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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity


from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world


Venantius Fortunatus, in a poetic epitaph for a young woman named Vilithuta (Poem 4.26), depicts patriarchs, apostles, and celebrated virginal saints taking part in the judgement of sinners after death, mentioning *Elijah (Old Testament prophet, S00217), *Enoch (Old Testament Patriarch, S00762), *Peter (the Apostle, S00036), *Stephen (the First Martyr, S00030), *Mary (the Mother of Christ, S00033), *Agnes (virgin and martyr of Rome, S00097), *Thekla (follower of the Apostle Paul, S00092), and *Agatha (virgin and martyr of Catania, S00794). Written in Latin in Gaul, 565/576.

Evidence ID

E07844

Type of Evidence

Literary - Poems

Major author/Major anonymous work

Venantius Fortunatus

Venantius Fortunatus, Poems 4.26 (Epitaphium Vilithutae, 'Epitaph of Vilithuta'), 89-102

Extract, describing the Day of Judgement, from a long poem (of 160 lines) extolling the virtues of Vilithuta, and assuring the reader of her eternal reward.

Infelix quisquis maculosis actibus usus
   ante redemptorem se laqueasse videt,                                 90
nubibus invectus cum venerit arbiter orbis
   et tuba terribilis commovet arma polis!
his venit Helias, illis in curribus Enoch,
   anteviando suos hinc Petrus, hinc Stephanus;
flore puellarum rosea stipante corona                                      95
   inter virgineos prima Maria choros:
hinc mater, hinc sponsa Agnes, Tecla dulcis, Agathe
   et quaecumque deo virginitate placet.
tunc ibi quis terror caeli adsistente senatu!
   quid dicturae animae iudicis in facie?                                    100
mox aut poena manet miseros aut palma beatos :
   quisque suae vitae semina iacta metit.

'Unhappy are all those whose actions are stained with corruption, who see in the presence of their redeemer that they have been caught, when he comes carried on clouds to be judge of the world and the dread trumpet sounds the war cry to heaven! On one chariot comes
Elijah, on another one Enoch, at the head of their columns move Peter and Stephen; encircled by a rosy crown, the flower of maidenhood, Mary, takes first place in the choirs of virgins. Here is the mother, here the bride Agnes, sweet Thecla, and Agatha, and all who win favor with God by their virginity. Then what will be their terror in the face of the senate of heaven? What can the souls say in the presence of their judge? In an instant either pain awaits the wretched or the palm of the blessed; each reaps the seeds that in his lifetime he sowed.'

Text: Leo 1881, 97. Translation: Roberts 2017, 265, 267.

Source

Venantius Fortunatus was born in northern Italy, near Treviso, and educated at Ravenna. In the early 560s he crossed the Alps into Merovingian Gaul, where he spent the rest of his life, making his living primarily through writing Latin poetry for the aristocracy of northern Gaul, both secular and ecclesiastical. His first datable commission in Gaul is a poem to celebrate the wedding in 566 of the Austrasian royal couple, Sigibert and Brunhild. His principal patrons were Radegund and Agnes, the royal founder and the first abbess of the monastery of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, as well as Gregory, the historian and bishop of Tours, Leontius, bishop of Bordeaux, and Felix, bishop of Nantes, but he also wrote poems for several kings and for many other members of the aristocracy. In addition to occasional poems for his patrons, Fortunatus wrote a four-book epic poem about Martin of Tours, and several works of prose and verse hagiography. The latter part of his life was spent in Poitiers, and in the 590s he became bishop of the city; he is presumed to have died early in the 7th century. For Fortunatus' life, see Brennan 1985; George 1992, 18-34; Reydellet 1994-2004, vol. 1, vii-xxviii; PCBE 4, 'Fortunatus', 801-822.

The eleven books of Poems (
Carmina) by Fortunatus were almost certainly collected and published at three different times: Books 1 to 7, which are dedicated to Gregory of Tours, in 576; Books 8 and 9 after 584, probably in 590/591; and Books 10-11 only after their author's death. A further group of poems, outside the structure of the books, and known from only one manuscript, has been published in modern editions as an Appendix to the eleven books. For further discussion, see Reydellet 1994-2004, vol. 1, lxviii-lxxi; George 1992, 208-211.

Almost all of Fortunatus' poems are in elegiac couplets: one hexameter line followed by one pentameter line.

For the cult of saints, Fortunatus' poems are primarily interesting for the evidence they provide of the saints venerated in western Gaul (where most of his patrons were based), since many were written to celebrate the completion of new churches and oratories, and some to celebrate collections of relics. For an overview of his treatment of the cult of saints, see Roberts 2009, 165-243.


Discussion

This poem commemorates the death in childbirth, at the age of seventeen, of Vilithuta, wife of Dagaulf. Vilithuta and her husband were Frankish aristocrats who lived in Paris (lines 13-14). Fortunatus praises her personal attainments, and in particular her generosity in giving alms. In the quoted passage he contrasts her assurance of salvation with the fate of those who live corrupt lives and will face a harsh judgement after death. The passage is notable for the implication that when Christ returns in judgement he will be accompanied by the saints, including not just biblical figures like Elijah, Enoch, Peter, Stephen, and Mary, but saints from later times such as Thecla, Agnes, and Agatha, referred to by Fortunatus as the 'senate of heaven' (caeli ... senatus, line 99); for use of this image by Fortunatus in another poem, see E07847.


Bibliography

Editions and translations:
Leo, F., Venanti Honori Clementiani Fortunati presbyteri Italici opera poetica (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi 4.1; Berlin: Apud Weidmannos, 1881).

Roberts, M.,
Poems: Venantius Fortunatus (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 46; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

George, J.,
Venantius Fortunatus, Personal and Political Poems (Translated Texts for Historians 23; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995).

Reydellet, M.,
Venance Fortunat, Poèmes, 3 vols. (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1994-2004).

Further reading:
Brennan, B., "The Career of Venantius Fortunatus," Traditio 41 (1985), 49-78.

George, J.,
Venantius Fortunatus: A Latin Poet in Merovingian Gaul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Roberts, M.,
The Humblest Sparrow: The Poetry of Venantius Fortunatus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009).


Record Created By

David Lambert

Date Last Modified

14/09/2020

Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00030Stephen, the First MartyrStephanusCertain
S00033Mary, Mother of ChristMariaCertain
S00036Peter, the ApostlePetrusCertain
S00092Thekla, follower of the Apostle PaulTeclaCertain
S00097Agnes, virgin and martyr of RomeAgnesCertain
S00217Elijah, Old Testament prophetHeliasCertain
S00762Enoch, Old Testament patriarchEnochCertain
S00794Agatha, virgin and martyr of CataniaAgathaCertain


Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
David Lambert, Cult of Saints, E07844 - http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E07844