The Exultet Rolls of Southern Italy
At least as early as the fourth century, it was common practice in the Western Church
to intone a solemn hymn of praise at the time of the blessing of the Easter Candle
during the Easter Vigil. At first the words of this Benedictio caerei
of the candle) varied from region to region, but the efforts to standardize the
liturgy which were actively initiated by the Emperor Charlemagne at the beginning of
the ninth century ensured that the text favored by the Anglo-Saxon Alcuin, an
influential court scholar, eventually prevailed throughout the West. The text begins
with the exhortation: Exultet iam angelica turba caelorum
(Rejoice now, all
you heavenly choirs of angels) so that this hymn is commonly called "the Exultet
Probably due to strong Byzantine influence in Southern Italy, liturgical practices in
that area had evolved somewhat differently from elsewhere. In particular the
(a lengthy strip of parchment which had to be unrolled for
reading) was still much used in the tenth century, especially on solemn occasions -- as
opposed to the codex
(that is, the book format we all know). The most important
parts of the Easter Vigil ceremonies were recorded on rolls, which were solemnly read
from the ambo
, an elevated lectern facing the people in the church.
During the tenth century, under the renewed effort at unification of liturgical practices
led by Pope Gregory VII, the Beneventan liturgy was replaced by the Roman liturgy. This
meant that the official text of the Exultet
now replaced the local text on the
liturgical roll. This is the text -- written in Beneventan script and surmounted by
early musical notation -- on the remaining five pieces of the Exultet Roll
reproduced in facsimile. Note that this text is written in the direction
opposite to the illustrations, as is usual for such rolls.
The explanation is simple: as the deacon was chanting this solemn proclamation in
Latin from the elevated ambo
, he would allow the roll to hang over the railing
so that the congregation would have the benefit of following what he was saying by means
of the pictures presented in front of them. The sections in the two facsimiles presented
here correspond each time to a single piece of parchment. These segments were originally
sewn together (as in the Lorsch Rotulus
); as is appropriate, the facsimile copies
reproduce the rolls as they are now preserved. Neither is complete: while there is a
continuous sequence of illustrations for the Salerno Exultet Roll
, the text
sections are now lost; on the other hand, at least three sections which contained,
among others, the depictions of the Crossing of the Red Sea, of the Crucifixion, and
of the Blessed Virgin and Child, are missing from the Barberini Exultet Roll
The standard modern translation of the first part of the Exultet
turn the choirs of angels, the earth, and Mother Church:
Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God's throne
Jesus Christ, our king, is risen!
Sound the trumpet of Salvation!
Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your king!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes forever!
Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!
The risen Savior shines upon you.
Let this place resound with joy,
echoing the mighty song of all God's people!
This is normally followed by a brief formal dialogue between the deacon and the
congregation, after which the deacon continues alone. The current version of the rest
of the proclamation has eliminated some of the components of the medieval text, which
then goes on: Vere quia dignum et iustum est ut invisibilem deum omnipotentem...
In the Salerno Roll
note the large upside-down V ornamented with a similarly
upside-down Christ in Glory, which corresponded to the beginning of this (now missing)
phrase written in the direction opposite to the illustrations in the original roll.
In addition to representing the singing angels, the earth and the Church, the
iconography of the Exultet Rolls
stays close to the text and normally involves
most of the following: the Flight from Egypt, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Pillar
of Fire, the Crucifixion, the Harrowing of Hell (that is the descent of Christ into
Hell, where it was believed he conquered the Devil, and from which he freed all good
people who had died before the Crucifixion), the Resurrected Christ, Adam and Eve, the
Offering of the Candle, the Praise of the Bees, the Virgin and Child, the Blessing of
the Candle, the Morning Star, the Church or the Pope and the clergy, the Emperor or
King and their retinue.
The Praise of the Bees is quite lengthy in the medieval version of the Exultet
yielding fascinating images of beekeeping in the Middle Ages. The text extolls not only
the marvellous skill of the bees who produce honey and wax from flowers, but also their
reputed chastity -- which leads smoothly to the next topic mentioned in the hymn,
namely the wonderful Virgin Birth of Christ.