Rabanus Maurus: Artist and Poet

Rabanus Maurus Magnentius (c.780–856), also known as Hrabanus or Rhabanus, was a Frankish Benedictine monk, theologian, poet, encyclopedist and military writer who became archbishop of Mainz in East Francia. He was the author of the encyclopaedia De rerum naturis (“On the Natures of Things”). He also wrote treatises on education and grammar and commentaries on the Bible. He was one of the most prominent teachers and writers of the Carolingian age.

One of his most popular and enduring works is a spectacular collection of poems centered on the cross, called De laudibus sanctae crucis or In honorem sanctae crucis, a set of highly sophisticated poems that present the cross (and, in the last poem, Rabanus himself kneeling before it) in word and image. For example:

The grid of regular letters is a poem in Latin:

Salve, sancta solus Christi, o tu passio laeta,
Crux ueneranda Dei, doctrix, sapientia, lumen,

Hail, holy one of Christ, oh joyful passion
Worshipful cross of God, teacher, wisdom, light,

Simultaneously, the words CRUX SALUS (The Cross is Salvation) are boldly highlighted from this grid. A closer inspection of these letters reveals yet another layer of meaning: the ‘C’ contains the letters/word “Seraphin”, and within the ‘R’ another member of the heavenly hosts, “Cherubim”.

Here’s another:

The poem in the grid of regular letters begins:

Omnipotens virtus, majestas alta, Sabaoth
Excelsus Dominus, virtutum summe creator
Formator mundi hominum te vere Redemptor,
You mea laus, virtus, you gloria cuncta, salusque,

Almighty Majesty, high virtue, Sabaoth,
Lord of the sky, supreme creator of virtues
You truly shaped the world and redeemed men,
You are the object of my praise, you are power, glory and salvation

Here is the first part of this text, with some of it omitted for clarity1:

The horizontal and vertical texts in red are both the same palindrome!

Oro te Ramus aram, ara sumar et oro

O drink, I implore you, you who are altar, and I implore to be carried on your altar

At the bottom of the page, a character, Raban, is worshiping the cross.

Here can be read, inside the outlines of the figure, the following text whose characters are larger than the others:

Rabanum memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere, O pie judicio

O Christ, in your mercy and holiness, I beg you, protect me, Raban, on the day of Judgment.

To manage this, Maurus does resort to Latin abbreviations and such like to make things work out. In other words, some reasonable bending of Latin. But still, the conception and execution are nevertheless extraordinary!

De laudibus sanctae crucis contains quite a few images of this sort:

Suggested Reading:

Kotzur, Hans Jürgen (Hrsg.). Auf den Spuren Eines karollingischen Gelehrten. Philipp Von Zabern Verlag Gmbh (2006) ISBN: 978-3805336130. Amazon

A complete digital copy of De laudibus sanctae crucis can be found here.

  1. For this image and analysis I am indebted to this excellent article: https://enseignement-latin.hypotheses.org/12096

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