Grief and the Cross: Popular Devotion and Passion Piety from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages

Christopher Sweeney, Fordham University


Grief and the Cross: Popular Devotion and Passion Piety from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, examines the earliest Christian devotions to the suffering Christ and lamenting Mary, referred to as Passion Piety. These devotions have traditionally been seen as a high medieval innovation. This dissertation shows that Passion piety was developed over the course of late antiquity and the early middle ages. Passion piety has remained unrecognized because elite theologians and clerics encouraged celebratory commemorations of the Passion, and denied that Christ suffered emotionally on the cross. Nonetheless, in various parts of the later Roman Empire, non-elite Christians developed devotions to the suffering Christ by modelling their commemorations of the Passion on their own indigenous funerary rituals and customs. Part I describes elite devotions to the crucified Christ in Late Antiquity. It shows that elite Christians, from Ambrose and Augustine, to Cyril, and Nestorius and beyond, encouraged a commemoration of the Passion modeled on the imperial adventus rituals. On this model, the Passion was remembered as a triumphal victory over death, not a moment of intense suffering. This model of understanding the Passion was largely determined by the parameters of the late antique educational system. This system, accessible only to the elite, was centered around Stoic ethical teachings, a set of teachings that formed the core of the moral curriculum and were nearly universal in schools throughout the Roman Mediterranean. This system taught, among other things, that emotional suffering was morally wrong; it was a mark of lowly status, and based on false knowledge. Given the pervasiveness of this system, and Christian attempts to outcompete other intellectual movements, Christian elites denied that Christ suffered emotionally, and sought to stamp out devotional practices that affirmed otherwise. As far as surviving evidence attests, Passion piety emerged independently in two contexts, first in the Greek East, especially around Jerusalem, and later in post-conquest Saxony. The first evidence for Passion piety comes from the writings of Egeria, who attests to widespread, popular lamentation for the suffering Christ despite local clerics admonitions to the contrary. This popular devotion gradually spread throughout the East, forming the basis of what would become known as the Theopaschite Controversies. These controversies, at one—widely acknowledged—level were controversies about the ontology of God. Yet, at another equally important and unacknowledged level, these were controversies between theologians about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of popular Passion Piety. Throughout the Roman period, most Christian theologians—including figures as diverse as Cyril, Nestorius, Proclus, and Ps. Caesarius—denied the legitimacy of Passion piety, though it had several defenders among the Miaphysites of Antioch and Jerusalem. With Rome’s loss of control over Jerusalem and the surrounding area, the Roman education system collapsed, and between this collapse and the intense symbolic tragedies of the loss of control over the holy places, Passion piety was first endorsed by elite Greek theologians in Arabic controlled lands over the course of the seventh and eighth centuries. In the Latin West, Passion piety first emerged in the wake of the Carolingian conquest of the Saxons. Over a thirty-year period, the Carolingians undertook a nearly genocidal war that resulted in mass executions and forced resettlement of huge swaths of the Saxon population. For the survivors, this was accompanied by forced Christianization. The first Western devotions to the suffering Christ emerge in this context—on the Saxon-Carolingian borders, and in monasteries of forcibly tonsured Saxon monks. As the Saxons were forcibly Christianized, they were encouraged to devote themselves to a regale Christ, modeled on Carolingian and earlier Roman rulers. Saxon devotion to the suffering Christ was a subversion of this. At first marginalized to Saxon areas, these devotions soon spread throughout most of Latin Europe by means of Amalarius’ revised antiphonary, the first widely diffused antiphonary to contain the Tenebrae, a set of intensely emotional hymns to the suffering Christ sung throughout Triduum. This antiphonary, though condemned by Amalarius’ peers—indeed it helped to lead to Amalarius’ deposition from the bishopric—was nonetheless widely adopted throughout Francia in the waning years of Carolingian power.

Subject Area

Theology|Religious history|Medieval history

Recommended Citation

Sweeney, Christopher, "Grief and the Cross: Popular Devotion and Passion Piety from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages" (2020). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI27962703.