytelling. It is also a pleasant reminder that the duties of a medievalist can take one into byways that can be surprising but wonderfully so. 

søndag 11. mai 2014

Hungary's Royal Trinity - a brief introduction to the cults of the Hungarian king-saints

By the mid fourteenth century, the three holy kings of Hungary ad come to forma a harmonious iconographic scheme
- Klaniczay, Gabor, Holy Rulers and Blessed Princesses – Dynastic Cults in Medieval Central Europe, translated by Éva Pálmai

Taken from Veszprémy 2006

The above frontispiece from the Missal of Esztergom, printed in Lyon in 1501, is a summary of Hungarian sainthood. Here we see the Virgin Mary as Patrona Hungariae together with the kingdom's three royal saints, Stephen, Ladislas and Emeric respectively, each carrying his main attribute while supported by a shield depicting the Hungarian emblem which also can be found in the modern flag. In this blogpost, I intend to take this frontispiece as a point of departure for a brief introduction to the cults of the three king-saints of Hungary.
Miniature of St. Stephen from Chronicon Pictum. 14th century
Courtesy of Wikimedia


The medieval kingdom of Hungary was founded by King Stephen, or Istvan (c.975-1038). He became duke on the death of his father Geza in 997, and his accession as followed by a series of insurrections against his authority, which he successfully repelled. Having vanquished his rivals of power, Stephen asked for Pope Silvester II to acknowledge him as king of Hungary and to send him a royal crown. This was done, and Stephen was crowned in 1000/1001. By this time, Stephen had already established a number of monasteries, as part of his implementation of Christianity in the kingdom. During Stephen's reign, the dichotomy between pagans and Christians was upheld by law, since intermarriage between these groups were forbidden, and pagan customs were forbidden. The royal acts of Stephen fit the pattern of a founding Christian father, which was an important aspect of the cult of royal saints as it came to be formulated in the course of the 12th century. Stephen was a church-builder, an alms-giver, a just king and a soldier of the faith.

Following Stephen's death in 1038, the kingdom of Hungary descended into chaos as rival factions within the dynasty vied each other for power, and this unrest continued throughout the 11th century. It was not, however, a struggle between pagans and Christians, but rather between various members of the royal family. In 1074, King Solomon was ousted from his position after he was defeated in battle against his cousin Geza and then incarcerated. Geza's brother Ladislas (or Lázló) succeeded his brother to the throne in 1077.

King Ladislas' position was not very secure. His cousin had been the legitimate king of Hungary, and was furthermore married to the daughter of Emperor Heinrich III of Germany. To strengthen his position, Ladislas orchestrated the canonisations of five saints throughout the year 1083 – by which time he was still not crowned, a fact that made his position presumably more precarious – and these canonisations must be seen, as pointed out by Gabor Klaniczay, as political means to strengthen Ladislas' position. This perspective is strengthened by the fact that the imprisoned Solomon was set free following the canonisations, whereupon he fled the country.

Three of the five saints of 1083 were bishops and missionaries, the fathers of the Hungarian church who all had important positions in the conversion narrative of Hungary. These ecclesiastical saints were Andrew (Zoerard) and Benedict, both hermits, and Bishop Gerard. According to Klaniczay, only the latter can be said to have served political purposes, since, unlike the two others, he was a symbol of the struggle against the pagans. The remaining two saints were both royal saints, and their canonisations had strong political dimensions. These saints were King Stephen and his son Emeric (Imre), who had died before his father and had therefore never become king.  

Stephen and Gisela founding a church
From Chronicon Pictum. 14th century
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Cult of Stephen

King Stephen was of course the most important of the Hungarian saints. He was the founder of the kingdom and he was the apostolic king who implemented the Christian religion, thus concluding the work of the ecclesiastical saints mentioned above. There is, however, no evidence of a spontaneous cult following Stephen's death, nor is it likely that the canonisations were carried out after an exhortation from the pope, as it has been claimed in the Legenda maior of St. Gerard, written most likely in the 14th century.

The liturgical cult of Stephen came into being shortly after the canonisation and relied in the first stage on mass and office material from the Commune Sanctorum. A 13th-century liturgical fragment shows that the common material was to some extent replaced by rhymed antiphons during Lauds. These antiphons were most likely composed in the late 12th century, and it is likely that there were rhymed antiphons composed for the other hours as well, at least Matins, the central point of the office cycle. In the liturgical material, Stephen's role as the apostolic king is emphasised through his namesake Stephen Protomartyr, who allegedly comes to his mother in a dream and exhorts her to give his name to his unborn son, a sequence clearly modelled on the episodes from the Gospels concerned with the births of John the Baptist and Christ.

The liturgical material proper to Stephen was to a great extent based on the Legend of St. Stephen written by Bishop Hartvic/Hartvik during the reign of King Coloman (1095-1116), and in this legend we encounter the claims of an early cult centered around the place of Stephen's burial, Székesfehérvár, where numerous sick and afflicted sought and found a cure for their sundry pains. As mentioned, such a cult can not be ascertained, and it is more likely that Hartvic projected the topoi of saints and their miracles onto history because since Stephen was a saint, it was logical to expect such thaumaturgical preludes to a canonisation.

Stephen's apostolic place in the Christian history of Hungary ensured him an elevated position in the country's religious observance. Interestingly, following a period of unrest in the 13th-century, Stephen was also recast as not only a founder of the Christian kingdom, but as a liberator of his people from the oppression of the pagans. This recasting of Stephen strengthened the existing characteristics and emphasised his role as a champion of Christ against the heathen descendants of Attila. The liturgical texts construed him as a new Samson who fought the lion of paganry, and whose faithfulness (credulitas) was superior to the cruelty (crudelitas) of the Hunnic tyranny.

Scenes from the Life of Emeric
From the Angevine Legendary, 1330s
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Cult of Emeric

Emeric was set out to be his father's successor, but died in 1031 by which time he was in his late twenties. According to later legends, he was well-educated and the alleged addressee of Libellus de institutione morum, a prince's mirror ascribed to King Stephen. Of the five saints canonised in 1083, Emeric was perhaps the one who was most important to King Ladislas personally. The reason for this was that Emeric was said to embody all the virtues expected of a Christian prince – mercy, largesse, humility, justice, etc. - and according to the chroniclers, no other Hungarian king could display such a wealth of virtues except Ladislas himself. Emeric became, in a way, Ladislas saintly forebear. Another reason why Emeric was of great importance to Ladislas personally, was the fact that that he was the son of Stephen and Gisela. Gisela was a German noblewoman who belonged to the house of King Ladislas' father-in-law, Rudolf, who was at that time a rival of the German Emperor Heinrich III. By proclaiming Emeric's sanctity, the family of Ladislas' wife was given a saintly member, and this would strengthen both Ladislas' own position, and the position of his father-in-law. This need was all the more pronounced by the fact that Solomon, the king Ladislas had deposed, was the son-in-law of Emperor Heinrich.

The cult of Emeric was also important to the church. Through Emeric it transmitted the ideal of the virtuous prince, who was chaste even in marriage and who was educated in religion. As Gabor Klaniczay points out, the Hungarian church used Emeric to emphasise the didactic and moralistic aspect of sacral rulership. Because Emeric had died before he became king, it was easy for later chroniclers and hagiographers to emphasise his chastity and proclaim him, as the earliest 12th-century legend did, a scorner of the corruptible flesh and – similar to the beatus vir of Psalm 1 – a man meditating on the word of God.

Scenes from the Life of Emeric
From the Angevine Legendary, 1330s
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Miniature of Ladislas, from Chronicon Pictum (14th century)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Cult of Ladislas

Ladislas was canonised under the auspices of King Bela III in 1192, and must be seen in light of two important aspects of the political scene of 12th-century Hungary. The first aspect is King Bela's Byzantine background. He had been educated at the court of Emperor Manuel Comnenons, and it is likely that it was here Bela became exposed to devotion of Ladislas, especially since the Hungarian king had been the father of Emperor Manuel's mother. The sanctity of Ladislas thus provided an important link to the Byzantine royal family, as well as the Hungarian throne.

Another important aspect might be seen in the circumstances in which both Bela and Ladislas ascended to the throne. Like Ladislas, Bela had to fight for his position, and since Ladislas's brother had ousted his cousin Solomon in 1174 and thus given way to Ladislas himself, he was a natural model for King Bela who had been brought up in Byzantium and was something of an outsider. King Ladislas himself, introduced the idea that the right to rule should be founded upon a king's likeness to previous kings – an idea known as ius idoneitatis or the right of likeness – instead of the right of blood known as ius legitimum which looked at family ties, bloodline and proximity. It is not stated expressly to what extent this concern informed Bela in his devotion of Ladislas, but it is an interesting connection between the two kings.

While Stephen was an apostolic king and Emeric was a virtuous prince, Ladislas was cast as a chivalric king, a knight-king, which was a figure of increased popularity in the 12th century, following the dissemination of the legend of St. Alexis and the crusader movement. This popularity also found its expression in reformulations of saints like Olaf of Norway and St. George. The extent to which Ladislas was formulated as a knight, can be seen in the early-13th-century legend's claim that he participated in the first crusade. Since Ladislas died in 1095, the very year in which the crusades first were preached, we know this to be a fiction, but it is an important piece of evidence to the importance of the chivalric aspect in the cult of Ladislas.  

Ladislas fighting a Cuman warrior, similar to St. George killing the dragon
Fresco from the Matyas Church in Budapest, date uncertain
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Concluding Remarks: The Later Middle Ages

Towards the end of the 13th century, these three king-saints had become an integral part of the history of Hungary, and from the end of the century they were often depicted as a saintly collective, appearing together as a joint force of sanctity interceding for the sake of Hungary. The first such depiction can be found in a diptych from the late 13th century commissioned by King Andrew III. Here the three holy kings, together with Elizabeth of Hungary (d.1031) who had been the queen of the German Emperor, appear as a collective of saints. This collective was further cultivated in the iconography of Hungarian Christianity throughout the 14th century, as witnessed by joint altar dedications – such as in the Chapel of the Virgin in 1355 – and a set of bronze statues erected in the 1360s by the cathedral o Nagyvárad.

That these three saints were grouped together into a unit appears to be a current of religious iconography common in 14th-century Europe. Similar triads could be found in Scandinavia and France, and in England we encounter frequent pairings of the saints Edmund and Edward the Confessor from the same period.


Dobszay, László, "From 'crudelitas' to 'credulitas': Comments on Saint Stephen's Historia Rhythmica", printed in Hankeln, Roman (ed.), Political Plainchant? Music, Text and Historical Context of Medieval Saints' Offices, The Institute of Mediaeval Music, 2009

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

Klaniczay, Gabor, Holy Rulers and Blessed Princesses – Dynastic Cults in Medieval Central Europe, translated by Éva Pálmai, Cambridge University Press, 2002

Veszprémy, László, "Royal Saints in Hungarian Chronicles, Legends and Liturgy", printed in Mortensen, Lars Boje (ed.), The Making of Christian Myths in the Periphery of Latin Christendom (c.1000-1300), Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006