Pure Gold

The Golden Legend

a dance piece by Christopher Williams
at Dance Theater Workshop, New York City, May 12–16, 2009
Yi-Chun Woo
Brian Brooks as Saint Stephen, at top, in the recessional from Christopher Williams’s The Golden Legend

The Golden Legend, a compilation of lives of the saints made in the thirteenth century by Jacobus de Voragine, the archbishop of Genoa, is not something that would spring to mind as a likely basis for a work of “downtown” dance. That is not because it is a holy book. There is a long tradition of holiness in modern dance (Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey, Alvin Ailey, and onward). No, the problem, for adaptation as dance, is that The Golden Legend is so minutely representational and narrative. Jacobus covered more than one hundred fifty saints, and his aim, in each case, was to record all the traditions he could lay his hands on, whether or not they added up to a unified story.

He also had the fantastical turn of mind typical of the Middle Ages. His saints journey over seas in rudderless boats; they convert nations; they retire to the desert and eat spiders for thirty years. When Saint George (the dragon-killer), a Cappadocian tribune, runs afoul of the emperor of Persia, he is placed on a rack and torn limb from limb. This having no effect on him, he is then burned with flaming torches, poisoned, bound on a wheel fitted with knives, and dropped into a pot of molten lead. Each time, he emerges unharmed. Finally, he is beheaded, and this does put an end to him. Medieval Christians loved these colorful stories, and seem to have believed them. According to William Granger Ryan, the translator of the first complete modern English edition,* The Golden Legend is said to have been the most widely read book, except for the Bible, in late medieval Europe. Some one thousand manuscript versions of it have survived—an astonishing number.

Ordinary people of course had no direct access to The Golden Legend, because they were not literate. Their priests read it for them, and sermonized accordingly. In turn, the sermons were heard not just by the cartwright and the wheelwright, but also by painters and sculptors. Apart from the Bible, Jacobus was the primary sourcebook for the sacred art—that is, more or less, the art—of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance: the predellas, the windows, the carvings. Most people saw that art at least once a week, and together with fireside tales, it provided what they had in the way of entertainment. It was something like the movies.

So it was, too, apparently, for Christopher Williams, who created a three-hour dance piece, The Golden Legend, that had its premiere in May at Dance Theater Workshop in Chelsea. In his program notes Williams says that when he read Jacobus he was “inspired by the strange, fanciful, and touching passions of the…remarkable individuals” within the book’s pages. He picked out seventeen saints and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.