Rare Medieval Liturgica: The Exsultet Roll

This Saturday, at the Easter Vigil, will be sung the hymn known as the Exsultet -- or what the Roman Missal titles the Praeconium. The authorship of this great hymn in praise of the paschal candle is suggested by the Liber Pontificalis to possibly be the fifth century pope, Zosimus.

As a hymn, it forms one of the richest texts of the Roman Missal and one of its most celebrated features is what the Catholic Encyclopedia calls "the remarkable praise of the bee"; a text it comments that is "possibly a Vergilian reminiscence" -- coming with reference to the great Roman poet, Publius Vergilius Maro, or who we more simply know today as Virgil, author of the Aeneid.

Here is the text of the aforementioned praise of the bees:

On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants' hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise,
this gift from your most holy Church.

But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God's honour,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.

Here is the same, depicted in art:

Facsimile of the Barberini Exsultet Roll showing the section of the Exsultet in praise of the bees. You will note how the text and the images are transposed. (Image credit: DO/Conversations)

Exultet Roll, Museo Diocesano di Bari
The illustrations above lead us to an interesting artistic tradition surrounding the Exsultet: the Exsultet rolls.

Exsultet rolls were long scrolls of parchment utilized exclusively in southern Italy (so far as we know) in the Middle Ages. These scrolls contained the texts and chants of the Exsultet accompanied by various decorative illuminations related to the contents of the same. But why a scroll you may ask? In liturgical practice this scroll would be unrolled by the deacon as he sang the Exsultet from it, allowing it to unroll over the ambo as he did so, thereby permitting the faithful to see the related iconography as he sang the liturgical text which corresponded to it.  Examples of this very practice can often be found in these very scrolls:

An illumination showing the deacon singing from an Exsultet roll from the ambo, with the scroll water falling over the ambo itself.  (Image credit: DO/Conversations)
Bari, archivio capitoalre, exultet MS. 1 (Source)
The basic construction of these scrolls then are sections of the chant and texts of the Exsultet broken up by these various related illuminated images. The texts and images were typically transposed for the purpose mentioned above as you can see in the illustrates example here.

To see some more detailed images of an Exultet Roll, please visit the Medieval Manuscripts blog of the British Library.

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