21 January 2011

Modesty in Martyrdom

For a classicist, certain lines in S Ambrose's the Hymn, brought into the Liturgia Horarum by Dom Lentini's coetus to be sung at Lauds on S Agnes' day, might cause the momentary puzzlement engendered by an obscure feeling of familiarity. Yes, you have read something like this in pagan Classical poetry.

The hymn contains the lines

Nam veste se totam tegens
terram genu flexo petit
lapsu verecundo cadens.
[ For, covering herself completely with her garment she made for ground with bended knee, falling with a modest fall.]

In the back of my mind was the thought that it sounded like Euripides and probably came from the Iphigeneia in Aulide (where Agamemnon secures a wind to get his fleet to Troy so that Helen can be retrieved, by the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia). But a reading through the Messenger Speech near the end of that play proved the falsity of my suspicion. I sat stymied, until the Muse who looks after Liturgical bloggers (who she?) slipped into my mind the name Polyxena. Yupp! There it is in Euripides' Hecuba (so I was right about the author). Polyxena was a Trojan princess, loved by Achilles, who, after the Fall of Troy (and death of Achilles) was sacrificed upon his tomb.

Then the Pierian Lady vouchsafed me a second flash of enlightenment: it's also in the Metamorphoses of the Greatest Latin Poet, Ovid (don't be beguiled by American Bloggers into thinking Horace was the greatest of them). There you have the same three ideas: she covered herself; she fell to the ground on her knee; she fell in a way that did not betray her modesty.
Euripides: katheisa pros gaian gonu ... thneskousa homos pollen pronoian eikhen euskhemon pesein, kruptousa ha kruptein ommata arsenon khreon.
Ovid: illa super terram defecto poplite labens pertulit intrepidos ad fata novissima vultus; tum quoque cura fuit partes velare tegendas, cum caderet, castique decus servare pudoris.

Given the fact that both of these gentlemen kept a tongue fairly consistently in a cheek, I suspect that each is amusing himself with a little dry irony at the idea that a girl who was being poleaxed might be preoccupied with need to prevent the chaps from getting a glimpse of her knees (Euripides had already enjoyed a bit of a snigger, surely, in making Talthybios, a few lines earlier, praise Polyxena by saying that she had better breasts than a statue).

Entertainingly, the 'reformers' who provided the texts of the Hymns for the Liturgia Horarum missed out four lines, explaining that they did so because the lines 'nimis insistunt in praedicando pudore' [they go a bit too far in preaching modesty]. What a lovely Sixties assumption: the idea that going on too much about sexual continence is a mistake*. One wonders if the 'reformers' ' studies and libraries provided views from their widows of the Sixties hotpants and miniskirts worn by the touristesses in the Roman streets outside. It would explain how Bugnini - whom I picture as a man with his mind set on higher things than knees - got away with so much liturgical dishonesty.

*Originally the text went

nam veste se totam tegit,
curam pudoris praestitit
ne quis retectam cerneret.
in morte vivebat pudor;
vultumque texerat manu,
terram genu flexo petit
lapsu verecundo cadens.

Perhaps vultum texerat would have made the Saint sound too Islamic.


Seth said...

Fascinating, as ever, Father. Do you happen to know if anyone has done a formal study of the reception of classical verse in the Church's liturgy? It occurs to me that this would be a most valuable thing to write about once I've finished my doctorate!

By the way, I'd have thought your preference of Ovid over Horace to be a most un-British sort of thing? I'm glad Ovid is finally getting the revival he deserves on these shores; but Horace remains the dog's whatsits for me.

Joshua said...

Didn't C├Žsar do the same when he was stabbed, gathering about him his toga with the last of his strength, that falling down in death he might at the least die modestly covered?

When beginning to read your post, Fr H., that was what came to mind and what I expected you'd expatiate upon.

Anonymous said...

Views from their widows, Father?

Fr John Hunwicke said...

I think my subconscious may have been influenced by the Hoffnung piece about "every room is equipped with French Widows, affording delightful prospects".

none said...

For me, Father, the definitive passage on virginal modesty in execution is Manilius, Astronomica 5.552 ff. (and what a poet he for the Christian):

"et cruce virginea moritura puella pependit. / servatur tamen in poena vultusque pudorque' / supplicia ipsa decent; nivea cervice reclinis / molliter ipsa suae custos est visa figurae."

He goes on to describe how the kingfishers modestly shielded her body where the robe had slipped.

-Dr. Lee Fratantuono