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.
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.
When the Templars were arrested throughout France on 13th October 1307, one of the key accusations brought by the King of France, Philip the Fair, against the order was that their initiation rites involved denying Christ and spitting on the cross. So what is true?
Under torture – the rack and the strapado – many Templars gave differing accounts of their initiation that involved the above as well as illicit kisses to the base of the spine, navel and mouth. But it was the desecration of the crucifix that shocked medieval opinion. These were supposed to be religious warriors fighting for Christendom in the Holy Land and they were denouncing their own faith in private.
The Vatican secret archives historian Barbara Frale offers an explanation that this was a form of psychological testing of Templar knights. If they were captured by the Saracens, then they would more than likely be forced by the enemy to reject Christ, spit on the cross and convert to Islam. Or so it was believed.
This test stripped bare a man’s true character, and it was at that point that courage, pride, determination, and the capacity for self-control emerged – all essential qualities for a Templar…
As for some of the other more lewd aspects of the initiation, Frale argues that the whole thing was about bending the individual will to the collective needs of the order – that a knight would do what he was told by this superiors without question. Frale claims that there were abbreviated ceremonies for more well-connected initiates and one boy related to the king of England was excused spitting directly on to the cross, instead spitting on the preceptor’s hand.
However, this failed to convince king Philip who viewed this bizarre rite as a very strong excuse for banning the Templars, burning dozens of them and confiscating their property.
In the Middle Ages, the crucifixion of Christ would have been portrayed in mystery plays put on in towns and villages but in our modern age, it’s the cinema that has brought us the most enduring images of Christ‘s death. Some immediately spring to my mind.
Mel Gibson‘s Passion of the Christ was possibly one of the most gory films I’ve ever seen on the big screen. I’ve no doubt many in the Middle Ages would have identified with its bloodiness but it wasn’t to my taste.
Equally controversial was Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ that raised some interesting theological points but also angered many Christian traditionalists.
Brilliantly atmospheric is the Cecil B de Mille silent movie The King of Kings – don’t be put off by the absence of people talking.
In 2012, I was in Jerusalem and visited the Holy Sepulchre – this is the spot revered by all Christian faiths as the place where Jesus was crucified. This church – which dates back to the Roman period though little of that building remains – was the model for all Templar churches.
From the start of Christianity, there had been stormy debate about the nature of Christ’s divinity and his humanity. Early Christians were bitterly divided over whether he was all human, all divine or a bit of both. Some thought he started out human but was then “adopted” into the Godhead. Others thought he was divine but inferior to God the Father. And on top of this confusion was the question of Mary. Mother of Christ? Mother of God? Virgin or not?
The idea of a holy person being born of a divine father and earthly mother went right back into Egyptian mythology and was nothing particularly new. But the concept was a difficult one to grasp and Christians certainly wrestled with the mechanics down to a minute level.
Here is a statue from 1300 made in the Rhine valley. It has two little doors and when closed shows the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus and a dove representing the Holy Spirit. But when it opens, there seated in majesty is God the Father within the body of Mary. I can’t help feeling that this image throws up more questions and dilemmas about the concept of the virgin birth.
On BBC Four this week, historian Alastair Sooke tackled the vexed question of how the devil got his horns? Did he always look as we imagine him? Well, if we go back to the start of Christianity – there are some surprises in store.
Sooke starts in Ravenna, the Italian town that was the capital of the western Roman empire in its final declining years. Christians in Ravenna were still deliberating about the nature of Christ’s divinity – let alone the devil’s physical appearance. But in one church, there is a depiction of the devil in a mosaic. Christ is seated in purple like a wealthy Roman in a toga. On one side is an angel in red and on the other side is one in blue. Strangely, it’s the angel in blue that is the devil – because in the 6th century AD, blue was viewed as a more sinister colour than red (not everybody agrees with this analysis – though if it was true it would be the first image of the devil).
The devil is an angel in early writings – beautiful Lucifer who was cast out of paradise. He’s not mentioned in Genesis and details of him are scant in the rest of the bible. Yet we have a huge artistic tradition showing Satan as a diabolical tyrant ruling over hell. So where did this imagery come from? Off to Venice then – where Sooke is mesmerised by the huge 11th century Byzantine influenced mosaics in Santa Maria Assunta.
Heaven and hell are depicted. A blue figure with flowing white hair sits at the centre – a grotesque figure. Is he the devil? Well, maybe. But on his lap is a much smaller figure in a toga with his hand raised in benediction – who is he? Possible Judas? Sooke is convinced the blue figure is the devil – but he’s a custodian of hell acting on God‘s behalf, not an enemy at war with the Almighty.
Finding human-like depictions of the devil challenged the early church but eventually they settled on previously worshiped pagan deities. For the first millennium of Christianity, the church was still engaged in mopping up pockets of paganism. How better to discredit pagans than turning their Gods into the devil. The imagery of the Egyptian god Bes – a lucky amulet for centuries – became a hideous Satan. The Greek satyr with hairy legs, pointy ears and mischievous faces was transformed into the Lord of Evil.
A figure that was previously a marginal figure in the bible, often there to test and accuse – a kind of bureaucrat acting on God’s behalf – now becomes a monstrous figure acting in his own right. As the Middle Ages progressed, the devil transformed into the master of a realm distinct from heaven – and in hostile opposition to it. The Winchester Psalter in the mid-12th century showed the devil with a vast mouth swallowing up kings, queens and great secular figures. At Lincoln Cathedral, there’s an orgy of sado-masochism over the porch leaving little to the imagination as to what hell would be like for sinners.
Mystery plays, originating in France 900 years ago, took the idea of Lucifer to new extremes as lay people let their imaginations run riot. During the 13th and 14th centuries, it was the mystery plays that rapidly evolved what we visualise today as the devil. At a time when plague or hunger could wipe out whole populations, the hand of evil was seen everywhere by ordinary people. All the woes serfs suffered had to be a torment inflicted, not something random without a cause.
In the Baptistry in Florence, a 14th century mosaic of Satan is still blue in the face with a green body and there are two huge horns and animalistic ears, created by the artist Coppo di Marcovaldo. In Padua, Sooke views the fresco of Giotto bringing the last judgment to life – painted just a few decades later. His devil is eating and excreting victims while around him, sinners are being skewered and nearby, Judas Iscariot is hanging from a tree.
But Giotto’s devil is not his finest accomplishment – in fact, it’s rather mediocre compared to the amazing naturalistic depictions of other biblical figures. Around the same time as Giotto, it was the poet Dante who really took the concept of the devil forward. In the Divine Comedy, hell is a series of concentric circles with a giant devil embedded in ice at the centre. Dante’s devil is a three dimensional figure who is the father of sorrow and pained by his fate. This fallen angel of Dante would go on to inspire Milton and Gustav Dore more than Giotto’s comic book figure.
Siena is then visited by Sooke, which has several images painted by Luca Signorelli of devilish activity including a very eerie painting of Anti-Christ active on earth. A false prophet on a podium being advised by the devil. It’s believed this Anti-Christ was the 15th century preacher turned dictator of Florence, Savonarola, whom Signorelli despised. The demons are brightly coloured including the painter’s self portrait as a blue devil with a single horn protruding out of his forehead.
Sooke concludes that the devil appears to have gone on a journey from beautiful angel cast out of heaven to a vile demon. The historian concludes that if god is western culture’s superego then the devil is our id.
In the medieval era – when our Templars where fighting the Saracens – belief in the Devil was not only strong but the lord of darkness was seen as a figure very close by, always testing your faith and goodness. One five hundred year old story from England that I’ve discovered explains the working of the medieval mind on the subject. Note some spelling mistakes which come from the original text – ie, ‘brake’ and ‘perswade’.
In 1578, a group of habitual drunkards decided to ignore the rules regarding the Sabbath and went to a tavern. Their names were Adam Gibbons, George Keepel, John Keysel, Peter Horsdroff, John Warner, Simon Heamkers, Jacob Hermons and Hermon Frow. They went to the house of somebody called Antony Hodge and “called for Burnt-Wine, Sack, Clarat and what not”. Hodge was a “godly man” and refused to serve them, insisting they go to church instead.
Gibbons said they hated church and preferred drinking. Hodge left them to go to church himself while they cursed him “wishing he might brake his neck, ere he returned and wishing the Devil might brake their own necks if they went from hence till they had some wine”. Well, the devil heard their cursing and arrived as a young man with a flagon of wine in his hand.
“Good Fellows – be merry, you shall have wine enough, you seem to be lusty lads and I hope you will pay me well.”
Regrettably, they answered that they would pay him “or engage their neck for it, yea rather than fail, their bodies and souls”. And the devil duly noted their words. They then drank what seemed to be a never ending supply of wine till they could hardly see each other.
“At last the Devil their Host told them that now they must pay for all, at which their hearts waxed cold. But the Devil bid them be of good cheer for now they must drink Fire and Brimstone with him in the Pit of Hell for ever. At which the Devil breake their Necks assunder and destroyed them.”
The story ends with a dire warning for those who do not see the devil in their midst.
“This by the way may serve for a Document for all Drunkards for ever and to perswade folk that the Lord has the Devil for his Executioner when he pleases to execute his vengeance upon Notorious Sinners.”