Increase your English vocabulary by learning the origins of some theological terms in Christian study
At the Wording Desk
This is une Déposition de la Croix from a justly celebrated book of hours, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, thought to be the work of the Limbourg brothers, painted in tempera on vellum between 1411 and 1416 CE, now located at the Musée Condé inside the château de Chantilly north of Paris.
Having a coffee with a deeply pious Protestant friend, a regular churchgoer, I was surprised to discover that he did not know the meaning of the word annunciation, nor did he know to what Christian act the word deposition referred. Thus I deem worthwhile a column explaining the Latin and Greek origin of some of these modestly technical terms in theology, many of them shared as terms in the history of European art.
Most Christians know the Nativity and the Baptism but may not be acquainted with terms like the Ecce Homo, the Assumption and Descensus Christi ad Inferos. Given Italy’s prominence in European art history and its renown as one of the deftest and most moving Christian sculptures ever carved by mortal chisel, many people know Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica at Città del Vaticano.
Michelangelo's La Pietà, Italian ‘compassion, pity, mercy,’ the compassion of a mother for her dead son.
Fewer know a Maestà by name. But, by such egregious lacunae, be thou not befuddled, gentle pilgrim. For this little column, in spite of its taint of lewd sacrilege, will darn up those few holes in the socks of your knowledge. And now, humbly, on bended knee, do we proffer our exemplary verbal bouquet!
In the Latin Vulgate of the Gospel of Saint Luke
(1:36-39) we read of the Annuntiatio nativitatis Christi ‘the proclamation of the birth of Christ.’ The word was much later Englished as annunciation, almost exclusively referring to the announcing by the messenger angel Gabriel unto the Blessed Virgin Mary that she will experience the immaculate conception and bear from her womb the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
The prime etymon in the Latin noun annuntiatio is nuntius ‘bringing news’ where nuntius perhaps displays a condensation of Latin novus Latin ‘new’ or some earlier form like *noventia ‘new announcements, hence news.’ Note that we still use the Italian reflex in English when we refer to a papal nuncio, a Vatican ambassador to a foreign court or government.
Annuntiatio has direct components of Latin prepositional prefix ad ‘to’ + Latin verb nuntiare ‘to bring news, to bear a message.’ Think of words in English with the same root like announce, denounce, enunciate, pronouncement and renunciation.
Bible Plus Sex? Eek!
Two saucy paragraph now follow. They are saucy only for those who wish to bar sex from Holy Writ. Immaculatus has only one meaning in the Vulgate. It means “not stained by one spot of human sperm.” Latin im = Latin in = English ‘not’ + maculatus ‘stained, soiled’ < Latin macula ‘blemish, stain, spot.’ If one needed a Latin word for shot-spot — such as festoon the wallpapers of motel bedrooms — it would be macula. All the prissy evasions and holy moanings claiming that immaculate is a strictly metaphorical word are exegetical balderdash promoted by mincing bishops. Princes of the Church are they, who never permit sex to enter their lives. Lifting an altarboy's robe does not count, of course.
Remember it took the bearded prelates and assorted latter-day church worthies several years (!) at the Council of Trent (1545-1563 CE) to determine precisely how the Holy Spirit entered Mary. Imagine that! Grown men met in solemn conclave to discuss such trivial nonsense. But, after all, most of darling Mary’s bodily orifices were not suitable. We couldn’t have the Paraclete tiptoeing into Maria through her vagina! Dio mio! An anal welcome was quite out of the question. Through the mouth does not seem at all a cleanly introit. And a nostril besprent with nasal mucus is a lowly corridor indeed down which to make corporeal advent to a saint’s classy chassis. The bishops at Trent decided that the Holy Spirit had entered Mary per aurem ‘through an ear.’ The right ear, of course. So, when I write my Broadway musical based on the Life of Christ, I already have a song title to be sung by a chorus of Bethlehem street urchins loafing around outside the immaculate conceptorium: “Did you hear? Did you hear? Mary got it in the ear!”
The Annunciation, Philippe de Champaigne, ca.1644, oil on panel, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. In this wee fantasy Mary is reading a Bible — before the New Testament was revealed, written or parchmented! An extra bit of anachronistic piffle is the bound book of the Bible, before bound books existed! But then, mighty indeed is The Almighty.
The Ascension of Jesus (Vulgate Latin: Ascensio Iesu ‘the climbing up’ is the New Testament report that, after his resurrection, the Lord was taken up to heaven bodily. A nearby angel told the eleven disciples present that Jesus would return in a second coming in exactly the same mode, in his human/divine body.
Assumption of the Virgin
Blasphemous jest suggests that the Assumption of the Virgin is: he’s wearing a condom. This is not true, class. Here assumption partakes of its most ancient and prime Latin semantic and means “a taking up to a higher place’ from the Latin prepositional prefix ad ‘to, up to, near to’ (assimilating and thus becoming as- in front of the initial s) of the verb + Latin verb sumere ‘to take up.’ The Assumption of the Virgin is the bodily lifting from earth to heaven of Holy Mary, Mother of God. The Blessed Virgin did not accomplish this in a Cessna Skycatcher. Rather, she was wafted to cerulean realms of thrilling wonderfulness by our old flying buddy, Spiritus Sanctus ‘Holy Spirit’ or by lesser divine minions of an angelic nature.
Two technical terms of theology may be of interest here. Mariology is the simple term, the tenets and beliefs dealing with the Virgin Mary. Mariolatry is usually a label of disapproval, referring to worship of Mary that is ‘way overboard,’ partaking of a pietistical excess that is slavish. Protestants sometimes accuse Roman Catholics of mariolatrous indulgence. Mariolatry = Latin Maria ‘Mary’+ Latin –o- common combining syllable + late Latin latria ‘servile worship’ < Greek λατρεία latreia ‘slavish obedience.’ We know the second part of the compound in the familiar word idolatry ‘worship of idols.’
This again is a noun in its prime Latin meaning and in its first meaning in English: taking the body of Christ down from the cross and depositing his body in the tomb, from Latin dēpōnĕre ‘to lay down, to put aside, to get rid of.’ English words and phrases from the same root include depose, deposit, deponent verb.
“Ecce homo!” (Behold the man!) is Antonio Ciseri’s (1821-1891) depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people from the porch of the governor’s mansion, the praetorium in Jerusalem, as told in the Gospel of St. John, chapter 9, verse 5. This nineteenth-century oil on canvas is now in the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Florence, Italy.
These are the most famous words of the great Roman villain of Christendom, Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilatus was the official judge at the trial of Christ and Pilate it was who ordered Jesus to be crucified. Pontius is known to historical record as the Prefect of the Roman province of Judaea from 26 to 36 CE.
When Pilate presented the scourged Christ to the hostile mob of louts in front of the praetorium, his residence in Jerusalem, during that long-ago Passover, the Bible claims that Pontius’ uttered the Latin sentence “Ecce homo!” There are several translations. But the semantic gist of the Latin is “Here is the guy you want.” A literal translation might be “Behold the man!”
Of course, Pilate’s sentence (Ecce homo!) is a translation into Latin in Saint Jerome’s Vulgate version of the bible. In the Koine Greek of the original New Testament, Pilate’s words to the screaming crowd are reported as Ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος (idou ho anthrōpos). The gist of the Greek is “See. Here is this person. He is merely a human being.”
As usual, the cruder Latin translation cannot carry the several subtleties of the sly Greek. The moment inspired many canvases throughout the history of European painting.
The Epitaphios, above by Anathios Clark, is an iconic image depicting Christ removed from the cross and lying supine, while his body is prepared for burial. Its usual form is a tapestry or a richly embroidered large cloth, sometimes laid over the altar during the matins of Holy Saturday which are performed on the evening of Good Friday in the rites of Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches. Epitaphios means ‘on the tomb or grave’ from Greek ἐπί epi ‘on, upon’ + τάφος, taphos ‘grave,tomb.’ Think of its more common form in English as epitaph ‘inscription on a gravestone.’ It is thought to be a short form applying at first to the chant of mourning and thus being an abbreviation of the Greek phrase ἐπιτάφιος θρῆνος epitaphios threnos ‘lamentation at the burial site.’
Two English words are based on threnos: threnody and threne. A threnody is a dirge, a song of lamenting at a funeral, a compound even in its original form Greek θρηνῳδία threnoidia ‘dirge’ = θρῆνος threnos ‘grieving’ + ᾠδή oide ‘song.’ Likewise the rarer English word threne means ‘a funeral lament,’ but was a quondam synonym for that biblical book called The Lamentations of Jeremiah. Once it was also known as The Threnes of Jeremiah.
Maestà, Italian for' majesty,' designates an iconic representation of the Madonna enthroned in glory, with Jesus, but with or without angels, saints, flittering attendant putti, and any other winged or armed members of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s aerial defence core, comprising what Alexander Pope, in a secular context, made reference to:
“Know then, unnumbered Spirits round thee fly,
The light Militia of the lower Sky.”
Maria Regina Caeli or shortened to Maria Regina, Latin ‘Mary, Queen of Heaven’ is the technical term in art history for any iconic image of Mary on a throne, holding or not holding the baby Jesus.
The Harrowing of Hell
The Harrowing of Hell is not in the Gospels. There is no scriptural reference to Jesus descending into Hell. It is a later addition to the Christian mythos, appearing for example in the Apostles’ Creed. Sometimes known by its Greek name Anastasis (literal Greek meaning ‘resurrection’), it is credited as an invention of Byzantine Christians and appears in Western ecclesiastical literature for a first time only early in the eighth century. Christ’s chthonian descent is taken by some biblical scholars to mean that Christ went down to the dead and came back up as one more proof of his resurrection and his command over death.
But now, until the next time, our pious pinkies must close the great tome of Holy Writ.
Bill Casselman, February 07, 2017
Text copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman