BMCR 1994.04.17

1994.04.17, Roberts, Poetry and the Cult of the Martyrs

, Poetry and the cult of the martyrs : the Liber peristephanon of Prudentius. Recentiores. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. x, 222 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780472104499.

The Liber Peristephanon ( LP) is an early Christian poet’s attempt to participate artistically in the cult of the martyrs that had come to dominate his spiritual world, once the persecutions had ended. Michael Roberts’ new study of this sequence of fourteen devotional poems by Prudentius is a most worthy inaugural volume of a new monograph series, Recentiores: Later Latin Texts and Contexts. The publication of this book as a material object is innovative in its own right, since it is backed up by the Latin text of the LP as an electronic data-base that may be consulted and downloaded free of charge from the Center for Computer Analysis of Texts of the University of Pennsylvania.

Born in 348 in Spain, Prudentius was 6 years older than Augustine. He was attached to the imperial court of Theodosius in Milan, and may perhaps have moved in some of the same circles as the young Augustine during the latter’s brief stay there. Prudentius withdrew to Spain in 396, and wrote devotional poetry there as a lay convert. While Prudentius’Psychomachia has often drawn the attention of literary critics interested in the history and theory of allegory, the LP has lain in relative obscurity, perhaps because in generic terms, it is in a class by itself. I remember once hearing a public lecture on this collection of poems in the 60’s, given by one of the more forward-looking scholars of medieval Latin literature at that time. Even then, it was obvious that no adequate critical perspectives were yet available to make these poems really shine—indeed, the dominant mood of the speaker was one of embarrassed condescension.

However, the 4th and 5th centuries have become the object of intense scholarly interest in recent times. It is amazing to see how much documentation on that era is available. Michael Roberts’ study of Prudentius is a major contribution to our understanding of the literary culture of that age. Drawing abundantly on the scholarship of such modern historians as Peter Brown and Robert Markus, Roberts has brought a contextual perspective to Prudentius’LP that brings artistic virtuosity of this devotional poetry into sharp relief.

The main questions that Roberts addresses in this book are the following: “what is the relation between martyr text and martyr cult in the Peristephanon? how are the beliefs about and the practice of the martyr cult embodied in the text? what is Prudentius’ poetics of the martyr text?” (7).

Chapter 1, “The Martyr in Time and Place,” begins with an inventory of the poems in the LP, and then takes LP 1 as an introduction to situate the work in the spiritual context of the cults of martyrs and relics that developed in the 4th century. With constant references to terms and expressions drawn from the text of the LP, in a manner at once concrete and metaphysical, Roberts explores the mediating functions attributed by Prudentius to martyrs and their relics. Buried as they are under the altar, the martyrs’ remains endure as signs of the martyrs’ availability as petitioners in heaven, even though the gifts they bestow on the faithful derive from their “friend” Christ, and ultimately from God. So too, the martyrs offer protection from worldly harm to both individuals and communities. The martyrial shrine becomes the center of both a new space and a new time: “Power emanates from the location of the martyrs’ tomb in ever-widening circles until it embraces the whole world” (25). Thus, the martyr’s tomb endows a community with a new pride—the laus urbis—and with a no less new power, at once worldly and spiritual, surpassing the glories of the classical world and its pagan gods. Thus, the cults of the martyrs join cities together in a new order of salvation history: “Cities come together here not in veneration of a single, common saint, but in their shared devotion to the cult of the martyrs. Geographical unity is removed to a celestial, atemporal dimension, but the individual city replicates that ideal unity in the here and now of the Mediterranean world, and acts it our in miniature in its communal celebration of its patron saint or saints” (35).

Chapter 2, “The Martyr Narrative: Between Heaven and Earth,” draws on the whole sequence of the LP to evoke the canonical elements of the narrative of the martyr’s passion. Its tripartite typology is exemplified by constantia, as the martyr confesses Christ; by fiducia as the martyr endures torture; and by patientia as the martyr is put to death. “The age of the martyrs increasingly became a heroic age, of figures larger than life, as the Homeric hero was to the people of post-heroic times” (41). Roberts illustrates the various lexical, topical and rhetorical resources that Prudentius draws upon to give enargeia, or vividness, to the passions of the martyrs. As one might expect, Prudentius is a virtuoso when it comes to evoking the atrociousness of Roman judicial process. Indeed, his esthetics of the gruesome is well beyond Eusebius’, surely because Prudentius is above all a poet and not a chronicler. Yet, there is a certain abstractness to all of this violence. Roberts makes a point that holds not only in Prudentius’ verbal art, but in the plastic arts of the pre-gothic age that followed as well: “Prudentius’ martyr texts are characterized by intensity rather than individuality” (76).

Chapter 3, “The Road to Heaven,” is “devoted to a range of strategies for amplifying the narrative scope of martyr texts” (108). The chapter explores the theme of imprisonment in such a way as to disclose its full allegorical potential and to throw Prudentius’ emulations of Classical art, including that of Virgil, into clear relief. The darkness of the cavelike prison in Prudentius’ poems expresses several broad allegorical meanings: that of the earthly world, that of the sinful human body, and that of Hell awaiting the visitation of Christ. “Fructuosus’ performance of baptism in prison takes on special significance as the cleansing of the Christian from the consequences of Original Sin, consequences that may be represented metaphorically as incarceration. At the same time, in liberating Christians from imprisonment in the sinful world through baptism, Fructuosus reenacts in miniature Christ’s own victory over Satan at the Crucifixion that made redemption possible” (81-2). Roberts carefully expands up on the meaning of the imprisonment of Vincent in LP 5, showing by close analysis of its language how widely the poem resonates in an allegorical tradition that is both Biblical and classical. The saint’s conversion of his jailer is an allegory of illumination that implicates us, the reader-jailor, as well: “Events are viewed from within, from the perspective of the martyr … and from without…. The juxtaposition implies at a certain level of generality and equivalence of an individual Christian and the victory of the martyr: both are experiences of spiritual transcendence and illumination” (88-9). So too, Vincent’s incarceration signifies the temptations of the sinful life. Thus, “incarceration can stand for the entire experience of the Christian in this world” (91). Roberts next shows how Eulalia’s flight from imprisonment in her parents’ home echoes themes from both Virgil ( Aeneid 6) and the Old Testament (the flight from Egypt, Exod. 13:21-2). Allusions to other important classical and early Christian writers abound as well, and by his critical tour de force, Roberts gracefully confers upon Prudentius the status of a major Latin poet.

Chapter 4, “The Martyr as Bishop and Teacher” is devoted to an institutional aspect of the cult of martyrs: the didactic mission proper to the figure of the bishop in the early church as exemplified by several martyrs: Sixtus, Quirinus and Cyprian, all of whom illustrate the conduct of the ideal bishop as a spiritual guide. One will recall, in this context, the pedagogical powers of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, that Augustine portrays in the Confessions. Since Roberts’ principal strengths are those of a reader of poetry and not a social historian, this chapter is interesting, but somewhat less consequential than the others that precede and follow it in this book.

With the long final chapter, “Poet and Pilgrim,” Roberts most fully demonstrates his powers as a critic. His object here is to study three poems ( LP 9, 11 and 12) where Prudentius’ poetic performance explores different dimensions of pilgrim spirituality as the presence of the martyr becomes manifest to the visitor at the shrine. In LP 9, Prudentius describes the experience of visiting the tomb of Cassian, with its image of the martyr “depicted in brilliant colors, bearing a thousand wounds, his whole body torn, and displaying flesh ripped with tiny puncture marks. Around him, a pitiful sight, countless boys pierced his limbs with strokes from their small styli, with which they were accustomed to engrave their wax tablets and take down in dictation the schoolmaster’s lesson” (Roberts’ translation, 134). Roberts explores Prudentius’ experience of this strange image in great detail. He shows, first, how, in the presence of the martyr’s remains, the boundary between image and reality becomes blurred, and second, how, in this case, the image of the martyr’s body pierced with the styli of the pupils becomes a figure of the hagiographic page: “In the case of the martyrdom of Cassian the distinction of readinghearing and viewing is collapsed; both operations can be performed on the martyr’s body. Subsequent versions of the martyr narrative, whether written, spoken, or depicted, reproduced the original martyr text that is the saint’s lacerated flesh. Written/spoken texts share the immediacy, the sense of presence and subversion of distinction between time of reading and time of martyrdom normally associated with the visual” (145). As Roberts himself is perhaps aware, this contact with the spiritual electricity of a 4th-century Christian writer should make the hair of modern professors who dramatize ecriture as pure differance (“difference with an ‘ah,'” as they say) stand up on end. In any case, Roberts speculates that this portrait of the dying Cassian may be read as an image of Prudentius’ perception of himself as he penitently repudiates secular learning (147) in order to become a writer who teaches in his own right “the shorthand of martyrdom.”

The discussion of LP 11 involves the poet’s difficulties in locating and identifying martyrs to be inserted in the liturgical calendar. Prudentius settles on the example of the martyr Hippolytus. “As a hagiographer the poet combines the historian’s concern for the past ( rerum veterum) with a researcher’s eagerness to track down and decipher material evidence for the saint. In other words, this act of historical research—or of what forensic rhetoricians call inventio—is also a pilgrim’s duty of religious devotion, appropriate to a anyone who seeks to come into contact with all objects associated with the martyrs, the recipients of his veneration” (151). Prudentius dramatizes the hermeneutical process above all as one of decoding inscriptions that are scarcely intelligible. Roberts suggests that the difficulty of mastering such elusive writing is analogously reflected in the painting on the wall of Hippolytus’ shrine, specifically in the description of traces of the martyr’s blood left on rocks over which his body has been dragged—implying, once again, traces of difficult writing. The process of gathering up the martyr’s body parts is an ordering process equivalent to the process of writing itself: “The reconstitution of the saint’s body is simultaneously, then, an act of devotion and cult, and the restoration of meaning to the obscure traces of the martyrdom. Prudentius, in writing his poem, repeats this original devotional and interpretive act” (156-7). Roberts extends these stunning insights into vaster analogies too complex to be summarized here; but by their trajectory, they testify to an artistic vision of uncommon grandeur.

In the discussion of LP 12, which is a poem about the shrines of the apostles Peter and Paul, Roberts proposes that Prudentius’ encounter with the founders of the church is an experiment in spiritual writing that is nothing less than an emulation of the sacred order of the Roman church as a whole: “The careful symmetrical treatment of the apostles in Prudentius’ poem and the emphasis on their harmonious accord in death and in cult reflect the propaganda of the Roman church in the second half of the fourth century. In iconography, homiletic and the church calendar the two apostles were associated as fundatores Ecclesiae, whose common martyrdom at Rome assured the unity of the Church and the preeminence of the city of their deaths” (172). Roberts explores the iconography of the apostles’ shrines (Peter’s is a baptistery, and Paul’s is a basilica) in relation to the theological significance of the two in Prudentius’ time. With his uncanny eye for poetic detail, Roberts shows how Prudentius’ art embodies the new spiritual order of Rome that has disclosed in the Roman Church, whose princes now venerate the supreme princeps, God. “Prudentius’ text celebrates the prospect of salvation extended by the Church to Rome’s devout. That Church is seen as the continuing expression of apostolic concordia, in which ecclesiastical and secular powers cooperate for the welfare of the community in this world and the next” (182). Thus, writing personally as a pilgrim to Rome, Prudentius replicates, in his own rhetorical performance, the building of Rome’s most prestigious monuments; and, by doing so, he implicitly embues Christian writing with the fresh ideological prestige of Christianity, construed as the fulfillment of Roman history.

Roberts has drawn frequently on early Christian sources (mostly written) in order to bring iconographical focus to Prudentius’ devotional poetry. Among these sources, Augustine is of course prominent. However, I am struck above all by the contrast between these two figures, whatever their experiences of Rome and Milan might have brought them in common. Never in Augustine do we find descriptions of physical nature, cities, buildings or people. He reviles painting, sculpture and poetry, and he is wary even of musical performance. So too, the Augustine of the Confessions was lukewarm to Ambrose’s vigorous promotion of the cult of the martyrs exemplified in the discovery of the remains of Gervasius and Protasius. True, by the end of the City of God, the mature Bishop of Hippo validated visits to the shrines of holy persons, but never told us what it was really like. By contrast, for Prudentius, tangible experiences of nature, cities, architecture, shrines and visual art are all captured as vividly as possible in the here and now of poetic expression. They are the very foundations of his most exalted spirituality.

Indeed, his descriptions—rather, his poetic emulations—of images in martyrs’ shrines offer modern historians of art a precious testimony about the uses of sacred images in early Christian culture. We might add that, given his ambition to supplant the prestige of classical letters with Christian art of his own making, Prudentius also shows what a mistake modern scholars make when they imagine the cult of relics above all as a figment of “popular” religion—that is, as if it were a practice remote from the high spirituality of the 4th century intelligentsia.

Roberts’ learned and clearly written study of a relatively neglected poet is as fine an example of literary criticism in any field as I have read in recent years. It brings into sharp perspective a poet whose vision, artfully fragmented though it is, competes ably with that of his best classical forebears, especially Virgil. By his close readings, Roberts has disclosed a spiritual virtuosity perhaps not matched in Christian poetic language until Dante. Reluctant though he is to court critical fashions of the past 20 years, Roberts has exposed the artistic processes of a poet whose metaphysical experiments are radical in every sense of that term, both etymological and chic. Dare one hope that more classics departments and/or programs in medieval studies will seize the opportunity that Roberts has provided and begin to include Prudentius in seminars and courses?