The Scabellum: Musical Instrument, or Footstool?

Mauricio Roman

In Ancient Rome, music directors used to lead the rhythm with the foot, using a type of shoe called “scabellum”. It was a sandal with two pieces of wood joined by a hinge in the back, with metallic plates in between.

The word “scabellum” also appears in the second verse of Handel’s “Dixit Dominus”, which uses musical effects to convey power and dominance, coupled with rich word painting. The first two lines read:

1/ Dixit Dominus Domino meo : sede a dextris meis

2/ Donec ponam inimicos tuos : scabellum pedum tuorum

The above lines come from Psalm 109 in the Latin Vulgate. Can we interpret this as “the Lord said to my Lord: sit at my right hand until I put your enemies as a musical instrument under your feet?”

Not quite. The intended meaning of the word “scabellum” lies in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures used as a source for the Latin Vulgate. There, the Greek term ὑποπόδιον means “footstool”.

The musical instrument is a secondary meaning of “scabellum”. In Greek, this instrument is known as κρούπεζαι — a term derived from κρούω (kroúō, “to stamp, strike”) and πεζός (pezós, “on foot, walking”). The most idiomatic Latin phrase to convey the sense of “to stamp or strike while walking” is probably “calcare gressu”, using the infinitive verb calcare coupled with gressu (“while walking”). For some reason lost in history, this name was not given to the instrument shown above; it was instead named “scabellum” by the Romans.

But perhaps this is not just a coincidence. The word “footstool” may not be the only intended interpretation for the powerful image in this psalm. When Matthew (22:44) quotes Jesus discussing this very same verse, it is rendered either as ποπόδιον (hypopodion, “footstool”) or ποκάτω (hypokatō, “under, below”), depending on the manuscript. In the second variation, the verse reads: “until I put your enemies under your feet”. 

In the first sense, the enemies are vanquished, statically dominated by the Messiah, with some vernacular translations even implying that the footstool is made out of the obliterated enemies. In the second sense, the enemies lie under the Messiah’s feet, but there remains the possibility of dynamic interplay.

Imagine a conductor leading an orchestra, using a scabellum to mark the rhythm. From a Christian perspective, this image could point to God orchestrating history, pressing His enemies under His feet. That is, no matter the evil, God can bring goodness from its consequences, ensuring evil is never the final note in the symphony of history.

Yet, at least in the East, the traditional Christian iconography that parallels this psalm has, over the centuries, depicted a footstool. We observe this feature in the example below, a Russian icon at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, with Christ resting his feet on an oval-shaped stool. This theme was very common in Byzantine and Russian art. 

Piazza dell Popolo

In the West, this psalm has not been as popular pictorially, but in contrast, it had a stronger musical resonance, especially during the Baroque era, with Handel and Vivaldi composing vivid oratorios for it, with added symbolism. In particular, Handel’s piece “Dixit Dominus” was performed for the first time in Rome in 1707 at the Piazza dell Popolo, in one of the two domed buildings that sit next to one another facing the plaza — the Santa Maria Montesanto and the Santa Maria dei Miracoli Churches – for Vesper services.

Watch and listen below to a magnificent performance of Handel’s Dixit Dominus, with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, directed by their founder Sir John Eliot Gardiner and recorded in June 2014.

In Seattle, Dixit Dominus was last performed by Seattle Pro Musica in 2011. We would welcome a return of this fine piece to the local scene.