Horror on the Orient Express
session 43 - notes on illuminations
Sp and I have found the Devil’s Simulare. Instead of asking for it by name, we opted to request access to the documents that had been bequeathed from the Sainte Maria Celeste. Just as well, as the volume itself, one of many items within the SMC Collection, was unlisted by name, just description.
It’s a marvellous thing! The individual pages were scribed and illuminated over seven hundred years ago by Cistercian monks and are primarily focused around accounts of the fourth crusade of Pope Innocent III, which sacked Constantinople between 1202 and 1204 AD. The work of the White Monks, the precise penmanship in High Latin, the illuminations, all are absolutely exquisite! Had the collection of pages not been bound into their current volume in the sixteenth century, I hate to think how little would have survived.
It is going to take at least another day of careful rereading and note taking to have as comprehensive an annotation of its content as possible. It is a shame that there is no likelihood of the library being willing to sell it, even though there seems to have been little if any interest shown in it for years. I would gladly pay a handsome price for it whether it was related to our current task or not.
The text itself is interesting, but I am currently fascinated by two prominently recurring images within the illuminations. These aren’t the usual monk-at-work or running-animal images that are so prevalent in so many monastic illuminated manuscripts, but instead are two very distinct images which seem at odds with the usual imagery:
A two faced suit of armour; and
A scimitar with a hissing serpent’s head as a pommel.
The suit is intriguing – the imagery of the faces, one forwards and one back evokes the stories and mythology of the Roman god Janus. Why the White Monks would make such a feature a roman god, in fact one of the few roman gods that has no Grecian equivalent from which it was plagiarised, is currently a mystery. I can’t think of any connections between Janus and Constantinople, nor with the fourth crusade. You would have thought the theme for the illuminations would be more focused on the Judaeo Christian faith or Byzantine imagery.
In this respect the scimitar is imagery is more understandable, though the inclusion of the snake head pommel detail is just as confusion. Maybe once we have gone through the manuscript in more detail it will make more sense. Then again maybe not. It could just be that these were images that the monk who did the illumination had a penchant for and there is no other meaning behind them than that.
That last musing seems doubtful. Everything has hidden meanings in this quest, or so it seems. Maybe I’m just becoming as paranoid as JC or AC.
In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, doorways, passages, and endings. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past. Janus presided over the beginning and ending of conflict, and hence war and peace. The doors of his temple were open in time of war, and closed to mark the peace. As a god of transitions, he had functions pertaining to birth and to journeys and exchange, and in his association with Portunus, a similar harbor and gateway god, he was concerned with travelling, trading and shipping.
Janus had no specialised priest assigned to him, but the King of the Sacred Rites (rex sacrorum) himself carried out his ceremonies. Janus had a ubiquitous presence in religious ceremonies throughout the year, and was ritually invoked at the beginning of each one, regardless of the main deity honored on any particular occasion.
Janus was also involved in spatial transitions, presiding over home doors, city gates and boundaries. Numerous toponyms of places located at the boundary between the territory of two communities, especially Etrurians and Latins or Umbrians, are named after the god. The most notable instance is the Ianiculum which marked the access to Etruria from Rome. Since borders often coincided with rivers and the border of Rome (and other Italics) with Etruria was the Tiber, it has been argued that its crossing had a religious connotation (possibly echoed in the muth that vampires cant cross running water?); it would have involved a set of rigorous apotropaic practices and a devotional attitude. Janus would have originally regulated particularly the crossing of this sacred river through the pons sublicius. The name of the Iāniculum is not derived by that of the god, but from the abstract noun iānus, -us. Holland opined it would have been originally the name of a small bridge connecting the Tiber Island (on which she supposes the first shrine of Janus stood) with the right bank of the river. However Janus was the protector of doors, gates and roadways in general, as is shown by his two symbols, the key and the staff. The key too was a sign that the traveller had come to a harbour or ford in peace in order to exchange his goods.
The serpent, or snake, is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols. The word is derived from Latin serpens, a crawling animal or snake. Snakes have been associated with some of the oldest rituals known to humankind and represent dual expression[ of good and evil.
In some cultures, snakes were fertility symbols. For example, the Hopi people of North America performed an annual snake dance to celebrate the union of Snake Youth (a Sky spirit) and Snake Girl (an Underworld spirit) and to renew the fertility of Nature. During the dance, live snakes were handled and at the end of the dance the snakes were released into the fields to guarantee good crops. The snake dance is a prayer to the spirits of the clouds, the thunder and the lightning, that the rain may fall on the growing crops.In other cultures], snakes symbolized the umbilical cord, joining all humans to Mother Earth. The Great Goddess often had snakes as her familiars—sometimes twining around her sacred staff, as in ancient Crete—and they were worshiped as guardians of her mysteries of birth and regeneration.
Serpents are connected with poison and medicine. The snake’s venom is associated with the chemicals of plants and fungi that have the power to either heal, poison or provide expanded consciousness (and even the elixir of life and immortality) through divine intoxication. Because of its herbal knowledge and entheogenic association the snake was often considered one of the wisest animals, being (close to the) divine. Its divine aspect combined with its habitat in the earth between the roots of plants made it an animal with chthonic properties connected to the afterlife and immortality. Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing, carried a staff with one serpent wrapped around it, which has become the symbol of modern medicine. Moses also had a replica of a serpent on a pole, the Nehushtan, mentioned in Numbers 21:8.
Serpents are connected with vengefulness and vindictiveness. This connection depends in part on the experience that venomous snakes often deliver deadly defensive bites without giving prior notice or warning to their unwitting victims. Although a snake is defending itself from the encroachment of its victim into the snake’s immediate vicinity, the unannounced and deadly strike may seem unduly vengeful when measured against the unwitting victim’s perceived lack of blameworthiness.
The Christian interpretation is dual depending on whether you look at the old or the new testament. The obvious references in the old testament is the serpent in the garden, and Moses` staff. Son of Man and the act of Moses in raising up the serpent as a sign, using it as a symbol associated with salvation: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life”.
So far nothing I can remember from the lectures and discussions on either Janus or Serpents give a clear indication as to why these are images so prominent in the illuminations, at least not together. The SS being both a beginning and the end makes sense, but the serpent? It covers everything from the embodiment of evil, a sign of redemption, or the force of healing. Really need to finish studying the script to figure it out.