Medieval Easter was way more important than Easter is today. Two reasons. One was the celebration of the resurrection of Christ and the other was the rebirth of the countryside. In feudal rural societies – never far from starvation – the first signs of crops and vegetation returning after the winter was a good cause for celebration.
The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was central to Christian belief. This was the idea that God had taken human form, had performed miracles and given sermons while alive and then had sacrificed himself to the most degrading form of capital punishment in the Roman empire to save humanity. To the medieval Christian, this was the cornerstone of their faith – a belief in the risen Christ.
For forty days before Easter, medieval folk fasted to prepare themselves for the feast of Easter. Just before Easter, purple cloth was draped over statues and crucifixes. A Catholic school near me has just placed a cloth over the statue of the Virgin Mary just behind the school railings. So this tradition is still continuing today.
The veiling is normally done between Passion Sunday and Good Friday, a period referred to as Passiontide. The statues and crosses are then unveiled on Good Friday with a flourish. In the Middle Ages, the veiling may have started earlier at the beginning of Lent.
Gloominess at medieval Easter
The three days before Easter Sunday were called the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In the Byzantine Empire, mourning clothes would be worn on the Friday and Saturday to be replaced by dazzling garments on Easter Sunday. Church services on Good Friday would be held in almost total darkness to symbolise the gloomy fate of Jesus on that day. But in contrast, Easter Day would be celebrated with an uplifting and joyous Mass – all in Latin of course.
Plays depicting the passion of Christ – the story of his trial, crucifixion and resurrection – were hugely popular. The average medieval peasant was not versed in Latin so the church Mass wasn’t going to inform them about the story of Jesus. They simply didn’t understand a word of what was being said by the priest. Plus most of them were illiterate so even if the bible had been available in English – which it wasn’t – they wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway.
So visual representation was the only way to tell the story to ordinary people. There is a theory that the Turin Shroud was originally intended to be a prop in one of these Easter plays and not a literal real shroud of Jesus. The peasants would experience all the pain and agony Christ went through in a vivid drama that even Mel Gibson might approve of.
Easter has declined in importance in our secular times compared to Christmas and even Halloween. But it was one of the three most important Christian dates in the Middle Ages with Christmas and Whitsun. The latter was when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. Now that really is a forgotten date in the Christian calendar.
I have a guilty pleasure – Byzantine church music! So….here is some Easter music from the Byzantine empire: