Tuesday, November 25, 2014

BOOK: Marco Girolamo Vida, "Christiad"

Marco Girolamo Vida: Christiad. Translated by James Gardner. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 39. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674034082. xxviii + 464 pp.

The story

This is an epic poem of about 6000 lines, about the life of Jesus with an emphasis on his final days. In fact the direct action in the poem only covers the last few days of Jesus's life: he comes to Jerusalem (re-animating Lazarus along the way), has the last supper there, gets arrested during the following night and then executed soon afterwards. However, the poet comes up with all sorts of excuses to include flashbacks that tell us about things that happened earlier.

For example, in book 1 Jesus visits the temple in Jerusalem and admires the sculptures there; they depict the creation of the world and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, so we get a long description of these events (1.591–673).

In book 2, people from all over Israel are coming to Jerusalem for some sort of religious festival, and the poet makes use of this opportunity to include a long catalogue of various towns and regions and their inhabitants (2.332—529). I suppose that the epic poets' union requires them to include at least one catalogue in each epic poem :P

And in book 3, after Jesus gets arrested, his father (or is that stepfather? :P) Joseph goes to see Pontius Pilate to try to explain his son's activities, and so nearly the whole of book 3 is a long flashback in which Joseph tells Pilate about his marriage to Mary and about Jesus' birth and childhood.

Book 4 consists mostly of a flashback by John (the apostle) about Jesus's last few years, how he encountered John the Baptist, assembled a group of disciples, performed various miracles, etc. John even includes the story of the creation of the world and subsequent events up to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise (4.59–110).

The last two books tell the story more straightforwardly; in book 5 we have Jesus's trial and execution (there's an odd scene where a legion of angels gets indignant at his suffering and are just about ready to swoop down and rescue him, so that god has to sternly recall them back in the last moment; 5.534–702, especially ll. 562–573, which is a pleasantly psychedelic description of the appearance of the angels: some have two pairs of wings, some have three “for their feet are winged as well”; some have “brilliant plumage and flaming feet and backs that glow like fire”, others “the color of grass, like emeralds” etc. etc.), and in book 6 we see some of his post-mortem activities: he travels to Hell to liberate various prophets and patriarchs that have been waiting for him in a not-too-uncomfortable sort of limbo; then he returns to Earth (with a spiffy new immortal body), spends a few weeks amongst his followers and then leaves them for good.

Miscellaneous odd things

One thing that I was surprised by was the active involvement of the devils in the early part of the poem. Satan holds a speech among them in hell and then they come up in large numbers to incite hatred of Jesus among the people of Jerusalem. This is the sort of thing that you expect to see in Milton's Paradise Lost, but I didn't expect it here; I wonder if there's any basis for this part of the tale in the bible itself. In any case, Milton apparently held Vida's epic in high regard and was definitely influenced by it (pp. vii, xxiv). In particular, his famous line “Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimaeras dire” closely parallels a passage in the Christiad: “Some transformed their obscene bodies into Gorgons, Sphinxes and Centaurs, others into Hydras and fire-breathing Chimaeras” (1.143–4).

A problem I have with epic poems as well as with religious tales (and after all the two genres have much in common) is that the characters featured there are often so different from normal people that I find it difficult to sympathize with them. They behave in ways that no normal person would, and thus end up seeming more like machines for the advancement of the plot. One of the few situations where I really felt I could sympathize with the characters here in the Christiad occurs in 3.227–53, where Joseph and Mary, neither of whom had the slightest wish to get married, find themselves on their wedding night, wondering what to do with each other and eventually deciding not to do anything. Just two poor fragile mortals, powerless while forces far beyond their control toy with them. That is something I could sympathize with.


I was also surprised by the character of Pilate. He's shown as a much more positive figure than I expected; he's convinced that Jesus is innocent and indeed of divine origin, he listens with great interest to what Joseph and John tell him of Jesus's life, and seems to be keen to acquit him. Nevertheless, since the people of Jerusalem call so strongly for Jesus to be executed, Pilate eventually gives in.

That's an aspect of the story that I never quite understood. He is presented here as some sort of governor, a representative of the Roman empire that was by then already in control of the area; why then does he allow a mob of locals to influence his decision like that? I would imagine that he'd try to enforce his decision out of sheer principle if for no other reason — doesn't it weaken Roman prestige if he caves in under local pressure like that? The closest Vida comes to explaining why Pilate yielded is in 5.326–47: Pilate is partly worried that the populace might rise into a revolt if he doesn't give in, and partly he was worried that Jesus's claims to be some sort of king might eventually turn into a challenge against the Roman rule of the area.

There are one or two other things that bother me about this whole crucifixion business. The poet rails in the strongest terms against people who were involved in getting Jesus arrested, condemned and executed; from Judas who betrayed him, to the people and elders of Jerusalem who called for his execution, to the soldiers etc. involved in carrying it out. And yet all these people were indirectly just carrying out god's plan, as the poet himself often admits. Basically, god decided that Jesus needs to be brutally executed in order to cleanse humankind of original sin, so as far as I'm concerned, everyone who was involved in executing him was really doing him a favor. If they hadn't been willing to execute him, the whole insane plan would have failed spectacularly.

Really, if the devil had really been half as clever as he is sometimes made out to be, he wouldn't have sent his legions of demons to incite the people of Jerusalem against Jesus (as he does in book 1 of this poem); he would have instead inspired them to regard Jesus and his teachings favorably, or perhaps to merely point and laugh at him, so that in the end Jesus would be reduced to standing all confused in a central square somewhere in Jerusalem and wondering ‘why the heck doesn't anybody want to execute me? now what? that wasn't part of the plan!’ :))

For the same reason I found it hard to understand why Jesus's disciples and relatives are so sad about his suffering and death. I mean, if they really and truly believed in the truth of his teachings, wouldn't the reasonable response have been ‘good, everything is going according to plan, plus he's immortal anyway so he'll be back up and running in a couple days' time’?

The other thing that bothers me about the poet's attitude towards crucifixion is that while he happily admits how horrible and painful it is, he doesn't seem to be ready to draw any general conclusions against it. He sympathizes with Jesus's suffering but then mentions the other two people crucified next to him and says that they were condemned justly, since they had actually been criminals. It didn't seem to occur to him that this sort of extremely painful punishment might be morally wrong even for someone that had actually commited some crimes.

Besides, if one truly believed (as I imagine the poet had) that Jesus and god the father are really one and the same person, well then effectively god was dying up there on the cross by his own choice, because he himself had decided that this is necessary, although he could have surely just as well declared the whole original sin business to be bullshit and forgot about it without having to go through all the trouble of getting himself incarnated and executed. So if he dislikes any part of this process, he has only himself to blame — but you can't say that for the two supposed criminals on the neighboring crosses, so I really feel much more sympathy for them than I do for Jesus.

But anyway, I suppose that lots of other people have been pondering such questions when thinking about the story of Jesus and his death, so I can't really add anything new or interesting on this topic.


As is inevitable when religion gets involved, there are a few impressively bizarre passages in this poem. In 4.439–475, John tells the grisly story of a man “born to parents joined in forbidden love [. . .] they went to bed at a time when sacred ritual forbade it [. . .] Amidst their joyous embraces, the adulterer gave up his sacrilegious soul, and that first night of love was also their last. When the mother was already advanced in labor, she was struck down by a heaven-sent fever.” The child survived but grew up into a demon-infested lunatic who lived more like a beast than a human. Jesus eventually cures him in a scene that you would sooner expect from a stone-age tribal shaman — by transferring the demons into some nearby pigs! (4.508–531)

Translator's note to 4.645 (p. 411): “Pliny says that the priests of Cybele use broken pieces of Samian pottery to perform their ritual castrations”. Eeeeeek!

On translations

Unlike most of the other volumes in the ITRL series, this one wasn't translated by an academic — the front flap of the dustjacket says that the translator is a “writer and art critic”. I think that turned out to be a good idea; the introduction talks more about the literary aspects of the poem and less about various academic debates about this or that detail of Renaissance literature and history. It also contains a short overview of Vida's life; it turns out that he had influential patrons: the Christiad was commissioned by pope Leo X, and when it was completed, Clement VII rewarded the poet by appointing him the bishop of Alba (p. ix).

There are some interesting remarks on the conservative nature of neo-Latin poetry and how it was all about imitating the ancient Roman poets as closely as possible: “Vida aspires to write as an Augustan poet, if not Vergil himself, would have written if he had been a Christian” (p. x); and see also pp. xxi–xxii: “Vergil was trying to write the best poetry that he could, whereas Vida was trying to be as Vergilian as he could. [. . .] The predictable result [. . .] is that he [. . .] achieves the greatest possible simulacrum” (p. xxii).

The translation is nice but, of course, like in most ITRL poetry volumes, it's in prose, so I occasionally wished that I had taken up some of the earlier translations: there's one by John Cranwell from 1768 and one by Edward Granan from 1771. Both are in rhyming couplets, which makes everything sound so cheerful, no matter how horrible it is. For example, here's a passage from the aforementioned horror story from book 4, now in Granan's translation: “If fame sings true, a lawless Hymen led/ His guilty parents to the genial bed./ [. . .] But they enjoy'd not long their foul delight;/ The crime commenc'd and ended in one night:/ For 'mid his joys the base adulterer dies,/ And into air his wicked spirit flies,/ When urg'd her throes, from ether shot a flame,/ And lambent round, consum'd the lab'ring Dame,” (4.481–90 in Granan's translation, pp. 148–9).

I was surprised to see that two separate translations were produced just three years apart; I wonder if there's an interesting story behind this. I skimmed through Granan's introduction to his 1771 translation, but he doesn't mention Cranwell's translation at all.

The ITRL edition of the Christiad also has an interesting bibliography of early editions and translations of the poem (pp. 443–5). There's even a Croatian translation, first printed in 1670, and an Armenian one from 1832.


This poem wasn't as boring as I feared it would be, but I can't say that I found it terribly interesting either. Perhaps it's mostly a matter of slightly mismatched expectations. This isn't exactly a heroic epic in the way that the Illiad or the Odyssey are; it's more like taking some bits and pieces of biblical stories and recasting them into hexameters. The pacing is a bit too leisurely for my taste and there isn't much action here; indeed the most exciting scenes are the ones which I suspect are entirely Vida's invention, when the devils rush to influence the people of Jerusalem in book 1, and when the angels almost swoop down to rescue Jesus from the cross in book 5.

There weren't many characters that one could sympathize with; they feel too much like cardboard cutouts that have their assigned roles in the story, roles which they must play, and which they *will* play, so that the poet doesn't feel much of a need to explain their motivation or see things from their perspective. For example, why did the people and the establishment of Jerusalem hate Jesus so fervently? Apart from the suggestion that they were influenced by the demons from book 1, the main explanation seems to be that they are upset by the fact that Jesus has openly announced that he intends to overturn their established ancestral laws, rituals, customs and the like.

And if you think about it, that sounds like a reasonable concern. Some weirdo self-appointed messiah shows up out of nowhere and starts making wild, outrageous proclamations, denigrating old traditions and the like — it's only natural that people react with skepticism and distrust. In fact, from what we know of the overall religious ferment in the Levant during the last few centuries BC and first few centuries AD, I imagine that self-proclaimed prophets were a dime a dozen back then. Surely he, being omnipotent, could have provided explanations and proofs that would convince these doubters, but clearly he refused to do so. I'd say that executing him was an overreaction, but I could hardly blame the people if they had e.g. tried to banish him from their country. And yet the poem never seems to acknowledge that his accusers and haters basically had a point.

In any case, the main problem with the whole story is the underlying premiss, which is completely unfixable: the whole thing is based on the idea of original sin and on the need for Jesus/god to be reincarnated and killed in a kind of expiation for it. That is one of the most absurd, abominable, despicable ideas that anybody has ever come up with, and yet it underlies the whole story; nothing in it makes sense without this. So you can't help constantly being reminded of it as you read, and this ruined the whole poem for me.

I imagine that a more tolerant reader who doesn't share my robust dislike of these underlying ideas from christian theology might be able to relax and enjoy reading this poem better than I did. As for me, reading it mostly just confirmed my pre-existing opinion that christian mythology is far more annoying as the Greek, as it is equally absurd but much less charming.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home