Polysematic Good Friday

2 April 2010


Last year for Good Friday I wrote a relatively in-depth account of the Biblical Passion story interpreted as a classic Greek tragedy (in The Meaning of Good Friday). I was rather pleased with this argument, though in the past year (I don’t recall exactly when or where) I ran into a similar argument independent of mine. Thus I am not the only one to notice that the unities of time, place, and action make the Passion of Good Friday into a piece classical Greek tragedy.

Last year I compared the dramatic unities of Good Friday to classical Greek tragedy and speculated upon the emergence of medieval Christian tradegy.

In last year’s Good Friday post I also spent a significant amount of time collecting images of classic European representations of the Passion story. Over the past year, these images have come up many times in search results. It may be that the majority of searches that bring traffic to this forum are people searching for images, since few seem to read what I have written. Today, however, on Good Friday itself, this post of last year has already received some fifty hits, though the pious who find themselves accidentally exposed to a naturalistic sermon will probably find themselves, like Dante, in a dark wood with the right road wholly lost and gone.

Good Friday can also be compared to a Gothic cathedral, which is a piece of medieval performance art preserved in glass and stone.

To treat the Good Friday Passion story as a classical tragedy helps us to understand and contextualize the story as it emerged in the Western tradition, but it could also be argued that this literary context is a distraction from the devotional meaning of Good Friday. Among specifically Christian holidays, Good Friday understandably has engendered some of the greatest pageantry of observances. It is the dramatic culmination of Holy Week, such that Easter can be seen as a resolution following the climax. Given the centrality of Good Friday to the life of Christ, its culmination of the narrative of sacrifice, and the many events and related stories that cluster around Good Friday, the Passion story has gained both depth and complexity through its long history. Last year I wrote:

We could compare Good Friday to a Gothic cathedral, as Good Friday has as its central theme the cross, the crucifixion, and this theme is layered with additional symbols and meanings. So too the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages all conformed to a simple cruciform plan and yet were layered with every imaginable decoration, some of which depart considerably from any unitary plan of construction. Despite the complexity presented by the details that have been gathered into the Good Friday story, however, the central narrative is never obscured. The singular strength of the story is undiminished by the many subplots and minor narratives.

It is this complexity of the Good Friday story that makes it inexhaustible source material for Christian civilization. The complexity of the story is matched by the complexity of the possible interpretations. I have compared the Passion story both to a classical Greek tragedy as well as to its aesthetic antithesis, a Gothic cathedral, which might well be characterized as a disunity of time, place, and action. But the meanings of Good Friday are far from exhausted by this dialectical tension between the classical and the medieval.

The floor plan of Chartres Cathedral reveals the overall simplicity of the cruciform plan overlaid by a complexity of structure and decoration.

For the manifold devotional meanings of Good Friday we cannot but do better than to look deeper into the Medieval conception of meaning, when Christendom was at its height and producing the great religious festivals that survive today in Sevilla and Quito (and which I mentioned in Great Monday). And for the Medieval conception of meaning, we cannot but do better than to turn to Dante. For Dante, Good Friday was central. Indeed, the entire Divine Comedy begins on Good Friday: this is the day that Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood, hence the day he begins his descent into Hell.

A famous Equestrian Statue of Cangrande I della Scala (9 March 1291 – 22 July 1329) an Italian nobleman and patron of Dante.

In section 7 of his famous letter to one of his patrons, Cangrande I della Scala, Dante wrote:

For me be able to present what I am going to say, you must know that the sense of this work is not simple, rather it may be called polysemantic, that is, of many senses; the first sense is that which comes from the letter, the second is that of that which is signified by the letter. And the first is called the literal, the second allegorical or moral or anagogical. Which method of treatment, that it may be clearer, can be considered through these words: “When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language; Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion.” (KJV, Ps. 114.1-2). If we look at it from the letter alone it means to us the exit of the Children of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses; if from allegory, it means for us our redemption done by Christ; if from the moral sense, it means to us the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace; if from the anagogical, it means the leave taking of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory. And though these mystical senses are called by various names, in general all can be called allegorical, because they are different from the literal or the historical. Now, allegory comes from Greek alleon, which in Latin means other or different.

And in the original Latin:

Ad evidentiam itaque dicendorum, sciendum est quod istius operis non est simplex sensus, immo dici potest polysemos, hoc est plurium sensuum; nam primus sensus est qui habetur per literam, alius est qui habetur per significata per literam. Et primus dicitur literalis, secundus vero allegoricus, sive moralis, sive anagogicus. Qui modus tractandi, ut melius pateat, potest considerari in his versibus: “In exitu Israel de Aegypto, domus Iacob de populo barbaro, facta est Iudaea sanctificatio eius, Israel potestas eius.” Nam si ad literam solam inspiciemus, significatur nobis exitus filiorum Israel de Aegypto, tempore Moysi; si ad allegoriam, nobis significatur nostra redemptio facta per Christum; si ad moralem sensum, significatur nobis conversio animae de luctu et miseria peccati ad statum gratiae; si ad anagogicum, significatur exitus animae sanctae ab huius corruptionis servitute ad aeternae gloriae libertatem. Et quamquam isti sensus mystici variis appellentur nominibus, generaliter omnes dici possunt allegorici, quum sint a literali sive historiali diversi. Nam allegoria dicitur ab alleon graece, quod in latinum dicitur alienum, sive diversum.

Thus Dante makes a primary distinction between the literal or historical on the one hand, and the allegorical on the other hand. Then he further subdivides the allegorical into allegory proper, moral, and anagogical interpretations. Thus it is sometimes said that Dante distinguished four levels of meaning in the writing of his Comedy: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. This list can also be expanded, since Dante’s schema of interpretation has been the subject of much comment since he wrote it. For example, the moral meaning is sometimes called the psychological meaning. I can easily imagine Joseph Campbell taking this approach, given his focus on the psychological as the central human concern (especially in lecture 3, “Society and Symbol,” of Man and Myth), and his interpretation of myth as being the way that human beings get in touch with the deepest sources of their psychic life.

In his Comedia, Dante began his descent into Hell on Good Friday.

In this spirit we can read the Good Friday Passion narrative in literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. The literal sense of Good Friday is the Bible story as it is told to children, and which can be compared to historical accounts. The allegorical meaning of Good Friday is the sacrifice of Christ for all who believe in him. The moral meaning of Good Friday is the sacrifice demanded of the believing Christian in order to prepare the soul to be worthy for the place made for that soul in the Kingdom of Heaven by Christ’s sacrifice. The anagogical meaning of Good Friday is the transcendent meaning of Christian sacrifice in its most general signification, as an element in the structure of the world.

The crucifixion is the central symbol of Good Friday. Photo Credit: Laura Nielsen. La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Of the Dantesque possibilities of polysemy the anagogical is always the most interesting because it takes us the farthest and gives the freest reign to our abstract imagination to place the stories that resonate in our lives in a metaphysical context that places our lives in relationship to the world. In this way, the story becomes the concrete expression of a metaphysic. The centrality of sacrifice in the Christian cosmology means that the Christian metaphysic is a world always conceived in relation to the central fact of sacrifice.

A few days ago in Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization I mentioned Joseph Campbell’s distinction between two possible responses to the world conceived as a consuming sacrificial fire: feed the fire and quench the fire. The central place of sacrifice within Christian mythology seems to me to fit into the feed the fire response, but it is a distinct, culturally-specific response. The fire of sacrifice is to be fed, but it is fed not by spectacular rituals of sacrifice in which the community demands the gift of sacrifice be given to it, but rather fed by the self-sacrifice of the individual soul that gives itself for Christ as Christ gave himself for the world. This is reflexive self-sacrifice, and it is through reflexivity that Western man gains his depth and discovers his individuality. This is sacrifice with individuality intact, and that makes the Christian response to the world as a consuming sacrificial fire a uniquely Western response.

This is merely a rough sketch, of course, of a Dantean interpretation of Good Friday. I didn’t even think of this until I say down to write, and this is as best extemporaneous. Probably there are academics who have devoted entire careers to the meaning of Good Friday in Dante. Now that I have thought it, I would like to seek out some studies in this vein. In the meantime, I will continue to think about the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical meanings of Good Friday, and maybe by the time the next Good Friday comes (fate willing) I will be prepared to give a systematic exposition of a much more satisfying character.

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One Response to “Polysematic Good Friday”

  1. Even if you are not a history fan, you should the visit in Sagrada Familia is a must if you are in Barcelona. I went there and it was great.

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