“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
In the spirit of this magnificent quote, I share with you “a little music” to inspire that “sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul”. It is no ordinary composition I offer, but an heart-rending dirge of lamentation and woe composed by one of Western Christendom’s finest choralists in remembrance of the May 29, 1453 fall of Constantinople, the Queen City of Eastern Christendom, to the forces of Ottoman Turkish Sultan Mehmed II.
This video offers a profoundly beautiful example of the Roman Church’s horror over the fall of the city which had been the Byzantine capital and heir to the Roman Empire for over a millennium. At Pope Nicholas V’s urging, the brilliant Franco-Flemish choralist Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), leading composer in the Burgundian School, composed this magnificent early Renaissance motet in 1454.
The same Pope Nicholas invited many Greek refugees from Constantinople to Rome, where he hoped to add their intellectual luster and accumulated theological, historical, literary and artistic works to the splendor of Old Rome. Unsuccessful in his attempts to convince the squabbling northern Italian city-states to unite in a common cause to retake Constantinople from the Ottomans, Nicholas V died in 1455, acknowledging that his papacy would be forever marred in history as that during which Nova Roma, the Queen City of Christendom, fell.
Dufay modeled his ethereal dirge, “Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae”, from a part of the Book of Lamentations on the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Here are the song’s lyrics in Middle French, with translation into English below:
O tres piteulx de tout espoir fontaine,
Pere du filz dont suis mere esplorée,
Plaindre me viens a ta court souveraine,
De ta puissance et de nature humaine,
Qui ont souffert telle durté villaine
Faire à mon filz, qui tant m’a hounourée.
Dont suis de bien et de joye separée,
Sans qui vivant veule entendre mes plaints.
A toy, seul Dieu, du forfait me complains,
Du gref tourment et douloureulx oultrage,
Que voy souffrir au plus bel des humains.
Sans nul confort de tout humain lignage.
Translated into English:
“O most merciful fount of all hope,
Father of the son whose weeping mother I am:
I come to complain before your sovereign court,
about your power and about human nature,
which have allowed such grievous harm to be
done to my son, who has honored me so much.
For that I am bereft of all good and joy,
without anyone alive to hear my laments.
To you, the only God, I submit my complaints,
about the grievous torment and sorrowful outrage,
which I see the most beautiful of men suffer
without any comfort for the whole human race.”
You might be asking: why do I share this now? Tomorrow, June 11 (which is May 29 on the Julian calendar) most Orthodox Christians in the world remember the Fall of Constantinople to the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Fetih (“the Conqueror”) on May 29 in 1453.
One of the most traumatic events in Christian history with lasting repercussions to this day for Greek-speaking people in particular, Constantinople’s fall to a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic army led by Sunni Muslim Turks was also one of the pivotal turning points in Western and Ottoman history.
While the city had declined in population, power and prestige to become a shadow of its former self, and was in fact little more than a series of loosely connected villages huddled behind the ancient Theodosian walls when Mehmed’s forces breached them, its fall came like the crashing of a giant in the Christian consciousness.
With the death of the Emperor Constantine XI on the walls of the city, the Empire whose citizens had simply called themselves ‘Romans’, whose official name was Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, the Roman Empire, or Ῥωμανία, ‘Romania’, came to an end after 1100 years. When one thinks of the city’s repeated attacks and sieges by the Huns, Persians, Arabs, then-pagan Vikings and Russians, Bulgars, Crusaders, Seljuk Turks, and finally the Ottomans, it is remarkable that, until its first sack by the Crusaders in 1204, Constantinople presided over an empire which achieved an extraordinary integration of three main influences.
Byzantium synthesized an extraordinary ancient cultural and philosophical legacy from classical Greece and the Hellenic kingdoms with that of Roman law, political theory and imperial government structure, preserving thousands of classical and legal texts which would have likely been lost in the West. Crucially, Constantinople’s endurance of many centuries of external pressure, including intermittent hostility with the northern Italian mercantile states after 1204, especially Venice and Genoa, served to prevent major Muslim expansion into Europe..
From an Orthodox Christian perspective, Constantinople’s stature as the patriarchate second in honor as the New Rome after the Old caused it to become the center of what came to be called Byzantine, or Greek, orthodox Christianity with a vast contribution in liturgical tradition, Patristic writings, homiletics, mystical theology, and spiritual phronema. The fall of Constantine’s City profoundly shocked all of Christendom, especially Rome, as the ancient patriarchate which had been second in honor in the Christian oikoumene was now transformed into the capital of the world’s most powerful Muslim empire which was to menace the Christian West for centuries.
For the Ottoman Turks, the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 marked the crowning inauguration of their hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean and their transformation from a powerful Turkish kingdom into a burgeoning world empire which had conquered the Second Rome and soon threatened all Christendom with a kind of reverse Crusade. They finally gained the prize which they had been encircling for over a century since their fourteenth century conquest of most of Anatolia and their expansion behind Constantinople into Thrace and Serbia.
From Constantinople, successive sultans began to expand Ottoman territory ever further into Central Europe, with the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566, r. 1520-66) only repulsed in 1529 after nearly conquering Vienna. Throughout the Ottoman empire, Turkish magistrates enforced the devisherme system which exploited local Christian populations by forcibly conscripting numerous boys as janisarries (the sultans’ elite shock troops) or court eunuchs, and Christian girls for the imperial harem.
Within a century of overtaking Nova Roma on the Bosporus, Ottoman forces had conquered much of the Kingdom of Hungary, continuing to threaten the Habsburg-controlled Holy Roman Empire until the end of the seventeenth century when they last attempted to conquer Vienna. Unsurprisingly, historians traditionally date the end of the Middle Ages to the fall of Constantinople, from which they also mark the official opening of the Renaissance and the early modern era as Greek refugees poured into Italy.
Disclaimer: I highly encourage you to disregard the text which accompanies the above video. While some of it is accurate, a good deal of it is absurdly polemical. I chose this video of Dufay’s “Lamentatio” in preference to the other three I found for its inclusions of a series of famous portraits and paintings of the siege and fall of the City. In no ways do I endorse the description which “Petrus Josephus”, the anonymous poster of this otherwise beautiful YouTube video, uses to apply to all Muslims in his text.
“Petrus” refers to the Ottomans as “heathen Turks” and refers to all Muslims as “abominable mohammedans”. This is an antiquated and inaccurate term rooted in an initially widespread misunderstanding of Islamic theology (the word “mohammedan” itself implies a worship of Muhammad which Muslims categorically reject). Later in his video, “Petrus” refers to “the virus of Islam” as an “onslaught” which “has never been stopped” in “Europe and her colonies”.
Besides the obvious reality that most of Europe is not Muslim, “Petrus”, an ultra-traditionalist Roman Catholic whose “About” page contains references to the schismatic Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), would do well to read more about the resurgence of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe and its growth in Germany, France and Britain.
Please find the other two YouTube videos I found of Dufay’s “Lamentatio” here, performed by the renowned Hilliard Ensemble, a British male quartet specializing in Medieval and Renaissance music, and here.