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Narrative Bible Cycles in Medieval Art and Drama Patrick J. Collins In order to account for the distinctive selection and arrange­ ment of episodes in the Corpus Christi cycles, critics have usually turned to the general liturgy of the church, to the corpus of Latin liturgical drama, to the ecclesiastical documents promoting the establishment of Corpus Christi as an official church holiday, or to the liturgy with which the feast is celebrated. In this paper I want to propose that it is the traditional selection of biblical episodes in the pictorial art of the Middle Ages which best accounts for the subject matter and chronological pattern of the later English mystery cycles. There are four major extant mystery cycles: the plays of York, Chester, Wakefield, and N-town. The four cycles are characterized by a selection of episodes which recount events from the books of Genesis and Exodus, from the Nativity and Passion periods of Christ’s life, from the post-Resurrection mira­ cles, and from the prophesied events of the Doom. The cycles are further characterized by the chronological order in which the biblical scenes are dramatized. It cannot be said, however, that there is any rigid “Corpus Christi” format to which each cycle subscribes, for while the cycles are similar in their selection of episodes, they are not isomorphic. The N-town cycle alone in­ cludes a large number of plays dealing with the apocryphal life of Mary; Chester, in its treatment of the public ministry, lacks a play of the Baptism of Christ, although it is the only cycle to stage the Cleansing of the Temple; Towneley has a more richly developed Old Testament prologue than the York cycle, but stages far fewer New Testament episodes. Even the length of the cycles varies from city to city: Chester’s cycle consists of twenty-four pageants; York stages forty-eight; Wakefield, thirty125 126 Comparative Drama two; and the N-town cycle contains forty-two pageants. More­ over, in all four cycles there are episodes with only marginal dramatic value (the Visitation or the Purification), while Bibli­ cal episodes with great potential dramatic interest (the Old Testament tales of Joseph or Job) are never dramatized. Thus any description of the subject matter within the four major English cycles must take into account the consistent presence of certain episodes as well as the consistent absence of others. It must recognize that the cycle form includes a great deal of variation among the extant cycles with regard to selection of episodes, treatment of themes, and number of plays. The evidence which this study will present demonstrates that the Creation-to-Doom format of the vernacular drama was not a child of the Corpus Christi feast, nor of the liturgy which sur­ rounded it.l Rather, it had its roots in pictorial representations of the significant events in the history of man’s salvation. Al­ though the late medieval playmakers needed a pattern with which to shape their dramatic pageants, it is misleading to main­ tain that they adopted patterns of liturgical drama similar to the display recorded at Cividale in the beginning of the fourteenth century.2 The entire force of the evidence indicates that the pic­ torial scenes in the wall-paintings and in the manuscripts of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England provide a pattern which is both analogous to and prior to the earliest cycles of either Latin or vernacular drama. More than this, it is rea­ sonable to conclude that the Creation-to-Doom depictions of Bible history embodied in art schemes throughout England engendered a conception of world history which subsequently permeated the mind of medieval man. The narrative pictorial model provided the medieval communities with a traditional outline of biblical events upon which their dramatic craftsmen could readily draw. We shall see that the forces which shaped the pictorial tradition account for standardization as well as variation of subject matter, inclusion as well as exclusion, inten­ sive development as well as a widespread distribution. In proposing this relationship I am reversing the more usual claim that the influence is one of drama on art. Many studies by art historians call attention to the impact of medieval...


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