Sunday, September 20, 2015

Jesse Tree Wood: Trunk, Vine, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit-Part 5

            I have been trying to tell a story with several threads.  The first thread is the link of life and death, Annunciation and Passion (and Crucifixion).[1]  The second is the somewhat orderly spread of church history written, like the gospels, first written in Greek, than translated to Latin, and then vernacular.  The third is the importance of the wood of the Cross, especially contemplation on Forgiveness of Sin, Redemption, Salvation and Life of the world to come.  Unfortunately that second thread is about to be cut as I come to the 8th century in England.  I failed to take into account for the spread of information by oral tradition including song, poetry, and story.  When I get to the Dream of the Rood, it was oral traditions that spread the poem hundreds of years before the scant textual record.
         At this point, I feel as though I am an interloper in a beautiful and well-tended academic garden founded on research of Old English poetry, especially Dream of the Rood.  Not only am I an interloper, I am one who really does not know the difference between specimen flower and lowly weed.  So I will do my best to tread carefully and try not to misstate the work of many fine scholars.  Yet I remember struggling with a modern English translation of Dream of the Rood in an English literature class somewhat over 50 years ago and thinking that it reminded me of a hymn sung in church. I never gave that passing thought any more consideration.  Only many years later while reading an article by Catherine Karkov or Éamonn Ó Carragáin in the Lilly Library at Duke University did the recollection of that class pop into my mind.  Since the subject is wood, it seemed appropriate to pull together the association of Pange Lingua with Dream of the Rood and a discussion about the origins of the wood and vine symbols that are the foundation of a Jesse Tree.
           I thought of a couple of verses from one of my favorite hymns, the Good Friday hymn, Pange Lingua.  The poem was written by Venantius Fortunatus.  Fortunatus was born in Venetia, Italy, studied at Ravenna apparently, and eventually moved to the Merovingian Court at Metz about 566.  In mid-life or later, he settled in Poitiers, and he became bishop there for a short period before he died in 600 or some years later at Poitiers.  Fortunatus was a prolific writer and poet.  Two of his poems for the Cross used during Holy Week have survived including Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis et super crucis trophaeo dic triumphum nobilem (Sing my tongue the glorious battle)  and Vexilla regis prodeunt, fulget crucis mysterium (The royal banners forward go)In particular, I was thinking of the verses from Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis as translated by John Mason Neale and modified for the Hymnal 1982.

4. Faithful cross! above all other,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
sweetest weight is hung on thee.

5. Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
for awhile the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
and the King of heavenly beauty
gently on thine arms extend.

In the original Latin, the verses are:

Crux fidelis,inter omnes arbor una nobilis;
nulla talem silva profert, flore, fronde, germine.
Dulce lignum, dulci clavo, dulce pondus sustinens!

Flecte ramos, arbor alta, tensa laxa viscera,
et rigor lentescat ille, quem dedit nativitas,
ut superni membra Regis miti tendas stipites

Sola digna tu fuisti ferre pretium saeculi
atque portum praeparare nauta mundo naufrago,
quem sacer cruor perunxit, fusus Agni corpore.[2]

Below is a rather more literal translation, if less poetic translation:

Faithful[3] Cross, you only noble among all trees,
no other forest (wood) produces flower, foliage, fruits (seeds or increase)
Sweet wood, sweet nails, sweet weight-bearing.

Bend your branches, tall tree, loosen tight fibers (literally “guts” but can be “internal organs.”)
And soften the rigidity from your birth
Bend your limbs to gently support the King.

Thou alone were worthy to bear the ransom of the world
And prepare for the landing of a shipwrecked sailor
That sacred blood poured from the Lamb’s body.
          The poem by Venantius Fortunatus, Pange Lingua, would seem to pre-date the oldest version of the poem Dream of the Rood found in runic writing on the Ruthwell Cross.  Ó Carragáin has pointed out that the Pange Lingua is not a source for the Dream of the Rood since there are significant difference in the two poems but both have their roots in the Gospels, Epistles of Paul, and the Holy Eucharist.[4]  An example of an early Eucharistic hymn could well be the following verses from Colossians 1.15-29 that certainly reads as a hymn exalting Jesus Christ and the reconciliation of all things through the blood of Christ.  Poetry like this heard by clergy, monks, nuns, and minor orders of clergy with regularity would have served as inspiration for the writing of poetry such as Dream of the Rood. (Translation below NRSV.)

He is the image of the invisible God,
       the firstborn of all creation;
for by him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
       things visible and invisible,
       whether thrones or dominions
       or rulers  or powers—
       all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things,
      and by him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church;
       he is the beginning,
       the firstborn from the dead,
       so that he might come
       to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
       and through him God was pleased
       to reconcile to himself all things,
       whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

To pick up on the theme of the revelation of the buried cross as told in the stories of Helen and the finding of the cross, one may look to verses such as these from the synoptic gospels (All translations are NSRV):

     Matthew 13.44. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which
     someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys
     that field.[5]

     Mark 4.21-3 He said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket,
     or under the bed, and not on the lampstand?  For there is nothing hidden, except
     to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.  Let anyone with ears
     to hear listen!’

     Luke 8.167. ‘No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed,
     but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light.  For nothing is
     hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known
     and come to light.

Or the reference to Moses lifting up the bronze serpent to heal the Hebrews in the desert from the gospel of John:

     John 3.14-5. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must
     the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”[6]

            The other thread that needs to be tied in is the runic inscription around the Ruthwell High Cross. The Ruthwell Cross is a large standing cross, made in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in the 8th century.  The cross now stands in a church in Dumfriesshire, south-west Scotland.  It probably was an outdoor preaching cross for conversion of the still pagan peoples.  Another scholars has suggested that the cross was the central supporting posting of a church (Meyvaert). Thus the congregation were quite literally under the protection of the Cross-tree. The cross includes texts in Latin that would have been understood by the clergy and runes. These appear on the sides of the cross with biblical carvings.   The runic writing appears of the sides of the cross with vine and animals. The Ruthwell Cross stood near the present church until 1644 when it was pulled down and smashed on the instructions of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland because it was idolatrous.  It was re-erected in the 19th century in the manse garden of the Ruthwell church.  In 1887, the cross was moved to a specially built apse in the church.

 An etching of the sides of the lower shaft of the Ruthwell Cross. It shows more clearly the rune writing than a usual photograph. It shows the missing runes.  Note that the birds and animals are eating the fruit of the vine-tree, a symbol of the Holy Eucharist.

The cross is so tall that it is standing in a well below the floor level.  When the cross was reconstructed much of the top of the cross was never found and so a transom was re-carved. This is a photograph of the east face of the cross that now faces to the south.  For details of the panels see the table below.

            The lower shaft of the north and south faces contain lines of poetry as well as scrolled vines with flowers, fruit, and animals that can visually be linked to the development of Jesse Tree design. It is this link that is my primary interest.  The vines and fruit represent the Garden of Eden and the Holy Eucharist (and by extension the sacrificial death of Jesus for our sins) for Christians.  For the pagans it presented the Tree of Life of Norse and Germanic mythology or Yggdrasil, the giant ash tree (or the yew tree associated with Odin/Wotan).  The vine-tree links heaven and earth, the spiritual and the concrete to both pagans and Christians and so would have been a useful tool for conversion to Christianity of the pagan tribes of Northumbria.
         Some of the rune letters are missing and it was found that the missing letters could be supplied from Dream of the Rood.  The runes spell out an older version of some verses from Dream of the Rood, some two to three hundred years before the surviving complete poem.  The complete poem that survives dates from the later 10th or 11th century and is found in the Vercelli Book.  Another poem from this book is Elene, the story of Helen and the finding of the True Cross.

          For a beta version of the Visionary Cross project that presents the details of the Ruthwell cross in stunningly high definition and readability, go to <> . I cannot post any pictures as clear as those at the Visionary Cross project website. All the transcriptions of text and translations are taken from the Visionary Cross website. 

            The runic inscription on the north face of the Ruthwell Cross is in the Old English language. It reads: (across the top) [+ ond]gere; (down the right side) dæ hinæ god almeittig · þa hewalde on galgu gistigamodig f[ore] [allæ] men [b]ug … [ahof] ic riicnæ kyniŋc · heafunæs hlafard hælda ic ni dorstæ [b]ismærædu uŋket men ba æt[g]ad[re i]c [wæs] miþ blodi bist[e]mi[d] bi[got][en of þæs gumu sida]… 
Translation: ‘Almighty God stripped himself when he wished to mount the gallows, brave in the sight of all men. I dared not bow. I [raised aloft] a powerful king. The Lord of heaven I dared not tilt.  Men insulted the pair of us together. I was drenched with blood [begotten from that man’s side].

            The other runic inscription across the south face reads: (across the top) [+k]ris[t] wæs on; (down the right side) rodi · hweþræ þer fusæ fearran kwomu æþþilæ til anum ic þæt al bi[h][eald] s[aræ] ic w[æ]s · mi[þ] so[r]gu[m] gi[d]rœ[fi]d h[n]a[g]…; (down the left side) miþ s[t]re[l]um giwundad alegdun hiæ [h]inæ limwœrignæ· gistoddu[n h]im [æt] [his] [li][c]æs [hea]f[du]m [bih]ea[ld]u[n h]i[æ þ]e[r]… 
Translation: + Christ was on the cross. But eager ones came hither from afar. Noble ones came together. I beheld all that. I was terribly afflicted with sorrows. I bowed [to the hands of men], wounded with arrows. They laid him down, limb-weary; they stood at the shoulders of the corpse. They looked upon the Lord [of heaven].


            The east and west face contain carved panels with Latin inscriptions that would have been understandable by clergy and monastics.  All text below are taken from the Visionary Cross project website.

East face of lower shaft
West face of lower shaft
Archer with drawn bow
St. Matthew, the evangelist, holding
book and standing with winged angel.
The Visitation or
Mary and Martha.
Text reads: […] marþ[a] (left border);
mar[ia] m[…]r + (top border);
dominnæ c[…] (right border).
The words have been translated as either
‘Martha and Mary worthy women’, or
perhaps ‘Martha and Mary,
mother of the Lord’.
John the Baptist holding the Lamb of God.
He stands on two globes.
In the lower section of the left border
are the words ‘[…] [A]DORAMVS
(we adore), and across the lower
border ‘VT NON CVM […]’ (so that not with).
Source is not known.
Jesus Christ standing with his right hand (now lost) held up in blessing. Mary Magdalene is at his feet.
The Latin inscription surrounding
the panel reads: + A[TT]V[LIT]
[ALA]B[A]S (across the top);
(down the right side); · EIUS LACRIMIS ·
CAPILLIS (down the left side) ·
CAPITIS SUI TERGEBAT (across the bottom).
Translation: ‘+ She took an alabaster jar of
ointment, and standing behind at his feet,
she began to wash his feet with her tears
and dried them with the hair of her head’.
Jesus Christ stands on the snouts of two beasts.  The beasts have crossed front paws, forming a “X” or chi.
The inscriptions read: + IhS XPS IVDEX (across the top) · AEQVITATIS · (down the right side); BESTIAE · ET · DRACON[ES] · COGNOVERVNT · IN DE ·
MVNDI · (down the left side). Translation: ‘+ Jesus Christ, judge of equity. Beasts and dragons recognised in the desert the savior of the world’. There is no one source. But the words recalls both Psalm 90/91:13 (Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample
under foot the lion and the dragon), and Habbakuk 3:2 (Between two living things you will become known).[7]
Healing of the man born blind.
The Latin inscription in the border reads:
(down the left side) {HOMINEM CAECVM}
 (down the right side).
Translation: ‘+ And passing by he saw a
{man blind} from birth and {healed him}’
Saints Paul and Anthony break bread together in the desert.  They face each other with their bodies turned outward.  Between them, they hold a loaf of bread that had been miraculously delivered by a raven.  The arms of the saints form an “X.”
The Latin inscription that surrounds the panel reads: + SCS PAVLVS · (across the top); ET · A[NTONIVS] […] (down the right side); FREGER[VN]T · PANEM IN DESERTO (down the left side). Translation: ‘+ Saints Paul and Anthony […] broke bread in the desert’.  It describes an episode recorded in Jerome’s Life of St. Paul.
The Annunciation, Angel Gabriel
 and Virgin Mary All that remains of the
inscription in the border are the letters
‘+ INGRESSVS ANG’ (across the top border),
and ‘TE […] BE (down the left border).
It has been reconstructed as ‘Ingressus angelus
ad eam dixit ave gratia plena dominus
tecum benedicta tu in mulieribus’
(Entering the angel said to her:
“Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you;
blessed are you among women”.)
Flight into Egypt (or out of Egypt)
The Virgin Mary is seated side saddle on a donkey holding the Christ child upright.  The panel is very worn. There may be a tree and part of the figure of Joseph.
The Latin inscription in the border reads: + MARIA · ET IO[SEPHUS] […] TV […]. Translation: ‘+ Mary and Joseph …’
The Crucifixion, carved at a later date,
Perhaps 9th century, and now very worn.
Base is now blank.  It is not known if it was carved and since lost or never carved.

Next is a discussion of Ruthwell Cross and Dream of the Rood.

[1] Éamonn Ó Carragáin. Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition. (2005) London: The British Library, pp. 183-8.  O Carragain pointed out that the Annunciation and Passion were firmly linked in the Roman Catholic Church liturgy of the 4th century when the Annunciation, March 25, would fall in the middle of Holy Week.  The Annunciation is still celebrated on March 25 but Holy Week is now moveable based on the first full moon of the spring equinox set as March 21.
[2]Thesaurus Precum Latinarum  Pange Lingua (Fortunatus) Sing, my Tongue  <>
[3] A Clerk of Oxford prefers STEADFAST in Middle English instead of FAITHFUL that comes to us from Middle French and Latin.  Please read a delightful blog upon the same hymn
[4] Éamonn Ó Carragáin. Ritual and the Rood: 7.,
[5] This passage used to be used for the gospel reading on Holy Cross Day, September 14.
[6] This is part of the passage that the Revised Common Lectionary assigns for Holy Cross Day.
[7] Habakkuk 3 is often referred to as the Prayer or Canticle of Habakkuk.  This chapter only appears in the Revised Common Lectionary for the fifth Sunday of Epiphany, year A, for the Episcopal Church, though it is usually superseded by a reading from Isaiah.  Thus, it is rarely if ever, heard in the western Church.  It used to be a standard part of the Hours read daily by laypersons and monastics alike.  So the Bible passage would have been reasonably familiar.

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