The term “Gothic” originated in the Renaissance, when humanists and classicizing writersderogatorily referred to “the Goths” who – in the humanists‘ view – had destroyed classical culture. In architecture these Renaissance writers differentiated between the Gothic buildings and their favoured classical style.
Medieval Gothic cathedrals amaze numerous people worldwide. Every year they attract visitors, whether they are Catholics, Christians from other denominations or even non-believers. We generally associate with these magnificent buildings specific features like pinnacles, gargoyles, spires, pointed arches, flying buttresses, tapering pillars, spacious interiors, profuse decoration, ribbed vaults, a large-scale use of stained glass and the circular oculus.
These are also many of the salient characteristics of Gothic architecture. In relation to architecture the term Gothic was actually coined during the Renaissance. Especially Italian humanists as well as classicizing writers and architects of the 16th century like the painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), for example, referred to “the Goths” in a derogatory way to distinguish classical architecture from the – in their view – “barbaric” style in the medieval period.
According to Vasari in his The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Italian: Le Vite de‘ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori; 1550, enl. ed. in 1568), this “monstrous” style showed no sign of “any accepted ideas of sense and order.” Broadly speaking, the Renaissance writers linked medieval architecture to the 5th-century Gothic tribes that – in their opinion – had been responsible for destroying the classical culture of the Roman empire.
Instead of the – in Vasari’s words – “accursed buildings” with their pointed arches, the Renaissance men favoured principles or features they attributed to classical architectural style including human dimensions, simplicity, elegance, symmetry and balance. Even though the 16th-century writers correctly pointed out the differences in the architecture of the classical, medieval and Renaissance or early modern period, they made a complete misjudgment regarding the aesthetics and the qualities of Gothic structures.
Intriguingly, Gothic architecture evolved from the Romanesque architectural style. The latter is characterized, for instance, by thick walls, round towers, tunnel vaults, semi-circular arches and windows that are limited in number and size. As far as the Gothic cathedrals are concerned, they originated in northern France during the 12th century. Today, medieval Gothic cathedrals are scattered about Europe. Undoubtedly, one of the most famous of them is Notre-Dame de Paris, which was built between 1163 and 1345.
Needless to say, the recent fire in this impressive place of worship justifiably shocked a very large number of people across the globe because it resulted in immense damage. Thank God and thanks to the firefighters and men like the courages priest, Jean-Marc Fournier, the fire neither destroyed the whole building nor consumed sacred relics such as the Crown of Thorns and several of the irreplaceable artworks.
However, the horrible event has understandably worried a lot of people, above all the French. Notre-Dame de Paris constitutes a house of God, one of the iconic landmarks of Paris and a part of Western civilization. For this reason, statements that depict the famous Gothic cathedral as a mere building are inappropriate. A sign of hope is certainly the great willingness to donate money for the rebuilding.
Was the beginning of both George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones partly inspired by a scene in two medieval versions of Perceval’s quest for the Holy Grail, when Perceval sees three blood drops in the snow?
In George R.R. Martin’s series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire(ASOIAF) and its TV-adaptation Game of Thrones(GoT) Jon Snow’s storyline arguably indicates slight similarities to Perceval’s journey in the two medieval romances or Holy Grail legends Perceval ou le Conte du Graalby Chrétien de Troyes and Parzivalby Wolfram von Eschenbach. Both ASOIAF and GoT also refer to a common feature in Holy Grail legends – the wasteland motif.
Further allusions to the aforementioned versions of Perceval’s quest may be the frequent use of particular combinations of different colours. For example, the various references to black and white perhaps allude to the magpie image in Wolfram’s Parzival. Alongside these colours, we as readers or viewers notice several depictions, events or scenes which explicitly or implicitly mention the colours red and white.
We can, for instance, just point to Jon’s direwolf, Ghost, with his white fur and red eyes. Moreover, particularly with regard to ASOIAF, at the Wall in the snow-covered area far north of the fictional continent of Westeros Jon Snow suddenly imagines his uncle Benjen Stark’s death, when his uncle leaves Castle Black for an expedition into the haunted forest:
“As he watched his uncle lead his horse into the tunnel, Jon had remembered the things that Tyrion Lannister told him on the kingsroad, and in his mind’s eye he saw Ben Stark lying dead, his blood red on the snow.” (A Game of Thrones (GT), 179)
Later – before fleeing from the free folk beyond the Wall – he remembers the execution of the deserter from the Night’s Watch:
“Jon remembered another killing; the deserter on his knees, his head rolling, the brightness of blood on snow…his father’s sword, his father’s words, his father’s face…” (A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow (SoS), 566)
Intriguingly, there is a reference to blood on the snow in the consulted versions of Perceval’s quest, too.
Three Blood Drops in the Snow – Perceval’s Inner Vision
At one point, Perceval rides across a snowy field, spotting three blood drops. It is noteworthy that the snowfall during the night before borders on a miraculous event because it is summer (cf. esp. Wolfram’s Parzival). The three blood drops in the snow result from a bleeding bird (or, more precisely, a goose) after a falcon’s attack.
Seeing the blood drops in the snow, Perceval falls into a trance-like state. Although scholars assess this episode in Wolfram’s Parzival differently, through the mix of the colours red and white he thinks to recognize his beloved’s beautiful face. Note that in Chrétien’s version his beloved is Blancheflor, whereas in Wolfram’s Parzival her name is Condwiramurs.
Undoubtedly, the three blood drops in the snow cast a kind of love spell over Perceval who experiences a form of inner vision or introspection. Consequently, the interplay of red and white enables Perceval to look inwardly. His thoughts of his beloved in his trance-like state apparently gives him strength to continue his search for the Holy Grail.
Since Perceval has this inner vision of his beloved’s facial beauty that encourages him to resume his quest for the Holy Grail, this scene is a significant event. If we now put the emphasis on the analysis of the possible meanings of the colours red and white in ASOIAF as well as in GoT, we may figure out slight similarities between the scene above and an event in the beginning parts of the first novel and the pilot episode.
White Fur and Red Eyes – A Close Look at the Discovery of the Dead Female Direwolf and Her Pups
The Prologue of A Game of Thrones about the horrifying confrontation between three men of the Night’s Watch and the Others (i.e. the White Walkers and the wights / undead) is followed by a chapter with Lord Eddard (or Ned) Stark’s son Bran as the point-of-view (POV) character. GoT, ASOIAF’s TV-adaptation, roughly adheres to this order in its opening sequences of scenes. However, it is appropriate to primarily concentrate on the novel.
Subsequent to the execution of the deserter from the Night’s Watch, Ned Stark, his sons Robb and Bran(don), his alleged bastard son Jon Snow, his ward Theon Greyjoy and other men return to the home of the Starks, Winterfell. On their way back Robb Stark discovers a dead female direwolf that was killed by a stag’s antler. (Contrary to the descriptions in the novel, in GoT Ned Stark and the boys together with Theon as well as two other members of the Stark household first find a dead stag and, then, the dead direwolf.)
Given that the direwolf is the sigil of House Stark and the stag is the sigil of House Baratheon, the dead animal is certainly a potent of the upcoming disaster for House Stark, as the course of ASOIAF and GoT reveals. Regardless of this bad omen, the direwolf’s pups are alive. Evidently, Ned Stark decides not to have the pups killed due to Jon’s insightful remarks:
““There are five pups,”…“Three male, two female.”…
“You have five true born children,” Jon said. “Three sons, two daughters. The direwolf is the sigil of your House. Your children were meant to have these pups, my lord”
Bran saw his father’s face change, saw the other men exchange glances. He loved Jon with all his heart at that moment…The count had come right only because Jon had omitted himself.” (GT, 19)
Nevertheless, a sixth pup emerges shortly afterwards.
Jon’s discovery of the sixth pup is significant because of the little animal’s appearance:
“His fur was white, where the rest of the litter was grey. His eyes were as red as the blood of the ragged man [i.e. the deserter] who had died that morning. Bran thought it curious that this pup alone would have opened his eyes while the others were still blind.” (Ibid., 21)
The male pup’s striking features are his white fur and his red eyes. Jon eventually gives him the name Ghost.
In general, this beginning part of the story contains important aspects concerning foreshadowings, symbolism and the meanings of the colours red and white. Additionally, the text mentions clear deviations from the norm in the represented (quasi-medieval) fantasy world. All these issues not only underscore the significance of this event but also help to point out some possible connections to the scene when Perceval sees the three blood drops in the snow.
Besides the potent of the upcoming disaster and the portrayal of Ghost’s appearance, other distinctive features of this part (including the Prologue) in addition to specific signs allow us to link this sequence of scenes to future events, to interpret the meanings of red and white and to draw (,at least, slight) parallels to the Perceval scene above. We will list these points in the following:
The banner or blazon of the Starks is “a grey direwolf racing across an ice-white field” (GT, 14; cf. 813).
Bran witnesses the beheading of the deserter: “Blood sprayed out across the snow, as red as summerwine…Bran could not take his eyes off the blood. The snows around the stump drank it eagerly, reddening as he watched” (ibid., 15). (There is no snow during the execution scene in the pilot of the TV-series.)
Ned Stark beheads the deserter with one single stroke. He carries out the execution with his greatsword Ice. We later learn that this greatsword is used by Ser Ilyn Payne to execute Ned in the capital of Westeros, King’s Landing (cf. Ibid., 727; season 1.9).
As indicated in the Prologue, the alleged deserter from the Night’s Watch, Gared, encounters the Others (or the White Walkers). He is on an expedition into the haunted forest together with two other rangers – the young commander Ser Waymar Royce and Will, who – from a tree – sees the killing of Royce. (By the way, in GoT the roles are swapped. Will survives the violent encounter, becomes witness of Gared’s decapitation by a White Walker and is, then, executed as a deserter by Ned Stark.)
A few striking passages that depict the bloody confrontation between Royce and the Others read as follows: “The young lord cried out in pain. Blood welled between the rings. It steamed in the cold, and the droplets seemed red as fire where they touched the snow” (GT, 10).
Gared (or Will) just flees south to escape from the horrifying beings. However, he is viewed as a deserter. (Technically, he is one.) Before his execution he insists on having encountered the Others or the White Walkers.
While Gared (or Will) is sentenced to death by Ned Stark for alleged desertion, the latter is subsequently decapitated on Joffrey’s order for alleged treason (cf. Ibid., 726). Prior to his beheading he, in vain, tries to prevent Joffrey from becoming king, after uncovering that this boy is actually the product of the incestuous relationship between Cersei and her brother Jaime, the Kingslayer.
Several lines in the beginning parts of the first novel draw the attention to the weather conditions in the north of the represented world: „The late summer snows had been heavy this moonturn” (ibid., 17). For this reason, when the other men together with Bran arrive at the site of the dead direwolf, Robb stands “kneedeep in white, his hood pulled back so the sun [shines] in his hair” (ibid.). (We already noted the absence of snow during this scene in GoT.)
The emergence of a (big) dead direwolf or direwolves, so to speak, apparently deviates from the represented world’s norms. According to Theon, ““[t]here’s not been a direwolf sighted south of the Wall in two hundred years”” (ibid., 18). (In the TV-adaptation Robb makes a similar statement.)
Undoubtedly, the female direwolf’s death was caused by a struggle or confrontation between two animals (i.e. the direwolf and a stag).
Almost probably, the list is not sufficient. Yet, it will do for our purpose.
The Prologue / the opening scene, the execution of Gared / Will and the discovery of the dead female direwolf and her living pups undeniably mark important events. Especially in the first novel of ASOIAF, certain issues make possible connections between these events and the Perceval scene appear more plausible. Hence, perhaps the scene of Perceval looking at the three blood drops partly inspired George R.R. Martin, as far as the beginning of ASOIAF is concerned.
Among these aspects are the references to the heavy summer snow, the violent struggle between the animals and, of course, the blood on the snow as well as the colours red and white, even though the summer snow does not amount to a miraculous incident in this area of the represented world, the direwolf is dead and the explicitly mentioned blood is the result of the beheadings of men. Instead of truly “miraculous” weather conditions as in (Wolfram’s version of) the Perceval scene, strange incidents take place.
With respect to the “reality” and rules of this quasi-medieval fantasy world, transgressions of norms occur at the beginning of ASOIAF and GoT on differet levels. Apart from the occurrence of the Others / White Walkers, the onset of the fantastic, and the deserter who breaks the “law”, such a deviation from the norm is the presence of the big female direwolf and her pups on the southern side of the Wall.
Strangely enough, as Jon accurately observes, the number and sexes of the five direwolf pups correspond to the number and sexes of the “legitimate” Stark children (i.e. Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon). Therefore, the five Stark children, in Jon’s words, are really “meant to have these pups” (GT, 19). Fittingly, the grey direwolves later resemble the grey one on the sigil of House Stark in contrast to the sixth pup, Ghost, whose fur is white and whose eyes are red.
This pup stands out from the rest of the grey looking litter. By differing from the other five pups, Ghost – with his white fur and red eyes – is a good match for Jon Snow, the alleged bastard. His direwolf, in a way, mirrors Jon’s situation or position within the Stark family. He somehow belongs to the Starks without being (treated as) a full family member.
Ghost’s distinctive physical characteristics – his white fur and his red eyes – are occasionally emphasized in the course of ASOIAF, when Jon is the POV character: “…Ghost hunched with white fur bristling. He made no sound, but his dark red eyes spoke blood (A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow (SoS), 219).” In particular, the red eyes may imply the concept of vision.
As the final sentence indicates, part II will deal with the idea of vision in connection to the colours red and white.
Although we know little about Saint George, he arguably served as a soldier and was martyred on this day (i.e. 23 April) in 303 during a persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian because he presumably refused to recant his faith. In legends and in iconography he is usually depicted as a dragon slayer.
St George has been the patron saint of England since the 14th century. King Edward III founded the prestigious Order of the Garter in 1348, choosing St George as its patron. For this reason, the cult of St George became immensely popular.
Cannon, John. Ed. Dictionary of British History. Rev. ed. Oxford: OUP, 2009.
Historians nowadays doubt that medieval Scholastic scholars debated about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. For years academics have found no evidence either for such a debate or a question that dealt with this issue.
In this connection, a funny fact should be added. According to the historian Robert Bartlett, “[t]here is a $5 standing bet for anyone finding any evidence of the question being asked in the Middle Ages” (73n4).
Bartlett, Robert. The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Jon Snow’s storyline in Game of Thrones or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire shows slight parallels with the way the legendary character Perceval is depicted in medieval Arthurian romances. (Warning! This text contains spoilers.)
“Every craft requires clear eyes, and effort, and heart: These three conditions are all one needs. But since you know nothing, and have seen nothing, decide, if you will, to learn nothing, and no one will blame you.” (ll: 1466-72; these lines are taken from the following version: Chrétien de Troyes. Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Trans. Burton Ruffel. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1999. The text and the above lines were translated by Ruffel from Old French into English.)
The mentor figure Gornemant makes this statement, when talking to Perceval.
In the course of the popular TV-series Game of Thrones (GoT) – which is based on George R. R. Martin’s series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) – Jon Snow has developed from an alleged bastard into the King in the North of the fictional continent of Westeros. As it turns out, he is actually descended from a royal lineage.
While several characters in the quasi-medieval fantasy world take their inspiration from historical personalities, the portrayal of Jon Snow prompts the question of whether he is a purely original creation or partly inspired by a legendary figure. The same may apply, for instance, to Bran Stark or Arya Stark.
Jon Snow’s storyline seems to show similar features with Perceval’s quest or journey in the medieval Holy Grail legends or Arthurian romances, which frequently employ the wasteland motif. Perceval makes the transition from comical bumpkin to Grail hero. His development is remarkable since he is, at first, deficient in knowledge, understanding and insight.
Parzival or Perceval (as fool)
Although some of Jon’s traits may allude to other legendary characters, we will mainly focus on the comparison between Perceval and Jon by looking at their respective background and their particular characteristics. In this way, slight parallels – together with many differences – become more comprehensible.
Needless to say, the major primary sources for this comparison are GoT as well as ASOIAF – especially the novels A Game of Thrones (GT) and A Storm of Swords (SoS) – and two versions of the Holy Grail legend in which Perceval is the protagonist. The following analysis will concentrate on the unfinished Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes. His version provided the main source for Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.
Later more emphasis will be laid on Wolfram’s version due to a few interesting details. But, first of all, it is worth examining Perceval’s and Jon’s respective upbringing.
Unfamiliar with Their Noble Blood – Perceval’s and Jon Snow’s Respective Family Background
According to Chrétien’s Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal, Perceval grows up in the Welsh woods. Here his mother raises him in isolation and in ignorance of knighthood since she does not want him to become a knight. After seeing a group of five armoured knights, however, the simple-minded boy immediately wishes to be one.
Subsequently, Perceval’s worried mother informs him of his noble lineage by telling him about his father as well as his brothers. All three were knights but his siblings were killed, while his father lost his wealth because of a wound and then died of grief over his dead sons. With respect to Wolfram’s version, Parzival’s grandfather was King Gandin and his mother is the sister of the Grail King, Anfortas. That means, he comes from a royal background.
Jon Snow, by contrast, is introduced as Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark’s alleged bastard son: “[T]he bastard…bore the surname Snow, the name that custom decreed be given to all those in the north unlucky enough to be born with no name of their own” (GT, 19). Unlike Perceval, he is not brought up apart from civilization but alongside the lawful Stark children at Winterfell, the power centre of Westeros‘ northern kingdom.
His bastard status, however, prevents him from inheriting Winterfell or another castle and enjoying special privileges. Consequently, he often seems to feel excluded.
Notwithstanding the differences between the two characters concerning their family background, there are some possibilities to draw slight parallels in terms of their descent. For example, Perceval does not know about his father until his mother tells him, whereas Jon has no idea who his biological mother is.
Moreover, as it turns out later in GoT, Jon is of royal blood because he is the secret son of Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna and Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Likewise, in the consulted versions of the Holy Grail legend Perceval is of noble or royal birth. Besides this, the locations – particularly in Westeros – deserve closer attention.
North vs South, Winterfell vs King’s Landing, the Woods vs King Arthur’s Court…
Jon Snow certainly does not spend his childhood in isolation. Yet, Winterfell and the north are significantly different from the south and Westeros‘ capital, King’s Landing, with its southern customs. The north, in other words, distinguishes itself from the south like the (Welsh) woods from King Arthur’s court in the aforementioned versions of the Holy Grail legend. (It should be noted that – in spite of these aspects – Jon, of course, does not go south but joins the Night’s Watch in the far north.)
Broadly speaking, the northern kingdom is, first and foremost, a place for warriors in contrast to King’s Landing (or the south) with its codes of chivalry. It is necessary to add that there are knights in the north and at Castle Black among the Night’s Watch which, to a certain extent, gives the impression of being organized like a knightly brotherhood. Regardless of this remark, we cannot neglect the existing differences between Westeros‘ various regions.
As for Winterfell, although the home of the Starks clearly differs from the Welsh woods, where Perceval is raised by his mother, some features regarding this castle are striking. In her book Winter Is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones Carolyne Larrington, for instance, states that “Winterfell’s architecture is reminiscent of the great Norman concentric castles built by Edward I, most notably in Wales…” (2016: 56).
This castle with its enormous fortification walls also lies close to the Wolfswood. Another noteworthy location is Winterfell’s godswood: “It was a dark, primal place, three acres of old forest…” (GT, 22).
Instead of overemphasising these aspects, I will continue to summarize Perceval’s quest to liken it to Jon Snow’s development. With regard to Perceval, he emerges as a simple-minded and naïve boy. To stress his foolishness as well as his naivety, especially Wolfram’s Parzival depicts him as a ‘tumbe Tor’ (Eng. naïve, dumb or stupid fool or idiot).
A Dumb Idiot, Who Knows Nothing (about Knighthood) – A Look at Perceval’s and Jon’s Respective Quest
Perceval’s actual quest begins when the innocent boy leaves home in the hope to become a knight, even though he lacks knowledge about knighthood. During his first encounter with knights, for instance, he confuses them with heavenly beings. Thus, the description of Perceval as a naïve or stupid idiot is fitting.
Later Perceval arrives at King Arthur’s court where he inappropriately addresses the King and hurriedly demands to be knighted. After asking King Arthur to be granted the red armour of the Red Knight, he is taunted by seneschal Kay.
Despite the fact that he does not know how to behave like a knight, Perceval instinctively possesses all necessary fighting skills. He, accordingly, kills the Red Knight and takes his armour, before encountering Gornemant, a mentor figure. This experienced man instructs the boy in fighting with different weapons and in knightly behaviour. Perceval, afterwards, faces some adventures, in which he, amongst other things, falls in love with Gornemant’s niece and comes across the castle of the Fisher King.
Similar to Perceval, Jon Snow is an excellent fighter. Early in the story, Jon also expresses his intention to join the ancient order of the Night’s Watch, when he talks to his uncle, Benjen Stark. In their ensuing argument Benjen tries to warn Jon of this step at his young age.
Of course, we should not equate the Night’s Watch with King Arthur’s court. Nevertheless, the Night’s Watch at Castle Black constitutes a sworn brotherhood of men who dedicate their lives at the Wall to the protection of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Up to a certain degree, the Night’s Watch bears resemblance to medieval military (religious) orders like the Knights Templar.
At the Wall, Jon first despises the other boys or young men with whom he practices fighting. He thinks that he is better than his fellow trainees. Consequently, he makes no friends, while the master-at-arms, Ser Alliser Thorne, mocks Jon by calling him “Lord Snow” (GT, 177). Because Benjen Stark refuses to allow Jon to accompany him on a ranging, Jon’s anger increases, even though his behaviour eventually changes.
He befriends most of the other trainees, finds in Lord Commander Mormont and Maester Aemon mentor figures and matures into a leader. Jon even rises to the position of Lord Commander. Prior to his development, his aloof, distant, arrogant, aggressive and strange attitude indicates his inexperience, lack of knowledge and – at least in the beginning – immaturity. Considering this, we are reminded of the following well-known statement: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
During the end of the second novel A Clash of Kings and the first part of A Storm of Swords or the second and third seasons of GoT Jon Snow is among the wildlings or the free folk beyond the Wall and begins a love affair with Ygritte, a wildling woman. She keeps on saying the words “[y]ou know nothing, Jon Snow[,]” in his presence (i.e. c. 17 times in A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow and a number of times in the TV-series).
Ygritte, on the one hand, uses these words to tease him. On the other hand, she arguably wants to make him aware that he is not familiar with the history, situation, customs and conditions beyond the Wall. A case in point is their short conversation immediately after a group of wildlings sings the song The Last of the Giants:
“There were tears on Ygritte’s cheeks when the song ended.
“Why are you weeping?” Jon asked. “It was only a song. There are hundreds of giants, I’ve just seen them.” – “Oh, hundreds,” she said furiously. “You know nothing, John Snow. You – JON!”” (SoS; hereA Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow, 213).
Her often-repeated line entails some possibilities for interpretation.
It not only refers to Jon’s lack of knowledge of the area far north but also allows for interpretive connections to his previous attitude and inexperience concerning particular issues as well as to Perceval’s behaviour. On his journey Perceval really acts like an inexperienced or dumb idiot who knows nothing about knighthood.
Admittedly, contrary to Perceval, Jon – even before his development – does not present himself like an uneducated fool. That said, additional blog posts will discuss the symbolism of the combination of different colours.
Note: In this context, there is no point in discussing whether Melisandre, the red woman, can be compared to Cundrîe, the messenger of the grail. It is also beyond the scope of this blog post whether Ygritte (or, later, Daenerys Targaryen) has any similarities to Perceval’s beloved Blancheflor (or Condwiramurs).
This short post is about Santa Croce in Florence and the resting place inside the basilica.
If you visit Florence as a tourist, you need to see the magnificent Basilica di Santa Croce (eng. Basilica of the Holy Cross), the largest Franciscan church in the world. It is located in the eastern centre of this Renaissance city.
According to legend, Santa Croce was founded by the famous Saint Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) himself. At any rate, the construction of the current building had begun in 1294 or 1295, before it was completed at the end of the 14th century. Eventually, Pope Eugene IV consecrated the church in the 15th century.
You may want to take part in a service. Besides impressive frescoes by Giotto and great art, you will find remarkable tombs because the church is a resting place of notable Italians. There are funerary monuments to the men such as the diplomat, historian and political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the artist Michelangelo (1475-1564) as well as the natural philosopher, astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).
Note: All photos were taken by me (Nils Zumbansen) in 2018.
This blog post will review Prof. Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown’s book about medieval devotion to Mary by giving an overview of the chapters, pointing out the main issues and assessing the book’s contents.
At the beginning of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke Mary takes a prominent position. Most importantly, she became the mother of Jesus Christ, who is both true God and true man in the Christian tradition. Hence, Mary has the title Mother of God. She is also called the Virgin Mary since, with reference to Christian tradition, she remained a virgin before, during and after his birth.
Although Mary only appears and / or is mentioned a few times in the Gospels after the infancy narratives, she was – at least, according to the Gospel of John – present at significant events in Christ’s adult life. For example, at the Marriage at Cana Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine at Mary’s suggestion that there was no wine left and her request to the servants to obey his instructions (cf. John 2:1-11). Another noteworthy appearance was at Christ’s Crucifixion, where Jesus entrusted John to his mother’s care and vice versa (cf. John 19:25-27).
We also learn from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles that in the aftermath of the Ascension of Jesus Mary was in the upper room in Jerusalem together with the other disciples (cf. Acts 1:14). Then, the rest of the New Testament seemingly falls silent on her. But in the Book of Revelation we come across some notable passages.
The beginning of these passages, which are charged with multi-layered symbolism, is particularly striking:
“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.” (Book of Revelation 12, 1-2 〈King James Version〉)
Christian tradition has identified the woman with both Mary, the Mother of God, and with the church (or the people of the old and new covenant). Here the crown of twelve stars stands for the twelve tribes of Israel. While the sun as the source of light, warmth, energy and life probably stresses the role of this woman as a force of goodness, the moon prompts some questions.
As in other cultures the Jewish religion (has) had a Lunisolar calendar. Arguably, such a calendar was also in use among Jews who accepted the Messiah (i.e. the early Christians) including the writers of the several parts of the New Testament. Regarding the Lunisolar calendar, it relies, as the name indicates, on lunar and solar cycles. More precisely, the months are lunar, whereas the years are solar.
Because the moon and the sun were means of timekeeping, the quoted passages might be interpreted as follows: represented by the woman who is clothed with the sun and has the moon under her feet, Mary (or the church) appears to be the mistress of time (, with God, of course, constituting the absolute ruler or master of time). Interestingly enough, during the Latin Middle Ages the Mother of God and the Catholic Church, in the figurative sense, really ruled time for a large number of people in their prayer life.
This can be seen in Prof. Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown’s impressive book with the full title Mary & the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought. It was published by Columbia University Press in 2017. Basically, this book deals with the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary through a complex of prayers, psalms, chants, lessons and litanies that – in those days – were included in the extremely popular Book of Hours.
In turn, every Book of Hours contained a version of The Little Office of the Virgin Mary. The latter provided European Christians – whether they were nuns, monks, clerics or laypersons – with a daily liturgical cursus of devotional sources like hymns, psalms, biblical passages, lessons and, of course, prayers to honour the Blessed Virgin. As it turned out, Mary played a significant role in the routines of prayer as well as in Christian thought.
Needless to mention, through TheLittle Office of the Virgin Mary devotion to the Mother of God became a large part of the medieval Christian’s daily lives. So to speak, Mary, to a certain extent, was really the mistress of time during the Middle Ages as Revelation 12,1 implies.
A Profound Insight into Medieval Devotion to Mary – Getting Familiar with the Art of Prayer
As far as Rachel Fulton Brown’s Mary & the Art of Prayer is concerned, Mary received several (other) titles such as theLady of the temple. Generally speaking, the book centers on The Little Office of the Virgin Mary and some important medieval scholarly works in this regard – namely the writings in praise of Mary by Richard of Saint-Laurent, Conrad of Saxony, Pseudo-Albert and, at the end, the early modern devotional text by Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda.
By paraphrasing and scrutinizing these works, Fulton Brown not only gives us modern readers a profound insight into medieval devotion to Mary but also elaborates on how Christians imagined, praised and thought of the Virgin. Moreover, Fulton Brown clearly explains this imagery, which is often alien to the majority of people (even Christians) nowadays. Putting it differently, she successfully translates the way Christians in the Middle Ages conceived of Mary into modern English.
Likewise, the book succeeds in showing us how medieval Christians prayed. Intriguingly, it encompasses several sections where the readers are invited to participate in the experience of praying to the Blessed Virgin to make themselves familiar with theart of prayer. Through this approach the reader gets access to those medieval devotional practices and the Marian liturgy (i.e. religious service). Apart from this, the book’s accessibility is further enhanced by its structure.
From the Office of the Virgin to the Mystical City of God – An Overview of Rachel Fulton Brown’s Book
In the beginning parts of Mary & the Art of Prayer, Rachel Fulton Brown presents an Invitatory. This part serves as a kind of introduction to the way this book should be read and sets out an overview of the book’s chapters. With respect to the first chapter, we are informed about the popularity, the contents, the origins and history of the Book of Hours and, especially, the Marian Office or the Office of the Virgin.
Subsequently, the second chapter focuses on the medieval understanding of the recitation of the Ave Maria. For medieval Christians the well-known salutation of the Virgin was crucial and amounted to a service. What is worth pointing out, in this connection, is the medieval meditation on the numerous meanings of Mary’s name:
“…(O)ne of the things that they (i.e. medieval monks, nuns, canons and friars) enjoyed most was meditation on Mary’s name, including all of the titles and typologies discovered of her in creation and in the scriptures. Mary, as they saw her, was God’s handmaid, to be sure (Luke 1:38), but she was also Ark of the Covenant, Seat of Wisdom, Tower of Ivory, Litter of Solomon, Cedar of Lebanon, Garden of Delights, and Star of the Sea, not to mention Virgin of Virgins, Mother of Mercy, Queen of Heaven, and Bride of God…The most perfect of all God’s creatures, Mary herself was the most perfect mirror of God…” (Fulton Brown. Mary & the Art of Prayer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. P. 54)
Suffice it to say, people in the Middle Ages associated various images, depictions and titles with the Mother of God, as the following chapters continue to demonstrate.
Chapter 3, then, places the emphasis on the complex interplay between antiphons and psalms of the Marian Office. Antiphons can be defined as framing chants. At one point, Fulton Brown offers a key to interpreting the interweaving of psalms and antiphons, when she suggests to imaginatively compare the corresponding antiphon, which frames the psalm, to Mary, while the psalm can be likened with Christ.
Metaphorically speaking, Mary is like the hard shell that protects the sweet nut or the veil that conceals the Holy of Holies. Eventually, the recitation of the psalms together with the antiphons enables us, in metaphorical terms, to crack open this shell or to lift this veil to grasp the spiritual meaning. Consequently, Mary both bears Christ and guides the way to Him.
After arriving at the heart of the Marian Office in the third chapter, Fulton Brown, in the next chapter, devotes herself to an extensive analysis of three remarkable thirteenth-century works in praise of the Virgin by Richard of Saint-Laurent, Conrad of Saxony and Pseudo-Albert. Their insightful writingshelp deepen our comprehension of the medieval view of Mary and the Marian Office by commenting on the images of her and referring to biblical passages, particularly archangel Gabriel’s greeting.
Later, chapter 5 recounts some medieval miracle stories as a result of prayers to Mary, who was seen as a purveyor of mercy, mediator as well as intercessor. Furthermore, Fulton Brown brings the findings of the preceding chapters together. In this way, we can conclude that devotion to the Virgin pervaded numerous aspects of Christian life during the Middle Ages, was immensely popular among a wide range of people, formed an integral part of Christian spirituality and inspired intellectual treatises.
Towards the end of the chapter, Fulton Brown describes the medieval believers‘ attitude to the Virgin and the Marian Office concisely:
“Trained by Wisdom in the understanding of the scriptures, medieval Christians lifted their minds and souls to God through the psalms and other texts of the Office of the Virgin Mary that they sang in their Lady’s praise, longing for the Lord with their intellect and affect even as they visualized him as a baby in his mother’s arms. Mary, they believed, was the one who had given birth to God in the flesh so that he might become visible to the world. She was the one who, as his ark, temple, and throne, showed to the world the Creator whom it had not seen, and she was the garden into whom he entered so as to give new life to his creatures. To serve her was to serve God.” (Fulton Brown. Mary & the Art of Prayer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. Pp. 453-4)
Indications for the popularity of devotion to Mary were the aforementioned imagery or descriptions of praise her servants employed. We find them in the preceding chapters, in the quotation above and in the last paragraphs of this chapter: the Lady of the temple, the Word of Wisdom, the Queen of heaven and the Tree of Life in heaven.
Finally, Fulton Brown’s book closes with an epilogue on a fascinating 17th-century book – Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda’s The Mystical City of God. Her theological reflections on Mary and Marian devotion resemble the medieval understanding of these issues, as can be inferred from the accounts by scholars such as Richard of Saint-Laurent. However, her seemingly mystic account was ridiculed by the famous Enlightenment figures Voltaire and Casanova.
Ultimately, Sor María’s popular work fell into oblivion. Correspondingly, the influence of these devotional practices decreased. Therefore, modern people have distanced themselves from the practices of ancient, medieval and early modern Christians.
Since we now have an overview of the chapters, it is time to come to a general assessment. In this context, we will emphasize the book’s accessibility and, of course, its substance.
A Must-Read for Readers Interested in Medieval Studies and Christianity – A General Assessment
Rachel Fulton Brown’s Mary & the Art of Prayer has, as noted before, a very accessible style, even though it is, primarily, a scholarly work. She sums up medieval notions and medieval works in a comprehensible way for modern readers. Diagrams, images and tables help us better understand the contents.
Besides this, the book frequently addresses the reader personally (as you). It should be added that this personal address to the readers – especially the opening sections of each chapter – and Fulton Brown’s unique approach in general allow us to immerse ourselves in what believers in the Middle Ages experienced, when they prayed.
The book, on the one hand, critically discusses claims, opinions and statements that have been voiced or written by 16th-century Protestant reformers and scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries like Hilda Graef. On the other hand, Fulton Brown builds on other scholarly contributions, using them in her convincing argumentation and interpretation. She also meticulously analyses the cited medieval texts. Accordingly, Mary & the Art of Prayer perfectly fulfills the standards of scholarship. (Note: Look at the impressive Bibliography!)
All in all, Fulton Brown’s bookis very well-researched. Certainly, the reader will gain a lot of knowledge and insights into medieval devotional practices. Perhaps the term the art of prayer could have been defined more precisely, notwithstanding that we are able to derive what it means from several parts.
On the whole, the book is a must-read for readers who are interested in the Virgin Mary, medieval studies and (Western) Christianity. Fulton Brown makes us painfully aware of a devotional tradition we have lost in the West since the Enlightenment.
Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown works as an Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago. Professor Fulton Brown has specialized in medieval European history, the interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, the history of Christianity and devotion to Mary. Her professional website can be found here. Additionally, she runs the blog Fencing Bear at Prayer. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I strongly recommend her work.
Other Sources Used for this Review (Alongside Fulton Brown’s Book and the Bible)
Holden, Fr Marcus, and Fr Andrew Pinsent. The Catholic Faith Explained. London: The Incorporated Catholic Truth Society, 2007.
McFarlan, D.M. Dictionary of the Bible. New Lanark: Geddes & Grosset, 2005.
Oakes, Catherine. Ora Pro Nobis: The Virgin as Intercessor in Medieval Art and Devotion. Turnhout: Harvey Miller Publishers / Brepols Publishers, 2008.
Wansbrough, Henry. Der Bibel-Guide. Trans. Nikolaus de Palézieux. Darmstadt: Konrad Theiss Verlag, 2014.
Note: As for the above mentioned reading of Revelation 12, 1-2, years ago I listened to a Catholic priest who regarded it as a possible interpretation.