Early Christianity and Classical Culture: Comparative Studies in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe

By Abraham Johannes Malherbe | Go to book overview

QUOD EST COMPARANDUM
THE PROBLEM OF PARALLELS

L. Michael White
and
John T. Fitzgerald

Dies irae, that dreadful day,
Heaven and earth shall burn away;
So David and the Sibyl say.


From Sibyls’ Song to Vergil’s Tour

The Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) officially entered the Latin Mass in 1485 as a sequence for the dead; it had probably been known, at least in Italy, since the thirteenth century. Written in the first person singular, the canticle presents the “prophecies” of the Cumaean Sibyl regarding the day of judgment. Long before, the Sibyl, legendary symbol of Rome’s destiny, had already been “baptized.” Both Jewish and Christian editors had made extensive additions to the Sibylline Oracles, thus turning the sacred texts of pagan Rome’s ritual calendar into apocalyptic predictions.1 So, too, she appears in Michelangelo’s composition of the Sistine Chapel (1508–1512), sitting opposite the Delphic oracle. With exaggerated, ambivalent posture, both pivot away from the poignant touch of the Creation scene and toward the Last Judgment at the opposite end of the hall. The Sibyl consults her books; the Pythia looks up from a scroll, as they survey the sweep of human history.2 By the Renaissance the Sibyl could hardly be read in any other way, than as a divinely inspired visionary of Christian history. So, too, for much of the classical tradition—it must either anticipate the triumph of Christianity or be considered its antithesis.

1 John J. Collins, “The Sibylline Oracles,” in Jewish Writings from the Second Temple Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran, Sectarian Writings, Philo, Josephus, ed. by M. E. Stone (CRINT 2.2; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984) 357–81; “The Development of the Sibylline Tradition,” AJVRW II.20.1 (1987) 421–59.

2 Other classical motifs abound. For example, in the Last Judgment scene there is a vignette of Charon ferrying a boatload of the damned to hell. For an early source of

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