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.