The Seduction of St. Josaphat
The flowering of sacred poetry in the German Middle Ages is perhaps Barlaam and Josaphat, a poem in which the doctrine of abnegation, of abstinence, of renunciation, of the
disdain of all worldly glory is most consistently pronounced.
he tale of the hermit St. Barlaam and his convert St. Josaphat is a curious link between Christianity and Buddhism, since part of the story is
unmistakably (now that Buddhist sources are available in the western world) an account of the early life of the Buddha. Although this would not have been obvious when this tale
of two saints was circulating, in Greek and Latin versions, in the Middle Ages. The story is thought to have been composed by John of Damascus in the 6th century AD. It later appears, in abridged form,
in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine. The attempted seduction of St. Josaphat by the beautiful maiden seems to be a Christian reworking of part of the conflict between the future
Buddha and the dark lord, Mára.
he story of Barlaam and Josaphat closely follows, with additions, the story of the youth of Gautama Shakyamuni, the future Buddha. The details of his life-story are slightly different, but in broad terms similar, in Indian, Ceylonese and Tibetan texts. The main difference here is that, in a prologue to the story, an astrologer predicts that the newly-born Josaphat, son of King Avennir, will be a follower of the Christian religion, which at that time was being persecuted by Avennir. Obviously the events of the Buddhist scriptures have been brought forward by about 900 years, so that in this version they take place after Christian missionary activity has begun in India. The young prince is brought up in ignorance of old age, sickness and death; but eventually finds out about their existence during excursions from the palace. In the Buddhist versions, his father finds a wife for him at this point, but the Christian version leaves the prince unmarried.
Left: Josaphat sees a cripple while returning to the palace. King Avennir and his sorcerer Theodas watch from the battlements. Illustration from a 1477 edition of Barlaam und Josaphat.
rince Josaphat then meets the hermit Barlaam, a Christian missionary, who preaches in parables. The young prince becomes a convert to Christianity. After unsuccessfully attempting to dislodge him from the new faith by various stratagems, his father King Avennir receives a visit from the sorcerer Theodas, who offers to help him. On the sorcerer's advice, the king replaces the prince's male attendants with beautiful women (as Shakyamuni's father also does in the Buddhist version). Theodas sends an evil spirit into Josaphat's heart to inflame him with lust. The women flirt with Josaphat but fail to seduce him.
Right: Josaphat leaves home. He meets the hermit Barlaam who instructs him in the Christian faith and then baptises him. Illustration from a 1477 edition of Barlaam und Josaphat.
he king then sends to Josaphat the orphan daughter of a king, a beautiful maiden. The young prince attempts to convert her to his new religion, to which
she responds that she will only convert if Josaphat will marry her. Josaphat tells her that he has taken a vow of chastity. The nameless maiden tells him,
nd so the Buddha became a Christian saint, and even received a feast-day, 27 November. The name Josaphat has been derived from Bodhisattva, one whose being is illumination. It seems entirely possible that Wagner had this story in mind when he made his first sketch for Parsifal. The sorcerer Theodas became Klingsor, Josaphat became the act 2 Parsifal and the beautiful maiden the act 2 Kundry. It could be argued that Wagner based his scene directly on a Buddhist version of the story, perhaps never having read the Christian version. Two elements weigh against this hypothesis. One is the common emphasis on chastity, typical of medieval Christian literature, but less important in the Buddhist versions. The other is that Josaphat concludes the struggle with the agents of Theodas by making the sign of the cross. It would have been typical of Wagner to go beneath the surface of the sources he first encountered, and by 1865 he had almost certainly read several versions of the life of the Buddha. In none of these, however, does the Buddha make the sign of the cross!
fter the apparently Buddhist detour of the second act of Parsifal, an act that might have been based on the struggle between the future Buddha and the dark lord, Mára, we suddenly encounter a Christian symbol. It seems so out of place that most "modern" productions simply (but unwisely) ignore Wagner's stage directions at the end of this act: