Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

St Maurice and the Theban Legion

Today is the feast of the martyred St Maurice and the Theban Legion.

John Dillon has again produced a most interesting seelction of images  for the Medieval Religion discussion group, which I am reproducing, opening up the links and adding some comments of my own.

In medieval Latin Christianity this was, and in the Roman Catholic church still is, a celebration not of Maurice alone but rather of Maurice and his companions including the entire military unit known as the Theban Legion, according to their Passio all slaughtered at the command of emperor Maximian at a place called Acaunus in what are now the Swiss Alps. Without actually saying whether this particular legion was at full strength, St. Ado of Vienne tells readers of his ninth-century martyrology that at the time of these saints' suffering a legion numbered 6,600 men, whereas in his martyrology the also ninth-century Usuard of Saint-Germain specifies six named martyrs (starting with Maurice) plus 6,500 unnamed companions. While fewer than Ursula's 11,000 virgins or the 10,000 martyrs of Mount Ararat, this is still a rather large number of souls to have entered Heaven virtually all together. Fortunately, though, as souls are incorporeal we don't have to imagine these saints crowding each other uncomfortably as they entered the Pearly Gates.

The number of named companions grew in the Middle Ages. Excluding one obvious interpolation (that of the legionaries Ursus and Victor), the seemingly seventh-century earliest version of the Passio Acaunensium martyrum (BHL 5737, etc.) names only three: the legionary officers Exuperius and Candidus and, arriving just after the massacre but declaring himself a Christian and being slaughtered for it, the former legionary Victor. By the later ninth century the canonical group of named companions had come to include Innocentius and Vitalis as well as the three just named; various other saints with their own Vitae and venerated at different locales from northern Italy to the lower Rhine valley were said to have been members of the Theban legion separated from the main party and martyred individually or in small groups later on. Through 1962 the Roman Martyrology included beside Maurice the canonical five companions (taken over from Usuard) plus other legionaries no longer numbered. With the revision of 2001 the RM now commemorates the core group of Maurice, Exuperius, Candidus, and Victor plus unnumbered companions from the Theban Legion.

The Clever Boy will add that because the Theban Legion were understood to be from Africa some later medieval artists and ones in the Renaissance were led to depict St Maurice as black - being from Africa - rather than as a Copt. This appears to have been particularly true for German artists, and the cult of St Maurice was particularly strong in the Holy Roman Empire.

Some period-pertinent images of St. Maurice of Acaunus and companions:

a) Maurice and companions as depicted in a seemingly tenth-century lectionary from the abbey of Saint-Martial in Limoges (Paris, BnF, ms. Latin 5301, fol. 204r):

b) Maurice and companions as depicted (upper register: Maurice rejects Maximian's order to abjure his faith; lower register: martyrdom of the Theban Legion) as depicted in a late tenth-century gradual from the abbey of Prüm (Paris, BnF, ms. Latin 9448, fol. 70r):

 Graduel de l'abbaye de Prüm

c) Candidus as portrayed in the round and, on the base, in relief on his mid- or slightly later twelfth-century silver and silver-gilt head reliquary (c. 1160) in the treasury of the abbey of Saint-Maurice-d’Agaune, Saint-Maurice (canton Valais):
1) The reliquary as a whole:


2) The head:





3) The base (martyrdom):


The Clever Boy would add that he thinks this is an extremely striking and powerful piece of work. The head looks both of its period and also very modern - it could almost be by Elizabth Frink - and the beard and moustache very much of the fashion of  today.

d) Maurice as portrayed in relief on one end of the mid- or later twelfth-century silver and silver gilt châsse for the sons of St. Sigismund in the treasury of the abbey of Saint-Maurice-d'Agaune, Saint-Maurice (canton Valais):



The Clever Boy thinks this is a very fine representation of a cavalryman of the period when the châsse was made.
e) Maurice as portrayed in relief on two later twelfth-century bracteate pfennigs struck by Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg (r., 1152-1192):
1) in the British Museum, London:
2) in the Bode-Museum, Berlin (at left; at right, Archbishop Wichmann):

f) Maurice and companions as depicted (panel at upper left; martyrdom) in the late twelfth-century Navarre Picture Bible (1197; Amiens, Bibliothèque Louis Aragon, ms. 108, fol. 226v):


A closer view of just that panel:

g) Maurice as portrayed (as a Moor) in a mid- or slightly later thirteenth-century statue (ca. 1260) in Magdeburg's Dom St. Mauritius und Katharina:


Detail views:


The Clever Boy understands this statue may be the earliest negroid figure in Gothic art

h) Maurice and companions as depicted (martyrdom) in a late thirteenth-century copy of French origin of the Legenda aurea (ca. 1280-1300; San Marino, CA, Huntington Library, ms. HM 3027, fol. 130r; image greatly expandable):

The Clever Boy would point out that the artist had not thought through the difficultirs of decapitating men who were still wearing their chain mail around their necks and heads... 

i) Maurice and companions as depicted (martyrdom) the late thirteenth-century Livre d'images de Madame Marie (ca. 1285-1290; Paris, BnF, ms. Nouvelle acquisition française 16251, fol. 86v):


j) The Theban Legion as depicted (martyrdom) in an earlier fourteenth-century French-language legendary of Parisian origin with illuminations attributed to the Fauvel Master (c. 1327; Paris, BnF, ms. Français 183, fol. 76r):

k) Maurice as depicted in a mid-fourteenth-century glass window (ca. 1340-1360) in the Stiftskirche zur Heiligsten Dreifaltigkeit in the Neukloster in Wiener Neustadt:


l) Maurice as depicted (as a Moor) in a fourteenth-century panel painting (betw. 1357 and 1367) by Theodoric of Prague and workshop in the Holy Cross Chapel, Karlštejn Castle (near Prague):


m) Maurice as depicted in a late fourteenth- or early fifteenth-century copy of the Legenda aurea in its French-language version by Jean de Vignay (ca. 1400; Rennes, Bibliothèque de Rennes Métropole, ms. 266, fol. 265r):

n) Maurice and companions as depicted (at foot of page; Maurice largely hidden by his shield) in one of the numerous pen-and-ink illustrations in the margins of an early fifteenth-century copy of the Chronicon a mundi creatione ad annum 1220, an abbreviation and continuation of the _Pantheon_ of Godfrey of Viterbo (ca. 1400-1415; Paris, BnF, ms. Latin 4935, fol. 41v):

o) Maurice as portrayed in an early fifteenth-century statue (1411) in the ex-abbatial Kirche St. Moritz in Halle an der Saale:



p) Maurice and companions as depicted in an early fifteenth-century copy (1419) of the Elsässische Legenda aurea (Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Pal. germ. 144, fol. 123v):


q) Maurice and companions as depicted (martyrdom) by the court workshop of Frederick III in a mid-fifteenth-century copy (1446) of the Legenda aurea (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 326, fol. 202r):


r) Maurice and companions as depicted in the mid-fifteenth-century frescoes (1459) of the cappella di San Maurizio in Castelnuovo di Ceva (CN) in Piedmont:

 1) Maurice (on horseback):


2) Maurice and companions (martyrdom):


The Clever Boy would add that this is a particularly intersting depiction of the mannia - a dinky little decapiating device - used in Italy for the execution of Conradin in 1268 and for other distinguished figures.

s) Maurice and four companions -- among them Exuperius, Innocentius, and Candidus -- as depicted (martyrdom) in a later fifteenth-century copy (1463) of Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum historiale in its French-language version by Jean de Vignay (Paris, BnF, ms. Français 51, fol. 43r):


t) Maurice as depicted in a later fifteenth-century glass window panel of Middle Rhine origin (c. 1470-1490) in the Musée National du Moyen Âge (Musée de Cluny), Paris:


u) Maurice and companions as depicted in a late fifteenth-century breviary according to the Use of Langres (after 1481; Chaumont, Mediathèque de Chaumont, ms. 33, fol. 436v):


v) Maurice and his companions (martyrdom) as depicted in a late fifteenth-century breviary according to the Use of Rome (after 1492; Clermont-Ferrand, Bibliothèque du patrimoine, ms. 69, fol. 555v)


w) Maurice as portrayed (on horseback) in an earlier sixteenth-century polychromed wooden sculptural assemblage (c. 1501-1525) in the église Saint-Maurice in Sens:

Before restoration:


After restoration:


Detail view:


x) Maurice as depicted (at far right, as a Moor; at far left, St. George of Lydda) by Hans Baldung Grien on an opened wing of his early sixteenth-century Three Kings altarpiece (c. 1506-1507) in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin:


y) Maurice as depicted in an early sixteenth-century glass window (ca. 1508) in Köln's Hohe Domkirche Sankt Petrus und Maria:


z) Maurice and companions as depicted in an early sixteenth-century book of hours (ca. 1510; Tours, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 2104, fol. 167v):


aa) Maurice and companions as depicted (martyrdom; lower register: Maurice; upper register: companions) by Bernardo Luini in an early sixteenth-century fresco (1510s) in Milan's chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore:



bb) Maurice as depicted (at centre, as a Moor; at left, St. Erasmus) by Matthias Grünewald in an earlier sixteenth-century panel painting in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich (ca. 1520-1524; The Meeting of St. Erasmus and St. Maurice ):


Detail view (Maurice):


cc) Maurice as depicted (as a Moor) by Lucas Cranach the Elder and workshop in an earlier sixteenth-century panel painting (ca. 1520-1525) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:

Detail view:


To these the Clever Boy will add one more, slightly later, painting, by one of his favourite artists, El Greco. This was painted in 1580-81 for El Escorial:


I have copied trhe following description and commentart on the painting from History and Arts.com ;

Navarrete the Mute's death in 1579 meant that Philip II's urgently needed artists to decorate the Escorial. El Greco was chosen to work on the altarpieces in the basilica. He was commissioned to paint one of the side altars dedicated to Saint Maurice and the Teban Legion. Saint Maurice was one of the patron saints of the fight against heresy and because of the existence of relics in the church his presence was deemed necessary. In the third century A.D., Saint Maurice was the leader of an Egyptian Legion of the Roman army. All his legionnaires had adopted the Christian religion. During the Legion's stay in Gaul they received orders from Emperor Maximilian to make a number of sacrifices to the Roman gods. When they refused, the legionnaires and the saint were all executed, making martyrs of the Legion's 6666 members. El Greco wanted to take advantage of the opportunity he had been given to mix a possibly fictitious, early Christian story with contemporary events. The bearded figure of Saint Maurice, dressed in a blue cuirass, is depicted in the foreground on the right with his captains at the moment in which they are deciding whether to make the sacrifice to the pagan gods. On his left we can see Saint Exuperio with the red standard. Next to them is a bearded man wearing a tunic who has been identified as Saint James the Minor, who converted the entire legion to Christianity. Among the military men, two stand out particularly, positioned between the saint and the figure carrying the standard. The eldest figure in the painting is that of Duke Emmanuel Filiberto of Savoy, commander of the Spanish troops at Saint Quentin and Grand Master of the Military Order of Saint Maurice. To his right, nearer the saint, is Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, who at that time was fighting in the Netherlands against the Dutch. In the background, where the martyrdom takes place, there is a portrait of Don Juan of Austria, Charles V's illegitimate son and victor in the Battle of Lepanto. All the figures are wearing the military uniform of the 16th century linking the Spanish generals' fight against heresy and paganism to Saint Maurice's fight against the same enemies. The martyrdom is depicted in a secondary plane. The legionnaires are portrayed in a row, nude or wearing semi-transparent tunics, waiting their turn to be executed. The executioner is on a rock with his back turned and next to him we can see Saint Maurice again, comforting his men and thanking them fro their decision. A decapitated man reinforces the idea of the martyrdom, portrayed in a bold foreshortening. In the upper part of the painting there is a celestial vision of heaven in glory formed by musical angels and others carrying palms and triumphal crowns. These boldly foreshortened figures contrast with the stillness of the main scene. The image takes place on rocky ground and El Greco does not set the episode in a more appropriate place because he is mainly interested in conveying the spirituality of the scene. However, Philip II rejected the painting because the martyrdom has been relegated to the background with decision-making close to the spectator instead. He claimed that the figures did not inspire devotion. As a result the painting was substituted by a another work on the same theme by the Italian artist, Romulo Cincinnato. El Greco produced a sophisticated work, using Mannerism as his starting point. The Mannerist influence is evident in the figures who have their backs turned, the foreshortening and the diagonals around which the scene has been arranged. Michelangelo clearly inspired the sculptural figures, with their anatomies discernible under their cuirasses. The figures have small heads and short legs in proportion to their wide chests. El Greco's distinctive colours of yellow, blue, green and red are inspired by the Venetian School. Saint Maurice wears red, a symbol of martyrdom, and blue, a symbol of eternity. The light slides over the colours, creating contrasts between illuminated areas and those in semi-darkness. The light plays a vital allowing the artist to highlight what he felt was most important. There is a core of light which comes from the celestial glory in the upper section of the canvas and illuminates the martyrdom below. In just five years El Greco had clashed with the two most important clients in the country: the king and the cathedral of Toledo. After this he confined himself to patrons in Toledo who came from the nobility and the city's religious orders who understood and appreciated his new art.

 Here are some details from the painting:

Image: telegraph.co.uk




There is an article from the Daily Telegraph in 2011 by Christopher Howse about the painting which can be read at Why did the king sack El Greco?