Monday, April 01, 2024

Marco Girolamo Vida, Christiad


Opening Passage: First, in the original Latin:

Qui mare, qui terras, qui coelum numine comples,
spiritus alme, tuo liceat mihi munere regem
bis genitum canere, e superi qui sede parentis
virginis intactae gravidam descendit in alvum,
mortalesque auras hausit puer, ut genus ultus
humanum eriperet tenebris et carcere iniquo
morte sua manesque pios inferret Olympo.
Illum sponte hominum morientem ob crimina tellus
aegra tulit puduitque poli de vertice solem
aspicere et tenebris insuetis terruit orbem.
Fas mihi te duce mortali immortalia digno
ore loqui interdumque oculos attollere coelo
et lucem accipere aetheream summique parentis
consilia atque necis tam dirae evolvere causas. (p. 2)

And then in James Gardner's prose translation:

Gentle spirit, who fills with your divine presence the sea, the earth and the sky, help me to tell of the twice-born king who from his Father's throne in heaven above, descended into the womb of an untouched virgin and, as a mere infant, drew mortal breath; so that, by his death, he might avenge the human race, resucing it from darkness and sinful durance and leading the souls of the pious into paradise. The grieving earth bore him as he died willingly for the sins of men. For the height of heaven, the sun was ashamed to look on and harrowed the earth with a strange darkness. I am only a mortal man, but I pray that, with your help, I might sing a worthy song about immortal things. Lifting my eyes to heaven, may I receive for a time, the ethereal light, to reveal the counsels of the celestial Father and the causes of so piteous a death. (p. 3)

Summary: The Christiad is divided into six books, which cover the life of Christ. 

Book I begins, as is fitting of an epic, in medias res; Jesus' ministry is nearing its completion and he comes to Jerusalem, telling his disciples of his sufferings to come, which they have difficulty believing. While staying at the house of Zacchaeus, a messenger comes to tell him that Lazarus has died in Bethany,  so Jesus goes there. The devil, meanwhile, foresees that the Son of God will soon lay waste to his kingdom, and therefore he calls a meeting of the demons, and in that horrible council, concilium horrendum, he lays out his plan to deal with this divine messenger, who is either the Son or an angel sent by him, by stirring up the hatred of the priests in Jerusalem against them. The demons blast out of hell like a great hissing horde of bats, they fly forth to ensure that he does not escape. This whole passage is one of the most striking in the book, and of course is the primary influence on many other famous depictions of hell, most notably that of Pandemonium in Milton's Paradise Lost. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and frees a prostitute named Mary (i.e., Magdalen) from demonic possession; she anoints his feet. Back in Jerusalem, Jesus and his followers visit the Temple, where Jesus casts out the moneychangers, which gives the narrator an opportunity to lay out the sacred history of the Old Testament, carved (symbolically rather than in images) on the temple pillars. It ends with the Transfiguration.

In Book II, the host of hell, flapping around like birds of the night, poison the hearts of the priests and the people, wherever they can find a heart open to their falsehoods. I thought that this part was very well done, as well; the demons proceed by taking the episode with the moneychangers in the Temple and exaggerating, suggesting to people's imaginations that Christ had attempted to destroy the altar with ax and torch, then threatened to destroy the entire building. Twelve demons try to poison the hearts of the disciples, but find them well-armored against anything the demons could provide. Only one succombs. Interestingly, even Judas (i.e., Iscariot), despite already not being a particularly good man, does not succomb immediately. The chink in Judas's armor is that he had given up everything for Jesus and has grown tired of the difficulties of the wandering life he has with Jesus; well intentioned, perhaps, in the beginning, his enthusiasm has waned and been replaced by nothing else. Nicodemus meanwhile tries to calm things down, but fails to do so. The narrator decides at this point to tell us about the tribes of Israel, and the geography of the land; the idea seems to be that members of all the tribes are coming at that time to Jerusalem for the feast. Jesus and the disciples have the Last Supper. Judas betrays Jesus in the garden and he is tried before the priests and they send him to Pilate in the hope that they can persuade Pilate to execute him. Peter, meanwhile, has denied knowing Christ three times and spends the rest of the night weeping.

The trial before Pilate in some sense takes all of Book III and Book IV, but that because Vida has two people give testimony before Pilate as witnesses. In Book III, Joseph of Nazareth tells of Jesus' early life, up to the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water to wine. The story continues in Book IV with the testimony of John, who tells of Jesus' ministry and teaching. Considered as trial testimony, Joseph's testimony is arguably more successful -- John seems to keep forgetting that he needs to avoid talking about Jesus in terms that suggest that Jesus could in any way be a rival for Roman governance -- but the overall effect of both testimonies is that there is something divine and kingly about Jesus. It's interesting that we have Joseph rather than Mary -- I think the idea is that the Roman governor would be more likely to believe the testimony of a man, but there seems to be more going on, because Book IV ends with an explicit statement that John and Joseph are keeping Mary in the dark about what is happening to her son; she's not only not present at the trial, she is deliberately being excluded by Joseph and John from knowing anything about it.

At the beginning of Book V, Pilate is unconvinced that Jesus is a threat; in fact, having met Jesus directly and having heard the testimony of Joseph and John has convinced him that there might well be something to the notion that Jesus has some kind of divine origin or support. He demands that the crowds select someone to tell him exactly what crime Jesus is supposed to have committed. Meanwhile, Judas is anguished over what he has done and, maddened with guilt, hangs himself. Thus Vida's Judas despairs and commits suicide before Jesus has even been convicted of anything. Back in Pilate's chambers, the priests attempt to convince Pilate that Jesus is a threat to Rome, and are failing; but Pilate is equally failing to calm down either them or the increasingly belligerent crowd at his gate; Vida strikingly depicts the latter as being stirred up by the fiends of hell who are circling above the multitude and goading it. Pilate's wife warns him not to harm Jesus due to a dream she had; but the devil sends forth the demon of Fear to flap around Pilates face, casting terrifying images of what might happen if he resists the crowd. Thus Pilate gives in. Jesus is led away to be crucified and, in another of Vida's very striking passages, the angels of heaven rise up in fury to smite the earth with judgment. But the Father sends the angel of Mercy to calm them down and restrain them; they can only watch helplessly:

It was as if two youths were enclosed in a ring on an empty field, vying for glory and honor. As they fight hand to hand with equal might, all the other youths gather round, looking now at one side and now at the other. If one of them happens to be less skilful and shows fear or trips on the uneven ground, his faithful friends jump up, eager to help him. How they would like to succor their friend, but the rules forbid it! They stand about helplessly and curse from afar his bad luck. (p. 297)

Jesus is crucified and it is only now that his mother learns what has happened to her son; she rushes forth in sorrow:

As when a doe, returning at evening from the mountaintops to her familiar resting-place, mindful of feeding her tender young, finds the ground all about spattered with blood, but her fawns nowhere to be seen; running at once through the entire wood, she groans as she scans it with her eyes. (p. 301)

But she also can do nothing but weep at the foot of the cross as her son dies. Thus ends Book V.

 Jesus is buried in Book VI.  He then frees the souls of the just from hell, breaking down its gates, scattering the demons, and leading the righteous to heaven. In many ways, I think, the harrowing of hell is the strongest part of Book VI; Book VI is, I think, the weakest of the books, in part because there are so many things going on that Vida has difficulty doing justice to them all. Jesus is raised from the dead and visits the disciples; a considerable portion of text is devoted specifically to Thomas's doubting of what the other disciples claim to have seen. Jesus then ascends to heaven with all of the implements by which he was crucified, and from heaven he sends the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The disciples set out to sing the praises of Christ in all land and a new age begins. 

I was pleasantly surprised by this work. Most people who read it today are reading it because it is an influence on Paradise Lost and other notable works, and Vida often gets the worse of comparisons with Milton when people of this sort read him. It's true that Paradise Lost is in many ways a more striking work. It has two advantages over Christiad. First, Milton chose a much less ambitious subject for his poem; Vida's poem covers the whole Life of Christ, but to do so properly it also has to cover all of salvation history. The second and most important advantage, though, is that Milton can read Vida. When you read this poem it becomes clear that large portions of Paradise Lost are built around scenes that in Christiad are very effective and vivid. That is to say, part of the reason for the success of Paradise Lost is that Vida had already shown what areas of this whole general topic were amenable to very successful treatment in Neo-Classical terms, and Milton learned from this very well. 

But in any case, this is somewhat otiose. To say that a poem is less striking than Paradise Lost is not actually very informative; it's like saying that a novel is not as well constructed as Pride and Prejudice. Well, yes, but could you be more specific? And in fact my own view is that Christiad stands up very well; even keeping the comparison to Milton, it is mostly much more successful as a poem than Paradise Regained, for instance, and for short passages, Vida arguably does surpass Milton. He is, like Milton, somewhat hampered by the constraints of what he is writing; he has things he has to fit in, somehow, and he has to do it in Neo-Classical tropes derived heavily from Virgil. These constraints mean that he is often at his most effective in quasi-martial contexts -- with the exceptions, perhaps, of Jesus, Mary, Peter, and Pilate, the devils and angels are all more vividly depicted than any of the human beings. Poetically, I think the long passages that work best are the angels rising up to go to war at Jesus' crucifixion and Jesus' descent into hell, although there are many short passages that are very fine.

In any case, Vida tells us how he hopes his work will fit into the greater literary scene, putting it in the very mouth of God speaking to Christ:

Indeed the time will come when the ethereal sun has completed the course of fifteen centuries hence and poets, having forgotten the lies of the Greeks, will tell the nations of your death in song. All cities will resound with your praise, especially those by the happy shores of Italy the Blessed, in the regions of the wandering Addua and Serio, whose mossy banks are brighter than amber and as sinuous as a snake. (pp. 370-371)

Favorite Passage: From the depiction of the harrowing of hell (Book VI, ll. 198-220):

Behold! Their supreme avenger, beaming with divine radiance, stood even now at the gates. In his path was a n enormous portal and posterns of eternal brass, fortified with a hundred bolts. The portal was so strong that not even fire or the hardness of iron could overcome it. Here stood the Son of God and he pushed open the screeching door with his right hand. Frightened, the ground shook in all directions at the impact, and the wandering stars of heaven trembled, and the drear palace groaned in its shadowy caverns. At the noise, the brethren who flee the light, that timid crew, suddenly appeared from their deepest vales in a terrifying onrush, human down to their waist and dragons below. They began to roar strangely, breathing a baleful fire from their gullets and filling the palace with black smoke. At once the doors swung open and fell over of their own accord, violently wrenched from their jambs. Now the interior, with its lofty halls, was dimly revealed. The shadows grew thinner and blind night receded. For even so did the Son of God, seen amid the darkness of caves, blind their eyes with his divine radiance, like a jewel whose plendor rivals fire, a jewel that shines at night in royal chambers and, vanquishing the darkness, decks everything with its golden glow. (p. 329)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Marco Girolamo Vida, Christiad, James Gardner, tr., Harvard UP (Cambridge, MA: 2009).