Gemma Animae (137-140): Tapestries, Doors, and the Heavenly Choirs

Ch. 137
On the Tapestries

The tapestries that are hung in the church are the miracles of Christ which are read in Church [1]. The raised pulpit from which the Gospel is read is the life of the perfect, attained through Gospel teaching when someone leaves behind everything and follows Christ. The church is always illuminated by the light of a lamp, and Christ’s Church is always lit by the light of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is celebrated in the church, because the Catholic Church is the mother who bears new offspring for Christ.

[1] What might lead a commentator to make these wall-hangings stand for the miracles of Christ? These pallia were often of very expensive make and great beauty, as several entries in Du Cange attest (see below). A tapestry sparkling with gold filigree and gems seems to qualify as an allegory for Christ’s miraculous works. Further, if they were often decorated with images of saints or the life of Christ (as were certain Lenten veils), they could very well have born visual representations of miracles.

Helgaudus in Roberto Rege Franc.: Dedit etiam et Pallia tria pretiosa in ornatu Ecclesiæ, etc.

Hist. fundationis Monast. S. Clementis in insula Piscaria lib. 1: Fuerant etiam in ejus domo diversa Pallia auro et gemmis radiantia, quibus parietes Ecclesiæ ornabantur, et fratres induebantur, quoties magna festivitas in Ecclesia celebrabatur.

Historia Episcopor. Autisiodor. cap. 50: Dedit Ecclesiæ Pallium ingens optimum, quod vulgo Dorsale dicitur.

Chapter 138
On the Door

Door (ostium) comes from “obstruction” (obstando) or “showing” (ostendendo) [1]. The door that keeps out enemies and shows friends the way in is Christ, who resists the unfaithful through justice and bars them from his house, while showing the faithful the way in through faith [2].

[1] The etymology is Isidore’s, Etymologies, XV, 7: “Est autem primus domus ingressus; cetera intra ianuam ostia vocantur generaliter. Ostium est per quod ab aliquo arcemur ingressu, ab ostando dictum [sive ostium, quia ostendit aliquid intus]. Alii aiunt ostium appellari quia ostem moratur; ibi enim adversariis nos obicimus.”

[2] This is in conformity with the duties of the ostiarius or porter, the first grade of minor orders, who is to “open God’s house at certain hours to the faithful, and always close it to unbelievers” (…certisque horis domum Dei aperiatis fidelibus; et semper claudatis infidelibus).

Chapter 139
On the Choir

ancient choir.jpg
The theater at Athens. Notice the choir and altar in the foreground (Source)

The choir (chorus) of psalmists has its origin in the choir (chorea) of singers that the ancients established for their idols, so that they could praise their false gods in voice and serve them with their whole body. By the word “choir” (choreas) they meant to signify a circular motion, the revolution of the firmament; by the joining of hands, the conjunction of the elements, through the sound of the singers, the harmonious music of the spheres (harmoniam planetarum resonantium); by bodily gestures, the motion of the signs [of the zodiac?]; by applause or the noise of stomping feet, the crack of thunder. The faithful have imitated this, and converted it to the service of the true God. For we read that the people of God, having come out of the Red Sea, struck up a chorus (choream duxisse), and Mary sang before them with a drum (Exodus 15), and David danced before the arc with all his strength, and sang psalms to the tune of his cithara (II Kings 6). Salomon also is said to have established singers around the altar who made music with voice, trumpets, organs, cymbals, and citharae. Thus to this day we rely on musical choirs and their instruments, because the heavenly spheres are said to turn with a sweet melody.

[1] In his work An Image of the World, Honorius describes the music of the spheres, caused by the motion of the planets. We cannot hear it, but our music is in harmony with it:

In terra namque si in luna A, in Mercurio B, in Venere C, in sole D, in Marte E, in Iove F, in Saturno G ponitur, profecto mensura musicae invenitur, unde a terra usque ad firmamentum septem toni reperiuntur. A terra usque ad lunam est tonus, a luna usque ad Mercurium, semitonium; a Mercurio usque ad Venerem, semitonium; inde usque ad solem, tria semitonia. A sole ad Martem tonus, inde ad Iovem, semitonium; inde ad Saturnum semitonium; inde ad signiferum tria semitonia. Quae simul iuncta septem tonos efficiunt. Tonus autem habet quindecim millia sexcenta viginti quinque milliaria. Semitonium vero septem millia et octingenta duodecim milliaria, et semiss. Unde et Philosophi novem Musas finxerunt, quia a terra, usque ad coelum consonantias novem deprehendunt, quas homini naturaliter insitas invenerunt.


Chapter 140
On the Harmony of the Choir

Chorus refers to the harmony of the singers, or to the ring of those standing around (corona circumstantium). For in former times the singers stood around the altars in the form of a crown (corona) [1]; but the bishops Flavian and Diodorus established the custom of antiphonal psalmody [2]. The two choirs of psalmists signify the angels and the spirits of the just, who praise the Lord in turns [3]. The stalls (cancelli) [4] in which they stand signify the many rooms in the Father’s house (John 14). When they leave the choir in procession to an altar and sing there in station, it means that the souls leaving this life come to Christ and praise God together in company with the angels.

[1] Isidore, Etymologies, VI, 19: “Chorus est multitudo in sacris collecta; et dictus chorus quod initio in modum coronae circum aras starent et ita psallerent. Alii chorum dixerunt a concordia, quae in caritate consistit; quia, si caritatem non habeat, respondere convenienter non potest. Cum autem unus canit, Graece monodia, Latine sicinium dicitur; cum vero duo canunt, bicinium appellatur; cum multi, chorus. Nam chorea ludicrum cantilenae vel saltationes classium sunt.”

The only church I know of where the choir was literally gathered in a circle around the altar is the Duomo in Florence.


Florence Choir.jpg


[2] Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, II, 19: “That excellent pair Flavianus and Diodorus, though not yet admitted to the priesthood and still ranked with the laity, worked night and day to stimulate men’s zeal for truth. They were the first to divide choirs into two parts, and to teach them to sing the psalms of David antiphonally. Introduced first at Antioch, the practice spread in all directions, and penetrated to the ends of the earth. Its originators now collected the lovers of the Divine word and work into the Churches of the Martyrs, and with them spent the night in singing psalms to God.

[3] The relation of the clerical choir with the Angels was a theme introduced ch. 42.

[4] Cancellus (whence “chancel”) refers to the reticulated wooden, iron, or stone barriers separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church, often called a rood screen, choir screen, or chancel screen. By transference, it also serves to designate the space contained by the chancel screen, i.e. the sanctuary itself or the choir. Here, in our interpretation, it even seems to indicate the individual stalls of the choir, which indeed often looked like little houses, with overhanging roofs, encircling armrests, and sometimes even a swinging door.

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