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Scroll of the Week — Barberini Exultet Roll

Exsúltet iam angélica turba cælórum:
exsúltent divína mystéria:
et pro tanti Regis victória tuba ínsonet salutáris

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!

Die Exultetrolle: Codex Barberini Latinus 592 roll
Zürich: Belser, [1988] ND3380.4 B37 E36 1988 oversize

The Barberini Exultet Roll, of which five sections survive, was created in the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino, in southern Italy, before 1087, when Desiderius (1058-1087) was Abbé. Desiderius is credited with turning the Cloister into a leading cultural center. At Monte Cassino, under the direction of Desiderius, at least seventy manuscripts were written and illuminated. The miniatures in the Exultet Roll contain decorative elements reminiscent of Byzantine art, while also containing Ottonian elements. Above the text are neumes – an early form of musical notation. The Exultet song accompanies one of the oldest rites of the Christian liturgy, the lighting of the Easter candle, the high point of the Easter celebration. The origins of this hymn date to the fourth century. Recording rites such as these probably originated during the 9th century when wandering monks carries the custom from Greece to Italy.

In this rite, the deacon at the pulpit touches the candle with one hand. In the other hand he holds a scroll with the text of the Exultet hymn that he sings to the congregation while the scroll unfurls over the edge of the lectern. The unrolling of the scroll, immediately preceded by the lighting of the Paschal candle, was a powerful symbolic physical manifestation of the sacred written word. The Exultet hymn was an expressive chant of rejoicing performed during the evening service of Holy Saturday, announcing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Before the beginning of this liturgy, all lights inside and outside the church were extinguished. The congregation was surrounded by darkness. The lighting of the candle acted as the first light, a new light, representing Christ’s resurrection, victory over death, bringing the possibility of redemption and eternal life to His faithful.

The use of the scroll format instead of the codex format for this rite was also symbolic. The scroll, an ancient format, was still used, as it had been, for contracts securing the acquisition of goods or confirming legal acts such as marriage. In the Easter liturgy, the scroll symbolized Jesus’ contract with God as ruler. Yet, the direction of the unrolling of the scroll here differs significantly from the unrolling of ancient scrolls. Ancient scrolls were unwound horizontally. This liturgical scroll unrolls vertically. The text is written in the opposite direction of the illuminations, a usual practice for such rolls. As the deacon chanted from an elevated position, the roll would hang over a railing so that the congregation below could follow the chant through representative pictures. The unrolling of the scroll, as it was revealed to the congregation, worked as the unveiling, the materialization of the logos, or Christ.

One of the most celebrated passages of the Exultet hymn is a praise of bees, depicted in the image above. The text reads:

On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise,
this gift from your most holy Church.
But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.

On the Barberini Exultet Roll captions (some in Latin, others in Italian) were added toward the end of the thirteenth century by monks as part of restoration work. Facsimile edition of 980 copies.







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