Sunday 26 February 2012

A Commentary on the Life of Saint Brigid by Donatus of Fiesole

In a presentation to an International Congress in Florence in 2001 Irish scholar, Professor Máire Herbert, has provided a most useful commentary on the Life of Saint Brigid by Bishop Donatus of Fiesole. Before looking at this however, it is worth noting that the devotion of Saint Donatus to Saint Brigid is known from sources other than the metrical life. There is a charter dated 850 in which Donatus, Bishop of Fiesole, grants a church at Piacenza to the Monastery of Bobbio on condition that it should act as a hostel for Irish pilgrims passing through the area. This church was dedicated to Saint Brigid, and Michael Richter in his book 'Bobbio in the Early Middle Ages' comments that this is apparently the earliest-known dedication to Saint Brigid outside of Ireland. So clearly in the life of the ninth-century Irish Bishop of Fiesole, the cult of Saint Brigid of Kildare played a very important part. Professor Herbert sets this into context:
Irish hagiographers from the eighth century attributed contacts with Rome to their saints in order to stress their participation in the unity of Christendom. In the eighth-century text of a Life of Brigit the saint is granted a vision of Masses being celebrated in Rome at the tombs of Peter and Paul, and she asks that the order of this Mass and of ‘the universal rule’ be brought to her. Then, after a time, she declares that she has discerned that certain things had been changed in the mass in Rome since her messengers returned, so she sent them back for the newer version. In hagiographical terms, what Brigit’s monastic followers in Ireland were affirming was the fact of their own contemporary contact with Rome, and with its most recent liturgical usage.

We may suggest, then, that the establishment of Brigit’s cult in Italy was a process which proceeded in parallel with the various types of Irish peregrinatio during the period between the seventh and the tenth centuries. The connection which I have already suggested between the mission of Columbanus and the introduction of Brigit’s cult finds support in the fact that around St Gallen Brigit is commemorated in association with the local patron who came to the area in the company of Columbanus. Thereafter Brigit’s monastic followers in seventh and eighth-century Ireland stressed their own communication with Rome, and these traditions persisted. In fact, we find a foundation-legend for Brigit’s church at Piacenza in an eleventh-century Irish hymn-preface. This relates that three members of the saint’s household, en route for Rome, reached ‘Blasantia’, where they were saved from an attempt to poison them by recitation of a eulogy of Brigit, who miraculously appeared in their midst. The saint’s reappearance converted the potential murderer, who granted his own dwelling, or the whole of the city of ‘Blasantia’, to Brigit. The legend supports an association between the Roman contacts of Brigit’s community in Ireland in the seventh and eighth centuries and the establishment of Brigidine sites on the route to Rome. In the ninth century, then, the third kind of Irish traveller, the scholar, bishop Donatus of Fiesole, made his particular contribution to the promotion of the cult of Brigit, as he affirmed her role as patroness of visiting pilgrims in Piacenza, and produced a new verse Life of Brigit.

Brigit had been commemorated in Ireland by Latin prose vitae from the seventh century onward, but the texts which survive are known only through the fact that numerous manuscript copies were made in continental Europe. Indeed, the Life of Brigit is probably the most-copied of all the vitae of early medieval women saints in Europe, yet no copy of the early vitae survived in Ireland. It is to the peregrini that we owe our knowledge of these most important records of Irish hagiography. While we have no very early Italian manuscript copy of a seventh-century vita of Brigit, we do have evidence that these vitae were in circulation among the Irish in Italy. A poem by an Irishman called Colman, said to have been composed in Rome, recalls one of the best-known of Brigit’s miracles, the incident of the cloak on the sunbeam , a story interesting also for the fact that it seems to be modelled on an apocryphal story about the infant Christ playing on a sunbeam as if it were a solid wooden beam. Colman ends his verses on Brigit by stating that he leaves to others the narration of the saint’s many other uirtutes.

Bishop Donatus of Fiesole [876], the fellow-countryman of Colman, seems to have taken up the challenge.

The metrical Life of Brigit ascribed to Donatus survives in four main copies, all apparently of Tuscan provenance. The text shows close but not direct relationship with the so-called Vita Prima of Brigit, itself identified as an eighth-century amalgamation of three seventh-century vitae. We may suppose that both works drew independently on the same material. Why did Donatus produce yet another vita of Brigit when vitae from Ireland were evidently in circulation? The work of Donatus shows that he is focusing in particular on a continental readership rather on the Irish emigrees familiar with the saint. Donatus substitutes a hagiographical form which came into vogue in Carolingian circles, that of a Latin hexameter epic, for the existing Hibernicized Latin prose narratives which were influenced by vernacular Irish storytelling. Clearly, in proclaiming Brigit’s deeds to Tuscan ecclesiastics, Donatus sought that the medium of his work should invite reception and that form should not distract from content.

We learn more of the writer’s outlook from his prologues. Two hymns on Christ and the saints set Donatus’s account of Brigit in context. In the first hymn we find praise of Christ through brief recall of his deeds for mankind, especially his death and resurrection, and at the end is the poet’s own request for mercy and eternal salvation. The adoption of this poetic mode suggests that Donatus viewed his work in a manner similar to that which we noted earlier in the verse of Columbanus and of Blathmac, and thus within a framework of reciprocal relations between poet and patron. Donatus the bishop is also concerned with proper protocol, as he accords Christ pride of place as his primary patron, then he proceeds to extol the saints from the martyrs onward, and follows with praise of Brigit in particular. Before recounting Brigit’s deeds, moreover, Donatus includes verses in praise of Ireland, native land of the saint and his own native land. We may view this as Donatus the exile looking back on his homeland as a kind of Biblical paradise. Yet the placement of these verses in his hagiographical text suggests that somewhat more was in question, that Donatus wished to link Brigit’s Irishness with her sanctity. Proclaiming to a Tuscan audience that Brigit’s deeds merited recognition in the universal canon of sanctity, at the same time he proclaims that this great saint was his compatriot.

Once he had asserted the fact of Brigit’s Irishness, Donatus dispenses with the detail, abbreviating biographical data in his source-texts. He is more concerned with establishing the saint’s favour with God than with setting out a chronological career. Brigit is called ‘ uirgo Dei’ or ‘ sancta Dei’, and it is emphasized that divine power was manifested in the deeds which she was enabled to do. Miracles of assistance predominate. The sick and disabled are cured, lepers are healed, food is miraculously multiplied, water is changed into beer or milk, lost or broken objects are restored. Brigit is a saint who protects and provides, who restores health, guides the lost, and gives abundantly. Furthermore, Brigit is shown as being eminently approachable. She is not cloistered, and she travels through the countryside, encountering and assisting people from every echelon in society. Her deeds proclaim the virtues of humility and charity, and the few instances of punishment through her power arise through sins against these virtues. Donatus, in his pastoral role, presents Brigit as a saint who interacted with kings and bishops, but who had especial care for the poor and afflicted. She is a patron worthy of the regard of the whole community.

The epitaph of Donatus emphasizes the prominent role which he played in public life in northern Italy as a scholar and as an ecclesiastical magnate who interacted with secular powers.

Yet his devotion to Brigit implies concern with the weak in society as well as with the strong. Brigit was a role-model in helping and protecting all who sought her assistance, especially the most needy in the community. Historical sources testify that in his episcopal role Donatus attended royal courts and church councils, and acted as feudal lord in the city. Was there a contradiction, then, between his public role and his position as a follower of Brigit, saint of humility and charity? Beyond the city is the rural hermitage of Santa Brigida, very probably dedicated by Donatus to his patron saint. The hermitage under Brigit’s patronage may well have constituted for Donatus a place of ascetic retreat, known in Irish as di/sert, literally ‘desert’, away from the obligations of episcopacy and power, where he might pray and contemplate. Following the example of Martin of Tours, one of the saints most venerated in the early Irish church, Donatus may have sought to balance the episcopal and monastic roles, the pastoral and the ascetic. City and hermitage thus may be seen as contrasting yet complementary dwellings, the one serving public obligation and interaction with the powerful, the other, offering private meditation and interaction with the poor and needy of the countryside.

In parallel, Donatus’s own commemoration of Brigit linked Irish tradition with Carolingian scholarship, as the narration of the saint’s deeds in epic hexameters performed the service of poetic praise for patron in expectation of a spiritual reward. Donatus’s composition implies the view that while Brigit belonged to Ireland she belonged also to the wider world and to Tuscany itself. The fact that Tuscany preserved manuscripts of Brigit’s Vita and the name of Santa Brigida must surely be attributed to the actions of Donatus, and ultimately to his conviction that the deeds of Brigit were not merely matters of history or clerical concerns, but served as a universal inspiration for all time.

Moreover, our earliest documentary reference to Brigit, in a vernacular Irish text dated about 600 AD says of her “She will be another Mary, mother of the great Lord ”. Devotion to Brigit was, therefore, associated with Marian devotion. A vernacular text on the Life of Brigit dated c. 900 AD depicts a prophecy of Brigit’s coming to her Irish site of Kildare thus: “ This site is open to heaven ...; and today a girl for whom it has been prepared by God will come to us like Mary”. The close geographical association between Santa Brigida and Marian sites in Tuscany such as Santuario Madonna delle Grazie al Sasso thus mirrors a connection between Brigit and Mary which extends back to the beginnings of Christianity in Ireland.

The continuing veneration of Santa Brigida, moreover, indicates that the site served as a place of retreat and meditation even after the time of Donatus. That it was particularly linked with female devotion is suggested by an episode in the thirteenth-century Life of St Andrew, identified as a disciple of Donatus in Ireland, and subsequently his Archdeacon in Fiesole.

It is related that God took pity on Andrew as he lay in his final illness far from his homeland, and angels were sent to bring his sister, Brigit, from Ireland to comfort him at his life’s end. After Andrew’s death, the Life recounts that his sister remained in the area, living a life of prayer in the hermitage now known as Santa Brigida. The hagiographical episode may be based on an episode in the Life of Donatus himself, which recounts how the saint was consoled and healed by a vision of his patron saint, Brigit. The thirteenth-century story in the Life of Andrew seems to be an adaptation which makes the sixth-century Irish saint into a more accessible and immediate figure, who was physically as well as spiritually present in the Tuscan countryside. The significance of the story is that it witnesses in an important way to contemporary devotion, and to the fact that the secluded site of Santa Brigida was known as the retreat of a female saint. Thus, the legacy of Brigit, patron and guide of the first Irish pilgrims to Italy, took root and survived, in various forms, and through the centuries. The saint’s legacy in Tuscany associates female sanctity and intercession with a holy place which continues to inspire the practices of prayer and contemplation.


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