Sunday, January 29, 2006

Enfancie de Nostre Seigneur: Christ Child on Sunbeam

Finally, from the Medieval illuminated manuscript Enfancie de Nostre Seigneur, we have the image before us of the Christ child sliding down a sunbeam, demonstrable proof that such an image did exist.

If only it were reproduced in color, but beggars can't be choosers.

So where did I go begging? With tipped hat in hand, to Roland Mushat Frye, who filled my empty sartorial accoutrement with the image above, which he identifies as:
Early thirteenth-century illumination, Christ Child on Sunbeam, from Enfancie de Nostre Seigneur, Bodleian Library MS. Selden supra 38, fol. 24.
But who is Roland Mushat Frye? According to the website where I found the image:
Roland Mushat Frye, a member of the Editorial Council of Theology Today, is Professor of English literature, [and has published works] such as God, Man, and Satan (1960), Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (1963), and Perspectives on Man, delivered as the L. P. Stone Lectures in 1959.
The image appears on page 15 of Frye's article "Paradise Lost and the Visual Arts," Theology Today, April 1977, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 9-19, but the note tells us:
This present paper was originally read for a Symposium on John Milton and was published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 120. No. 4 (Aug. 4, 1976), pp. 233-244. The paper, with a few abbreviations, is reprinted with the permission of the APS. This discussion anticipates Dr. Frye's new, big book on Milton, to be published by Princeton University Press. (page 9)
The new, big book alluded to is Milton's Imagery and the Visual Arts: Iconographic Tradition in the Epic Poems (Princeton University Press, 1978). I may even have a copy of this text in my office. I've certainly heard of it, and of Frye, from my Milton studies, but I've never read the book.

But -- you ask -- what does this image of Jesus sliding down a sunbeam have to do with Milton, who had surely put away such childish things? According to Frye, here's what:
One of the features of Milton's treatment of angels which has been disputed by influential critics is his description of the arrival in Eden of the archangel Uriel. Uriel, the angel of the sun, does not fly to the earth, but rather slides down a sunbeam --"Thither came Uriel, gliding through the Even/On a sunbeam" (PL IV 555f) -- which has seemed to some critics a rather undignified and even preposterous entry for an archangel. Analogues may be found in those numerous pictures of the Annunciation in which the dove representing the Holy Spirit glides down a sunbeam to the waiting Virgin, and in less frequent cases we might cite angels who appear to be coasting down sunbeams as in a Nativity painted by Andreas Giltlinger in 1522. But to my mind, the most charming analogue (fig. 10) is found in the illustration of those medieval fictionalized accounts of the childhood of Jesus, in which the boy Jesus is shown to have played a game of sliding down a sunbeam, as another child might slide down the banister rail of a stairway. (page 15)
Frye has provided some interesting parallels to the image that we've been seeking. I guess for the Medieval mind, if the Holy Spirit and various angels could slide down sunbeams, then the higher heavenly being Christ, even as an incarnate little Jesus, could manage it as well.

The passage that Frye cites from Paradise Lost tells of Uriel gliding down a sunbeam to warn Gabriel and his cohort of angels guarding the paradisiacal garden of Adam and Eve that a fallen angel has entered Paradise. Here, in book 4, lines 539 to 560 of the online edition supplied by Dartmouth's Milton Reading Room, Uriel's descent is described:

Mean while in utmost Longitude, where Heav'n
With Earth and Ocean meets, the setting Sun
Slowly descended, and with right aspect
Against the eastern Gate of Paradise
Leveld his eevning Rayes: it was a Rock
Of Alablaster, pil'd up to the Clouds,
Conspicuous farr, winding with one ascent
Accessible from Earth, one entrance high;
The rest was craggie cliff, that overhung
Still as it rose, impossible to climbe.
Betwixt these rockie Pillars Gabriel sat
Chief of th' Angelic Guards, awaiting night;
About him exercis'd Heroic Games
Th' unarmed Youth of Heav'n, but nigh at hand
Celestial Armourie, Shields, Helmes, and Speares
Hung high with Diamond flaming, and with Gold.
Thither came Uriel, gliding through the Eeven
On a Sun beam, swift as a shooting Starr
In Autumn thwarts the night, when vapors fir'd
Impress the Air, and shews the Mariner
From what point of his Compass to beware
Impetuous winds: he thus began in haste.

Immediately following this report and Gabriel's promise to investigate, Uriel returns in lines 589-597 to the sun, again gliding down a sunbeam:

So promis'd hee, and Uriel to his charge
Returnd on that bright beam, whose point now rais'd
Bore him slope downward to the Sun now fall'n
Beneath th' Azores; whither the prime Orb,
Incredible how swift, had thither rowl'd
Diurnal, or this less volubil Earth
By shorter flight to th' East, had left him there
Arraying with reflected Purple and Gold
The Clouds that on his Western Throne attend:

In the brief time required for Uriel to report to Gabriel and hear the latter's brief reply, the sun has dipped low enough (or the earth turned just enough) for Uriel to slide down again, this time from earth to sun.

I'm indebted to Frye for reminding me of this passage. Incidentally, to show you what a small world we scholars inhabit, I note that Frye wrote a short piece for Theology Today, April 1985, Vol. 42, No. 1, reviewing Leo Steinberg's The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (New York: Pantheon, 1983). Steinberg, you will recall, reported the link between Max Ernst's painting The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses and The Bitter Withy's lines on Christ receiving a spanking at the hands of the Virgin Mary.

Frye, by the way, died just over one year ago, on January 25, 2005, and could perhaps report back to us if heavenly beings really do glide upon sunbeams. Should anyone hear from him, please let me know.


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