The Exultet Scroll was used in Latin liturgy on the eve of Easter, when the deacon dressed in white sang the "Exultet" from it (named after the incipit exultet iam angelica turba caelorum..., now the heavenly crowd of angels shout for joy). The Vatican manuscript constitutes the oldest surviving Exultet Scroll in the world and was made in the southern Italian city of Benevento, a cultural centre in the early Middle Ages.
The Exultet Scroll comprises both text and melody, as well as a picture cycle illustrating the song. These pictures and their wealth of styles bear splendid testimony to the creative power and great tradition of the schools of Benevento. The artists stand out from many others due to their high technical ability and skill as well as their imaginative eclecticism. They arranged stylistic, decorative, and iconographic elements in order to form an ensemble, using elements which are rooted both in classical antiquity and in Christian sources, integrating not only indigenous but also eastern and western motives.
The scroll as the first form of the book
As we know from many testimonies in art and literature, scrolls were used throughout antiquity instead of the bound book. From the 4th century, the codex, a book form still in use today, triumphed and slowly but steadily replaced the scroll. In Christian literature, however, the codex was the preferred form right from the beginning. The scroll, in contrast, was only present following classical models, for the depiction of apostles, evangelists, prophets and saints.
In liturgy, the roll had not fallen into complete oblivion, as we learn among others from the Exultet Scroll. The reason might be the influence of Byzantium, as the Greek oriental Church had always been familiar with the roll. As southern Italy and particularly Benevento were in regular contact with Byzantium on political and cultural levels, a certain inspiration to this effect seems possible.
This development, however, remained limited to the region of Benevento where one appreciated the advantages of the roll. By unrolling it in front of a wide public, everyone could clearly see in picture what was announced, in a poetic wording and an artfully composed melody, as the highlight of the liturgy on the eve of Easter.
The decorative apparatus
The melody appears in Neume annotation above each line of the sacred text, to guide the deacon in his song of praise. The images are artful pen drawings coloured by one master in a multitude of colours and glittering gold. They show great love of detail and are surrounded throughout by decorative frames. Numerous motives, such as jewels, pearls, interlace, palmettes, rosettes and arcades, imaginatively enliven the solemn system of frames.
Documenting the early medieval Easter ceremony
The pictures accompanying the Exultet illustrate the song text according to the symbolical and metaphorical tradition of early Christendom. Some depiction's display the Christian interpretation of pagan rites, for example when the Resurrection of Christ in the annual Easter feast is associated with the coming of new life on earth thanks to Sol, the pagan God of the Sun. Nature celebrates the resurrection together with Jesus who is depicted in a splendid bright gloriole representing the light of the world, the sun of resurrection and salvation.
Some pictures present a lively impression of the liturgical proceedings, reproducing it in complete detail. The Exultet Scroll is thus of essential importance for the history of liturgy and dogma, not the least for the documentary value of its illustration.
We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Exultet Roll": Exultet Rolle facsimile edition, published by Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA), 1974