Robert Browning's dying bishop, who narrates "The Bishop Orders His Tomb At Saint Praxed's Church," vividly describes to his heirs the frieze he wishes to be carved on his tombstone:

The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me,
Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance
Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so,
The Saviour at his sermon on the mount,
Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan
Ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off,
And Moses with the tables...but I know
Ye mark me not! (101.56-63)

His description is full of conflicting pagan and Christian images, most notably his juxtaposition of Saint Praxed and Pan and his references to the sermon on the mount and the ten commandments. Saint Praxed (Praxedes) was a virgin martyr in the second century, who aided fugitive Christians and died of her own will, actually asking God to relieve her of her sufferings, much as Christ did at Gethsemane before his crucifixion. Pan was the goat-legged god of shepherds in Greek mythology, and was very active in his pursuit of nymphs and earthly pleasures, as was Bacchus (Dionysus, the god of wine), referred to in Browning's allusion to a "thyrsus." Finally, the sermon on the mount (Matthew, chapter 5) was Christ's most prominent instance of teaching on earth, where he preached to what was his largest single crowd. Some notable verses: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," and "Lay not up for yourself treasures on earth...but lay up for yourself treasures in heaven."

Questions

1. Clearly, the bishop's (perhaps) unconscious juxtapositions reveal his decidedly un-Christlike behavior. How does this reflect on Browning's perception of the church of the 16th century, and that of Browning's time?

2. Browning's activation of St Praxedes (in a "glory" of ecstasy, no less) is contrasted with both the allusion to Pan chasing nymphs in this image, as well as the bishop's lurid descriptions of "a vein o'er the Madonna's breast" (44) and "mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs" (75) elsewhere in the poem. The bishop's sexuality is one aspect of his general earthiness (see other references to "carrion" (19), a "Jew's head" (43) and a "corpse" (117)). Does Browning find this repulsive, or refreshing (as he does Fra Lippo Lippi's sexuality)?

3. How does the bishop's emphatic concern for his tomb reflect upon his supposed belief in eternal life? How does this compare to the discussion of eternal life in "Cleon"? How does the bishop's refusal to let go of the mortal world compare to St Praxedes' granted death wish (a truly problematic religious concept in its own right)?

Related materials


Victorian Overview R. Browning Leading Questions

Modified 22 September 2003