Review: The Illuminated Easter Proclamation

The Illuminated Easter Proclamation, illustrated by Deacon Charles Rohrbacher

Liturgical Press, 2011; $79.95

I’ve long been intrigued by the phenomenon of exsultet scrolls. The medieval practice, found principally in Southern Italy, of singing the exsultet from a richly illuminated scroll, brought together visual and musical arts in an incomparable way. In exsultet scrolls, the illustrations are painted upside down, so that as the scroll unrolls over the lectern, those close enough to see can enjoy looking at the pictures right side up.

Scrolls, unfortunately, are notoriously hard to manage for modern people unaccustomed to handling a rotulus. To unroll a scroll over a lectern at the right pace while singing is a feat of dexterity you wouldn’t want to charge to just anybody! We are much more comfortable turning the pages of a book. Thus, the idea of adorning a book from which this splendid text could be sung at the paschal vigil seems a natural development. Sadly however, no such illuminated ritual book for the exsultet has been published in modern times (to my knowledge)—until now.

Charles Rohrbacher, a deacon and iconographer from Alaska, was preparing to sing the exsultet at an Easter Vigil four years ago, when he looked down at his photocopied text and thought to himself “We can do better than this.” In fact, he went further and thought to himself, “I can do better than this!” And he has. Rohrbacher has produced a beautiful book, in which the text and music are illustrated and laid out for ritual use. Rohrbacher is trained in the style of Russian icon-writing, and uses these skills to advantage here. He seems, to my eye, to be influenced by the Pskov school, using dark skin tones highlighted in white.

The text of the exsultet is typeset rather than rendered in calligraphy. Only the initial capital is illuminated. The words and music are easy to read, and would present no problem to a person who sings from the text and is (of course) accustomed to reading standard type. The images keep to a consistent style. Aside from the dark brown flesh tones of the human figures, the color palette is dominated by rich blues and deep orange-reds moderated by subdued olive and ochre, with creamy white and bright yellow providing notes of sharp contrast.

One of the strategic decisions Rohrbacher made, which unifies the book and which I find stunningly beautiful, is to keep the deep blue night sky, studded with stars, as a backdrop throughout. The sun and moon make their appearance (held aloft by angels in one image!) but this Easter proclamation revels in the beauty of the night. A final plate of Christ’s cosmic glory, in which he is clothed in white and seated on a rainbow of red and gold in eschatological splendor, is captioned “Christ, the morning star.”

The Iconographic Program

The subjects of his illustrations are various. They include biblical references found within the exsultet, such as the crossing of the Red Sea, the slain lamb whose blood anoints the lintels of the homes of the Israelites, and Adam and Eve in the garden, with the snake slithering around the tree between them. The harrowing of hell spans two pages (the only two-page spread), as we hear how Christ broke the prison bars of death. Mother Church, one of my personal favorites, appears in glory, her arms opened wide. Angels sound the trumpets of salvation. A neophyte clad in white arises from a sarcophagus-shaped baptismal font.

There are other images here as well. The three young men in the fiery furnace appear: a reference to a reading which used to be in the Lectionary for the Vigil but is no longer. This image is paired with one of Moses before the burning bush. Together they enlarge our meditation upon the exsultet’s reference to “glowing fire.” They also remind us of God’s saving work throughout the Old Testament. The use of varied streams of tradition lifts the book above a picture-book image-by-image illustration, into the realm of allusion and creativity. These images “speak” and create a layered inter-textual weaving of meaning for this ritual moment without ever departing from a properly traditional understanding of the proclamation itself.

The images sometimes comment rather subtly on the text. An example can be found in the illustration accompanying the exsultet’s reference to the wedding of heaven and earth. This verse is charmingly illustrated by an image of Jacob’s ladder, along with this text of St. Bede the Venerable: “The ladder which [Jacob] saw is the Church, which has its birth from the earth but its way of life in heaven.” Each of the larger images is tagged by a very brief text (in type small enough to be unobtrusive), either from scripture, the liturgy, patristic texts, or writings of the saints.

Border Decoration

Although the book would be at home in a wide variety of church settings, there is a touch of the artist’s native place in his choice of border decoration. The pages are edged with flowering and fruit-bearing plants common in southeastern Alaska: blueberries, forget-me-nots, salmon berries, and the devil’s club—no, not an exorcistic reference, but a medicinal plant. Rohrbacher pays homage to the bees who produce the wax of the paschal candle by including illustrations of them in the border of every page, as well as a larger image, in conjunction with the text, depicting bees in the hive. They surround the mother bee, apis mater, whose praises the text sings.

Jonah: An Auspicious Beginning

The very first plate shows—without commentary of any kind— Jonah being ejected from the great fish. What a magnificent choice! This beguiling image has a triple allusion, given its context. The three days Jonah spent in the belly of the whale are traditionally an icon of the three days Christ spent in the tomb before the resurrection. The regurgitation of Jonah thus is an image of the resurrection of Jesus.

The prophetic calling of the Christian is also suggested by the image of Jonah. The reluctant prophet is sent forth from a watery place of danger and trial to bear God’s word to the great and wicked city of Nineveh. A similar calling awaits the one who has undergone baptism. Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, challenged us many years ago to recover the great baptismal images and baptismal literacy the Church once possessed. Here is an excellent example of that patrimony. When Kavanagh made reference to the riches of our baptismal tradition, he included in his list: “standing in great peril.” Baptism is about standing in great peril? Well, yes. On this night of baptism, Jonah is a figure of Christ and also a figure of the Christian.

Third, and not least, I see the image of Jonah as a challenge to the one who has the task of singing of this song. That person is charged with announcing a sacred mystery. The message of Easter is prophetic. No one should sing of the passover of the Lord without a certain degree of fear and trembling. That prophet is you, dear deacon or cantor, so you’d better make it good!

Questions and Summary Evaluation

I would note two overall concerns about the book. First, it is rather expensive. In a year when most parish budgets have been taxed with a lot of extraordinary expenses for the new missal, I can understand a reluctance to invest in yet another book. We’ve gotten along without it up to now, you may say. Yet a lot depends on how it would be used. The book is really too good to be kept by the deacon or cantor alone. I would hope that if a parish (or an individual deacon or cantor) were to acquire one, it would also be shown to neophytes, to children, and indeed to any of the faithful, during the Easter season. We have here an opportunity to prolong the wonder of this proclamation. It is sung only once a year. But it contains food for thought and for prayer that lasts much, much longer.

Second, the production of such a book inevitably raises the question of whether a mass-produced volume is really the best solution. Are there artists in our own parishes who could craft something for a local community that would be truly unique? What the medievals did of necessity in making works of art for this purpose would require an extraordinary degree of commitment today. It would, of course, be far more expensive in terms of hours of labor. Yet the idea is not unthinkable. There are Christian artists in our midst who could rise to the challenge.

In sum, I warmly recommend this book. It is a worthy work that can enhance the singing of the exsultet and increase our appreciation for its richness. It also offers an inspiring example of how the visual arts and the musical arts can reinforce one another during times of high festivity. Charles Rohrbacher is to be commended not only for giving us his own fine work, but also for giving us an example that others might emulate.

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24 comments

  1. I have suggested to Liturgical Press that they make Rohrbacher’s stunning icons available for purchase as a high-resolution PowerPoint presentation so that those churches where they use screens for projection may have a latter-day equivalent of the old medieval scrolls. A parish would still have to buy a book so that the PowerPoint operator could see where to move from one image to the next, so the publisher would not lose out by doing this, even if the deacon did not sing from the book itself.

    1. This would be very useful for me and my parish. I hope Lit Press does come out with a Powerpoint of it, then we might see our way clear to buying it! It sounds lovely!

  2. I too have purchased the book for my Cathedral parish – I thought there was one page turn that seemed inappropriately placed – most were at the end of the line, but there was one where the page turn was in the middle.

    The book also only had the longer form of the Exsultet. While I love the longer form to be chanted, having the short form also would make the book more useful.

  3. I was puzzled by Liturgical Press’s suggestion in the book’s promotional materials that it was “ideally suited to be carried in procession” since there doesn’t actually seem to be a ritual moment where that would properly take place.

    I see the attraction of a white cover as a link to the Easter season, but I’d be concerned that it would discolor very quickly in use.

      1. You have two deacons? How fortunate.

        But I was wondering whether the book can be displayed someplace after the singing of the Exsultet. That might be nice.

  4. I had a copy to show at my recent “Holy Week in the New Missal” workshops. Folks seemed impressed. One woman (actually from my parish) wanted information and bought one for herself. It is a lovely book and I am looking forward to using it at Easter. It should also be a joy to prepare from the illuminated text.

  5. The folder I use to cantor has illuminated (really illuminated, with gold, by hand in the traditional manner) facing pages containing appropriate prayers/texts, the music is clipped to the opposite blank pages. It’s a joy and a grace to use, even if I’m the only one who ever sees the inside.

    1. Michele, that’s wonderful! Would you mind telling us how this came to be? In other words, was it assembled to hold the Exsultet, or did you adapt another book to the purpose?

      I know of only one parish that currently uses an exsultet scroll. A real scroll — with the writing in calligraphy and the pictures upside down. It’s in Vienna (the parish where Pius Parsch used to do pastoral work, though this is unrelated; the scroll is more recent). It’s a copy of one that is in a library in Rome.

      But your example raises a new question for me, namely, are there handmade, illuminated books in use in parishes?

      1. Rita,

        I don’t know if there are other handmade, illuminated books in use, there certainly are artists out there who can make them. As to how this came to be, when I was married twenty years ago, we inscribed the text of the Rite and the readings — by hand — in a bound book (which we still have), in part thanks to a liturgical theology professor who stressed the import of not only liturgical furnishings that are “real” (not plastic!) but when possible not mass produced.

        So when I took a course in illuminated manuscripts in which the instructor insisted that we not only learn how to make an illuminated page, but also how to bind a simple codex, it seemed natural to make a book for liturgical use and since I cantored, I created a cantor’s book. The texts on the facing pages were meant for my reflection when preparing to lead song and proclaim the psalm, and I still do reflect on them when I organize my music in the book before I use it. It’s not meant only for the important chants (we do the Christmas Proclamation as well), but for Sunday use as well.

        I’m about ready to do another version (I’m a better illuminator and binder than I was when I last made the book) for myself. Any parish that desired such an item – or the Exsultet – could surely find someone to make one, far more skilled than I!

        And Simon, I put photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mfrancldonnay/

      2. Thank you, Michelle. This is quite an interesting story and example. You see how much we have learned here already! When you do the new one, maybe send us some pictures if you would be willing to share them. For the inspiration of others.

        I like the idea of material culture (in this case, a hand made book) enhancing spiritual authenticity!

  6. I agree that it’s nice to have books printed and bound appropriately and beautifully, but with regard to the Easter Proclamation found in the Vox Clara 2010 product even the most lavish printing and binding would not make up for the grotesque text.

    Since our music director and choir have been using a special musical setting for many years we have opted to continue doing so and therefore will be retaining the ICEL1973 text.

    1. Jim, I couldn’t agree more about the text itself. Fortunately, this review dealt only with the book and its visual offerings not with the translation of the text.

      Also, I did not mention the fact (although we know it well) that there are plenty of parishes that do not use the chant, but use other compositions. In that case, the book is impractical, because the amount of pasting-in one would have to do would ruin its appearance and defeat the purpose.

      I’ve always favored the chant myself, actually pretty passionately. It seems to me the higher the degree of festivity the more conservative one ought to be in music (if we sing it once a year, let’s not change it! — the music becomes part of the message). But I’ve been told, in no uncertain terms, that this is NOT what others think! And other compositions are, of course, out there.

    2. While I am one to agree that the overall quality of the 2010 missal is very poor, I have to make an exception for the text of the Exsultet, I find the new text to be very poetic and beautiful. But then there we have the dilemma, how do we judge.

      On a not related to the illuminated text for the chant, I appreciate what LTP did and put the 3 proclamations of Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter together in one text.

      1. Jeff, thanks. I did not know that LTP had done that.
        Right off the bat, I suspect it’s an innocent mistake. The Easter Proclamation is radically unlike the other two, historically and theologically.

        What a puzzling development. I’ll have to look into it more thoroughly.

      2. The Exsultet is, in historical substance, an anaphora rather than a proclamation. The candle is what is being offered, as it were.

  7. Just to clarify. Is it acceptable to not to use the new translation of the Exsultet? I thought that when the Roman Missal was promulgated we didn’t have many options?

    1. Yes, the new texts are mandatory, but unfortunately there are disobedient people around.

      I only hope our music director doesn’t choose the shorter form so as to add in those silly interpolations – they end up making the sung text longer than the longer form and theologically weaker.

      1. Thank God there are disobedient people because otherwise everyone would be using the grotesque new texts without any critical thinking whatsoever.

        Conscientious disobedience has always been an appropriate moral decision.

      2. Yes, they make us appreciate the holy, humble and obedient folks much better.

        But there’s a stupid idea that obedience = no critical thought or disobedience = adult faith. Such a lack of use of reason is unbecoming of an intellectually-able human being.

  8. The only thing I don’t like about this new book is that square-note notation is not used. Other than that, great text, great work!

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