Christian Theological Event Names
Like Deposition and Annunciation
as Terms in Religious Art History
Having a coffee with a deeply pious Protestant friend, a regular churchgoer, I was surprised to discover that he did not know the meaning of the word annunciation, nor did he know to what act the word deposition referred. Thus I deem worthwhile a column explaining the Latin and Greek origin of some of these modestly technical terms in theology, many of them shared as terms in the history of European art.
Most Christians know the Nativity and the Baptism but may not be acquainted with terms like the Ecce Homo, the Assumption and Descensus Christi ad Inferos. Given Italy’s prominence in European art history and its renown as one of the deftest and most moving Christian sculptures ever carved by mortal chisel, many people know Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica at Città del Vaticano.
Michelangelo's La Pietà, Italian ‘compassion, pity, mercy,’ the compassion of a mother for her dead son.
Fewer know a Maestà by name. But, by such egregious lacunae, be thou not befuddled, gentle pilgrim. For this little column, in spite of its taint of lewd sacrilege, will darn up those few holes in the socks of your knowledge. And now, humbly bow we to present our exemplary verbal bouquet!
In the Latin Vulgate of the Gospel of Saint Luke ( 1:36-39) we read of the Annuntiatio nativitatis Christi ‘the proclamation of the birth of Christ.’ The word was much later Englished as annunciation, almost exclusively referring to the announcing by the angel Gabriel unto the Blessed Virgin Mary that she will experience the immaculate conception and bear from her womb the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
The prime etymon in the Latin noun annuntiatio is nuntius ‘bringing news’ where nuntius perhaps displays a condensation of Latin novus Latin ‘new’ or some earlier form like *noventia ‘new announcements, hence news.’
Annuntiatio has direct components of Latin prepositional prefix ad ‘to’ + Latin verb nuntiare ‘to bring news, to bear a message.’ Think of words in English with the same root like papal nuncio, denounce, enunciate, pronouncement and renunciation.
Gabriel makes his announcement but Mary has legal qualms in this playful captioning.
Bible Plus Sex? Eek!
Two saucy paragraph are these, for those who wish to bar sex from Holy Writ. Immaculatus has only one meaning in the Vulgate. It means “not stained by one spot of human sperm.” Latin im = Latin in = English not + maculatus ‘stained, soiled’ < Latin macula ‘blemish, stain, spot.’ If one needed a Latin word for shot-spot — such as festoon the wallpapers of motel bedrooms — it would be macula. All the prissy evasions and holy moanings claiming that immaculate is a strictly metaphorical word are exegetical balderdash.
Remember it took the bearded prelates and assorted latter-day church worthies several years (!) at the Council of Trent (1545-1563 CE) to determine precisely how the Holy Spirit entered Mary. Imagine that: Grown men met in solemn conclave to discuss such trivial nonsense. But, after all, most of darling Mary’s bodily orifices were not suitable. We couldn’t have the Paraclete tiptoeing into Maria through her vagina! Dio mio! An anal welcome was quite out of the question. Through the mouth does not seem at all a cleanly introit. And a nostril besprent with nasal mucus is a lowly corridor indeed down which to make corporeal advent to a saint’s classy chassis. The bishops at Trent decided that the Holy Spirit had entered Mary per aurem ‘through an ear.’ The right ear, of course. So, when I write my Broadway musical based on the Life of Christ, I already have a song title to be sung by a chorus of Bethlehem street urchins loafing around outside the immaculate conceptorium: “Did you hear? Did you hear? Mary got it in the ear!”
The Annunciation, Philippe de Champaigne, ca.1644, oil on panel, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. In this wee fantasy Mary is reading a Bible — before the New Testament was revealed, written or parchmented! An extra bit of anachronistic piffle is the bound book of the Bible, before bound books existed! But then, mighty indeed is The Almighty.
The Ascension of Jesus (Vulgate Latin: Ascensio Iesu ‘the climbing up’ is the New Testament report that, after his resurrection, the Lord was taken up to heaven bodily. A nearby angel tells the eleven disciples present that Jesus will return in a second coming in exactly the same mode, in his human/divine body.
Ascensione di Cristo, Dosso Dossi, Ferrara 1490 - 1542 CE, olio su tavola
Assumption of the Virgin
Blasphemous jest suggests that the Assumption of the Virgin is: he’s wearing a condom. This is not true, class. Here assumption partakes of its most ancient and prime Latin semantic and means “a taking up to a higher place’ from the Latin prepositional prefix ad ‘to, up to, near to’ (assimilating and thus becoming as- in front of the initial s) of the verb + Latin verb sumere ‘to take up.’ The Assumption of the Virgin is the bodily lifting from earth to heaven of Holy Mary, Mother of God. The Blessed Virgin did not accomplish this in a Cessna Skycatcher. Rather, she was wafted to cerulean realms of thrilling wonderfulness by our old flying buddy, Spiritus Sanctus ‘Holy Spirit’ or by lesser divine minions of an angelic nature.
Two technical terms of theology may be of interest here. Mariology is the simple term, the tenets and beliefs dealing with the Virgin Mary. Mariolatry is usually a label of disapproval, referring to worship of Mary that is ‘way overboard,’ partaking of a pietistical excess that is slavish. Protestants sometimes accuse Roman Catholics of mariolatrous indulgence. Mariolatry = Latin Maria + Latin –o- common combining syllable + late Latin latria ‘servile worship’ < Greek λατρεία latreia ‘slavish obedience.’ We know the second part of the compound in the familiar word idolatry ‘worship of idols.’
This again is a noun in its prime Latin meaning and in its first meaning in English: taking the body of Christ down from the cross and depositing his body in the tomb, from Latin dēpōnĕre ‘to lay down, to put aside, to get rid of.’ English words from the same root include depose, deposit, deponent verb.
Ecce Homo, Quentin Massys, oil on wood panel, 1530 CE, Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy
These are the most famous words of a great villain of Christendom, Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilatus was the official judge at the trial of Christ and Pilate it was who ordered Jesus to be crucified. Pontius is known to historical record as the Prefect of the Roman province of Judaea from 26 to 36 CE.
When Pilate presented the scourged Christ to the hostile mob of louts in front of the praetorium, his residence in Jerusalem, during that long-ago Passover, the Bible claims that Pontius’ uttered the Latin sentence “Ecce homo!” There are several translations. But the gist of the Latin is “Here is the guy you want.” A literal translation might be “Behold the man!”
Of course, Pilate’s sentence (Ecce homo!) is a translation into Latin in Saint Jerome’s Vulgate version of the bible. In the Koine Greek of the original New Testament, Pilate’s words to the screaming crowd are reported as Ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος (idou ho anthrōpos). The gist of the Greek is “See. Here is this person. He is merely a human being.”
As usual, the cruder Latin translation cannot carry the several subtleties of the sly Greek. The moment inspired many canvases throughout the history of European painting. Two are reproduced here.
“Ecce homo!” (Behold the man!) is Antonio Ciseri’s (1821-1891) depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people from the porch of the governor’s mansion, the praetorium in Jerusalem, as told in the Gospel of St. John, chapter 9, verse 5. This nineteenth-century oil on canvas is now in the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Florence, Italy.
The Epitaphios, above by Anathios Clark, is an iconic image depicting Christ removed from the cross and lying supine, while his body is prepared for burial. Its usual form is a tapestry or a richly embroidered large cloth, sometimes laid over the altar during the matins of Holy Saturday which are performed on the evening of Good Friday in the rites of Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches. Epitaphios means ‘on the tomb or grave’ from Greek ἐπί epi ‘on, upon’ + τάφος, taphos ‘grave,tomb.’ Think of its more common form in English as epitaph ‘inscription on a gravestone.’ It is thought to be a short form applying at first to the chant of mourning and thus being an abbreviation of the Greek phrase ἐπιτάφιος θρῆνος epitaphios threnos ‘lamentation at the burial site.’
Two English words are based on threnos: threnody and threne. A threnody is a dirge, a song of lamenting at a funeral, a compound even in its original form Greek θρηνῳδία threnoidia ‘dirge’ = θρῆνος threnos ‘grieving’ + ᾠδή oide ‘song.’ Likewise the rarer English word threne means ‘a funeral lament,’ but was a quondam synonym for that biblical book called The Lamentations of Jeremiah. Once it was also known as The Threnes of Jeremiah.
Maestà, Italian for majesty, designates an iconic representation of the Madonna enthroned in glory, with Jesus, but with or without angels, saints, flittering attendant putti, and any other winged or armed members of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s aerial defence core, comprising what Alexander Pope, in a secular context, made reference to:
“Know then, unnumbered Spirits round thee fly,
The light Militia of the lower Sky.”
Maria Regina Caeli or shortened to Maria Regina, Latin ‘Mary, Queen of Heaven’ is the technical term in art history for any iconic image of Mary on a throne, holding or not holding the baby Jesus.
Noli Me Tangere “Don’t Touch Me!”
Check out my column on this phrase by clicking here.
The Harrowing of Hell
The Harrowing of Hell is not in the Gospels. There is no scriptural reference to Jesus descending into Hell. It is a later addition to the Christian mythos, appearing for example in the Apostles’ Creed. Sometimes known by its Greek name Anastasis (literal Greek meaning ‘resurrection’), it is credited as an invention of Byzantine Christians and appears in Western ecclesiastical literature for a first time only early in the eighth century. Christ’s chthonian descent is taken by some biblical scholars to mean that Christ went down to the dead and came back up as one more proof of his resurrection and his command over death.
I quote this passage from the Wikipedia article because it cannot be expressed terser or better: “The Greek wording in the Apostles’ Creed is κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα katelthonta eis ta katôtata, and in Latin descendit ad inferos. The Greek τὰ κατώτατα ‘the lowest’ and the Latin inferos ‘those below’ may also be translated as underworld, netherworld or as abode of the dead. Modern versions of the Apostles’ Creed often translate this more literally as “he descended to the dead.”
The word harrow comes from Old English hergian ‘to harry or despoil’ . . . The term Harrowing of Hell refers not merely to the idea that Christ descended into Hell, as in the Creed, but to the tradition that developed later, asserting that he triumphed over the Satanic abyss, releasing Hell’s captives, particularly Adam and Eve, and the righteous men and women of Old Testament times who died before Christ’s blessing. All these generations of pious do-gooders could not, according to some Christians, enter Heaven. They had to lurk about on the pale margins of Heaven’s meadow, in creepy limbo, moping, nibbling on stale morsels of matzah, bitching about donkey transport and waiting, waiting, waiting.
Christ helps non-sinners from the monster-mobbed margins of Limbo, during The Harrowing of Hell, engraved by Albrecht Dürer in 1512 CE.
Here’s another interesting explanation from a blog site called Eat the Bible: “. . . Jesus, after he died, descended into hell before rising again. (If I were Jesus, I would have chosen Boca over Hades, but, well, I’m not Jesus.)
“ Early church fathers like Origen, Tertullian and Hippolytus expand upon this cryptic phrase. They argue that Christ, after dying, goes down to hell, kicks Satan’s ass a bit, and frees all those righteous men and women who lived before his ministry. The rationale is simple: people must believe in Jesus to gain salvation. But we need some way to save all those good Hebrew Biblical types—Adam, Isaiah, Joseph, David, etc.—who didn’t have an opportunity to get in on His new grace.
The harrowing of hell is hence a fantastic midrashic answer to two questions: Where is Jesus between death and resurrection? (Hell.) And are the Jewish heroes of the Old Testament damned forever? (No.)”
So, with all these righteous zomboids clanking through the streets, probably in a bad mood after waiting — for what seems an eternity — to be freed from regions either semi-infernal or limbo-like, it is definitely time to get the hell out of here.
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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