Guillaume Du Fay composed his Missa Se la face ay pale, based on his ballade of the same name, during his final sojourn at the Court of Savoy in Chambééry from 1452 to 1458. It has been suggested that the piece celebrated the consummation of the wedding of Amadeus of Savoy and Yolande de France in 1452, but the basis for assigning it to this occasion ——that a song about a man whose "face is pale" for "reason of love" might refer to a bridegroom——is weak. A fresh look at this seminal composition points to a different rationale, one stemming from examination of the affective theology of the fifteenth century that influenced art in all its forms.
Late medieval Passion treatises, dialogues, sermons, lives of Christ, along with related paintings often depict Christ as the man with the pale face. In his final hours on the Cross, Christ's physical aspect is described as "pale" or "pallid." The "reason" for his disfigurement is his "great love" for mankind. In sacred dialogues between Christ and the female soul ("anima"), the Man of Sorrows conveys his love and encourages her to "see" or "behold" his wounds and study his "bitter" passion. The language of Du Fay's ballade is strikingly similar: "If the face is pale / The cause is love, / That is the main cause; / And so bitter to me / Is love, that in the sea / Would I like to see myself."
What prompted Du Fay to use this song in his Missa Se la face ay pale? This article proposes that an important Christological relic, the Holy Shroud, acquired by Du Fay's patron Duke Louis of Savoy in 1453 (and not moved from Chambééry to its present location in Turin until 1578), lies at the heart of the work, and that the composer incorporated theological symbols in the Mass to associate it with this sacred remnant. Recognition of early Christ-Masses such as the Missa Se la face ay pale helps to redefine the word "devotional" and illuminates the beginnings of Mass composition with secular tunes and of emotional expression in sacred music.
- ©© 2010 by the Virginia Allan Detloff Library, C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco