UNDERSTANDING THE MINIATURES
The Text behind the images
The Feminine Aspect
For most readers, the miniature cycle is the highlight of the St Albans Psalter (although this web site now focuses equal attention on the psalm initials). The majority of Pächt’s masterly analysis is devoted to these paintings (AP, 54-125). It is the first extant English miniature cycle with full-page painted scenes since the tenth- century Benedictional of St Aethelwold. Its iconography is connected to two slightly later cycles made for the Eadwine Psalter and Bury Gospels (This important topic is not explored on the web site, but see Kauffmann, 1975, 31-2; Henderson, 1992, 35-42; Parker, 1970). The St Albans Psalter set a standard for providing a New Testament cycle to precede the psalms, which became a feature of many subsequent books (the Shaftesbury, Winchester, Copenhagen and Hunterian Psalters: Kauffmann, 1975).
This introduction explores what the pictures were for and how they were understood; their biblical function and their strongly feminine content.
of Pope Gregory, provided in both French and Latin on p68, explains
what religious pictures were for:
On one level, pictures tell the story, providing a substitute for text for the illiterate, but on another level, the pictures show ‘what is to be worshipped’, providing food for thought and meditation. Particularly as a result of writings by St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109), and the Cistercian monk St Bernard, meditation which involved the personal excitation of all the senses was developed in the twelfth century.
St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations, especially about the Virgin, provided a new approach for personal devotion and were particularly read by women. His prayers encourage the reader to become deeply involved in an emotional and introspective way. They were widely distributed, the first copy being made for Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror (c.1072) and another for Mathilda , Countess of Tuscany (Southern, 1990, 91-109). His work was revered at St Albans. It is no coincidence that the earliest surviving illustrated copy was painted by the Alexis Master himself (Verdun, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS. 20; Pächt, 1956).
Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian writing in the middle of the twelfth century, developed many of St Bernard’s ideas in an intensely personal way. He wrote a manual on meditation for his sister who was a recluse, giving many insights which are relevant to these miniatures. ‘Meditation will arouse the affections, the affections will give birth to desire, desire will stir up tears so that your tears may be bread for you day and night until you appear in his sight and say to him what is written in the Song of Songs ‘My Beloved is mine and I am his’ (Aelred, 1982,102).
The technique of affective meditation can be applied directly to these miniatures. Aelred presents the whole Christ cycle as a spiritual exercise for a solitary woman. Although written perhaps two or three decades after the miniatures were painted, Aelred’s words serve as an astonishingly vivid commentary (Aelred, 1982,80-92). Whereas Aelred’s exercises were mental and he repeats the Cistercian disapproval of images, these miniatures provide an illustrated Benedictine precursor to the same spiritual sentiments.
At the Annunciation:
At the Nativity:
At the house
of Simon the Pharisee:
in the Garden:
At the Crucifixion
and Descent from the Cross:
at the Sepulchre:
Gazing at these pictures or obeying these written instructions, the viewer is thus drawn into Christ’s life and emotionally filled by it. Although Aelred’s manual was written slightly later than the St Albans Psalter, the tone of Christina’s visions reflects the same emotional and even sensual experience. She found comfort in holding the Christ Child and was consoled by cradling the Virgin’s head in her lap (Talbot, 1998, 119, 77).
On one level, these pictures elicit a direct emotional response. However, beyond that, are theological questions about why these particular scenes were chosen, and why they are shown in this order. Like the psalter initials, the images are based closely on the bible texts. If they deviate, the patron is making a deliberate choice, encoding a specific message to provoke the viewer.
As Henderson has pointed out (1992,35-42, and pers. comm.) the Christ cycle seeks not just to harmonise the gospels but to cross reference them, weaving the reader between each version. At the beginning, the Fall presents the need for Redemption which follows. The bird-like Devil, swooping around Eve’s head, is matched like a book-end on the last page, by the Dove inspiring David. The Expulsion shows the exit of Man from God’s presence; it is paired with the Annunciation, the entry of the Holy Spirit into Mary. The next scenes show episodes of Christmas, Epiphany and Advent from Matthew and Luke, leaving out Christ’s ministry.
The weaving of texts begins with the washing of Christ’s feet by Mary Magdalen according to Luke’s version, but forming a prelude to the Passion which is the sequence in John 12. John uniquely provides the Washing of the Feet, and the Last Supper with no eucharist. John’s Last Supper dwells instead on the theme of betrayal which follows immediately in the next scene. The Agony in the Garden, by Mark and Luke, being placed before the Last Supper, is jolted out of its gospel sequence to give extra impact. The unusual doubling of these Gethsemane scenes allows a solitary reflection on the chalice of the Eucharist. Appropriately for an anchoress, Christ’s blood sacrifice is pictured alone rather than at a communal male feast. It allows a private female communion, uninterrupted by the presence of the disciples or an officiating priest. The scenes reflect Aelred’s invitation to run and join Christ alone instead of slacking with the group. The Mocking weaves two separate episodes from three gospels together.
The Carrying of the Cross and Descent from the Cross, as a pair, emphasise the absence of the Crucifixion itself, presumably supplied by a small carved crucifix. The cross Christ carries is made from dead planks sawn by hand; the cross of the Descent has become the Lignum Vitae. The Feast of the Crucifixion is notably omitted from the calendar. In the Resurrection sequence there are several pauses for thought. Mary Magdalen is most unusually illustrated as the first witness to Christ’s resurrection. She, Thomas and Martin are unable to recognise or accept the Risen Christ until he reveals himself to them. Martin is interpolated in Christ’s life just before the Ascension (see below, St Martin, p53). The Virgin Mary, although not in the text, appears majestically at both Ascension and Pentecost.
The three Emmaus scenes, which historically should occur after Mary Magdalen’s annunciation to the apostles, occur after the Chanson of Alexis, pp69-71. The location of these scenes was considered haphazard by Goldschmidt, simply a space filler to complete the quire (1895, 37). Pächt thought they were deliberately intended as gloss on the Life of Alexis, forming a pre-planned unity with the miniature cycle: Christ and Alexis were both poor pilgrims, unrecognised until they left the world (AP, 73-79). Holdsworth (1978, 192) spotted the personal connection between the Emmaus story told in three sections and Christina’s three visits by the unknown pilgrim who turned out to be Christ (Talbot, 1998,182-189). As Christina’s pilgrim episode only occurs towards the end of her Life (after c1140-1), Holdsworth suggested the whole psalter was produced after that date (Holdsworth, 1978,195). That assumes the whole book was planned as a coherent unit, a concept methodically deconstructed by Haney (1995). However, it remains possible that the pilgrim episode had not occurred when the miniature cycle was constructed, and the Emmaus scenes were added later in the separate Alexis quire.
stressed the Alexis/Emmaus connection and Holdsworth linked Christina/Emmaus,
both authors overlooked Christina’s own view of the pilgrim incident.
Christina connected her encounter not with the male Emmaus story but the
female episode of Christ at the house of Mary and Martha, where both she
and her sister rushed around in domestic bliss to serve their visitor
(Talbot, 1998, 183). It is thus significant that the Mary and Martha scene
is also omitted from the miniature cycle, perhaps because it had not yet
occurred. The Emmaus scenes serve both as a reflection on Alexis, and
Geoffrey’s gloss on Christina’s visitation which took place
after the painted miniatures were complete.
St Martin (p 53)
Pächt could find no explanation for the St Martin scenes occurring towards the end of the Christological cycle (AP, 50). They certainly mark an abrupt transition, forcing the reader to ponder on their connection with the rest of the sequence. They may, in some way, be standing as a substitute for the Emmaus scenes which are dislocated from this part of the sequence, being depicted on p69-71, in the Alexis quire. St Martin gives his cloak to the beggar; at Emmaus the disciples give supper to a stranger. Underlying both these deeds of charity to a stranger are Christ’s words in Matthew 25: 35, ‘For I was an hungred and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in, naked and ye clothed me….Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my bretheren, ye have done it unto me’. To relieve the poor and clothe the naked are among the Good Works prescribed for monks in the Rule (Rule, chapter IV).
St Martin thus creates an implied reference back to Matthew 25 at this point. This serves to wrap up and close all the terrestrial scenes of Christ’s passion on the preceding pages. Matthew 26 continues immediately with the anointing at Simon’s house, and on to the Last Supper, creating a continuous circle of meditation on the Passion as told by the Evangelists. However, in Matthew, Christ’s words about charity are uttered in the context of explaining the Last Judgement. They therefore point forward to the following celestial scenes which are described in Acts.
Haney (1997, 152-163) points out that the Martin scenes face Doubting Thomas and she links the two in terms of colour, composition and theology: Martin represents Charity and Thomas, Faith. He is also sandwiched in between the few scenes of the book which depict the assembled apostles. In this way Martin, a pre-eminent monk, visually joins the ranks of the apostles. Exhortations for monks to become like the apostles were part of the monastic reforms of the 11th and 12th centuries (Haney, 1997, 160-2).
St Martin, a soldier who became a monk and later a bishop, has ostensibly little connection with Christina, but his life provided more of a model for Geoffrey. Geoffrey also entered the church after an earlier career, as a teacher, and rose to become an abbot, a great administrator. St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109) compared himself to St Martin, saying that both had been taken from their monks and put over clerics, monks, laymen and women (Haney, 1997,155). Geoffrey also became a leader of men and women. Before Christina met Geoffrey she was ‘tried in the crucible of poverty’, but through his generous intervention she and her little community were succoured. ‘One consolation gladdened him that, unknown to the world, he could bestow his earthly riches on the poor of Christ’ (Talbot. 1998, 133,139, 151).
Cloaks and clothing played an important part in Geoffrey’s life. He borrowed some copes from St Albans in order to put on a play about St Catherine. When these got burnt in an accident he offered himself as recompense, literally as a burnt offering ‘in holocaustam’ to St Albans Abbey. He was so seared by his dramatic accident with the copes that he had himself ordained on St Catherine’s day and subsequently ordained a magnificent conventual feast to be held on the same day (GA, 75). For the same reason, when he became abbot, he ‘diligently’ provided costly vestments, including seven copes covered in gold and gems, and five gold chasubles (GA, 73,93). Like St Martin, he therefore gave these copes to Christ. His own clothes were also given to the poor, through the intervention of Christ: Christina made him special under garments to comfort him on an arduous mission, but when journey was cancelled she was advised in a vision to give them to the poor, ‘because Christ will obtain for him more gracious comfort on his journey’. (Talbot, 1998, 160-3).
While it is possible to suggest theological and personal justifications for the unprecedented appearance of Martin at this point in the cycle, there may additionally be a rather prosaic practical cause. After the scene of Magdalen and the apostles on p51 (a recto), there was a wide range of post-resurrection scenes to choose from. The Eadwine Psalter leaf (London, Victoria and Albert Museum, MS. 661v, Henderson 1992, pl 14) manages to fit 8 episodes in 14 scenes from here to Pentecost. However, within the St Albans Psalter gathering system there are only 5 remaining leaves.
The last page (p56) had to be David, pp54-55 had to be a diptych of Ascension and Pentecost, leaving two spare leaves (p52, 53) to fill. The two separate episodes of Christ appearing to the Apostles and Doubting Thomas are crammed economically on one sheet (p52) This left only one page for another resurrection scene or else Martin. He was convenient because two key scenes from his life could be shown on a divided page, an economy of space not allowed for the Christ cycle itself. Martin, displaying the virtue which Geoffrey sought to emulate, was thus elevated among the apostles and Christ himself.
Within the context of Christ’s life, women play a relatively small though significant role. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Cult of the Virgin gathered momentum, generally increasing awareness of both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen (Carrasco, 1999, 67-80) It is thus notable that women feature in 18 out of these 39 narrative miniatures (David and Emmaus excluded). In almost every case, the women are active participants, if not star performers.
The following selection emphasises the active female role. At the Fall, Eve both receives and gives the apple; at the Annunciation, the reading Virgin is both intellectually and emotionally alert; the Vistitation is enhanced by two female attendants; Mary’s finger is raised in speech at the Nativity while Joseph sits dumbstruck; Joseph is absent from the Presentation, replaced by women; the mothers of Bethlehem fight back at the Massacre of the Innocents; Mary Magdalen introduces and completes the Passion with her foot washing and her exceptional annunciation of the Resurrection to the Apostles; the two Marys assist at the Descent from the Cross; the composition of the Entombment is based upon the swooping curve of Mary’s back. The patron made a deliberate choice to include Mary at Ascension and Pentecost, where she is not mentioned in the bible.
In terms of Christina’s own experiences, she often acted as witness to Christ, like Mary Magdalen. She held him as a baby, saw him with the Trinity, and served him as a pilgrim (Talbot, 1998, 118-9, 156-7, 182-8). Like Mary at Pentecost, she experienced the descent of the dove of the Holy Spirit (Talbot, 1998, 156-7), and like the disciples at Emmaus, she experienced the mysterious disappearance of Christ (Talbot, 1998, 188-9). She also suffered humiliation and slander, being called a ‘loose woman’ (Talbot, 1998, 172-175), accused like Mary Magdalen at the house of Simon the Pharisee.
Aelred’s meditations for a female recluse, detailed above, encourage the woman to share in Christ’s experiences and clearly this was easier if scenes were chosen where women were involved. This cycle shows a distinct feminine bias. As such, it provides an instructive contrast to the cycles from the Eadwine Psalter which Henderson considers is strictly textual and chronological; and the Bury cycle, part of which is ‘overtly that of Church versus Synagogue’ (Henderson, 1992, 41-2). The Martin scenes are a gentle reminder to Christina to meditate on the generosity of her benefactor.
It is possible that Geoffrey wished to use these lavish illustrations for Christina’s edification and instruction while she baulked at the extravagance of the book. As a result, Geoffrey subsequently added the letter of Gregory the Great which exonerates and recommends the use of images to stimulate worship, and particularly to serve as a guide for those who cannot read.
collaboration between History of Art
and Historic Collections
University of Aberdeen - King's College - Aberdeen - AB24 3SW