by Rachel Hiser Remmes

The Passion Narrative of Jesus during the Triduum of Holy Week furnished a plethora of liturgical traditions across all of Christendom during the medieval era. One of these traditions, the Exultet hymn, was sung by a member of the clergy at the beginning of the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday during the lighting of the Paschal Candle. It implored the congregation to rejoice as it recounted the fall of man and humanity’s road to redemption, finally realized during the liturgical year at Easter. Between the tenth and fourteenth centuries in Southern Italy, a unique visual tradition developed around the singing of the Exultet; the hymn was recorded on vertically-oriented rolls that became performative tools during the vigil ritual. While the Exultet hymn always carried with it an extreme sense of spiritual importance, this new visual tradition added an increased level of exegetical meaning.

The vertical orientation of the roll became important to the performance of the Exultet in Southern Italy because the roll was slowly unfurled over the edge of the elevated ambo as the deacon sang the hymn. This action revealed the roll and its illuminations to the assembly of people in the nave, including them in the visual, ritual, and theological significance of the moment. An analysis of the diverse visual programs that exist in the thirty-four extant rolls garner additional questions about the audience’s increased reception of these Southern Italian manuscripts across the four centuries.

A curious shift began to emerge in the word and image format of Exultet rolls around the the early-eleventh century. Originally, scribes had oriented the text and illustrations of the manuscripts in the same direction, resulting in the upside down display of the illuminations to the congregation. Then, at some point, scribes began to flip the orientation of the illustrations. This meant that for those in the nave, who were close enough to see the scroll, the images appeared upright. Moreover, scribes attempted to separate the text from its corresponding imagery so that, as the hymn was sung, the appropriate illustration became visible to the public. This adjustment, in particular, highlights the unique sensual and performative role of the Exultet hymn and the mass in Southern Italy.

Additional Reading:

Nino Zchomelidse, Art, Ritual, and Civic Identity in Medieval Southern Italy (University Park: The Pennsylvania State Press, 2014).

Thomas Forrest Kelly, The Exultet in Southern Italy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Rachel Hiser Remmes, “The Concealed Truth of the Feminine Persona in the Eleventh-Century Barberini Exultet Roll,” Athanor XXXV (2017): 7-19

Bari, Archivio Del Capitolo Metropolitano, Exultet 1, parchment. 

The Barberini Roll (Rome,  BAV, MS Barb. Lat. 592). Montecassino, eleventh-century, parchment.  

The London Roll (London, BL, MS. Add 30337), Montecassino, eleventh-century, parchment. 

Ambo, Bitonto Cathedral, Bari, 1095. 

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