So I’m in Florence right now. In case you missed that. And for those who were envying the Cypriot weather, the buckets of rain falling from the heavens today as I shivered from San Lorenzo to the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze will make you less envious.
At the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale this afternoon, I was perusing a manuscript containing a large swath of papal letters from Clement I (d. 97) to Leo I (d. 461), with a few items from Constantine and Athanasius thrown in for good measure. I didn’t spend any time determining the veracity of the Constantinian and Athanasian documents. However, there was a clue that not all of these documents were above board. Some of the letters began with the phrase:
seruus seruorum Dei
Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘Isn’t “servant of the servants of God” how all popes start letters?’ And you’d be almost right — it’s how most popes after Gregory I start most of their letters.
Of course, I knew there would be forgeries in this manuscript (see below). However, it can be difficult sometimes to spot a papal forgery. You see, popes all write the same. This is partly because of the extreme conservativism inherent with the office — the Pope’s job is largely to maintain the tradition, but also to interpret it for a new generation. They tended to repeat one another, for one thing. If another pope had said it, the current pope will repeat his official ruling on a subject.
However, they also all write the same because eventually they aren’t writing much at all. The papal chancery is. I mean, they’re composing the letters and overseeing the content, but notarii do the actual writing by some point in the 600s, and probably earlier. We even have a seventh-century papal chancery style guide.
But there are ways to tell. Like ‘seruus seruorum Dei‘ turning up in a pre-Gregorian papal letter. Or early popes who obsess about primates and chorepiscopi. Or a letter from a pope like Leo I or Gregory I, who actually does have his own style, that isn’t in his own style.
But how did I know to expect forgeries?
Well, I knew that this manuscript is from a body of canon-law literature ascribed to ‘Isidorus Mercator’, affectionately known as ‘Pseudo-Isidore’. That ‘Pseudo-‘ on the front is a dead giveaway!
The Pseudo-Isidorian canonical collections, which encompass canons from church councils as well as papal letters from as early as possible — and even earlier (forgeries!) — up to Gregory the Great. The collection is a clever mixture of genuine and false material, alongside genuine material that has been modified to suit the Pseudo-Isidorian forgers.
They emerged in 844 (if I remember correctly) in the context of the later Carolingian wars wherein a number of bishops (esp. Hincmar of Reims) got themselves mixed up in things and wanted to limit the power of the secular authorities over them as well as of their own metropolitan bishops. So the Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries were contrived. What makes them intriguing is the fact that they include so much genuine material, and are therefore of great importance to the transmission of authentic canon law material.
And I got to spend some time with Pseudo-Isidore today. I’ll go visit him again on Wednesday; tomorrow, I’m returning to Collectio Vaticana at the chilly Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.
Somewhere in the late fifth or very early sixth century, someone in the Levant, in Syria perhaps, composed a number of treatises on mystical theology using the pseudonym ‘Dionysius the Areopagite.’ The forgery worked, and for centuries people believed that these texts were by the convert of St. Paul.
Pseudo-Dionysius, as this author is known, became very popular, with translations from the Greek into Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic, and was read widely throughout the various churches and communions of the Middle Ages; his popularity only waned in the modern era, when the hoax was revealed on the one hand, Protestants like Martin Luther declared him unbiblical on another, and – on the third hand – scholars detected and discussed his ‘Neo-Platonism’, a charge many a Christian theologian has had a hard time shaking.
The spiritual theology of Pseudo-Dionysius is about the glory and majesty of the Creator God whose very nature and power overflowed into the creation of the universe. God Himself is the light, and our goal, our telos as His creatures is our return to Him, our ascent and encounter with the celestial hierarchies. Our return, our reditus, is achieved through asceticism and mystical contemplation.
The Christian pedigree of these ideas lies within the trajectory of Origen-Evagrius-Cassian (as so much does!) with similarities in the Syriac Liber Graduum and St. John Climacus. The imagery of exitus–reditus is an integral part of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Dionysian spirituality is the cornerstone of St. Gregory Palamas’ theology. But more about them later. For more on Pseudo-Dionysius, check out The Catholic Encyclopedia.
As stated above, Dionysian spiritual theology was very popular very quickly. He is quoted by Mar Severus of Antioch, the Monophysite patriarch almost right away (if you do not believe these works to be by St. Paul’s disciple), and is soon translated into Latin. His popularity in the West increases, no doubt due to the prestige attached to the name as well as the importance of many of his doctrines, such as the incomprehensibility of God, and his similarities to the popular monastic writer St. John Cassian.
And so, in the ninth century, Hincmar of Reims, a scheming, strategising Carolingian bishop with a large library at his disposal, a knowledge of canon law, and a desire to see the fortunes of the western Frankish realms increase, took up Pseudo-Dionysius’ cause. Already the easy confusion of people named Dionysius had probably begun; Hincmar skilfully accelerated the process.
The Areopagite was merged with a martyred bishop of Lutetia (Paris), who had died there around 250 (en français il s’appelle St. Denis). St. Denis of Paris was a martyr of the mid-third century who, along with his companions, was beheaded by the Romans on Monmartre (Latin: Mons Martyrum), today in the North of Paris. Upon being beheaded, he took up his head and walked to the site of the future basilica and declared that he was to be buried there.
What we know for certain is that there was a Christian church on the site since at least the fourth century and that there seems to have been some sort of crypt beneath. The church was rebuilt in the Carolingian era and again later on when the abbey that came to be connected with it increased its fortunes through royal associations – starting with Dagobert I (d. 639), the majority of the kings of what we know think of as France were buried there.
Eventually, the abbey and its Romanesque basilica got a new abbot, Abbot Suger (abbot 1122-1151). Suger, it seems, was a reader of his abbey’s patron, St. Denis (the Areopagite, of course; that this is a likely possibility, read this article about twelfth-century Dionysian influences). And the cornerpiece of Dionysian theology is light. God is light (is Christ not the light of the world?). Therefore, Suger rebuilt the apse with a double ambulatory as well as the chevet. The apse of a church is the round bit that sticks out the back and frequently houses the holy table; an ambulatory is a space that allows you to walk around the back of the apse; a double ambulatory is one such that has two aisles, with side chapels radiating out from the apse where priests can say private masses. The chevet is the entryway that you pass through before the narthex and nave.
What Suger created was the oldest existing Gothic architecture. When I visited St. Denis, a request was made to explain what makes it Gothic. The appellation has nothing to do with Goths, first off (it is a Renaissance denigration). Gothic architecture is light and airy, whereas its predecessor, Romanesque (Norman), is still heavy, blocky, dense – although late Romanesque such as Durham Cathedral is moving towards the airiness of Gothic.
The most important feature for this airiness is the pointed arch. Pointed arches enable the builders to span wider spaces. Thus, we get such places as the majority-Gothic Duomo in Milan and York Minster that have very high ceilings and very wide naves. The Basilica Sant-Ambrogio in Milan, on the other hand, cannot span as great a distance, being a tenth/eleventh-century Romanesque construction. The Duomo is the largest interior space I’ve ever been in that wasn’t a hockey arena, if that gives you an idea of what Gothic can do.
These pointed arches bear the majority of the weight of the roof and structure. Therefore, walls of glass become a possibility. When perhaps the walls alone are not enough, another Gothic innovation is the flying buttress. Flying buttress are supports on the exterior of the building that bear its weight almost as half arches, thus not casting shadows and saving light. The double ambulatory at St. Denis has flying buttresses outside.
As a result of these two innovations, Abbot Suger’s double ambulatory is radiated with light on all sides, as the sun shines through the coloured panes and across the altars arrayed there. We often have an image of the Middle Ages as a dark, grim world. Gothic architecture defies the darkness and grimness of stone and allows God’s first recorded words to be realised in the space of worship – Fiat lux.
Eventually, in the mid-1200s, the Romanesque nave of St. Denis was replaced with Gothic architecture as well, with the addition of transepts (imagine a medieval church as a cross – transepts are the arms) and a renovation of the upper portions of the apse. The apse is almost all window now, and the transepts are adorned with rose windows, filling the space with the beauty of light:
Light, light, light. I write as though this is all that Gothic architecture cares about. To a degree, it is. My first encounter with a real Gothic cathedral was St. Sophia’s in Nicosia, Cyprus. Today it is a mosque (I found it amusing that my first Gothic church was a mosque). The walls are whitewashed and there is no ecclesiastical furniture, let alone statues, grotesques, frescoes, or mosaics, to adorn it. But it is a large, bright, cleanly-lit space.
Some of the architects of the Gothic Revival in the nineteenth century believed that Gothic architecture was that form of architecture best suited to capturing and most devoted to embracing light. I think they may have been right.