Rome, Legends of Christian
ROME, LEGENDS OF CHRISTIAN
Originally, the passages in the lives and passions of the martyrs and confessors that were to be read (Latin legenda ) for edification or as part of the liturgy. Only later did the word legend come to signify the stories and tales connected with poetic, religious, and folkloristic traditions. In Rome, with the rise of the veneration of martyrs and their relics, and particularly the ritualistic visitation of the catacombs and the translation of relics that began in the 4th century, embellishments were added to the original Acta or Passiones of the martyrs, and stories were created to explain the designations of localities or churches and to identify saints unknown but for their names.
A primary source of Roman Christian legends was the continuity between the Old and New Testaments based on Christ's words: "It is necessary that all things be fulfilled, that Moses and the prophets have written of me" (Lk 24.44). In the catacombs and earliest churches this was illustrated in the so-called Cycle of the Concordance of the Old and New Testaments; for example, Adam driven from paradise was replaced by the incident of the good thief; Joseph sold into Egypt, was paralleled in the incident of Christ sold by Judas; and Jonas escaping from the whale's belly, with Christ rising from the tomb. In the NT apocryphal literature details of the life of Christ not mentioned in the Gospels and the fate of the Apostles were supplied to illustrate theological beliefs or satisfy curiosity. Realism was achieved, e.g., by portraying the Magi as three kings carrying a crown of gold, globules of incense, and a phial of myrrh, even marked with the price in denarii (Roman currency). The lure of heresy is likewise depicted by adapting the story of Ulysses tied to the mast to avoid the sirens, to a Christian fastened to a cross that is the yardarm of a ship representing the Church. The Pseudo-Clementine literature attests the popularity of legends concerning SS. Peter and Paul with, in the beginning, considerable stress on the Prince of the Apostle's human weakness overcome by Christ's immediate assistance, as in the quo vadis story and in elaborations of the motif of the crowing of the cock after his denial of Christ (Mt 26.74–75).
In the acts of the martyrs realistic dialogue and scenes of heroic defiance, as well as humble submission to death, such as that of SS. lawrence and cecilia, seem to have been an early Roman contribution that is further illustrated by the stories connected with Rome's title churches. During the 5th century the original names of donors or locations of these churches were changed into saint's names and equipped with corresponding legends. This phenomenon was given impulse by the lives of the desert fathers, brought to the Eternal City; for example, St. athanasius (340) brought his Life of St. Anthony and palladius his Historia Lausiaca (420), which were quickly translated into Latin. Ancient myths and romances, Roman traditions, and Oriental tales were plagiarized for details and settings, and a specifically Christian type of legend came into being in Rome and grew to uncontrollable proportions during the Middle Ages.
Constantinian legends were connected with the emperor's vision of the cross and the words "In hoc signovinces " (in this sign you will conquer); his Baptism by Pope silvester i and his cure from leprosy; St. helena and the finding of the true cross; and the politically directed Constantinian donation. This series was continued with the charlemagne legends of the Middle Ages. There were stories of divine intervention for the guidance of the popes from the appearance to Pope liberius of snow on August 5 to indicate the location for the basilica of St. Mary Major, the correction of the Tome of Pope leo i laid on Peter's tomb, to Pope paschal ii's discovery of the relics of St. agnes, and the depiction of Sylvester II as a magician.
One of the most popular legends of the Middle Ages was supported by the displaying of Veronica's veil with the picture of the face of Christ on the way to Calvary. Another was the Scala Sancta, the staircase up which Christ was led for judgment before Pilate, that was said to have been brought to Rome from Jerusalem by St. Helena. In like manner, Vergil's Fourth Eclogue was considered a prophecy referring to the birth of Christ. With his preachment of pietas and propaganda in favor of virtue, vergil was considered a paragon of the animana turaliter christiana and used by dante as a guide in his Divina Commedia, a work that embodied a corpus of Roman Christian legend. A summation of the legends of the early Church had been contained in the Gloria Martyrum of gregory of tours (538–594) and in the Dialogues of Pope gregory i (590–604). Those of the Middle Ages were embodied in the Legenda Aurea of james of voragine and the Vitae Patrum of Rosweyde. During the Middle Ages every church and almost every ancient ruin, building, or statue had its legends, many of them a fantastic blending of Biblical stories with the lays of ancient Rome.
After a period of rejection during the Reformation; of complete cynicism during the Enlightenment; of an attempt to dechristianize the lives of the saints by tracing their origin and objectives to Celtic, Germanic, Oriental, and Buddhistic myths on the part of such scholars as P. Lucius, H. Usener, and R. Reitzenstein; modern investigation has returned to an appreciation of the value of Christian legends. They witness both to a kernel of historical fact regularly preserved in the legend and to the mentality and beliefs of the people among whom they were popularized. This reevaluation has been a contribution of the bollandists in particular, with the Acta Sanctorum; but it has been due also to the increasing interest on the part of specialists in folklore, cultural anthropology, philology, and popular psychology.
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[f. x. murphy]