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.
[Heinrich Heine, The Romantic School, 1833-35.]

The 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. What does this have to do with Richard Wagner?, the reader might well ask. Wagner had a version of the story of Barlaam and Josaphat, in one of the books that he left behind him when he had to leave Saxony in haste in 1849. This was a German translation made by Rudolf von Ems about 1325.

Barlaam and Josaphat

The 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.

Barlaam and Josaphat: Josaphat sees a cripple while returning to the palace. Augsburg edition 1477. 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.

Prince 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.

Scene from 'Barlaam und Josaphat', circa. 1477 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.

The 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, if you want to save my soul, grant me one little request: sleep with me tonight, just once is all I ask, and I promise you I will become a Christian first thing tomorrow morning... just do as I ask this once and you will win my salvation. (chapter 30). Josaphat prays and receives a vision of heaven. He rejects the temptress, and is attacked by evil spirits. Josaphat destroys them by making the sign of the cross. Thus speaking, and girding on that invincible weapon, the sign of the Cross, he made vain the devil's shows. For straightway all the beasts and creeping things disappeared, like as the smoke vanisheth, and like as wax melteth at the fire. (chapter 37).

Parsifal and Kundry

And 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!

After 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:

open quotes Er hat den Speer im Zeichen des Kreuzes geschwangen; wie durch ein Erdbeben versinkt das Schloss. Der Garten ist schnell zur Einöde verdorrt; verwelkte Blumen verstreuen sich auf dem Boden. Kundry ist schreiend zusammengesunken. close quotes

open quotes (He has swung the Spear in the sign of the Cross; the castle collapses as in an earthquake. The garden withers to a desert; the ground is strewn with faded flowers. Kundry collapses with a scream.) close quotes

  • German version of Barlaam and Josaphat by Rudolf von Ems, in the edition of Franz Pfeiffer, published in Leipzig in 1843. Wagner's Dresden Library (now at Haus Wahnfried) contains an example of the same 1843 edition (number 8 in Westernhagen's catalogue).