EARLY CHRISTIAN TEXTS: Blathmac—an eighth-century Irish poet in Rome

Published in Features, Gaelic Ireland, Issue 4 (July/August 2016), Volume 24

WHAT ARE SURELY AMONGST THE LONGEST CONTINUOUS TEXTS WRITTEN IN OLD IRISH ARE THE RELIGIOUS POEMS OF BLATHMAC, SON OF CÚ BRETTAN. BUT WERE HIS SOURCES ONLY LITERARY?

By Peter Harbison

The poems of Blathmac, son of Cú Brettan, were discovered in a seventeenth-century manuscript (NLI G.50) by Nessa Ní Shéaghdha in 1953, and largely published eleven years later by James Carney in Vol. 47 of the Irish Texts Society monographs. The poet wrote them as ‘a devoted offering to Mary and her Son’ and they comprise more than 259 stanzas, mainly praising the Virgin and describing excerpted events from the life and death of Christ, with an anti-Semitic swipe at the Jews for having crucified Him.

Fifty years after the original publication, in 2014 the Irish Texts Society held a one-day seminar in Cork to reassess Blathmac’s work, the proceedings of which appeared late last year in the 27th volume of the Society’s Subsidiary Series, edited by Pádraig Ó Ríain. It is argued there that Blathmac may have come from the Louth/Monaghan area, though the name of his father may suggest some connection with Britain—and Anglo-Saxon. David Stifter suggests that Carney’s attribution of the poems to around the middle or third quarter of the eighth century is no more than a hypothesis, though—with few exceptions—thedating has been generally accepted by scholars, and is one in which I have also come to believe for iconographical reasons.

Evidence sought in earlier literary works in Latin
In this volume bringing out the latest scholarship on Blathmac, the difficult question of the sources he used was broached, without any hard conclusions being reached. The evidence is sought in earlier literary works in Latin, withintimations that the Irish poet’s style has echoes of the metrical biblical paraphrases of authors such as Juvencus, Sedulius and the more obscure Cyprianus Gallus. The first two of these concentrate on the New Testament, while Cyprianus was the only one of the trio to have dealt largely with Old Testament material, though only his abridgement of its first half is known to us. Yet it is the Old Testament allusions in the poems that suggest that Blathmac may not have been relying entirely on literary predecessors and that, as an alternative, we should look at potential artistic sources—particularly mosaics and frescoes—to see whether they may have given him additional inspiration. This arises partially because some of his imagery is so strikingly visual in character that it goes beyond what the Scriptures (and occasionally the Apocrypha) tell us. In stanza 57 we are told that the blood from the body of Christ baptised the head of Adam, ‘for the shaft of the cross had aimed at his mouth’, while the following stanza informs us that the same blood ‘cured fully the blind man who, openly with his two hands, was plying the lance’ (though this could have come from some Early Christian biblical story). A further example is when the Roman martyr Giurgus (George) was cut up into ten pieces—information which does not appear about him in historical records,nor in the martyrologies where his name occurs.

Above: A fifth-century mosaic in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome showing Moses stretching a rod over the Red Sea to prevent the Egyptians crossing. (Carlo Pietrangeli)

Above: A fifth-century mosaic in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome showing Moses stretching a rod over the Red Sea to prevent the Egyptians crossing. (Carlo Pietrangeli)

Pictorial sources?
Our suspicions that Blathmac may have been using pictorial sources for his imagery are further aroused when we search for Old Testament illustrations on the walls of Continental churches, which Blathmac could have seen even as far south as Rome. Out of the myriad of Bible stories which the poet could have chosen to mention in his stanzas 77–96, he made a curious selection of only a few. From the Book of Exodus, he chose the plagues of Egypt (6–12) and the Lord guiding Moses and his followers through the desert as thepillars of cloud and fire (13:21), followed by Moses striking the Red Sea with his rod so that the waves divided to allow the Israelites to pass through to the promised land of milk and honey but later closed over to drown the Egyptians (14). In stanza 86 Blathmac links two unconnected events in the wrong order, namely Moses striking water from the rock (17:6) and preventing the Israelites from having to drink the bitter (poisoned) waters of Marah (15:2–25). Between these two episodes, we have the Lord providing the flock of quail (16:13) and manna from heaven (16:14–35) to sustain Moses’s followers. Mention of the brazen serpent from the Book of Numbers (21:6–9) and the victory over the Canaanites leads on to the Book of Joshua, where we find the Jordan also dividing, this time to allow Joshua passage through the river to destroy the walls of Jericho (3/4 and 6) and, later, to order the sun to stand still at Gibeon (10:12–13). Finally, from the Book of Daniel (not in Cyprianus Gallus) we have the Israelites being liberated from Babylon and the land of the Chaldaeans.

Above: The Lord providing quails as food for the murmuring Israelites according to the Book of Exodus, as illustrated in a mosaic in the Roman basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. (Carlo Pietrangeli)

Above: The Lord providing quails as food for the murmuring Israelites according to the Book of Exodus, as illustrated in a mosaic in the Roman basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. (Carlo Pietrangeli)

Remarkably, a number of these events—an Egyptian plague, the pillar of fire, the passage through the Red Sea, Moses striking water from the rock and Joshua crossing the Jordan to destroy Jericho—are found on ninth-century Irish high crosses at Kells and Monasterboice, but these could not have been seen by Blathmac if he lived in the eighth century. Even more remarkably, however, almost all of the Old Testament events listed by Blathmac are known to have been illustrated in one or other of the churches or basilicas of fifth-century Rome. In describing the decoration of an unidentified Roman church in his Dittochaeon of around 400,Prudentius lists Moses crossing the Red Sea and sweetening the waters of Marah, in addition to manna and the quail, the brazen serpent and Joshua’s role in the fall of Jericho. Prudentius’s descriptions are thought to have been copied from tituli—Latin couplets underneath the pictures to explain their contents—and it is eminently feasible that some of Blathmac’s stanzas may have been based on similar models, as David Stifter has shown potential Latinisms being used in the poems.

Above: The Old Testament figure of Joshua ordering the sun and moon to stand still upon Gibeon Hill until his enemies were defeated, as depicted in a fifth-century mosaic in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. (CarloPietrangeli)

Above: The Old Testament figure of Joshua ordering the sun and moon to stand still upon Gibeon Hill until his enemies were defeated, as depicted in a fifth-century mosaic in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. (CarloPietrangeli)

The Egyptian plagues featured in Old St Peter’s basilica,which was replaced by Bernini four centuries ago. The basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore still preserves the mosaics of Moses striking the Red Sea with his rod to allow the Israelites passage through it, the quail, Moses sweetening the waters of Marah with a piece of wood, the Jordan dividing (Blathmac’s Ernon and Jordan) to facilitate the fall of Jericho, the messenger returning from Canaan, and Joshua halting the movement of the sun and moon at Gibeon. Only the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, Moses striking water from the rock and the liberation from Babylon are not recorded among them but may have been present elsewhere—the Moses scene being present at least on sarcophagi.

Coincidence?
It must surely be more than mere coincidence that virtually all of the Old Testament sequences chosen for mention by Blathmac decorated the walls of Roman churches and basilicas which had existed for centuries before Blathmac visited the Eternal City, as I believe he did, and provide what I consider to be a more convincing inspiration for Blathmac’s choice of Old Testament themes than anything provided by literary sources, except, of course, for the Bible itself.

The remarkable coincidence of many of Blathmac’s scenes being illustrated in a basilica which, like his poems,was dedicated to the Virgin Mary may be reinforced when we come to another Roman church, likewise dedicated to the Virgin, that of Santa Maria Antiqua, which, because of Blathmac’s Marian devotion, would have been another obvious attraction for him to visit while in Rome. In this church in the Roman forum (now bearing the name of Santa Francesca Romana), he could have been moved at the sight of two other mothers whose sons were martyred before their eyes—the seven sons of Maccabees,‘whom loving mother fortified’, and Quiricus with his mother Giulitta(both stanza 253), fresco portraits of whom survived sufficiently well in the church100 years ago for Grüneisen to have been able to provide a satisfactory pictorial restoration.

The Dittochaeon already mentioned described the deaths of two further martyrs referred to by Blathmac in a single line (stanza 247)—the beheading of John the Baptist and the stoning of Stephen. Notsurprisingly, John the Baptist featured in the basilica of St John Lateran, while the stoning of Stephen was present in St Paul’s basilica, as well as in Santa Maria Maggiore. A strong case can thus be made for seeing Blathmac as having drawn much of his Old Testament and martyrdom inspiration from looking at Roman mosaics and frescoes in churches which—like his own poems—were dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Peter Harbison is an arthistorian and iconographer who is Honorary Academic Editor with the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

FURTHER READING
J. Carney (ed.), The poems of Blathmac son of Cú Brettan.Irish Texts Society, Vol. 47 (Dublin, 1964).
W. deGrüneisen, Sainte Marie Antique (Rome, 1911).
P. Ó Riain (ed.), The poems of Blathmac son of Cú Brettan: reassessments.Irish Texts Society, Subsidiary Series 27 (London, 2015).
C. Pietrangeli, Santa Maria Maggiore in Roma (Florence, 1988).

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