“L’Évêque du dehors”: The French King as Bishop in the Use of the Royal Chapel at Versailles and of the Holy Sepulcher (2)

The sins of common men are wont to have small consequences, but those of the king entrain the salvation or ruin of thousands. He is the source of liberty and servitude, poverty and riches, honors and degradation, peace and war, life and death, the good or evil condition of the provinces […]. The same knot that ties a bishop to his residence obliges a king to the care of his affairs, and I can say that the obligation is so much the greater in the latter case, as the one must shepherd only one diocese, but the other the entire realm.[1]

(Nicolas Caussin, La Cour sainte, 1647)

“Finally my son we must consider the good of our subjects much more than our own. They are like a part of ourselves: we the head of the body and they the members.”

(Louis XIV, Memoirs, 1661)

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The dove of the Holy Spirit brings the Holy Ampulla to Saint Remigius, in a manuscript of Jacob van MaerlantSpieghel HistoriaelWest Flandersc. 1335-55

The honors accorded to the French King at Masses in the use of the Royal Chapel were meant to express and legitimate his special, quasi-episcopal role in the Gallican Church. This role began at the King’s sacre, or consecration, celebrated in tandem with his coronation.

Several myths tell of the sacre’s origin. According to the Legend of the Holy Ampulla, the Holy Spirit once miraculously supplied a vial of chrism to St. Remigius, saintly bishop of Rheims, during the baptism of Clovis, first King of the Franks. This glass vial, called the Holy Ampulla, was preserved and used for all subsequent royal coronations, until it was destroyed by Revolutionaries in 1793.

The original Holy Ampulla in its relic receptacle

The fact that the first French King received his sacred oil directly from heaven, rather than through the mediation of the Pope, was a not-so-subtle assertion of his superiority to Roman ecclesiastical jurisdiction, a superiority French monarchs always jealously guarded as part of the Gallican privileges.

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Carolingian ivory relief showing the Baptism of Clovis by St. Remigius, and the Holy Spirit descending with the Holy Ampulla

Other kings were anointed on the arms, shoulders, and chest. The French king was anointed on the head and palms of his hands, very similarly to the ceremony for the consecration of a bishop.[2] Also of note is that during the coronation mass—and only then—the king communicated under both species, a privilege given at that time only to bishops and priests.

According to a sacramental theology worked out by French theologians meditating on the anointing that took place in the French coronation rite, the anointing the king received gave him a more than an ordinary share in Holy Orders. In itself this was not exceptional, since the Holy Roman Emperor, like the Byzantine Emperor before him, wore the stole and dalmatic of their diaconal rank and took corresponding liturgical roles. The French king went further and took on honors usually reserved to the episcopal grade, as we saw in Part 1.

Guillaume du Peyrat, in his L’histoire ecclésiastique de la cour de France (1645) explains the king’s sacral character:

Albeit the kings of France be not priests like the kings of the pagans, because the state of king and priest are different and separate among Christians–and Holy Writ teaches us that Uzziah, King of Judah, joined in to offer incense and do what was the proper office of a priest, was stricken by Our Lord with leprosy of the hand and cast from the temple—yet they participate in the priesthood and are not purely laymen. […] In witness to this fact they wear, at their consecration, under the royal mantle, the dalmatic, which is the dress of deacons. […] They are anointed like priests, just as Saul and David, the first and second kings of Israel, were anointed by Samuel’s hand at God’s command. […] They confer, by full right, the innumerable prebends and ecclesiastical benefices and perform miracles in their lifetime by curing those suffering from scrofula, all of which shews that they are not purely laymen, but that, participating in the priesthood, they have certain particular graces from God which even the most regular of priests do not.[3]

So the signs of the king’s quasi-priestly nature are:

1) Priestly anointing;

2) Wearing the dalmatic;

3) Government of Church, conferral of prebends; and

4) The power to heal scrofula.

Louis XIV in 1648, at the age of ten, in the robes of the royal sacre. His outsize dalmatic, adorned with fleurs-de-lys, is visible under his mantle.

Medieval monarchs often looked to King David as the type of a good king. The French monarchy did so as well. In David they found the model of the divinely appointed, solemnly anointed sacred King, exercising pastoral care over the whole people of God entrusted to them, governing with justice and sanctity and divine legitimacy. Alongside Charlemagne and Louis IX, David featured prominently in the Royal Chapel and the Palace at Versailles.

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King David Playing the Harp, Domenica Zampieri, 1619

The King exercised his quasi-priestly divine mission by his government, in concert with the bishops, of the church of France. Most importantly, through hard-won privileges conceded by Rome over centuries, the French monarch had the right to administer over one thousand ecclesiastical benefices–i.e., to name candidates for bishoprics, abbeys, canonries, etc–in the realm.

The evidence of his Memoirs suggests that Louis XIV in particular took this role very seriously.[4]

The King appointed clerics to benefices, not from his writing desk, but from his prie-Dieu in the Royal Chapel, and customarily on the same five days of the year when he received communion. On these days, the King received communion at a first Mass and then heard another Mass in thanksgiving. Immediately after this Mass, in which he received all the “episcopal” honors described above, he proceeded to assign clergy their benefices.

Once a bishop had received the bull of canonical institution from Rome, he had to relay these to the king’s Grand Almoner, who read them in advance “to see that there was no clause that prejudiced the king’s rights or the liberties of the Gallican Church, and if so to inform the king, who in this case differs the oath of fidelity until the bulls have been modified.”[5]

The only complete description of the oath-taking ceremony is found in the Histoire ecclésiastique de la cour by Du Peyrat:

Once the bishop has communicated his bulls, he goes the next day to the king’s Mass, dressed in his mozzetta and rochet. The chaplain who says the Mass having said the Gospel, he puts it into the hands of one of the clercs of the Chapel…who carries it to the new bishop, making the usual reverences before the altar and before the king. The bishop rises and makes similar reverences before the altar and His Majesty, then receives the Gospel and, kneeling down before the king, offers the Gospel to His Majesty to kiss.[6]

The text of the oath of fidelity that became standard at Versailles was:

I swear on the most holy and sacred Name of God and promise Your Majesty that I shall be as long as I shall live a faithful subject and servant, that I shall procure his service and the good of his State with all my power, and that I will render to counsel, design, or enterprise in prejudice of the same, and if I become aware of anything, I will tell Your Majesty. So help me God and the Holy Gospels that I touch.[7]

Similarly, the King awarded cardinals with their red hat, first assuring that they had not taken any oaths of loyalty to the pope that prejudiced his interests.

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Engraving of Filippo Antonio Gualterio, papal nuntio to France, being granted the cardinal’s hat by King Louis XIV, in the Royal Chapel of Versailles, 1706.

Besides the appointment of over a thousand benefices, the King also took an interest in regulating Church discipline. Usually hesitant to intervene directly in matters of Church discipline, at times the King felt it necessary to take matters into his own hands. In some cases his policies could even seem anti-clerical or pre-Josephist, such as a 1667 law (drafted but never executed) to limit religious vows.[8]

Even if his interventions paled in comparison to the savage policies of Emperor Joseph II, his pretensions to episcopal oversight were real.

The liturgical (and many other paraliturgical) rituals analyzed in the excellent work of Alexandre Maral present the King as a sort of quasi-bishop of the realm, a sacred Davidic King intimately associated with the priesthood of Christ in the pastoral care of the Christian flock. These rites in turn had practical expression in the King’s government of the Gallican Church.

The third and final part of this essay will turn to the use of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where some last vestiges of these unique customs of the Royal Chapel may still be found in the honors given to the French Consul and representatives of other Catholic governments, even so long after the unfortunate demise of the French monarchy and its privileges.


Alexandre Maral, Le Roi Soleil et Dieu: Essai sur la religion de Louis XIV, Paris: Perrin, 2012 (Roi-Soleil).

–––La Chapelle Royale de Versailles sous Louis XIV: Cérémonial, liturgie et musique, Brussels: Mardaga, 2010 (Versailles).



[1] Les péchés d’hommes se terminent souvent à de petites conséquences, mais ceaux de roi embrassent le salut ou la ruine de millions d’hommes. C’est de lui que vient la liberté, la servitude, la pauvreté, la richesse, la grandeur, la bassesse, la paix, la guerre, la vie, la mort, le bien ou le mal des provinces […]. Le même noeud qui lie un évêque à sa résidence oblige un roi aux soins de ses affaires et je puis dire que l’obligation est plus grande de ce côté-là, d’autant que l’un n’est pasteur que d’un diocèse, mais l’autre d’un royaume entier. (Nicolas Caussin, La Cour sainte, 1647; cited in Roi-Soleil, 147).

[2] Roi-Soleil, 53.

[3] Encores que les roys de France ne soient pas prestres comme les roys des payens, pour ce que les dignitez de roy et de prestre sont diverses et séprarées entre les chrestiens – et les saintes Lettres nous enseignent qu’Ozias, roy de Juda, s’estant meslé d’encenser et faire ce qui estoit de l’office de prestre, fut frappé de ladrerie de la main de Nostre-Seigneur et chassé du temple -, si est-ce qu’ils participent à la prestrise et ne sont pas purs laïques. […] Et en tesmoignage de ce ils portent à leur sacre, sous le manteau royal, la dalmatique, qui est l’habit des diacres […] Ils sont oincts comme les prestres, tout ainsi que Saül et David, premier et second roys d’Israël, furent oincts, par le commandement de Dieu, de la main de Samuel […] Ils confèrent de plein droit l’infinité de prébendes et de dignitez ecclésiastiques et font des miracles de leur vivant par la guérison des malades des escrouelles, qui monstrent bien qu’ils ne sont pas purs laïques, mais que, participans à la prestrise, ils ont des grâces particulières de Dieu, que mesme les plus réformez prestres n’ont pas. (Guillaume du Peyrat, L’histoire ecclésiastique de la cour de France (1645), in Versailles, 282).

[4] I can say in truth, I have very often resisted my inclination to grant this sort of favor to people for whom I would have done any other sort of good without seeing in them the ability or dedication of a true ecclesiastic. Who would believe, my son, that there be anything more important than our service and the tranquillity of our subjects? Nevertheless, the distribution of benefices, because of its inevitable consequences, is incomparably more important, as much as heaven is elevated above the earth. It is a rich and abundant harvest that comes back to us in every season of the year to fill with graces those who serve us or those whom we love. But there is perhaps no more delicate matter in the whole realm. Do not doubt that our conscience remains committed to this task, however much we may have granted too much to our inclinations or the memory of past services, or even to some usefulness to the State, in favor of incapable persons, or persons much more incapable than others over whom we might cast our eyes. Yet I do not wish, my son, to lead you to rigoristic opinions that are too removed from practice and also most often depart from truth. One of our ancestors, for fear of not being up to such a delicate obligation, voluntarily gave up the power of nomination to benefices. But who is to say that others would acquit themselves better than us? Or that wanting to do our duty too well would be to do it badly? God certainly does not intend, my son, that we chose the most worthy as He Himself would choose, for it is impossible for us. It is enough that we do it as men, and as well-intentioned men who do not forget anything lest they err. And so I daresay that we can be assured that He Himself does it through us. Neither is it true that those who serve us or are close to us have in this no advantage above others. Their advantage is to make us better know what they are worth, which is a great advantage for an enlightened prince, who believes much more in what he sees than in what comes to him through the report of others, which is always mixed with good or bad offices.

J’ai très souvent résisté à mon inclination, je le puis dire avec vérité, pour ne faire de cette nature de bien à des personnes à qui j’aurais fait avec plaisir du bien de toute autre sorte, ne remarquant pas en elles ou la capacité ou l’application d’un véritable ecclésiastique. Qui pourrait croire, mon fils, qu’il eût quelque chose de plus important que notre service et la tranquillité de nos sujets? Cependant la distribution des bénéfices, par la suite nécessaire qu’elle entraîne après elle, l’est sans comparaison davantage, et autant que le ciel est élevé au-dessus de la terre. C’est en apparence une riche et abondante moisson qui nous revient en toutes les saisons de l’année pour combler de grâces ceux qui nous servent ou ceux que nous aimons. Mais peut-être n’y a-t-il rien de plus épineux en toute la royauté, s’il est vrai, comme on n’en peut douter, que notre conscience demeure engagée, pour peu que nous donnions trop ou à notre penchant, ou au souvenir des services rendus, ou même à quelque utilité présente de l’État, en faveur de personnes incapables, ou beaucoup moins capables que d’autres sur qui nous pourrions jeter les yeux. Je ne veux pas toutefois, mon fils, vous porter à des opinions rigoureuses qui ne se réduisent presque jamais à la pratique et s’éloignent aussi le plus souvent de la vérité. Un de nos aïeux par la crainte de ne pouvoir bien répondre à une obligation si délicate, se dépouilla volontairement de la nomination aux bénéfices. Mais qui nous a dit si d’autres s’en acquiteront mieux que nous, et si ce ne serait pas mal faire notre devoir pour le vouloir trop bien faire? Dieu n’entend pas très assurément, mon fils, que nous fassions le choix du plus digne comme Il le pourrait faire lui-même, ce qui nous est impossible. C’est assez que nous le fassions en hommes, et en hommes bien intentionnés qui n’oublient rien pour ne se point tromper. Alors, j’ose le dire, nous pouvons nous assurer que c’est Lui-même qui le fait par nous. Il n’est point vrai non plus que ceux qui nous servent ou qui nous approchent n’aient en cela nul avantage au-dessus des autres: ils ont celui de nous faire mieux connaître ce qu’ils valent, grand sans doute auprès d’un prince éclairé, qui croit beaucoup plus à ce qu’il voit qu’à ce qui lui vient par le rapport d’autrui, toujours mêlé de bons ou de mauvais offices.

[5] Pour voir s’il n’y a point de clause qui préjudicie aux droits royaux et aux libertés de l’église gallicane, pour en advertir le roy, lequel en ce case diffère de recevoir le serment de fidélité jusqu’à ce que les bulles soient réformées. (Versailles, 265).

[6] II, LXV, p. 835-840.

[7] Transcription of the oath made by Humbert Ancelin, bishop of Tulle, taken 22 May 1681.

[8] See Roi-Soleil, 115 – 126.

“L’Évêque du dehors”: The French King as Bishop in the Use of the Royal Chapel at Versailles and of the Holy Sepulcher (1)

This post will explore the ways in which the liturgical use of the Royal Chapel at Versailles, especially under Louis XIV, embodied a conception of sacred kingship not usually associated with the Sun King. It will show how the priestly power and authority of the King was both expressed and confirmed through a series of liturgical and para-liturgical ceremonies that began with his coronation and regularly punctuated his life at court. Then it will show how Gallican theologians articulated a theology of sacred kingship they believed the king to hold based on the royal anointing ceremony. Finally, it will discuss the remarkable survival of some of these royals honors in the present use of the Holy Sepulcher, where to this day the Consul General receives, several times a year, many of the honors formerly reserved to the King of France, and try to account for the origin and longevity of this practice.

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Illumination showing Louis XIV praying in the chapel of Versailles (Heures de Louis le Grand, 1693, BnF MS. Lat. 9477, f. Bv.

The popular image of the Sun King Louis XVI and his court at Versailles tends to exaggerate his character as a secular state-building absolute monarch, one who exchanged traditional legitimizing symbols of Christian rule for those of classical mythology. A first glance at the Sun King’s artistic legacy in Versailles and elsewhere lends credibility to this story.

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Ceiling of the Salon of Apollo, Versailles

However, a closer look at life in the court at Versailles reveals another picture. From his morning prayers and daily Mass, to his close collaboration with his bishops in the government of the French Church, the life of the French monarch was a carefully choreographed set of liturgical and paraliturgical ceremonies that aimed to express the king’s role as a sacred, Davidic King, and to accentuate his quasi-episcopal rule over the Gallican Church. According to Alexandre Maral, chief conservator at Versailles, who has written extensively on the life of Louis XIV, these ceremonies “were intended to manifest the priestly character the king held in virtue of his anointing, and therefore to assimilate the King to the priest who celebrated at the altar.”[1]

In the Middle Ages, as a result of the close tie that was felt to exist between kingship and priesthood, the emperor and monarchs of Europe had enjoyed special honors in the liturgies of their realms. This ranged from commemoration alongside the popes and saints in the Roman Canon,[2] to special collects, the Laudes regiae, and the exercise of functions usually reserved to sacred ministers, such as the emperor’s role in Christmas Mass at Rome, where he had the right of proclaiming the Gospel Exiit a Caesare Augusto. Roman ceremonial books have long contained special instructions for the celebration of Mass in the presence of a monarch or prince of the blood.

The French kings and their theologians, conscious of France’s special role as Eldest Daughter of the Church, obtained many privileges for the royal chapel and developed unique liturgical customs that often went beyond the limited honors conceded to princes in contemporary Roman ceremonial books. In fact, the ceremonial honors given to the King during masses in the royal chapel—performed in the Roman Rite since the court adopted that ritual in the 16th century—were not dissimilar to what was foreseen in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum for a bishop assisting at Mass outside his diocese.

Part I: The Royal Mass in the Chapel of Versailles

Though its origin and development is little understood, we do know that the Royal Chapel cultivated a use all of its own, one that retained many particularities even after it adopted the Roman liturgy in the 16th century, before any other French diocese.

The customs of the Royal Chapel are recorded in French ceremonial books of the period, such as the Coutumier général pour la chapelle royale du château de Versailles (edited by the Vincentians who staffed the chapel), the Cérémonial historique of Abbé Chuperelle (Rouen, Archives départementales de la Seine-Maritime), the Recueil de relations des cérémonies de la cour de France by the master of ceremonies Desgranges (Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine) and the Office du premier clerc de Chapelle (ibid.).[3]

The chapel was an anomaly of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. While technically subordinate to the local parish in the town of Versailles (where the King went for Easter, for baptisms and other important occasions), the many privileges granted to the king’s Grand Almoner went far toward making the chapel a sort of “royal diocese” and an enclave of the Roman rite. The Grand Almoner assumed many of the prerogatives of an ordinary: granting dispensations, giving permissions to ecclesiastics to marry officers of the court without going through their parishes, signing all provisions of benefices, etc., essentially administering a “diocese without borders, which followed the King wherever he went.”[4]

Henry III, at the advice of the Jesuits, had ordered the Royal Chapel to employ the Roman Missal in 1580.[5] Henceforth the Roman liturgy was observed there according to the ceremonial found especially in the Manuel des cérémonies Romaines, but with many modifications of its own.

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Jacques Rigaud, Réception des chevaliers de l’ordre du Saint‑Esprit dans la chapelle de Versailles lors de la grande promotion du 3e juin 1724 (engraving)

Description of the Royal Low and High Mass

Louis XIV’s custom at the beginning of his reign was to hear a Low Mass every day at about noon,[6] but after the court definitively moved to Versailles in 1682, daily Mass was fixed to 10 in the morning. The king assisted either from the height of the royal tribune or from a prie-Dieu placed in the choir amidst the stalls of the clergy. On the five days when he was, by ancient custom, to receive Communion—called bons jours[7]—the first Low Mass, said with no musical accompaniment, was succeeded by a second Mass of thanksgiving, also bereft of music.[8]

On certain designated jours solennels,[9] a Solemn Mass was celebrated by the Grand Almoner or the Vincentians who ran the Chapel, and the King betook himself to his chapel in procession, surrounded by prominent members of his court.

In the course of a royal Mass, the King was given certain liturgical honors. These honors can be classified according as they were of a non-priestly or a priestly character, and whether they were foreseen in the Roman ceremonial books or exceeding what was there foreseen. In the former categories, there were, for example, the usual reverences and incensations given to monarchs or princes, plus several more. In the latter categories, the most interesting, three rites are significant: the kissing of the Gospel Book, the King’s communion, and the kissing of the corporal.

As Maral points out, many of these ceremonies closely resemble, with several notable exceptions, the actions provided in the Caeremoniale episcoporum for a Mass in the presence of a cardinal, metropolitan archbishop, or diocesan bishop: “With respect to Roman liturgical norms, in the course of the Mass the King of France was treated, with only a few exceptions, as a bishop assisting at Mass outside his ecclesiastical jurisdiction.”[10]

We will present each of these honors, noting where they depart from contemporary Roman ceremonial.


1) Blessing with Holy Water and Solemn Reception

During a sung Mass, the celebrant –or the priest assistant in a pontifical Mass—carried holy water to the king at the beginning of the ceremony, reminiscent of the solemn reception of a bishop in the Roman rite.[11]

A closely related ceremony was the Solemn Reception upon the King’s return to Versailles. As Maral explains:

Another rite, likewise an integral part of the ‘paraliturgy’ practiced in the royal chapel, manifested the episcopal character of the sovereign. Described by the Coutumier général de la chapelle royale de Versailles, the ceremony performed by the Lazarists when the king was welcomed in his return to Versailles finds its liturgical equivalent in the Roman ceremony of the reception by his clergy of the diocesan bishop on a pastoral visit. Vested in surplice, they received him at the door of the church and gave him holy water.[12]

2) Reverences and Incensations

Maral lists the ten profound reverences due to the king during the course of a royal Mass in the chapel of Versailles. Some of these reverences are foreseen by the Manuel des cérémonies Romaines (pp. 172-174), duly followed in the chapel, but not all:

Throughout the course of the Mass, the celebrant had to make no less than ten profound reverences—from the chest—in the direction of the sovereign, whether the latter was present in the nave or in the royal tribune: first when it arrived at the base of the steps of the high altar, before beginning the prayers at the foot of the altar; the second time before the Dominus vobiscum of the Collect; the third before the Dominus vobiscum before the reading or chant of the Gospel; the fifth before the Dominus vobiscum of the Offertory; the sixth before that of the Postcommunion; the seventh before the Dominus vobiscum preceding the Ite, missa est or Benedicamus Domino; the eighth between the Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus and the final blessing; the ninth before the Dominus vobiscum preceding the reading of the Last Gospel; and the last before leaving the sanctuary for the sacristy.[13]

As for incensations, the king was incensed with three double swings immediately after the celebrant, and before any cardinals, bishops, and other clerics present.

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Antoine Pezey, Louis XIV receiving the oath of the Marquis de Dangeau, Grand Master of the united Orders of Our Lady of Mt Carmel and St Lazarus, in Versailles (1695)


Others honors, however, went further, exhibiting gestures usually reserved for priests, as Maral explains:

In the midst of these royal ceremonies, a certain number of rites, practices, and ceremonial actions pertained directly to the king in his sacral character. Although beyond the rite of anointing there does not exist a ceremony that expressly claims or acknowledges the king as evêque du dehors, the whole ensemble of liturgical actions and ceremonial reserves a particular treatment for the king and might be regarded as following from his anointing.[14]

3) Kisses

a) The Gospel Book

Like the bishop in a Roman Pontifical Mass, the King kissed the Gospel book from his prie-Dieu. After the Gospel had been read or chanted by the celebrant or deacon and kissed by the celebrant, the missal was covered with the chalice veil and given to the King’s episcopal chaplain (Grand Almoner) who presented it to the King, saying Haec sunt verba sancta, to which the King responded Credo et confiteor. The king kissed the book, which was then carried directly to the altar, i.e., with no one else kissing it.

Maral argues that this ritual associates the king to the celebrating priest in two ways. First, it mirrors the priest’s own action, who, in several French uses, including the Parisian,[15] kissed the Gospel-book after it had been presented to him by the subdeacon with the same dialogue as above (in the Roman rite, the subdeacon stays silent and the celebrant says Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta). Significantly, the Roman ceremonial of the time indicates that if such a ceremony is to take place the assisting monarch or prince is forbidden to kiss the same book as the celebrant![16] This is another case of the Royal Chapel deliberately neglecting the bounds set by Roman rubrics. Secondly, the presence of the chalice veil associates the King intimately with the priestly sacrifice that begins with the Offertory directly after the Gospel.

Maral’s assertion should be qualified, however, since kissing of the Gospel book is not in itself, of course, a priestly prerogative, nor restricted only to the French King. In former times, the Gospel was offered, after the reading, for the veneration of all the faithful, as still observed in the Ethiopian and other rites. By the 18th century it had long been reserved (like communion under both species) to the clergy, save that anointed kings (and queens), and certain unanointed ones who were generally able to petition for this right.

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Louis XIV bestows the cardinal’s biretta on Filippo Antonio Gualterio, the papal nuntio

b) The Pax-brede 

Additionally, after the Agnus Dei, the pax-brede was first kissed by the celebrant, then carried to the king for kissing, after which it was brought straight back to the altar.[17]

c) The Corporal

Immediately after a sung Mass, before the celebrant leaves the altar, he brings the corporal directly to the king and queen to kiss, an action which “intimately associated the king to the sacrifice that had just been renewed upon the altar.”[18] 

4) Communion

The King’s communion was an intricate ceremony and a visually striking affair:

On the days that the king receives communion, he dons a cloak with the cordon of the Order [of the Holy Spirit] on top of his cloak. Two huissiers [i.e. ushers] walk before him with their maces. The grand master [of the Order of the Holy Spirit] and the master of ceremonies must always be present and walk before the king. The king goes to Mass at noon, preceded by the captain of the Cent-Suisses[19] and followed immediately by the captain of the garde du corps. The king kneels on his prie-Dieu, and his confessor at his right, perpendicular to the prie-Dieu. The almoners station themselves between the prie-Dieu and the altar to the right of the king, and the bishops and priests without duties put themselves in the same place to the king’s left. I think the master of the Chapel stations himself the first at his left. After the Gospel, the King kisses the book, which is presented to him by the most senior bishop in attendance. Before the Offertory, a clerc of the chapel brings a gold vermeil bowl covered with a chalice veil, and a little box with several hosts. The clerk of the chapel gives it to the King’s first almoner, and then both of them try them by eating one of the hosts, which they make all the others touch. Then they present [the remaining hosts] to the king, who chooses one for his communion. They put the bread chosen by the king back into the little box wherein they had all been brought to him, and then it is taken to him who is saying the Mass, usually the grand almoner or, in his absence, the first almoner.

At the time for communion, a folding table is placed in front of the altar, and upon it the communion cloth is extended. The king gets up from his prie-Dieu, preceded by his huissiers holding their maces, the grand master, the master of ceremonies, the captain of the Cent-Suisses, and followed by the captain of his garde. He kneels in front of the folding table, and the two ends of the communion cloth closer to the altar are held by two almoners. The two ends closer to the king are held by two princes of the blood, if there be some present, or by the two most senior dukes present, in the absence of princes of the blood. After the king communed, the bishop who gave him communion gives him water in a sort of chalice: the king drinks some of it, and then wipes his mouth with a napkin given to him by a prince of the blood or the first maître d’hôtel. The king returns to his prie-Dieu and hears the rest of the Mass there, and usually another [Mass] thereafter. [20]

Maral claims, perhaps too strongly, that the ceremony following the royal communion, in which the king rinses his mouth from a chalice-like vessel, would recall communion under two species, a striking event in a time when this practice was reserved (with only extremely rare exceptions, such as the Greek Mass at St. Denis) for the celebrant alone. The king himself only received under both species on the day of his anointing.

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fancy people

5) Pontifical Honors

As in the communion, some customs at Versailles went so far as to mimic honors reserved to the Roman Pontiff. According to the Journal de Dangeau, “the bishops had to wear a mantellette over the rochet when in the presence of the King, as it was customary to do in the presence of the pope or his legate, the mantellette being a sign of their subordination.”[21]

Likewise, Maral points out, “the expression ‘to hold chapel,’ (tenir chapelle) employed with respect to the King, ordinarily applied to a bishop or pope assisting at a solemn office without celebrating.”

6) Others

The use of the chapel foresaw other, less dramatic, but equally eloquent evidence of the king’s episcopal prerogatives, as M. Maral explains:

In ways that might seem secondary, other customs in force in the Chapel show similarities to those surrounding a bishop. For example, the color of the rug under the king’s feet in times of mourning was violet, not black. As attested in an engraved plan of the Chapel of Versailles, the royal prie-Dieu was placed between the two rows of stalls, in other words within the liturgical choir, a place reserved in principle to clerics.[22]

It would exceed the scope of this essay to describe all the ways that these liturgical honors carried over into the court ceremonial outside the chapel. But, to adduce some evocative ones, it was prohibited to turn one’s back to a portrait of the king and to sit down in his chambers, and the king’s mourning dress was violent, like a bishop’s, rather than black[23].


This brief review of the regular honors offered to the king should suffice to demonstrate that they were highly significant departures from contemporary Roman practice that associated the royal person intimately with the celebrating priest and generally treated the King as the ritual equivalent of a bishop celebrating outside his diocese.

There are one or two notable exceptions to this conclusion. In the Royal Chapel, contrary to what is foreseen in the Roman books, there was no genuflection given during Masses and offices to a prince of the blood or a sovereign. Likewise, in the pontifical Mass of a bishop in his diocese, the Gospel Book is brought first to the bishop to kiss, and then to the celebrant; but in the Royal Chapel the celebrant kissed the Gospel first. The triple incensing with two swings of both the king and the celebrant corresponds to what the rubrics provide for a bishop assisting at Mass outside his diocese. As noted above, some of the honors discussed were unique to the Royal Chapel, but others were shared with other sovereigns.

The next section will show that these honors were informed by a Gallican conception of sacred kingship and a view of the king’s quasi-episcopal role in the Church of France.

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[1] “[…] tendaient à manifester le caractère sacerdotal que le souverain tenait de son sacre, et à rapprocher par consequant le roi du prêtre qui celebrait à l’autel. Trois rites sont ainsi concernés, le baisement de l’evangile, la communion du roi, et le baisemont du corporal” (Versailles, 254).

[2] This commemoration Pro rege nostro was not included in the Canon in the Tridentine Missal. King Philip II of Spain asked for and obtained an indult for the Spanish clergy to continue including the King’s name in the Canon, and for the collect Et famulos tuos (naming the King) to be said after the Collect, Secret, & Postcommunion under a single conclusion at every Mass in his realm, even on solemn feasts. In France, no one asked for such an indult. Instead, the Parlement of Paris issued an order in 1580 forbidding any French printer to publish the Roman Missal (Tridentine) without including the Pro rege nostro in the Canon (See Gueranger, Institutions liturgiques, vol. 1, ch. 15).

[3] See Alexandre Maral, Le Roi Soleil et Dieu: Essai sur la religion de Louis XIV, Paris, Perrin, (2012), 90.

[4] Le Roi Soleil, 148.

[5] See Institutions liturgiques, vol. 1, ch. 15.

[6] In 1665, he obtained an indult from the Archbishop of Paris to delay Mass as late as 1 in the afternoon.

[7] On the Vigil of Christmas, Holy Saturday, the Vigil of Pentecost, the Vigil of All Saints, and either the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception.

[8] This imitates the papal custom of hearing a Low Mass in thanksgiving after Communion, celebrated by the chaplain who had just served the papal Mass.

[9] On the feasts of the Circumcision (1 January), the Purification (2 February), Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, the Assumption (15 August), the Nativity of Our Lady (8 September), All Saints (1 November), the Immaculate Conception (8 December), and Christmas (25 December).

[10] Le Roi-Soleil 96.

[11] Pontificale Romanum lib. III, “Ordo ad recipiendum prelatem vel legatum”

[12] See Le Roi Soleil, 94; and La Chapelle Royale de Versailles sous Louis XIV: Cérémonial, liturgie et musique, Brussels: Mardaga, 2010, 284.

[13] Le Roi Soleil, 90-91.

[14] “Au sein des cérémonies royales, un certain nombre de rites, d’usages et de gestes cérémoniels concernent directement le roi dans sa definition sacrale. Si, en dehors du sacre, il n’existe pas de cérémonie proprement dite pour affirmer ou reconnaître le roi comme évêque du dehors, tout un ensemble d’actions liturgiques ou cérémonielles lui reservent un traitement particulier et peuvent être rapprochées du sacre” (Versailles, 281).

[15] Missale Parisiense (1762), “Ritus in Missa servandus” VI.

[16] Caeremoniale episcoporum XXIX, 9: Liber Evangelii, celebrante Episcopo, nulli, etiam magno Principi, aut Prælato, Missæ presenti, datur osculandus post lectum Evangelium; sed si adesset aliquis maximus Princeps, vel S. R. E. Cardinalis, cui liber Evangelii osculandus, porrigendus esset, non utique liber Evangelii, quo utitur Episcopus, sed alius liber consimilis illi porrigatur.. Manuel, pg. 174: “With regard to a Prince, if it is the custom to give him the Gospel book, he must be presented with one other than that of the celebrant, who must in this case always kiss his own.” (“Pour ce qui est d’un Prince, si c’est la coûtume de lui donner à baiser le Livre des evangiles, on doit lui en presenter un autre que celui du Celebrant, lequel en ce cas doit toûjour baiser le sien.”) The King of Spain, for instance, obediently followed this stipulation.

[17] Manuel, pg. 75-76.

[18] Le Roi Soleil, 91.

[19] The King’s Swiss Guard.

[20] “…depuis le prie-Dieu jusques à l’autel à droit, et les évesques et abbez sans charges se mettent dans le mesme espace à gauche. Je crois que le maistre de la Chapelle se doit mettre le premier à gauche. Après l’évangile, le roy baise le livre, qui luy est présenté par le plus ancien évesque qui s’y trouve. Devant l’offertoire, un clerc de Chapelle aporte un bassin de vermeil doré, couvert du voile du calice, et une petite boeste où sont plusieurs hosties. Le clerc de Chapelle les donne au premier des aumosniers du roy: ils en font tous deux l’essay en mangeant un des pains qui doit servir d’hostie, qu’ils font toucher à tous les autres. On présent ces pains au roy, lequel en choisit un pour communier. On remet ce pain que le roy a choisy dans la petite boeste, dans laquelle on les avoit tous apportez, et on le porte ainsy à celui qui dit la messe, lequel est ordinairement le grand aumosnier ou à son deffaut le premier aumosnier. Dans le temps de la communion, on apporte devant l’autel un siège pliant, sur lequel on estend la nappe de communion. Le roy se lève de son prie-Dieu, est précédé par des huissiers portant leurs masses, du grand maistre et du maistre des cérémonies, et du capitaine des Cent-Suisses, suivy de son capitaine des gardes. Il s’agenouille devant le siège pliant, deux aumosniers qui tiennent les deux bouts de la nappe du costé de l’autel. Les deux bouts du costé du roy sont tenus par deux princes du sang, s’il s’y en trouve, ou par les plus anciens ducs présents, s’il ne se trouve point de princes du sang. Après que le roy a communié, l’évesque qui l’a communié luy présente de l’eau (sic) dans une espèce de calice: il en prend un peu, et ensuitte s’essuye la bouche avec une serviette donnée par un prince du sang ou par le premier maistre d’Hostel. Le roy retourne à son prie-Dieu, y entend le rest de la messe, et ordinairement une autre après” (Versailles, 257 – 258).

[21] Versailles, 285.

[22] “En des domains qui semblent secondaires, d’autres usages en vigeur a la chapelle permettent de dresser des rapprochements avec ceux qui entourent un evêque. Ainsi, la couleur du tapis de pied du roi en temps de deuil était le violet, non le noir. Comme l’atteste un plan gravé de la chapelle de Versailles, le prie-Dieu royal était placé entre les deux ranges de stalles, c’est à dire dans le choeur liturgique, lieu en principe reservé aux clercs” (Versailles, 283).

[23] See Le Roi Soleil, pp. 92-94.

Ecclesia Saltans (2): Liturgists and Dance in the Twelfth Century, The Witness of John Beleth and Sicard of Cremona

There is an excellent essay (available on JSTOR) on the history of liturgical dance in the Latin West, with special mention of our own Honorius.

Among other things, it discusses the Christmas ball game played by the bishop and his clergy, as well as use of the mysterious labyrinths found in cathedral floors, as described by the 12th century commentator John Beleth:

“Thus it is that in the cloisters of certain churches even bishops enjoy the December freedom with their clerics, even to descending to the game of the circular dance or ball (ludum choreae vel pilae), although it seems more praiseworthy not to play; this “December freedom” is so called in that in the month of December, shepherds, servants, and maidservants were governed among the gentiles with a kind of freedom by their masters, so that they could celebrate with them after the harvest was collected.

And note that the gentiles established circular dances to honor idols, so that they might praise their gods by voice and serve them with their whole body, wanting to foreshadow in them in their own way something of the mystery. For through the circling, they understood the revolution of the firmament; through the joining of hands, the interconnection of the elements, through the gestures of bodies, the motions of the signs or planets; through the melodies of singers, the harmonies of the planets; through the clapping of hands and the stamping of feet, the sounding of thunder.

But what those people showed to their idols, the worshipers of the one God converted to his praise. For the people who crossed from the Red Sea are said to have led a circular dance, Mary is reported to have sung with the tambourine; and David danced before the ark with all his strength and composed psalms with his harp, and Solomon placed singers around the altar, who are said to have created sound with voice, trumpet, cymbals, organs, and other musical instruments.”

Latin: Language of the Church, an essay by Dr. Patrick M. Owens

Respected Latin educator Dr. Patrick M. Owens wrote a significant introduction to a recent book of essays In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Churchby Fr. Roberto Spataro.

Its cogent account of the role of Latin in the life of the Church, and its appeal for the restoration of classical Latin pedagogy, deserve to be read by all parties concerned for the future of the humanities, and more specially for the reform of Catholic education.

Some excerpts below….


At the convent of Duns Scotus College in Southfield, Michigan the sun had just begun to set as the young Franciscan novices stood in choir for Vespers. Suddenly, furtive glances and stifled chuckles interrupted the customary solemnity of the chapel as the verse “Et percussit inimicos suos in posteriora (Ps. 77:66)” was sung. The surprised novices understood the verse as “And [the Lord] struck His enemies in their backsides”.

It was 1948, and the Order of Friars Minor had recently returned to the Vulgate translation of the Psalms after an inauspicious experiment with the Bea Psalter. These twenty-three friars, who had been Franciscans for less than two years, had grown familiar with the Pian version of the same verse, “Et percussit a tergo inimicos suos” (And [the Lord] struck his enemies from their back.)

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All these novices had studied Latin for at least four years before their simple profession. In the Franciscan minor seminaries – basically their equivalent of high school – students had five hours of Latin classes and at least as many hours of liturgy in Latin each week. During novitiate there were no formal academic classes; rather, it was a time devoted to formation and discernment. As such, they were obliged to recite the entire Divine Office in choir, attend Mass daily, and listen to seminars on the Holy Rule, all of which were in Latin and accounted for at least four hours each day. Latin was not a foreign language; it was the language of the Church. The novices did not study it at a distance, they lived it. Having such familiarity with the language, it was not surprising that the novices would hear the changed words of the Psalm and immediately attribute to “posteriora” its ridiculous common meaning. They were not translating the Latin. They were understanding it.

Another example of this integration of Latin into the rhythms of religious life also occurred at a seminary. Fr. Reginald Foster, OCD, once recalled that in 1954 at the minor seminary in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the novice-master admonished a Carmelite novice to wash off his grease-laden hands. In response the novice raised his blacked hands to his superior and quipped, “Nigra sum sed formosa,” a clever reference to a Vespers antiphon from taken from the Canticle of Canticles “I am black, but beautiful (Cant.1:4).” The novice-master chuckled, and the novice was able to escape further rebuke.

The deep and instinctive familiarity with Latin illustrated by these stories resulted from a comprehension and immersive education in the language. Kenneth Baker, SJ, recounts that when he was a Jesuit seminarian in the 1950s, not only were all the seminary classes taught in Latin and from Latin textbooks, but the annual oral examinations were also conducted in Latin. All recreation time in novitiate was in Latin – meaning that for much of the day, novices were expected either to speak Latin or not to speak at all. Men who intended to enter the Order without knowing Latin were required to complete a two year Juniorate, which helped them bridge the gap. By the time of ordination, most Jesuits with such a background had read a great part of the Classics and of the Church Fathers in the original and could write and speak Latin. The Jesuit education was, in fact, a liberal arts curriculum with an emphasis on the Classics.

Nevertheless, Latin was not the exclusive province of priests and religious. Within living memory, Catholic school children in both Europe and America learned their Latin prayers and grammar. Boys as young as eight years old could recite from memory the prayers at the foot of the altar. Even children (though perhaps to a lesser extent girls) from working class families could be expected to know the Mass and to have read some Vergil and Caesar by age fourteen. Before the last century, by the age of sixteen, a diligent though unexceptional student from a well-off family would have attained a level of mastery in Latin that would surpass that of many current graduate students of the Classics. 

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The Latin Class, Ludwig Passini (1869)

To be sure, Latin was larger than the schoolroom or the choir. The language that had served the Western world as a lingua franca for nearly two millennia was still the official language of the Church’s hierarchy, prayer, and diplomacy. Beyond sheer formalities, it fulfilled a genuine need in the Church even into the 20th century: Latin was the actual mode of international communication between priests and scholars. Catholics were not studying Latin merely as a scholastic exercise, but rather for the sake of acquiring their venerable tradition and laying foundations for an enduring intellectual and spiritual culture.

The Acta Apostolicae Sedis is only one typical example of the way clergy and laity alike used Latin as a genuine means of communication in the last century. As the official monthly gazette of the Catholic Church it contained all the news that Rome saw fit to print. The AAS brought news of ecclesial appointments, the contents and digest version of encyclical letters, and the decisions of Roman congregations in reply to dubia. When Catholics were uncertain about the validity of a certain sect’s sacraments, a particularly thorny annulment petition, whether they might enjoy a relaxation of fasting or abstinence on some account, or how to recognize a newly canonized saint in the recitation of the Divine Office, for these and numerous other queries, there was found in the AAS a repository of current responses and practical assistance to which the faithful could avail themselves. The laws contained in the AAS were considered promulgated as soon as they were published, leaving no time for translations into various languages.

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With rare exception, AAS was published entirely in Latin, a practice that on account of the gravity of the subject matters and the international audience was never seriously questioned. In fact, AAS was only the latest iteration (having been preceded by the Acta Sanctae Sedis and the Acta et Decreta) of expansive international publishing for the benefit and governance of hundreds of millions of faithful. In the minds of the authors, the linguistic continuity of these publications ensured that they would be accessible to Catholics of any future generation. In 1940 a Catholic with little more than a high school degree could make sense of a literary corpus ranging from this month’s edition of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis back to the Acta Martyrum Scillitanorum (the account of the Scillitan Martyrs from 180 AD). This connection with an immutable language meant that modern people were able to be in dialogue with past generations using the same literary models, technical terminology, and allusions to scripture or liturgy. From the Vatican cloister to the high schools of Brooklyn, Catholics prayed, studied, travelled, litigated, and even joked in Latin ut sint unum.

But arguably the strongest thread holding this long fiber of Latin culture together across the centuries was the Latin liturgy. By virtue of its being the central and universal prayer of the Church, the Divine Office is the first contact for both clergy and faithful with the sublime liturgical idiom of the West. Furthermore, when the faithful pray the Divine Office, the prayer of the individual joins with that of the diocese and of the universal Church, in an act that transcends temporal and spatial boundaries Though consisting principally of Psalms, the Divine Office also contains many of the Church’s most elaborate orations, petitions, and ancient homilies. The august poetry of the psalter and meticulous diction of orations and collects provide the faithful with a common voice and universal language into which the Franciscan novices of Duns Scotus College and countless previous generations around the world assimilated their prayer. Because Latin was an essential feature of this communal liturgy, experienced by all Catholics, it ensured in turn that it remained an integral part of Catholics’ cultural memory.

Arguably one of the most important reasons that Latin education must be kept alive in the Church is to retain access to this communal experience of liturgy. Why? Because this liturgy is the repository of the Catholic tradition.

It is education which conserves and transmits the experience and wisdom of the previous generations so that such a cultural memory, identity, and common parlance can be forged and strengthened. Indeed, for most of human history, this inculturation has been a primary purpose of education. Language encapsulates the culture and the history of a society. Those elements are passed to the successive generations through the language so that future generations may benefit from the sufferings and discoveries of their forebears and enjoy the comfort of participation in a transcendent community that reaches back through the ages. Rightly conceived, culture is the conscious ideal of human perfection and the habitual vision of greatness. In the case of Catholic culture, this community originates with the Apostles and Our Lord Himself. The language that provides the Divine Office with its poetic freedom and simultaneously constrains the prose to prescriptive ancient norms, carries in its rich history an immense treasure of thought and feeling from both pre-Christian and Apostolic times. For the better part of two thousand years, it has provided the Church with a language of worship, an intellectual clarity, and a mark of catholicity.

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Catholic culture – the sensus fidelium – is replete with ideas about fasting and feasting, domestic devotions, processions and pilgrimages, all expressed in one unifying idiom of Latin. But culture cannot be infused; it must be taught, absorbed, and lived. And although the accoutrements of Catholic culture are only ancillary to the Sacraments, they nonetheless provide an integral part of the identity in the Roman Church. This core identity of the Church is what is at stake in the current controversies regarding the role of Latin.


Latin was especially important for countries whose national languages were either too diverse or too different from the rest of Europe for easy communication. In Hungary, the national language remained Latin until the nineteenth century. It was the language of politics, administration, education, and the judiciary. Orations and public debates at every level were held in Latin. More than just an official language, Latin was also the language of the everyday communication of society. Of course, not every Hungarian was an eloquent speaker, and language proficiency was dependent upon one’s level of education. Nevertheless, after the elementary schools, which were conducted mostly in Hungarian, secondary school courses were taught in Latin. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Western European travelers who had visited Hungary, remarked with awe that the Latin language was in daily use by a variety of people, not only the nobility and the clergy, but oftentimes even simple folk. Latin represented for Hungarians a bond with the glorious past of the Kingdom, a direct link with classical antiquity, an intellectual connection with Western culture, and a token of national unity, which was especially critical for an empire that was comprised of Croatians, Germans, Serbs, Slovak, and Turks, all of whom had their own native languages.[1] In this way, Hungary’s use of Latin mirrored that of the Church.

The Church’s adherence to this common practice of utilizing Latin as a lingua franca should not be surprising. Languages are intrinsically bound to cultures, and Latin for nearly two-thousand years had been the language not only of Catholic culture in the West but of Western culture itself. It is for this reason that the Church took pains to keep alive the tradition of active Latin. Catholic intellectuals knew well that since Latin was the vehicle of culture, a superficial familiarity would not be sufficient. To ensure the ability to engage with past sources and contemporary intellectuals as well as to protect the transference of Catholic culture to subsequent generations, active language use is essential. Catholic leaders, therefore, took pains to master the Catholic language not only passively through extensive reading and public lectures, but also actively by developing the ability to communicate effectively and rhetorically in written and extemporaneous spoken exchanges. This tradition persisted into modern times, producing the outstanding Catholic scholars, many of them priests and bishops, who distinguished themselves during the first half of the twentieth century. This same tradition allowed for elegant orations and spirited debates at the Second Vatican Council, where the comparably small number of prelates incapable of extemporaneous Latin conversation enjoyed personal translators. If Latin’s position, even as late as the time of Vatican II, appeared so solid, what had been the hidden fault lines that led to such a seemingly abrupt fissure between past and present over the past 50 years?

Find out by ordering the book, In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Church, by Fr. Roberto Spataro, Secretary of the Pontifical Academy for Latin.

Excerpts published by kind permission of Angelico Press.



[1] cf. Graham, Hugh F. “Latin in Hungary.” The Classical Journal 63, no. 4 (1968): 163-65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3296276. Vámbéry, Ármin Arminius Vambéry: His Life and Adventures London, Fisher Unwin. 1884 p.5; Capek, Thomas The Slovaks of Hungary Knickerbocker Press, New York. 1906. 176-80

Chinese Depictions of the Life of Christ

The Life of Christ by Giulio Aleni (1637) is a picture-narration of the life of Jesus drawn by that early Jesuit missionary for the Church in China. It contains almost 60 engraved images, probably the earliest and definitely the most precious collection of Chinese icons. Here is a sampling (with a seasonal theme).

See the whole book by following the link above.

(Also see our posts on Our Lady of China here and here.)

The Annunciation
The Presentation
Christ teaching in the Temple
The Wedding Feast at Cana

The engravings are rich in visual detail, dense tableaux meant to capture a whole story. The central episode is in the foreground surrounded by other images, each one meant to evoke connected episodes in the Gospel story. Sometimes they even visually coordinate several Catholic doctrines, as in the Annunciation image, where Christ crucified appears in the left corner and underneath the poor souls await his coming.

The style in Aleni’s Life of Christ is purely Italian Baroque, though it harkens back to models in medieval painting. The faces and clothes are western (or fanciful depictions of Palestinian costume).

Fast-forward nearly three hundred years. 

In 1919, Pope Benedict XV issued Maximum Illud, an encyclical letter whose aim was to begin detaching foreign missions from the interests and direction of the colonial powers, and to promote native clergy and cultural forms in the local churches.

In 1922, Celso Benigno Luigi Constantini, the first Apostolic Delegate to China, came to China and promoted the localization suggested by Maximum Illud. Later he met the artist Lukas Chen Hs whom he encouraged to paint sinicized icons. Henceforth Lukas Chen Hs was hailed as the pioneer of localization of Chinese Catholic art.

A local tradition was born.

The Life of Christ by Chinese Artists,” published in the ’40’s, provides a sampling of photographs of works of art found in churches and private collections, all paintings on silk produced in this new, native Chinese style. This collection is an example of the “Other Modern” in the Chinese context. As the introduction explains:

“The Life of Christ by Chinese Artists comes the more gratefully at this time, when Western artists have either put the Bible stories aside as subjects for their art, or have blended with their work a harshness that wounds or a sentimentality that offends. The Chinese artist is never harsh and never sentimental. He catches the spirit of the Evangelists’ narrative. The genius of the East lies in the power of suggestion: indeed impressionism was employed in China before the word had any meaning in the art of the West. Above all, the figures, though they may be placed in a setting of abrupt peaks or plunging torrents, carry a sense of infinite peace.”

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In the new art style, the world of the Bible is transported to the palaces and gardens of ancient Chinese noblemen, the persons clothed in the flowing, long-sleeved Han Chinese dress. Since it was considered undignified to portray important persons in scenes of squalor or humiliation, these aspects of the Gospel stories are often underplayed.

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The Annunciation
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Visit of the Magi
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The Last Supper

Compare with these icons, in a more elevated style, depicting Mary Our Lady of China as Queen:

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Madonna with child, Ming dynasty royal costume
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Madonna with child, Manchu-era royal costume