Exultet rolls: a medieval Easter tradition

by sarahkburke

Recently, because Deb Brown is preparing an exhibit on music in the collections of Dumbarton Oaks, we took out several of the Library’s facsimile copies of Exultet rolls. This was exciting for me (Sarah Burke Cahalan) because years ago I studied these scrolls in the context of a graduate school paper. It is not every day we have an excuse to open these facsimiles! Just in time for Easter, please enjoy some information about a medieval Paschal tradition. The primary source on these materials is Thomas Forrest Kelly’s The Exultet in Southern Italy (Oxford 1996).  Pictured are snapshots of the library’s facsimile copies of Casanatense, Cas. 724 III; Vatican, Barb. Lat. 592; Vatican, Lat. 9820.  Not a chocolate bunny in sight!

photo 2An Exultet roll, a scroll containing the Exultet prayer, was used to bless the Paschal candle at the Vigil ceremony on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. This candle became a sign for Christ during the recital of the chanted Exultet prayer. (The prayer is named for its first word.) There are twenty-eight extant Exultet rolls dating from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries; some of these are fragmentary but many are nearly complete. All originated in southern Italy, most in today’s Campania and Apulia, and with the exception of three manuscripts all remain in Italian collections. Six of the Exultet rolls (if we do not include the related Capua and Paris rolls) were made in the scriptorium of Montecassino. Others were made in monastic scriptoria in Bari, Troia and other regional centers. They were used both in monastic churches and in civic cathedrals.

The very fact that they are scrolls—the longest, Pisa 2, is 9000 mm but most are between 4000 and 6000 mm long—generates attention because most other luxurious manuscripts from medieval Europe are codices. Rectangles of parchment were attached to one another, often with thongs, to form a continuous scroll; most of the rolls are between 200 and 400 mm wide. Within a decorative border, text was written horizontally across the width of the scroll in ink, and images were drawn in ink and often painted. The text stops before each image, allowing the image to occupy the entire space between one border and another. Another noteworthy feature of the rolls is that the text is often, though not always, inverted in relation to the images. As the deacon sang the prayer he unrolled the manuscript over the ambo: indeed, in many images in the rolls we see the deacon doing exactly this. The images on the rolls were intended to become visible to the audience at approximately the same time as the deacon sang the prayers they illustrated, a scheme that was not always effective due to factors such as lighting and, more critically, the proximity on the parchment of the relevant prayers to the images they illustrated. Because of the Byzantine influence on these Italian images, Dumbarton Oaks owns several facsimiles of these manuscripts.

photo 1As the Exultet prayer is sung, the candle becomes a locus in which the union that is so important to Easter—of the celestial and the earthly—occurs. The Paschal candle, made entirely from pure beeswax, was an agricultural product. It was also a sign for Christ’s presence on earth in the days following the Resurrection. The imagery in the scrolls ranges from the Crossing of the Red Sea and the Harrowing of Hell to more quotidian images of bees (which produced the wax used to make the candle), soldiers, and members of the religious community.

photo 4The connection between celestial and earthly is often suggested by the Christian liturgy, but it takes particular precedence at Easter. As new Christians are baptized at the Easter Vigil, they join the group of those who will live anew in Heaven. Eucharist—distributed to the laity only rarely in the Middle Ages, and only at Easter according to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215—is a reminder of the essential duality of the incarnation: God and man. As the Paschal candle is lit, participants in the ceremony are meant to understand that Christ once again returns to life having defeated death. All of these aspects of the Easter ceremony emphasize the participation of the faithful in important episodes of Christian history.

The Exultet rolls, which played an important part in the liturgy of Easter, are a wonderful example of why we need to consider how books (and scrolls) were used at the time of their production.

photo 5

Guglielmo Cavallo, Rotoli di Exultet dell’italia meridionale, Bari 1973

Martin R. Dudley, ‘Sacramental Liturgies in the Middle Ages,’ The Liturgy of the Medieval Church, edited by Thomas J. Heffernan and E. Ann Matter, Kalamazoo, MI 2001, pp. 215-243.

‘Exsultet (Easter Proclamation)’, Catholic Culture, http://www.catholicculture.org/liturgicalyear/prayers/view.cfm?id=1227.

Thomas Forrest Kelly, The Exultet in Southern Italy, Oxford 1996.

John Lowden, ‘Illuminated Books and the Liturgy: Some Observations,’ Objects, Images, and the Word: Art in the Service of the Liturgy, edited by Colum Hourihane, Princeton, NJ 2003, pp. 17-53.