Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Religious Nouvellettes.

I shall notice a class of very singular works, in which the spirit of romance has been called in to render religion more attractive to certain heated imaginations.

In the fifteenth century was published a little book of prayers, accompanied by figures, both of a very uncommon nature for a religious publication. It is entitled Hortulus Animæ, cum Oratiunculis aliquibus superadditis quæ in prioribus Libris non habentur.

It is a small octavo en lettres gothiques, printed by John Grunninger, 1500. “A garden,” says the author, “which abounds with flowers for the pleasure of the soul;” but they are full of poison. In spite of his fine promises, the chief part of these meditations are as puerile as they are superstitious. This we might excuse, because the ignorance and superstition of the times allowed such things: but the figures which accompany this work are to be condemned in all ages; one represents Saint Ursula and some of her eleven thousand virgins, with all the licentious inventions of an Aretine. What strikes the ear does not so much irritate the senses, observes the sage Horace, as what is presented in all its nudity to the eye. One of these designs is only ridiculous: David is represented as examining Bathsheba bathing, while Cupid hovering throws his dart, and with a malicious smile triumphs in his success. We have had many gross anachronisms in similar designs. There is a laughable picture in a village in Holland, in which Abraham appears ready to sacrifice his son Isaac by a loaded blunderbuss; but his pious intention is entirely frustrated by an angel urining in the pan. In another painting, the Virgin receives the annunciation of the angel Gabriel with a huge chaplet of beads tied round her waist, reading her own offices, and kneeling before a crucifix; another happy invention, to be seen on an altar-piece at Worms, is that in which the Virgin throws Jesus into the hopper of a mill, while from the other side he issues changed into little morsels of bread, with which the priests feast the people. Matthison, a modern traveller, describes a picture in a church at Constance, called the Conception of the Holy Virgin. An old man lies on a cloud, whence he darts out a vast beam, which passes through a dove hovering just below; at the end of a beam appears a large transparent egg, in which egg is seen a child in swaddling clothes with a glory round it. Mary sits leaning in an arm chair, and opens her mouth to receive the egg.

I must not pass unnoticed in this article a production as extravagant in its design, in which the author prided himself in discussing three thousand questions concerning the Virgin Mary.

The publication now adverted to was not presented to the world in a barbarous age and in a barbarous country, but printed at Paris in 1668. It bears for title, Dévote Salutation des Membres sacres du Corps de la Glorieuse Vièrge, Mère de Dieu. That is, “A Devout Salutation of the Holy Members of the Body of the glorious Virgin, Mother of God.” It was printed and published with an approbation and privilege, which is more strange than the work itself. Valois reprobates it in these just terms: “What would Innocent XI. have done, after having abolished the shameful Office of the Conception, Indulgences, &c. if he had seen a volume in which the impertinent devotion of that visionary monk caused to be printed, with permission of his superiors, Meditations on all the Parts of the Body of the Holy Virgin? Religion, decency, and good sense, are equally struck at by such an extravagance.” I give a specimen of the most decent of these salutations.

Salutation to the Hair.

“I salute you, charming hair of Maria! Rays of the mystical sun! Lines of the centre and circumference of all created perfection! Veins of gold of the mine of love! Chains of the prison of God! Roots of the tree of life! Rivulets of the fountain of Paradise! Strings of the bow of charity! Nets that caught Jesus, and shall be used in the hunting-day of souls!”

Salutation to the Ears.

“I salute ye, intelligent ears of Maria! ye presidents of the princes of the poor! Tribunal for their petitions; salvation at the audience of the miserable! University of all divine wisdom! Receivers general of all wards! Ye are pierced with the rings of our chains; ye are impearled with our necessities!”

The images, prints, and miniatures, with which the catholic religion has occasion to decorate its splendid ceremonies, have frequently been consecrated to the purposes of love: they have been so many votive offerings worthy to have been suspended in the temple of Idalia. Pope Alexander VI. had the images of the Virgin made to represent some of his mistresses; the famous Vanozza, his favourite, was placed on the altar of Santa, Maria del Popolo; and Julia Farnese furnished a subject for another Virgin. The same genius of pious gallantry also visited our country. The statuaries made the queen of Henry III. a model for the face of the Virgin Mary. Hearne elsewhere affirms, that the Virgin Mary was generally made to bear a resemblance to the queens of the age, which, no doubt, produced some real devotion among the courtiers.

The prayer-books of certain pious libertines were decorated with the portraits of their favourite minions and ladies in the characters of saints, and even of the Virgin and Jesus. This scandalous practice was particularly prevalent in that reign of debauchery in France, when Henry III. held the reins of government with a loose hand. In a missal once appertaining to the queen of Louis XII. may be seen a mitred ape, giving its benediction to a man prostrate before it; a keen reproach to the clergy of that day. Charles V., however pious that emperor affected to be, had a missal painted for his mistress by the great Albert Durer, the borders of which are crowded with extravagant grotesques, consisting of apes, who were sometimes elegantly sportive, giving clysters to one another, and in more offensive attitudes, not adapted to heighten the piety of the Royal Mistress. This missal has two French verses written by the Emperor himself, who does not seem to have been ashamed of his present. The Italians carried this taste to excess. The manners of our country were more rarely tainted with this deplorable licentiousness, although I have observed an innocent tendency towards it, by examining the illuminated manuscripts of our ancient metrical romances: while we admire the vivid colouring of these splendid manuscripts, the curious observer will perceive that almost every heroine is represented in a state which appears incompatible with her reputation. Most of these works are, I believe, by French artists.

A supplement might be formed to religious indecencies from the Golden Legend, which abounds in them. Henry Stephens’s Apology for Herodotus might be likewise consulted with effect for the same purpose. There is a story of St. Mary the Egyptian, who was perhaps a looser liver than Mary Magdalen; for not being able to pay for her passage to Jerusalem, whither she was going to adore the holy cross and sepulchre, in despair she thought of an expedient in lieu of payment to the ferryman, which required at least going twice, instead of once, to Jerusalem as a penitential pilgrimage. This anecdote presents the genuine character of certain devotees.

Melchior Inchoffer, a Jesuit, published a book to vindicate the miracle of a Letter which the Virgin Mary had addressed to the citizens of Messina: when Naudé brought him positive proofs of its evident forgery, Inchoffer ingenuously confessed the imposture, but pleaded that it was done by the orders of his superiors.

This same letter of the Virgin Mary was like a donation made to her by Louis the Eleventh of the whole county of Boulogne, retaining, however, for his own use the revenues! This solemn act bears the date of the year 1478, and is entitled, “Conveyance of Louis the Eleventh to the Virgin of Boulogne, of the right and title of the fief and homage of the county of Boulogne, which is held by the Count of Saint Pol, to render a faithful account before the image of the said lady.”

Maria Agreda, a religious visionary, wrote The Life of the Virgin. She informs us that she resisted the commands of God and the holy Mary till the year 1637, when she began to compose this curious rhapsody. When she had finished this original production, her confessor advised her to burn it; she obeyed. Her friends, however, who did not think her less inspired than she informed them she was, advised her to re-write the work. When printed it spread rapidly from country to country: new editions appeared at Lisbon, Madrid, Perpignan, and Antwerp. It was the rose of Sharon for those climates. There are so many pious absurdities in this book, which were found to give such pleasure to the devout, that it was solemnly honoured with the censure of the Sorbonne; and it spread the more.

The head of this lady was quite turned by her religion. In the first six chapters she relates the visions of the Virgin, which induced her to write her life. She begins the history ab ovo, as it may be expressed; for she has formed a narrative of what passed during the nine months in which the Virgin was confined in the womb of her mother St. Anne. After the birth of Mary, she received an augmentation of angelic guards; we have several conversations which God held with the Virgin during the first eighteen months after her birth. And it is in this manner she formed a circulating novel, which delighted the female devotees of the seventeenth century.

The worship paid to the Virgin Mary in Spain and Italy exceeds that which is given to the Son or the Father. When they pray to Mary, their imagination pictures a beautiful woman, they really feel a passion; while Jesus is only regarded as a Bambino, or infant at the breast, and the Father is hardly ever recollected: but the Madonna la Senhora, la Maria Santa, while she inspires their religious inclinations, is a mistress to those who have none.

Of similar works there exists an entire race, and the libraries of the curious may yet preserve a shelf of these religious nouvellettes. The Jesuits were the usual authors of these rhapsodies. I find an account of a book which pretends to describe what passes in Paradise. A Spanish Jesuit published at Salamanca a volume in folio, 1652, entitled Empyreologia. He dwells with great complacency on the joys of the celestial abode; there always will be music in heaven with material instruments as our ears are already accustomed to; otherwise he thinks the celestial music would not be music for us! But another Jesuit is more particular in his accounts. He positively assures us that we shall experience a supreme pleasure in kissing and embracing the bodies of the blessed; they will bathe in the presence of each other, and for this purpose there are most agreeable baths in which we shall swim like fish; that we shall all warble as sweetly as larks and nightingales; that the angels will dress themselves in female habits, their hair curled; wearing petticoats and fardingales, and with the finest linen; that men and women will amuse themselves in masquerades, feasts, and balls. — Women will sing more agreeably than men to heighten these entertainments, and at the resurrection will have more luxuriant tresses, ornamented with ribands and head-dresses as in this life!

Such were the books once so devoutly studied, and which doubtless were often literally understood. How very bold must the minds of the Jesuits have been, and how very humble those of their readers, that such extravagances should ever be published! And yet, even to the time in which I am now writing — even at this day — the same picturesque and impassioned pencil is employed by the modern Apostles of Mysticism — the Swedenborgians, the Moravians, the Methodists!

I find an account of another book of this class, ridiculous enough to be noticed. It has for title, “The Spiritual Kalendar, composed of as many Madrigals or Sonnets and Epigrams as there are days in the year; written for the consolation of the pious and the curious. By Father G. Cortade, Austin Preacher at Bayonne, 1665.” To give a notion of this singular collection take an Epigram addressed to a Jesuit, who, young as he was, used to put spurs under his shirt to mortify the outer man! The Kalendar-poet thus gives a point to these spurs:—

Il ne pourra done plus ni ruer ni hennir

Sous le rude Eperon dont tu fais son supplice;

Qui vit jamais tel artifice,

De piquer un cheval pour le mieux retenir!


Your body no more will neigh and will kick,

The point of the spur must eternally prick;

Whoever contrived a thing with such skill,

To keep spurring a horse to make him stand still!

One of the most extravagant works projected on the subject of the Virgin Mary was the following:— The prior of a convent in Paris had reiteratedly entreated Varillas the historian to examine a work composed by one of the monks; and of which — not being himself addicted to letters — he wished to be governed by his opinion. Varillas at length yielded to the entreaties of the prior; and to regale the critic, they laid on two tables for his inspection seven enormous volumes in folio.

This rather disheartened our reviewer: but greater was his astonishment, when, having opened the first volume, he found its title to be Summa Dei-paræ; and as Saint Thomas had made a Sum, or System of Theology, so our monk had formed a System of the Virgin! He immediately comprehended the design of our good father, who had laboured on this work full thirty years, and who boasted he had treated Three Thousand Questions concerning the Virgin! of which he flattered himself not a single one had ever yet been imagined by any one but himself!

Perhaps a more extraordinary design was never known. Varillas, pressed to give his judgment on this work, advised the prior with great prudence and good-nature to amuse the honest old monk with the hope of printing these seven folios, but always to start some new difficulties; for it would be inhuman to occasion so deep a chagrin to a man who had reached his seventy-fourth year, as to inform him of the nature of his favourite occupations; and that after his death he should throw the seven folios into the fire.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53