Portrayals of the Vita Christi in the Medieval German Marienklage: Signs of Franciscan Exegesis and Rhetoric in Drama and Music

By Loewen, Peter | Comparative Drama, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Portrayals of the Vita Christi in the Medieval German Marienklage: Signs of Franciscan Exegesis and Rhetoric in Drama and Music


Loewen, Peter, Comparative Drama


The compassion the Virgin Mary must have felt for the suffering of her crucified Son was a theme that fascinated biblical exegetes throughout the Middle Ages. The seeds of this Mariological tradition sowed by Origen and Sts. Chrysostom and Augustine grew in the twelfth century through the mediations of Anselm of Canterbury, Hugh of St. Victor, and Bernard of Clairvaux. And in the following centuries, the tradition continued to flourish in the Latin and vernacular exegeses of their diligent followers, especially among writers in the Franciscan and Carthusian orders. Like their predecessors, these later commentators transmit the scriptural narrative while elaborating on details not present in the canonical texts. These details, however, direct the attention of their audience more forcefully than their predecessors toward the drama of Christ's final agony and his mother's overwrought emotional state. The justification for this is confidently stated by the fourteenth-century Franciscan John of Caulibus, one of the most important contributors to this Mariological tradition, who in his Meditaciones rite Christi admits that "the Evangelists did not write down everything." (1)

Mary Stallings-Taney asserts that John of Caulibus's Meditaciones rite Christi was" [o]ne of the most influential and widely read Franciscan works," and that it "exerted an incalculable influence on medieval spirituality, literature, and art." (2) John of Caulibus probably composed the text in Tuscany for the spiritual direction of a Poor Clare nun. (3) But judging from its substantial dissemination in more than 110 copies in Latin and at least 100 in vernacular languages, it is clear that John's Meditaciones vite Christi spoke to audiences well beyond the convent walls. (4)

For the past more than 150 years, scholars have considered the deep impression the Meditaciones made on the portrayal of affective piety in medieval Christian aesthetics, particularly in drama. In the 1890s, Alessandro d'Ancona and Eduard Wechssler identified the work as one of the central models for Italian laude drammatiche and French lyrics in the Passion play of Arnoul Greban. (5) The esteemed French art historian Emile Male makes long and frequent reference to John's meditations on the Passion of Christ in his seminal study of medieval religious art in France. Considering John's expression of pathos for the agonies of the Virgin Mary and her son, he exclaims that "[h]ad it not been for this book, the Mystery plays would lack some of their best scenes." (6) Nearly eighty years later, Sandro Sticca echoed these sentiments in his study of the Planctus Mariae. In his view, the "spontaneous and agitated" dwelling on the sufferings of the Virgin Mary in medieval Latin and vernacular dramas may be attributed to the huge influence of the Meditaciones vite Christi. (7) And according to David Jeffrey, the high degree of verisimilitude and focus on the "affective, pietistic ideals of Franciscan spirituality" in medieval English cycle dramas points to the influence of this work. (8)

The body of extant Franciscan literature composed in the German lands and the Netherlands between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries offers strong evidence that this school of Franciscan authors was also vibrant and prolific. Among their works we find, for example, translations of the Meditaciones vite Christi (especially the Passion segment); vernacular sermons and devotional texts by Berthold of Regensburg, Heinrich of Burgus, and Hendrik Herp; and the theological tracts of David of Augsburg and Bartholomaeus Anglicus. (9) Kurt Ruh's examinations of medieval German religious literature have suggested to him that Franciscan spirituality deeply affected writers beyond the ranks of the order itself, including members of other orders and the secular clergy. (10) Yet it remains to be determined whether and, if so, how this volume of Franciscan literature influenced the history of German religious drama and its music. …

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