Music Forum

The legend of Victor and Corona in the medieval codices

Approximately from the thirteenth century onward, as the cult for the saints spread over the West, also as a response to the quest for tangible figures of faith that might recall the drama of the death of the incarnate Christ, new musical forms bore witness to an emerging sensitivity. Their modernity competed directly with the great Gregorian tradition , which had been firmly established for more than five centuries, and whose liturgical function had fixed the rhythms and modes both of the solemn rite , Mass, and of the monastic cult of the Office of Hours. This emerging sensitivity, which gave rise to “original creations that were typical of a geographic area, a diocese, or a religious institution” (S. RoNCROFFI , Canto gregoriano e culto dei Santi, in AA. Vv. Atlante storico della musica nel Medioevo, Milano, Jaka Book, 2on, p. uo), expressed the search for a greater closeness to the liturgical repertoire than that allowed by the Gregorian chant’s specific characteristics of text and performance: as a singing that sprang from the Scriptures, chiefly the Old Testament, Gregorian chant preserved its strict observance. So the style moulded on the Scriptures tended to exclude any reaction of human sympathy, with the risk of generating a certain distance between these means of contemplation of the truths of faith and the faithful themselves.

Undoubtedly a concrete need also underlay this emerging sensitivity: that of a catechesis suitable for simple people. Because of the very low diffusion of literacy, most people could not read or interpret the Scriptures. Listening had to be stimulated by figures and forms that were closer to the common people, and by a genre that was within everybody’s reach and was added to tradition without replacing it.

We must not forget that this process took place during the same period in which the cult of the Virgin Mary was born and developed quickly, advocated by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-n53), who very persua sivel y asL·1 1nl I In· 11nid to compose new songs for Mary, as an essent.ial element i n Lhc conl 1 L’l c 111,1111i r l.t tion of the mystery of the Trinity. Together, Mary and the aints wcr · 1he d1 1 v 111g force behind an enlargement of the liturgical and musical repertoi re that w,1s l i n ked not only to the broadening of the theological study of the entirely feminin<.: rol • of 1h · Virgin Mary within the salvation project willed by the Father, but also to the rise of new exemplary Christian figures, such as Francis and Clare of Assisi, Anthony of Padua and Domingo de Guzman, who became the dedicatees of new sacred buildings, soon exceeding the convent spaces that specifically belonged to them as founders or main representatives of their orders.

Hic est verte martyr | Adoremus Christum | Beatus Victor dixit| Sebastianus dixit […] Unde sacrifica | Ego non sacrifico

Tunc iussit dux acetum | Christi patientia| Tunc iussit dux suspendi

Within the vast sphere of the saints, martyrs offer their dramatic life stories as a basis for the cult of relics, whose function is not only religious and spiritual, but also social and cultural. In actual fact, a place that preserves the remains of a martyr has an additional importance and value. A sanctuary or basilica that is named after a martyr and preserves his relics, besides being a goal that is shared by the civil and ecclesiastical community and a beacon that directs people to faith and reminds them of it, is pure blood consecrated in Christ, from which the church, fortified through him, arises. Lastly, it is one of the most powerful symbols available to Christianity in the present -past-future time perspective and in the interconnection of different citi es and territories that share the same name . The latter were sacred places of spi rit u a l i ty and art, and their building and preservation, entrusted also to the a tive pa rtici p,11ion of local people , ensured their recognition within their own comm u n i ty.

It seems likely, therefore, that the ltistoria genre tu rned out to be pa rti cula rly adequate, even more so in the case of a Passio , whose ancientness brings us back to the earliest, tormented centuries of Christianity. I f a li re imbu ed with holiness undoubtedly gives the reader or listener food for thought, death through martyrdom following the example of Christ’s sacrifice paves the way from a state of contemplation to a pathetic dimension, putting to the test, in turn, the inward life of those who are involved. Courage, strength, patience, perseverance and determination are a measure of the faith that supports the martyr; but they also testify to the ineffectiveness of the punishments inflicted by the persecutors , who are astonished by the persistence of life in the tortured body. The martyrology tradition is full of vivid images of this sort, and undoubtedly testifies, beyond any possible exaggeration or distortion, to the hatred that was directed to the Christians during the earliest centuries, a hatred that was not only religious, but also political and socially compensational.

In the collective memory of the faithful, martyrs renew the Christological core of faith in immortal life. To die in Christ means to be re-born in Him; through the martyrs’ example, the Church cements its presence , keeping pace with the building of places of cult. Lastly, the narration of the martyrdom, which is never a mere chronicle of the tortures undergone by the martyr, but is a detailed report of the hours of penalty, formed of accusations, arguments, refutations – formed of soul, mind, body – touches several chords on the continuum between considering and feeling, and fully reaches the faithful.

The prolonged Passio of Victor belongs to the ltistoriae of martyrs from the earliest centuries of Christianity, whose trials are reported in the Acta drawn up by the proconsuls of the Roman legions. Along with Ignatius of Antiocha, Hermagoras and Fortunatus, Cyprian, Theodore, among the most ancient names, Barbara, Cecilia, Lucy, Justina, at that time martyrdom was shared by soldiers in the service of the

imperial state and by women, often from high-ranking families, who were devoted to Christ’s message; by apostolic fathers of the Church who were .1lso t he .1uthors of fundamental theological writings ; and by subjects with a lowly soci.11 role. These martyrs were characterised by a passionate defence of their own choi ··, which was declared and confirmed by them during their trial, tu rning ma rtyrdom i nto an active gesture, with no way out but never undergone passively. The atrocities were equal to the cruellest persecutions of all time inflicted on religious or ethnic minoriti es: a cruelty against fellow creatures that appears only in the human race and disguises deep tensions of a social, political and economic nature. In many cases, persecution was a strategy of the government meant to distract the masses, offering a gratifying image of efficiency against the current enemy.

In the Passio, Corona is almost an embodiment of Wisdom. There are many scriptural sources to which she refers when comparing Victor to several biblical personages who preceded him in highly courageous spiritual choices and physical trials, down to the extreme one of martyrdom: among them, Abel, the Fathers Abraham and Jacob, the latter’s son Joseph, Job, the prophets Isaiah and Samuel, and the three young men thrown into a furnace by Nebuchadnezzar . Lastly, Victor’s wisdom, to which he owes the patience that makes it possible for him to contrast and defeat the devil’s deceptive provocations, is compared to that of King Solomon. The choice of martyrdom emerges since Stefania’s first declarations to the dux: “Christiana sum [ …] Ego Stefanae vocor quae est corona recondita ob hoe non sacrifico, ut accipiam Dei coronam” (Bcv, ms. xcv, c. 58, 202; 2r6-2r8).

My name is Stefania / Corona; a name, a symbol –nomen-omen – that contains the passing of the hardest of tests. In actual fact, within the spiritual dynamics of the couple, Victor’s crowning is symmetrical to Corona’s victory, in a m u tual exchange, since they are complementary figures in the same story: the “feminine” Victor is mild , and opposes pondered arguments to Sebastian’s cruelty, while the “masculine” Corona is direct, determined and full of cou rage. Victor undergoes beheading, after having unnerved his executioner with the inefficiency of the torments inflicted on him, no less than ten atrocious tortures. Corona is killed by being dismembered , tied to two palm trees – this tree is a symbol of the blessed souls – that are first drawn together, then released. He, a devastated, headless body, receives the greater crown of the two that Stefania sees carried down from the sky by angels; the other crown – recondita, that is prepared for her – is a mark, as in the rite of the nuptial virgins, of her eternal, indissoluble union with Christ.

Compared with the earliest medieval version (Bcv, ms. xcv), the repertoire in St. Mark’s Basilica is a drastic shortening of the text, including the omission of three tortures: the poisoned food, the perforation of Victor’s eyes and the flaying, while the torture of the incandescent lamps on his hips is not associated to his being hung on a rack, so the two tortures turn out to be distinct moments, though this is a mistake from a logical point of view. The shortening of the text was undoubtedly determined by the requirements of the time available for the liturgical celebration, including the numerous psalmodic chants that were prescribed . The presence of Corona is marked by the short acclamation after the completion of Victor’s martyrdom: Beatus es, Victo1; et beata opera tua sancta; but in his martyrdom – cogis me diversas tibipenas imprimere, Sebastian declares while pitting his strength against Victor’s tenacity -her death is also included, prefigured by those same words. The Vespers of St. Victor, that this co presents for the first time in the modern age, are included in one of the Registers that form the Antiphonaries of St. Mark’s Basilica (called VAM in the musicological milieu ) and were drawn up between the thirteenth century and the fourteenth for the sung liturgy in St. Mark’s Basilica. The corpus of five books, numbered from n4 to II8 and indica ted as PSM de Supra (Procuratori de Supra), Chiesa, Registri, preserved in the State Archives of Venice, follows the yearly liturgical calendar from the first Advent Sunday to the presentation of Mary at the Temple, and preserves the litu rgical repertoires of the time, of the saints and of the common of the saints.

The repertoi re on which the co is based , is an appendix to YAM 118. The originals can be consulted in digital format, in black and white: they had fortunately been copied in microfilm before the theft of the manuscript during the last years of the twentieth centu ry, with the folia in Book iv (vAM 117) that were supposed to entirely reproduce the Vespers of St. Victor already omitted. So, following the musicological suggestion offered by Cattin, VAM n8 was taken up again, comparing and completing the transcription work. The notation , on a fou r-line stave, corresponds to the square format with ligature that was widespread i n the la te Middle Ages; as a rule is it easily understood; infolio 131 there is an evident ga p right after Victor’s declaration as a miles magni imperatoris, marked by the interruption of the notation after the passage Sebastianus dixit ad beatum Victo[rem]. However, if we compare this musical section with the text of the Passio , the logical meaning is not disrupted, since it is the introductive section of the verbal exchange between Sebastian and Victor, in which the former was brandishing the imperial order to execute all those who did not offer sacrifices to the gods (a trace of this is left i n the fragment . . . penis et tormentis illos subiacere ), while the latter argued on his own condition as a soldier of God. As we gave up the attempt to reconstruct what had been omitted, we were comforted by the textual and musical consistency of the performance , in succession , of the passages that precede and follow the gap. Lastly, a few erosions and shadows due to humidity made it necessary to perform small integrations, which in any case were satisfactorily carried out once we had understood the style of composition.

This recording presents a complete performance of the Vespers of St. Victor from St. Mark’s Basilica ‘s source, in full notation. We have decided not to emend an obvious mistake of the copyist in a sentence relevant to the boiling-oil torture: infundi partibus eius occultioribus in scv, ms. xcv, c. 56, 119-120; infundi per partes corporis eius occulti oneribus in VAM n8 (In 111 Nocturno, Antifona ).

Remaining faithful to the logic of the texts, we have added the following pieces as a comment to some salient points of the Passio: two of the twelve psalmodic chants prescribed in the repertoires, as a tribute to the performance practice of alternating the singing of the antiphon with the cantillarion of the psalms; three monodic pieces (a Gregorian hymn and two laudi); and five polyphonic pieces (in the forms of carol, conductus, mote/us and tropus) from European sources of English, Spanish and German origin. All the pieces are from a period between the eighth century and the fifteenth, and correspond aptly to the course of the legend, catching some of its key points. In order of performance, Ad ce/i sublima foreshadows the life that in the Christological perspective is not death but true life: eternal joy, triumph of humilitas as the mother of a ll virtues, and shining presence of God; Benedicite Deo anticipates and develops _Yictor ‘s assertion : “Ego unum deum adoro, qui fecit celum et terra mare et omnia que in eis sunt “, sung as an opening versicle in the morning pra ises; Gloria laus resu mes and replaces the psalmodic chant on the theme of Christ / Lord of glory, whose triumph , which heralds the victory of martyrdom , is celebra ted on Palm Sunday; Christi patientia celebrates the immolated Christ right after the trial of drinking vi negar mixed with lime to which Victor has been subjected; De la crude/ and Onne homo are grand, powerfully stirring choral frescoes: the weeping of the former is followed by the exhortation of the latter, and in both the presence of the Virgin Mary near the cross is also felt and anticipates the acclamation of Corona in the second versicle of the morning praises; Congaudeanl catholici celebrates the acceptance of faith inspired in many people by the sight of Victor’s sacrifice, transposed by analogy from the repertoire dedicated to St. James the Greater, the martyr whose remains were placed in Compostela; lastly, Cruxforma I Cruci Domini I Portare, glorifies the cross as a symbol of true, everlasting life.

In conclusion, though this production does not claim to have integrally reconstructed the minor liturgy for St. Victor that was sung in St. Mark’s Basilica during the late Middle Ages, it does offer a complete narrative excursus: it is based on the source dedicated to St. Victor in St. Mark’s Basilica , and broadens the latter’s outlook with its various additions in different styles, turning the story into a historia and extending its breadth well beyond the local memory, whether it be referred to Venice or to Veneto.


[ testi e maggiori informazioni sono disponibili al seguente link: Texts and more info are available on our website: / testi – Codice Code: 220002

Le fotografie degli strumenti sono disponibili sul sito: The photos of instruments are available on our website: / testi – Codice I Code: 220002

Strumenti I Instruments

Arpa gotica – Paolo Zerbinatti (San Marco di Mereto di Tomba, Udine) da iconografie de! sec. xrv circa

Organistrum – Paolu Zerbi na tti , daJ repertorio iconografico scultoreo del Portico de la Gloria , Cattedrale di Santiago de Compostela (sec. xm)

Viella a s corde (sec. xrv) – Marco Onone (Velletri , Roma)

Fla uto soprano di Gottinga (sec. xm) – Philipp Bleazey (Lancaster, Lancashire, Inghilterra)

Fla uto tenore basso Medioevo da Rafi – Eugene Ilarionov (Kiev, Ucraina )

Organo portativo in do (sec. xrv) – Francesco Gibellini, (Sassuolo, Modena) decorato da llario Gregoletto


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