The New Testament of Vergil: Vergilian Fulfillment and Transcendence in Vida’s Christiad

Marco Girolamo Vida’s Vergilian-style epic on the life of Christ does more than present the familiar story in epic dress, argues Carl Hamilton (’21), it successfully solves a key problem in Renaissance approaches to Vergil.

The Raising of Lazarus by Simon Bening (Flemish, about 1483 - 1561)
The Raising of Lazarus by Simon Bening (Flemish, about 1483 – 1561) Image: Getty Museum

Could Vergil, who died 19 years before Christ’s birth, have been a Christian? Had he somehow read the Old Testament? Was he unwittingly a vessel for Christian ideas? Many Renaissance readers idolized the beauty and eloquence of the poet but were uneasy about his pre-Christian origin. They tried to find ways to argue that Vergil’s poetry was consistent with, or even prophetically expressive of, Christian truth. Commentators used allegory to find hidden Christian messages in his works, especially the Eclogues and the Aeneid.

No author reconciled Vergil and Christianity better than Marco Girolamo Vida in his 1535 work the Christiad (The Epic of Christ). The Christiad dramatically narrates the life of Christ from Holy Week until Pentecost in 6,000 Latin hexameter lines in the style of Vergil’s Aeneid. When published, some scholars, such as Bartolomeo Botta, saw the work as the final overthrow of Vergil. Students could now learn proper Latin and Christianity at the same time, without the immoral pagan content. But since Mario Di Cesare’s 1964 landmark work, Vida’s Christiad and Vergilian Epic, scholars have begun to appreciate Christiad’s unique synthesis of Classical and Christian ideas.[1]

The language of the Bible, especially of the Gospels, is basic. It lacks the poetic flourish of Cicero or Vergil so beloved by Renaissance readers. This lack of polish in the Bible proved troublesome for many previous Christians, such as Saints Augustine and Jerome. The well-known story of Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead is told quite simply in St. John’s Gospel (11: 33–43 Douay- Rheims):

Jesus, therefore…groaned in the spirit, and troubled himself…And Jesus wept. The Jews therefore said: Behold how he loved him. But some of them said: Could not he that opened the eyes of the man born blind, have caused that this man should not die? Jesus therefore again groaning in himself, cometh to the sepulchre… And Jesus lifting up his eyes said: Father, I give thee thanks that thou hast heard me…because of the people who stand about have I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me. When he had said these things, he cried with a loud voice: Lazarus, come forth.

But Vida uses this simplicity to his artistic advantage. He transforms the journalistic recounting of John into a scene of high drama (Book 1, lines 262–280, trans. Gardner):

From all the neighboring mountains the entire population …filled the city…The hero [Christ] stood motionless in the very center, his hands and eyes raised to heaven, and in the silence of prayer he called to his Father. In equal silence and tension the townspeople observed him, wondering what he might command… Twice his face went white. Twice he groaned in his breathless chest and nodded his noble head. And lo, the doors of the tomb suddenly seemed to tremble. All at once, a sudden fear froze the blood in each of the onlookers and a chill invaded the depths of their hearts. Finally, the son of God addressed these words on high: “Father in heaven, until now you have never denied my prayers…This great populace [has] seen how vast your power is. Now, you servants…remove the marble lid of the tomb.”

The dialogue of the Jews in John become visual cues, as frozen blood and a chill fills the onlookers. Vida capitalizes on Christ’s double groaning in John to express His complete grief in face, chest and head “twice…twice.” Most dramatically, the silent prayer of Christ mirrors the silence of the onlookers, as if time, too tense to move, has stopped for a brief moment. But notice that, for all the heightened tension, Vida retains the moral content of John. Christ is not a sensationalist miracle-worker, but the pious Son of God. We see him suffer and groan, as in John. This pain continues throughout the Christiad to emphasize the cruelty of the Savior’s Passion. Vida thus successfully transmits a Christian message through a dramatic, Vergilian medium.

It was not enough for Vida merely to imitate Vergil. In fact, his age demanded more. Vida lived in a time of peculiar balance in Italy, where the intellect and the faith were both held in high esteem. His Italy was modern enough that the learning of the ancients was no more an immediate threat to Catholic orthodoxy, but traditional enough that no challenge to the Magisterium would be tolerated.

In the religious realm, Protestantism was nascent, and Pope Leo X, Vida’s patron, condemned Luther’s heresies in the 1520 bull Exsurge Domino. In the intellectual community, scholars, although enamored with Vergil, struggled to make his writings wholly consonant with Christianity.

One such scholar, Christoforo Landino, said there were two theologies present, the ancient and Christian, theologica prisca and theologica nostra. According to Landino, these were “two branches of the same stream.” The job of the commentator was to reconcile them. This reconciliation came mostly through allegory, where Vergilian concepts were said to represent Christian ideas. Vergil’s poem Eclogue 4, called “Messianic” by some Christians because of its apparent prediction of Christ’s birth, was the center of this analysis (Eclogue 4.4–10 trans. Fairclough in the Loeb):

Now is come the last age of the Cumaean song; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high. Only do you, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall at last cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Your own Apollo now is king!

According to the common Christianizing allegorical reading, the Virgin mentioned is the Virgin Mary; the descent from heaven represents the incarnate God-Man Christ sent by God the Father; and the golden race (gens aurea) represents the Christians. But this reading is blind to the poem’s context. Even St. Jerome in the late 300s called it childish. Renaissance commentators were eventually forced to admit the failure of attempts to Christianize Vergil. The Aeneid, after all, posits reincarnation of souls in Book VI, a wholly non-Catholic doctrine.

In the Christiad, Vida boldly reverses the method of the commentators who tried to use Christianity as a means of understanding Vergil—a doomed project due to the differences between the two. Instead, Vida uses Vergil as a means to understand Christianity. We see this change when Vida puts these famous lines from Eclogue 4 into the mouth of Mary before the Annunciation. Here Mary recalls her thoughts before the Angel Gabriel visits her (Book 2, lines 303-312):

For my part I kept recalling the teachings of the ancient prophets. But one above all remained fixed in my mind, placed there surely by some higher power. All the prophets had predicted that a royal virgin, who was without taint of the marriage bed and remained, astonishingly, a virgin, would bring into the light of the world a king of angels; and that, immediately upon his coming, there would be happiness everywhere and a golden age would arise throughout creation.

Mary’s talk of “the teachings of the ancient prophets” and the “royal virgin” points firmly toward the foretelling of the virgin in Isaiah 7:14 and its fulfillment through Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1:23. But the quote of Vergil from Eclogue 4 in the final line forces a reconsidering of the preceding lines. Now, “all the prophets” become pagan poets, and the virgin who will bear Christ becomes the virgin of Eclogue 4.  By speaking these words, Vida has Mary become a prophetic vessel herself. She embodies Eclogue 4’s prophesy of the golden age, and in so doing eliminates need for the allegorizing commentator. Vergil’s words are now Christian words, as are his prophesies. Vergilian scholar  Craig Kallendorf calls this melding “a true fusion of Christian and pagan.” The connection between Vergil’s words and Christian meaning becomes explicit. Both Old Testament and Vergilian prophecy become fulfilled in Christ.

After Mary’s speech, Vida goes on to describe what exactly Eclogue 4’s fulfillment looks like in practice, namely the elevation of the Church over pagan Rome. In Book VI of Aeneid, Aeneas, the mythic founder of Rome, and the Sibyl, his guide, visit the underworld. While there, they receive prophecies from Aeneas’ father Anchises. He tells them that Rome’s mission is to “spare the conquered and subdue the proud.” In Christiad, Christ likewise receives a prophecy from God His Father before His death which clarifies what the “golden age” will be. The Father says that “Even Rome, that proud city laden with empire … will subject to you her fasces and the reins with which she rules the world.”

By using the word “proud,” as Vergil did, Vida implies that Rome, instead of having to conquer the proud, has become proud itself because of its conquering. This inversion of the word “proud” forces us to recognize what J. Christopher Warner, a scholar of biblical epic, calls “the gulf that is continuously asserted between [the Christiad] and its poetic model.” Vida’s gulf here posits that the proud pagan Rome failed, so it is the Church’s place to fill the void. By filling this void, Vida thus asserts that the Church’s Rome has fulfilled Anchises’ prophesy, and by extension Vergil’s, better than Vergil’s own Rome ever could.

In Book VI, Vida ends his poem by quoting Eclogue 4 one last time (Book 6, lines 985-986):

A golden race now rose up throughout the world

And the most beautiful age of all was just beginning

Where Vergil said “will spring up” (surget), Vida here says “now rose up” (surgit). How appropriate that this present tense verb reflects both cause and effect: because Christ is risen, the new race now rises with him. Instead of making an allegory out of Vergil, Vida here realizes his words. The Church is now definitively the fulfillment of Rome, and Christ’s disciples are the golden race.

Vida’s Christiad solves the problem of the Renaissance commentators. The narrative progression of the work, from prophecy (Book I) to fulfillment (Book VI), tracks the convergence of ancient and Christian theology into one stream. Instead of settling for the theological impasse and casting off Vergil, Vida instead crafted a poem which makes Vergil essential to its vision. He accomplished a rare feat: not only the enjoyment, but the understanding of his own work depends upon that of another. The greater the knowledge of not only Vergil, but also the Bible, one has before reading the Christiad, the more fulfilling a reading of the text will be. To close with a quote of Saint Paul, “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face.” Vida has transformed Vergil’s prophecies, seen before in a riddling way, into face to face, or page to page, realizations of Christian truth.

[1] Mario Di Cesare, Vida’s Christiad and Vergilian Epic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).

St. Augustine, Teaching, and Piety

Carl Hamilton (’21) discusses the impact on his life of reading Augustine’s Confessions.

Dickinson’s seal is emblazoned on mugs, envelopes, and Britton Plaza, but its Latin motto is little understood by the community at large. Pietate et doctrina tuta libertas, is simple Latin: “Through piety and learning liberty is (made) safe.” But the ease of translation belies the difficulty of understanding. What is piety? What is learning? And finally what is liberty itself? Such pregnant concepts lie in so few words.

photo of the college seal with Latin motto
In the summer of 1784, as the college’s founders discussed the formation of the college, Benjamin Rush and John Dickinson were asked to create a suitable seal for the institution. The resulting seal consists of an open bible, a telescope and a cap surrounded by the inscription “Pietate et Doctrina Tuta Libertas.”

“Liberty is made safe through character and learning” is the translation on a wall in the registrar’s office, and on the college website. There is no need to consult a Latin dictionary to be  struck by the 21st-century individualism of translating pietas (piety) as “character.” As if the ambiguity already present in the words properly translated was not enough, here the school itself is officially promulgating an incorrect translation of its motto.

To communicate my views on the motto, specifically the words doctrina and pietate, I must enlist the aid of St. Augustine through my personal experiences with his autobiography, Confessions. By reading this book, I learned that learning and piety, formerly two very separate concepts in my mind, depend wholly on each other, such that one cannot be separated from the other without losing the integrity of both.

Doctrina

Teaching, learning, academicism, however you may translate doctrina, has always been a prominent part of my life. From an early age I had loved books, learning to read The Cat in the Hat before ascending to more refined works such as Encyclopedia Brown and, later, Shakespeare. In elementary school, I was always excelling in the highest level classes. As I progressed in my schooling, math became a challenge. I failed a math final in tenth grade and gladly took a much lower level class as a junior; but, when it came to humanities, I was always performing at the highest levels.

And oh, how I delighted in such subjects! Nothing would please me more than causing aesthetic or literary conflagrations of opinions. As one of a conservative bent, my very liberal senior-year English class provided fertile ground for this squabbling.  If I left class shaking my head in disgust or victory, it had been a good day. Through sheer knowledge, I was able to dominate most arguments, or, as Quintilian quotes Cicero as saying, to “throw dust in the eyes of my jury.” I remember haughtily correcting someone across the class who claimed that Shakespeare lived under Queen Victoria with a snobbish, “Actually, you mean Elizabeth.”

In high school I found Latin, which subject shamefully became the primary outlet for this intellectual pride. At that time, I could think of nothing so pleasing as having others recognize my wide erudition. Although I loved learning, I desired academic mastery mainly for the sake of myself, not the material per se, and certainly not for any moral or intellectual good. I sought to understand so that I might show off for rewards on tests, in classroom competitions, or in discussions. In Latin 4, the other seniors and I so dominated discussions that on the mid-year evaluations one of the juniors wrote, “Why do the seniors have to be so intimidating?”

I question now whether I would have been as zealous for learning had those direct benefits not existed? If you had asked me the purpose of Latin and liberal learning at the time, I probably would have propounded lofty Arnoldian platitudes that learning enriches the soul with “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” But such would have been a deception: I was greatly advancing in doctrina, or so I thought, blind to any higher aims than my own success.

It was during high school in fact when I first picked up Confessions but stopped reading somewhere in the second or third book. The impact it had on my immature self was minimal, for I remember thinking, “How could he dare assert the vanity of Vergil and classical learning in general?” I recall expressing this alarming thought to my Latin teacher, who responded, “Well, I guess he realized he had found something greater.” I walked away unimpressed with his answer. The irony was mine though, for less than two years later I would take and read Augustine again, wherein I would find something far greater than Vergil indeed.

As to piety, religion certainly was not absent from my life at this time. I began attending the Latin Mass, the rite of Catholic Mass in effect from 1570 until 1969. Being very wary of the liberal reforms in the Church after Vatican II, I was constantly researching and trying to practice Her traditional ways. But my learning and my piety, except for the Latin connection at Mass, were almost entirely separate at this time. From Monday to Friday I boasted in the classroom; on Sundays I was humble at Mass, and never the twain shall meet.

Pietas

In the fall of 2017, my freshman year at college, I once again took and read the Confessions. I know not why, but I sat in the library and read the first book, getting lost in time as I got lost in the truth of what I was reading, with each sentence being a carefully mounted attack against the once impregnable fortifications of my pride.

Augustine, an academically talented boy, found himself, I realized, in a very similar situation to my own. Born in Thagaste, North Africa, in 354, he was raised in the Catholic faith by his mother, Monica (later St. Monica). In adolescence he drifted from the faith and came in adulthood to hold a chair of rhetoric in Rome. Eventually, hearing angelic voices in a garden telling him, tolle, lege, (“take and read”), he left his career to be welcomed back into the Church. He rose to become a priest and then in 396 a bishop in Hippo, less than 60 miles from his native Thagaste. In this position he wrote his theological masterpieces, On Christian Teaching, On the Trinity, and On the City of God against the Pagans. These, among his other works, did more to intellectually buttress the Church than probably any others until St. Thomas’ Summa in the 1200’s.

But while his theological works received the greatest attention in the Middle Ages, they present very little of Augustine the man. Only since the 19th century, the age of the Romantics, has Confessions received a large amount of attention (See Garry Wills’ 2011 book, Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography, p. 137). Nevertheless, much comment on Confessions neglects its personal aspects, or perverts its personal aspects for selfish ends, as the Freudians do whose “Psychobiography,” as Wills says, “found Confessions irresistible,” by asserting that his mother Monica was a dominating force throughout Augustine’s life. Some used the historical-critical method, such as Harnack in the 19th century and Courcelle in the 20th, to carp at the work for inconsistencies with his letters, ironically mirroring Augustine’s own meaningless historical fault-finding in the Old Testament (Wills, p. 141). Other philosophers focused on the abstract parts of Confessions, such as Wittgenstein on language acquisition, or Heidegger on the meaning of time as discussed in the last, non-autobiographical section of the book (pp. 145–146).

Most of these are important avenues of study, ones which Augustine encourages through Confessions and from which I have benefitted in my own theological thought. But in order to reach the noble heights of such works I needed the milk of Augustine’s personal reflection, not yet the strong meat of his theology. I found such reflection in the early books of his Confessions, where Augustine describes in lacerating detail his encounters with schooling during boyhood and adolescence. These meditations of his pierced my being on that day in the library.

In Book 1 Augustine expounds most fully his unpleasant schooling experience. He describes being taught grammar by the grammatici, the first teachers in a boy’s Roman education to “get on in the world and excel in the handling of words to gain honor among men and deceitful riches.” He continues in this condemnatory vein saying that, “the idling of men is called business; the idling of boys [ball playing], though exactly like, is punished by those same men” (1.9.15). While I agreed with these criticisms of his own political society, ambitious as ours is, the last point in this section brought the condemnation onto me: “if on some trifling point [the teacher] had the worst of the argument with some fellow-master, he was more torn with angry vanity than I when I was beaten with a game of ball.” (Confessions 1.9, trans. Sheed). What does that describe but my classroom experience, especially in high school, where I can think of countless times being either piqued by someone’s better knowledge, or proud that I had just displayed my own voluminous knowledge? Like Augustine, these bouts had earned me applause of “Well done! Well done!” (1.13.21). But it is a tragic irony that the external flatteries of the world cause the internal swollenness of the soul.

At this early stage in Augustine’s career, he was being taught the grammar of Latin and Greek, which, as most students attest, is a miserable and grueling process. But, when his class starts reading literature, especially Vergil, he becomes wholly taken and “weeps for the death that Dido suffered…and not for the death” which comes “through not loving God” (ibid.). This love of literature he counts as a worse evil than oratorical pride because an emotional immersion in Vergil turned his attention away from an emotional connection with God. What purpose, Augustine frustratingly asks, do the fictional stories of Aeneid serve? Nothing, he would say, save to avert attention from God. Hearing the harsh finality of this condemnation, I the reader stood doubly condemned. While he had loved Vergil for his poem, I loved Vergil both for his poem and for what he could give me, mainly academic honor and prestige, such as a 5 on the AP Latin test.

To remove myself from this condemnation of literary vanity, Augustine taught me to focus on teleology. Book 1 is essentially a study of these ends, a meditation upon why people take certain actions. He finds that, when he reads Cicero’s Hortensius, “Suddenly all the vanity [he] had hoped in [he] saw as worthless, and with an incredible intensity of desire [he] longed after immortal wisdom. [He] had begun the journey upwards by which [he] was to return to You [God]” (3.4.7). Thus, looking back, he condemns his reliance on Vergil and his schoolmasters’ pride because their teleology was misplaced in “superfluous and self-indulgent” fictions, as he calls them in On Christian Teaching, and useless desires of personal gain (On Christian Teaching 2.25.39, trans. Greene). Augustine realizes that he should have cherished the grammatical teaching, which he called “the surer,” because Truth can arise from writing, such as in the Scriptures or theological writings, but not from pagan works, especially fictional ones such as poems: “Which loss would be more damaging to human life-the loss…of reading and writing or the loss of these poetic imaginings-there can be no question…” (Conf. 1.13.22)

These readings showed me, so puffed up in intellectual pride, that I was putting my justification in “so much smoke and wind,” false stories and vain pride, not upon truth, which is God (3.4.7). Augustine’s Confessions was my Hortensius, showing me that Truth, as Christ said He is, should be the aim of all intellectual endeavor. I will be good, but there will always be some Latinist better than I. I will understand Vergil, but someone will always have more insight than I. It was only through Confessions that I truly saw the vanity of all my fruitless pride and anger from intellectual superiority.

It was easy for me to read all these ideas and replace academic pride with a sharp anti-intellectualism. As The Imitation of Christ, a medieval devotional work, states, “Learned words do not make anyone wise or holy: it is a good life which draws us closer to God” (The Imitation of Christ 1.1, trans. Jeffery). But, I thought, while my love of learning for my own sake was misdirected, certainly there had to be a place for learning? How else was I to apply my naturally eager mind? Surely the great intellectual saints, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, St. John Henry Newman, and of course, St. Augustine, had found a way to use their active minds in a manner efficacious for the faith and for salvation, not for their own vanity. But I found it hard to balance piety and learning, for it seemed the deeper I went into the one, the further I got from the other.

Doctrina pietate

To work out my Augustinian dilemma we must return to Dickinson’s motto. I have realized that learning and piety, doctrina et pietate, cannot work separately. As Augustine and I can attest, learning without piety leads to vanity, and piety without learning causes an unformed, undisciplined faith. Rather, I must borrow the syntax of that venerable Ciceronian phrase, otium cum dignitate, (leisure with dignity), to formulate a new motto which says doctrina cum pietate tuta libertas (By teaching with piety, liberty is safe). Salvation and justification do not come by displaying academic achievements, how much Greek history I know, or how many epic similes of Vergil I recall. They have their place in this earthly life, but they must eventually give way to Truth. If I, through some writing or study, might elucidate or communicate to someone a mere morsel of that truth, then I will not have labored fruitlessly.

I expect a conscious reader to ask, “Why are you a budding Classicist? Why would you ever read another pagan word in your life?” I can indeed read such things, because I do not share Augustine’s very strict views on art, which seem to restrict any art not directly efficacious for salvation. Rather, taking his teleology which submits all things toward salvation, I think non-religious art and entertainment is acceptable so long as one does not allow it to distract from the faith, as Vergil distracted Augustine. Neither I, nor St. Augustine, profess Fideism, which seeks to sever the bonds between Athens and Jerusalem, pagan and Christian art. One only has to read On Christian Teaching to see how indebted indeed Augustine’s homiletic theory is to Cicero’s Orator. So, I shall study Vergil’s metrical brilliance, stand in awe of Bach’s counterpoint, marvel at Van Gough’s vital globs, but recognize that all of this will pass away, but the words of Christ, who is the Word incarnate, will not pass away.

Confessions taught me to understand why Augustine wrote all his other theological works: out of love of God, not personal ambition. His writings, as St. Francis’ asceticism, St. Monica’s prayers, and St. Francis Xavier’s missionary work, were his way of living that love, a love of God which he cultivated, not as a mere tradition blindly handed down, but as a gift which received him and which he strove all his life to pay back through writing. And in turn Augustine’s writing, though separated in a dark manner through centuries, is a gift which I myself have received face to face, and which anyone could receive, if he should be willing to, like St. Augustine in the garden, tolle, lege.