27 December 2008

'The celebrated poet of Christian Gaul'—St Venantius Fortunatus


According to my favourite online Orthodox calendar (for which I owe a much-belated hat-tip to my good friend, Justin), today we commemorate St Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus (530?-600?). A ‘celebrated Christian poet of Gaul’, in the words of Fr Seraphim (Rose) (St Gregory of Tours, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim [Rose] (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988), p. 37, n. *), St Venantius was a friend of St Gregory of Tours who, having been educated in Ravenna and healed by St Martin from an ‘eye affliction’, travelled throughout Gaul. He came to reside in Poitiers, where he cultivated a close friendship with the Frankish nun and patron Saint of Jesus College, Cambridge, St Radegund, and began his career as a prolific poet. When the Emperor Justin II (whose own story, told by Gibbon, is quite fascinating) sent as a gift to St Radegund from Constantinople a piece of the True Cross, St Venantius wrote the following as a processional for the reception of the relic in Poitiers:

Vexilla Regis Prodeunt

The banners of the King go forth,
Glistens the Cross’s mystery
That flesh’s Builder in the flesh
Was on a gibbet hung.

His vitals were transfixed with nails,
He stretched out his hands and feet:
For grace of our redemption
This Host was sacrificed.

Upon the cross He hung, wounded
By the point of a dire lance.
That he might wash us of our sins
He dripped water and blood.

Fulfilled is all that David sang
In his prophetic song of Faith,
Declaring to the nations,
‘God from wood has reigned.’

The tree is fit and glorious,
Adorned with purple of the King,
Chosen by honorable gift
To touch such sacred limbs.

Blessed it is upon whose arms
Has hung the ransom of an age;
It has become the body’s scales
And taken spoil of hell.

You pour a sweet smell from your bark,
You outdo nectar in your taste.
Fertile with a joyous fruit,
In noble triumph you praise.

Hail altar, hail the Victim
For glory of the passion
By which life has accomplished death
And through death life restored.

(trans. Albert Cook; L.R. Lind, ed., Latin Poetry in Verse Translation: From the Beginnings to the Renaissance [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957], pp. 331-2)

According to Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘Vexilla Regis Prodeunt’, along with another of St Venantius’s hymns, ‘Pange Lingua’ (later given a beautiful setting by Palestrina!), became ‘a standard part of medieval Lenten music and poetry (Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture [New Haven, CT: Yale U, 1999], p. 101). Although his reputation as a poet seems generally to be quite high, in a typical Edwardian judgement his occasional use of ‘figurate’ poetry has been unjustly called ‘one of the least happy [!] inventions of this period of literary decadence’. St Venantius was eventually made bishop of Poitiers and reposed sometime around the year 600.

By the way, on the subject of Orthodox Gaul, in addition, naturally, to the primary sources, everyone really should read Fr Seraphim's introduction to his translation of St Gregory of Tours (cited above). A brilliant appreciation of the ancient Orthodoxy of the West before the later innovations that divided it from the Orthodox Church, it is an underappreciated gem.

1 comment:

Justin said...

That's a great calendar, isn't it! I'm glad you are enjoying it. :)