- Les diamants de la couronne and the “Dea Abscondita” Motif
A potent narrative motif, extending back at least as far as the story of Philemon and Baucis in the Metamorphoses, involves a god's provisional erasure of his or her power and dignity to participate in the ordinary life of mortals. The motif's power and fascination derive from the fact that most theologies, whether pagan or Judeo-Christian, propose that godhead is not only ineffable but also imperceptible, not in the sense of being too small or faint for human apprehension, but rather of being on a scale altogether too grand for our faculties. So it is that the author of 1 Tim. 6.16 informs us that "God only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see," while in the libretto for Semele, the heroine dies from divine radiation sickness, having rashly insisted that Jupiter appear before her in all the intolerable nakedness of his godhead:
Ah me! too late I now repent My pride and impious vanity.He comes! far off his lightnings scorch me. Ah! I feel my life consuming:I burn, I faint, for pity I implore— Oh, help! oh, help! I can no more.1
Hagiographic folklore is likewise stocked with examples of transformations of the divine into the ordinary and back again—transformations less hazardous than the one that undoes poor Semele, because the Christian doctrine of the incarnation has, as it were, all along sheathed that intolerable radiance in the lead suit of the flesh. Thus in the legend of St. Christopher, we are told that when the saint in question "was carrying a child across the river . . . [it] became so heavy that Christopher could hardly get across."2 He discovers [End Page 93] the reason for his discomfort when the boy informs him, "You have been carrying the whole world. I am Jesus Christ, the king you seek" (85). Such sudden switching-on of power in otherwise hidden circuits can also be paralleled in classical literature, for in book 1 of The Aeneid, the hero encounters a woman who eventually reveals herself to be Venus:
Dixit et avertens rosea cervice refulsit, ambrosiaeque comae divinum vertice odoremspiravere; pedes vestis defluxit ad imos, et vera incessu patuit dea. [She spake, and as she turned away, herroseate neck flashed bright. From her head her ambrosial tresses breathed celestial fragrance;down to her feet fell her raiment, and in herstep she was revealed, a very goddess.]3
The crucial word here is "vera," stressing as it does the essential godhead beneath illusory appearance, an essentiality picked up by that semi-satiric fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, "The Real Princess."
For the medieval doctrine of the divine right of kings posited a close connection between royalty and divinity, and in its turn engendered human versions of the "deus absconditus" or "hidden god." A king, queen, prince, or princess had only to surrender the external trappings of power and go about the world in plebeian or other disguise before—in a striking act of disclosure, "et verus incessu patuit rex"—they reclaimed their regal dignity, a claim half-mocked by Andersen: "Now it was plain that the lady must be a real Princess, since she had been able to feel the one little pea through the twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. None but a real Princess could have such a delicate sense of feeling."4 That presents the motif at its most trivial and skeletal, but we ought not to forget that the "deus absconditus" supplied the narrative strategy, inter alia, for Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, where the Duke of Vienna disguises himself as a friar and passes incognito among his people.
The operatic stage has proved no less eager to embrace this "demythologized" version of the "deus absconditus," as when, in Donizetti's Il borgomastro di Saardam (1827), Lortzing's Zar und Zimmermann (1837), and Meyerbeer's L'etoile du nord (1854)—all of them derivatives of a play by Mélesville, Merle, and De Boirie—Peter the Great replicates the story of Jesus...