Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.4.15


Gennaro Luongo, Lo specchio dell'agiografo. Parva Hagiographica 3. Naples: Nuove Edizioni Tempi Moderni, 1992. Pp. 121. 20,000 Lire.


Reviewed by Andre F. Basson, Calvin College, abasson@calvin.edu.

This deceptively thin volume originated in a conference held at the Centro di studi e documentazione su Paolino di Nola in May 1991 and is a welcome addition to the current spate of books and articles on early Christian and medieval hagiography. The book which, so the author informs us, precedes a more extensive study, focuses on the life of St. Felix as portrayed in the so-called natalicia poems of Pontius Meropius Paulinus, or Paulinus of Nola as he is more commonly known. In recent years, scholarly interest in that incredibly productive period in Latin literature between the last few decades of the fourth century and the early beginning of the fifth, has also come to include the work of Paulinus, the provincial aristocrat from Bordeaux who, after converting to asceticism, finally settled in Nola where he founded a monastic community and a centre for the cult of the confessor Felix. Compared to the attention showered on many of his more famous contemporaries like Augustine and Prudentius for example, the number of monographs and articles devoted to Paulinus' life and work (the latter comprising more than 30 poems and some 51 letters) is relatively small. With regard to Paulinus' portrait of Felix, especially within the context of late antique hagiography, Luongo's book certainly represents the first (and hopefully not the last) substantial work on the subject.

In the introduction (p. 11-12), the author emphasizes that he will not attempt to reconstruct the historical figure of Felix, but rather the hagiographical portrait of the saint as it emerges from these poems and the hagiographic message which the poet seeks to convey through them. Luongo expresses a particular interest in the profile of Felix which, he believes, Paulinus has patterned after the model of the ideal saint of the late fourth and early fifth centuries. This profile may also be regarded as the poet's representation of himself and of his responsibilities as a Christian and a priest. Indeed, almost like an x-ray, the portrait of the poet is revealed by that which he has written about Felix.

Despite important contributions by (Serafino) Prete, Costanza, Lienhard, and Brown, a systematic examination of the cult of the saints as witnessed by Paulinus, and of the model of sainthood and its miracles as described in the natalicia still require investigation. Luongo's book is an attempt to address this problem. It focuses on carm. 15 and 16 (in Hartel's edition) which, apart from Damasus' brief eulogy, constitute the first extensive hagiographic document on the life of Felix, and in fact, the first metric vita in Latin hagiographic literature.

Chapter 1 ("In the footsteps of Felix"). Traditional scholarship noting the many similarities between carm. 15 and 16, on the one hand, and the late antique passiones, on the other, has emphasized the vagueness of the narrative in regard to historical detail and the almost anecdotal development of the story. Luongo, however, disputes the validity of any approach which considers the hagiographical text as a factual document. In keeping with modern hagiographical criticism, he proposes a shift in focus that rather pays attention to aspects such as mentalité and the society portrayed in the text. Consequently, although Luongo finds himself in agreement with Prete's view that the portrayal of Felix was in some respects intended as a mirror image of Paulinus' own life, he faults his compatriot for still believing that it is possible to identify an original historical nucleus at the centre of Paulinus' creation littéraire of the life of his patron.

In regard to the relation of the vita Felicis to other hagiographic portraits, most notably Jerome's three vitae, the vita Cypriani and the vita Martini Turonensis, Luongo finds unconvincing Evenepoel's attempts to prove a direct line of influence between these texts and carmina 15 and 16. Whether the verbal reminiscences and thematic similarities identified by Evenepoel can be attributed to hagiographic commonplaces, as Luongo would have us believe, is, however, not as important as the question of the place of Paulinus' portrayal of Felix in the literary history of asceticism from Jerome's lives of the three hermits to Servius Sulpicius' Life of Martin of Tours. It is only from this angle that the issue of the influence of these hagiographic texts on the vita Felicis may prove to be a fruitful field for further examination.

Chapter 2 ("The context of carm. 15 and 16", pp. 29-42). In this chapter, Luongo provides a very valuable overview of the history of hagiography in the fourth and fifth centuries, and of the reasons for its success as a literary genre. With the increasing popularity of monasticism as a more attainable form of spiritual perfection, there developed within the Church an interest in the lives and personal experiences of exceptional men and women. Hagiographical texts became best-sellers for the simple reason that they responded to this growing interest in the monastic ideal by presenting ideal figures of perfection rather than individualized portraits.

Although Luongo does not find the new chronology proposed by Desmulliez for the poems and letters written between 393 and 397 convincing, he nevertheless chooses to agree with the French scholar's view that Paulinus wrote carm. early in 397. His only reason for preferring this earlier date to the more traditional one (398) suggested by Fabre appears to be the fact that it effectively destroys the claim that the thematic structure of carm. 15 and 16 is attributable to the influence of the vita Martini which was written well after the 11th of November 397 (the day of Martin's death).

While calling into question any extensive direct influence of earlier hagiographical texts on carm. 15 and 16, Luongo does point out that Paulinus' vita Felicis shares in much of the ideological, thematic and lexical homogeneity which characterizes the hagiographic tradition of the fourth and fifth centuries. Certain recurring themes coupled with a particular spiritual terminology (e.g. militia Christi, servire deo, opus dei, confessio) contribute to the transmission of a Christian model of perfection which also came to include the monk and the bishop.

Chapter 3 ("Beyond the realia", pp. 43-60). This chapter deals with questions relating to the possible identity of Paulinus' audience and the historical Felix. Was the vita Felicis destined for a public recitatio during the saint's festival or do we have to assume a more elite audience consisting either of the Christian faithful assembled in the basilica at Nola or of a select group of converted literati? Luongo should not be judged too harshly for not providing a definite answer to a question that deserves more extensive treatment elsewhere. After all, his only interest in Paulinus' audience is concerned with the extent to which they may have controlled his use of the historical facts. From an examination of the available archaeological, liturgical and literary evidence Luongo concludes that already by the end of the fourth century the life of Felix had assumed proportions quite removed from reality.

But what are the main constituents of Paulinus' portrait of Felix? What were his intentions and how did this shape his narrative? Luongo believes that Paulinus drew primarily on the collective memory of the Christian community of Nola and on the contemporary conception of the saint as martyr. The poet was interested not in historical detail but, like so many of his predecessors, in the lesson and the suprahistorical meaning of his subject's life. This would explain the many biblical parallelisms and hagiographical topoi in the text. To illustrate this point, Luongo briefly examines Paulinus' reference to Felix's Syrian origin and his description of the torture inflicted on him.

Chapter 4 ("The model of saintliness represented by Felix", pp. 61-90). Here the question Luongo attempts to answer is: how does Paulinus' Felix conform to the model of sainthood which crystallized in the mind of Christian communities towards the end of the fourth century?

One of the most important images of Felix in the carmina is that of martyr. But sometimes he is also referred to as "confessor". Luongo is certainly justified in refusing to believe that Paulinus did not know the difference in meaning between these two terms. A more probable explanation is that by the fourth century the term "martyr" also came to be applied to the courageous defenders of orthodoxy and to the champions of the asceticism. At the same time, Felix merits the title of "confessor" because he professed Christ and, by scorning torture, he deserved to escape from it unharmed.

The very few occurrences of the word "martyr" in carm. 15 and 16 (as opposed to the numerous references to Felix as confessor in the same two poems) lead Luongo to the interesting conclusion that Paulinus' emphasis on the confessio aspect of Felix's experience should be seen as an attempt to legitimize and popularize the cult of his patron at a time when the worship and veneration, which previously only the martyrs had received, came to be extended not only to the confessores who have survived the persecutions but also to those who have served the Christian cause with particular zeal in the struggle against heretics, in the exercise of their pastoral duties or, finally, in the pursuit of an ascetic life. Once Felix's identity as confessor/martyr has been established in carm. 15 and 16, the term "martyr" becomes more frequent in carm. 18 and following poems where the emphasis is on his role as patron and his ability to intercede with God on behalf of the faithful, an ability for which martyrdom was still considered to be the most important guarantee.

Luongo also notes that a number of features of Paulinus' portrait of the saint actually fits the identi-kit of a fourth century bishop. In fact, when, at the outbreak of the persecution, Maximus, the bishop of Nola, flees into the desert, all his responsibilities immediately fall to Felix, who remains in the city. It is unfortunate, however, that Luongo fails to mention the very important synkrisis between Felix and Maximus that underpins much of the narrative of the vita Felicis in carm. 15. For example, there is the very subtle, yet important, contrast between the torture Felix was subjected to in jail and Maximus' suffering in the desert. Luongo could also have mentioned the very clear contrast between the ways in which the two men were eventually rescued: Felix in all cases by biblically inspired miracles, but Maximus only by human intervention.

The author does, however, offer some valuable analyses of other terms used by Paulinus in carm. 15 and 16 to describe Felix's role, these include antistes and sacerdos. In analyzing Felix's career, Luongo draws the very important conclusion that it reflects the ecclesiastical customs and practices of Paulinus' own era rather than those of the second or third centuries. He goes on to point out that Paulinus' own career shows some uncanny resemblances to that of his patron. One can hardly disagree with Luongo that certain aspects of Felix's life are very much patterned after Paulinus' conception of sainthood. By this association with his patron, Paulinus probably sought to counter whatever suspicion the inhabitants of Nola may have harboured against someone like himself who had received his ordination elsewhere. But could this have been the only reason? Luongo's doubts notwithstanding, an examination of the two poems does seem to support the idea that Paulinus also wished to create a more sympathetic environment for the monastic movement in Nola and thus to enhance his own prospects of eventually being elected bishop of the city.

Chapter 5 ("Towards a conclusion", pp. 91-94). By way of conclusion, Luongo briefly reviews some of the more salient aspects of Paulinus' vita Felicis and the various dimensions of the saint's portrait in carm. 15 and 16: witness, perfect Christian, tireless and kind pastor, strict ascetic, patron. Paulinus' literary account of the life of Felix represents a significant moment in the evolution of the model of sainthood, of the sequela Christi of that time and that milieu. But, even more important, the portrait of Felix the presbyter and confessor is also a mirror of the life of Paulinus, the presbyter and ascetic. In the vita Felicis , the hagiographer and his subject coincide.

Appendix ("The tomb of Felix", pp. 95-103). Although he readily admits his lack of expertise in this area of Paulinian studies, Luongo nevertheless devotes the last few pages of his book to a very useful survey of the results of excavations by Chierici, and later by Testini on the site of the basilica erected by Paulinus in Cimitile. A problem which has not yet been solved is the identification and dating of Felix's tomb, as well as the relationships and the various phases of the monuments on the site. Excavations by Chierici in the heart of the basilica have brought to light a complex of three adjoining constructions with numerous tombs. In the first chamber the Italian archaeologist discovered three parallel tombs, laid out in a west-east direction. He identified the most southerly one as the saint's tomb. Testini has cautiously advanced the hypothesis that the other two tombs belonged to the bishops Maximus and Quintus. On the basis of the existing archaeological evidence, Luongo concludes that it was the period between the end of the fourth century and the first decades of the fifth that actually saw the establishment and eventual floruit of the cult of Felix whose humble tomb Paulinus managed to transform into one of the major monument complexes in the western Mediterranean.