style of the Alexis Master
Sources for the Style of the Alexis Master
Other work by the Alexis Master
Style of the Psalter Initials: Artists 1 and 2
Division of Hands proposed by Dodwell
Division of Hands, proposed by Geddes
Sources for the style of Artists 1 and 2
Artist 3, Psalm 105
Four artists worked on the book. They were the so-called Alexis Master who painted the miniatures and the illustrations in the Alexis quire, and three lesser painters who produced the psalter initials, the calendar illustrations and the final diptych of St Alban and David.
The title of the main artist of the St Albans Psalter was given by Goldschmidt, Meister des Alexis-Liedes (1895). His style and its sources are extensively dealt with and illustrated by Pächt (AP, 100-125). The Alexis Master was a great artist with an awareness of major trends in art in Europe as well as England. His framed, full page, solid colour, narrative paintings are the earliest to survive in English Romanesque manuscripts. They represent a departure from the light, sketchy effervescent Anglo-Saxon style, usually tinted with watercolour washes.
The colour range can be described as sombre, imperial and liturgical. Backgrounds are purple, blue and green while the figures and borders play with vibrant adjacent tones of mauve, lilac, violet, pink, orange, and some gold.
Space is subtly controlled by the solid blocks of colour which form the background. People and actions are defined by these blocks. Square blocks can separate characters in a formal and static way, like the Magi before Herod (p23) or they can enhance movement where a person extends beyond his box. The Adoration of the Magi (p25) and the Return of the Magi (p27) show each of the three characters and their horses transgressing the three divisions of the page. Whereas square blocks create a more static effect, curved blocks enhance actions. The swing of the flail in the Flagellation (p 44) and the stoop of the Virgin at the Deposition (p 48) are mirrored in the arches behind. The coloured blocks are reinforced by architectural settings which form a theatrical backdrop. Like antique scenae frons, the arches provide dramatic entrances and exits.
In contrast to Anglo-Saxon drapery which flutters weightlessly, the St Albans drapery clings tightly to bodies with a recognisable skeleton underneath. On the bodies, this effect of substance is created, not by naturalistic shading, but by a web of white filigree highlights. On faces and hands there is more subtle modelling with a gradual transition of tones (p41). The Alexis Master introduces a distinctive profile of straight line from brow to tip of nose which becomes a hallmark of his followers, both at St Albans and beyond.
The distinctive colour range, with a predominance of purple, derives from Ottonian manuscripts (Mayr-Harting, 1999). Both these and the St Albans Psalter use folium (a plant dye) for the purple. In addition, the division of the background into oblong blocks of colour is also found Ottonian work: BL Egerton MS.608; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek MS Clm, 4456, f.11. Mural painting around Rome makes use of the architectural scenae frons, particularly at S.Pietro in Tuscania, and San Clemente in Rome where the Alexis legend is depicted in a similar way to the St Albans Psalter. The web of highlights is a Byzantine feature. It is used in enamels and on bronze doors where the lines are inlaid with gold or silver metal. It is also found in Byzantine manuscripts (Vienna, Nat. Bibl. MS.Suppl. gr.52) and Italian manuscripts made under Byzantine influence (the Bible of Sta Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome, Vatican Library, MS.Barb.Lat.587, f66). The slender, vertically aligned figures with tightly wrapped clothes are reminiscent of the early column figures at St Denis and Chartres, and manuscripts in north-east France (Valenciennes, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS. 169, f2; Dodwell, 1993, 203). Many facets of this figure style were already present in the St Albans scriptorium before the psalter was made (Haney, 1995, 8-11), for instance in the Prudentius (London, BL MS Cotton Titus D.XVI). The borders, with their wide variety of three dimensional meander patterns, are a new departure from the fleshy acanthus leaves of Anglo-Saxon art. Pächt has traced these to late Ottonian manuscripts in Bavaria and Bohemia (AP, 97-104). They are also found on monumental wall paintings at St Jean, Poitiers and S. Maria in Pallara, Rome. Their three-dimensional quality makes it easy to visualise this type of border executed in stucco on a wall.
Pächt rightly points out the international aspects of the Alexis Master’s style, tentatively associating him with the goldsmith Anketil who worked at St Albans and in Denmark (AP,171-177), while Thomson considered that he was ‘very probably’ French (Thomson, 1982,27). However, the artist should not be seen as an extraordinary exotic import to England. David Park provides an important counter balance, namely that so much English art from this period, particularly monumental wall paintings, has been lost. He shows that many essential elements of the Alexis Master’s style already existed in England by 1100. Extended narrative sequences were being painted even in tiny parish churches in the later eleventh century, for instance at Hardham where there are both extensive Christological scenes and a narrative of St George. In addition, these figures are characterised by slender, high-waisted bodies and expressive hand gestures. These figures are set against solid rectangles of colour, but at Clayton and Copford architectural features form the background. At Clayton and East Shefford there are borders painted in a three-dimensional way (Park, 1984, 1990). Swarzenski (1963) also refers to the manuscripts produced at Cîteaux under the English influence of Abbot Stephen Harding, all earlier than the St Albans Psalter. These show the similar tightly wrapped figures with white highlights and even the three dimensional meander borders (Dijon, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 168, 132). And lastly, Haney shows that the main ingredients of the Alexis Master’s style existed at St Albans, being employed by other artists in the scriptorium, before the St Albans Psalter was made (Haney, 1995, 8-11).
These are reviewed and illustrated by Pächt (AP, 165-177); Dodwell (1993, 332-335) and Thomson (1982, 25-7).
The Alexis Master illustrated a St Albans manuscript of the Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm (Verdun, Bibliothèque Municipale 70) and a Gospel Book now at Hereford Cathedral (Hereford, Cathedral Library O.I.8). He also produced the 32 full page miniatures for the Life of St Edmund (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, 736), probably between 1125 and 1135. These illustrations share many iconographic and stylistic features with the St Albans Psalter miniatures but their colour scheme is quite different, brighter and more strident. It is likely that the Alexis Master visited Bury St Edmunds to draw the miniatures but perhaps a Bury artist painted them. This important relationship is discussed by McLachlan ( 1986, ch III).
The influence of
the Alexis Master cannot be explored here but the question of another
lost work by him cannot be ignored. Pächt proposed that he created
another whole psalter from which this one was copied (AP, 162).
Perhaps he at least created another set of miniatures of Christ’s
life. The iconography and style of the St Albans cycle certainly influenced
the creator of the Shaftesbury Psalter (BL, Lansdowne MS.383, Kauffmann,
2001, 258, 264). If it is assumed that the St Albans Psalter spent most
of the middle ages incarcerated at Markyate, then perhaps there was another
more accessible version available at St Albans Abbey.
Leaving out psalms 1 (whose initial is by the Alexis Master) and 105 for the moment, the remaining pages of the book (pp74-417) show a remarkable uniformity of design. Particularly when seen in black and white, the design of the psalter initials almost looks like the work of one artist. Pächt (AP,157, 162) considered that the draughtsman was the Alexis Master himself who delegated the painting to an assistant. Haney (2002, 57) also agrees that there was only one designer. Dodwell (1993,332 ) thought ‘some of the underdrawings may be the work of the Alexis Master, but they are chiefly the work of two other artists indebted to him for their choice of colours, their disposition of draperies, their figure proportions, and their affection for the profile’. Clearly two different painters, labelled by Dodwell as Artist 1 and Artist 2, completed the initials, and Artist 1 was also responsible for the Calendar illuminations and the two full page pictures on pp416, 417.
The figure drawing is characterised by elongated bodies, narrow shoulders and waists, and long legs. Both the bodies and faces burst with animation. Arms and legs energetically leap or point in opposite directions. Feet dance. Hands flutter, wave, point and indicate speech. The faces have a preference for profile. Both artists regularly depict the nose continuing in a straight line from the forehead (Artist 1, p92, Artist 2, p95). Occasionally Artist 1 creates a slight indent, forming a bridge to the nose ( pp 84, 160). He does this more consistently in the calendar section (pp 5, 7). However, p336 is painted by Artist 2 and the noses have a bridge. The eyes are large and sometimes bulging. They are drawn, Egyptian style, almost frontally, even when the head is in profile.
Overall, the artists match each other’s range of colours although Artist 2 favours more saturated hues. Clothes tend to be in contrasting blocks of orange, mauve, green and blue. Some combinations are as bright as a deck chair (p264). Nuances of lilac, lavender, mauve, orange, pink are skilfully juxtaposed to create vibrant chromatic effects. The backgrounds are solid blocks of blue, maroon and green.
However, the artists show two fundamental differences in their handling of colour. Artist 1 frequently uses a more translucent colours, or else the paint has simply worn off. As a result, a great deal of the underdrawings are visible on his work and they show how frequently he simplified or deviated from the original sketch. Out of 44 initials on which under drawings are visible, 35 are by Artist 1. Typically he simplifies the complex zig zag folds along the hem of a cloak to a straight line (p139). He prefers a straight and easy hair line, painting over delicate curls (pp 414, 237, 242, 314). He also omits essential parts of the iconography: heads, flames, monsters (pp 86, 193, 202, 391, Köln leaf). This suggests that he was not responsible for the drawings, which are somewhat finer than his painting.
The second difference is most obvious in colour and has thus probably been overlooked in earlier black and white commentaries. It is a technical matter: basically Artist 1 never grasped the principles of facial modelling, while Artist 2, at his best, could handle light and shade, based on a distant understanding of Byzantine conventions. The hallmark of Artist 1 is a face painted purely white, overlaid with very schematic green bands of shading which look more like chin straps. He occasionally applies pink for lips. By contrast, Artist 2 has quite a sophisticated grasp of modelling. He uses many shades of buff, pinks, a little white highlighting, pink lips, even blues and greens. With a subtle application of tones he is able to create a convincing bone structure to the face, but he rarely rises to the exquisite ranges of emotional expression shown by the Alexis Master. The Alexis Master used both techniques, strong neck bands and tonal blending, at the same time (p 20, 70). A good comparison is the face of Christ ( p139, Artist 1 and p131, Artist 2) because it emphasises the close similarity of the drawing in contrast to the two systems of facial modelling.
pair is pp78 and 94.
P78, by Artist 1, shows his
paler hues, his thin worn blue background, the white face with green jaw
line and ignored under drawing.
P94, by Artist 2, shows the deep saturated colours, firmly applied,
modulated facial shading, and white lacy filigree of highlights on the
The two artists do not always maintain the clearly polarised differences illustrated above. Later on in the book they appear to be working faster or at least spend less time firming up the details of their style, so the differences are less pronounced. For instance, Artist 1 may just fill in a few white lines across the face rather than block it out (p 288, 164). P339 shows Artist 1’s order of work. He has completed all the drapery to a high state of surface decoration but left the face and hair roughly blocked out and unfinished. Artist 2 may ignore his white filigree highlights on the drapery although he still maintains his modelled skin tones. He also left some pictures rather hastily (pp 117, 343,364) with facial details only roughly indicated.
These new observations about the faces and modelling have led to the revised division of hands suggested below. They do not make a fundamental difference to Dodwell’s analysis of the style and its sources, but they have an effect on the distribution of labour while the book was being made.
This division is followed by Thomson (1982,120) and Haney (2002,33).
Dodwell’s division of hands creates fairly consistent blocks of initials for each artist, although they are not tied to individual quires. From this system, it appears that Artist 2 was asked to complete the psalm section after the disruption caused by pasting in p285. It makes the Köln leaf look like an afterthought, whereas the final diptych (pp415-418) showing St Alban and David looks like an appropriate introduction by Artist 1 (who began the psalter section), relegated to the end when new material was added to the book.
This revised division of hands in the psalter section is based on the stark white and green faces of Artist 1 which crop up intermittently within sections previously attributed to Artist 2. Although Artist 1 mainly worked at the beginning and Artist 2 mainly worked at the end, the production was genuinely a team effort. Page 285 did not cause a hiatus in the production although, as indicated elsewhere, it did cause a change in iconographic emphasis. Moreover, the Köln leaf now appears fully integrated with the other collects.
The wide range of comparative illustrations required for this enquiry is amply presented in Dodwell (AP, 119-205) and Haney (1995, 8-11; 2002, 309-315). In searching for the sources of their style, Dodwell rightly concluded that their work was ‘sufficiently close for them to be treated as one for the purposes of analysis’ (AP,199).
The most immediate source for the style of the psalter initials was the St Albans scriptorium. The Prudentius (BL MS Cotton Titus D.XVI) contains many figures similar to both the initials and the miniatures, and was made in the first quarter of the 12th century. From this workshop style, the artists derive their elongated proportions, dramatic gestures, tightly wrapped costumes and a preference for profiles. However, in their hands the sensitive modelling and profound expressions of the Alexis Master are translated into vibrant patterns. The initials artists have very different artistic backgrounds, training and tastes from the Alexis Master.
Their most obvious feature, the striped angular drapery, is found in northern France: Rouen MS 467,f99; Valenciennes MS 512,f4v; with pleated umbrella folds from the Life of St Omer, St Omer MS 698,f34. Figures with pointing, distorted bodies are found in the Corbie Psalter, Amiens MS 18,f11. However, the acrobatic figures and dramatic gestures are also a feature of Anglo-Saxon painting, found in B.L. Cotton MS.Tib.C.VI, and BL Cotton MS.Claud.B IV.
The style of this initial, painted on its separate patch of parchment, appears more ‘advanced’ chronologically. It represents a stage between the miniatures of the Alexis Master and the Shaftesbury Psalter (BL Lansdowne MS.383) which was probably made in the 1130s. In addition to the softly folded drapery with filigree highlights, this artist draws profile noses with an indented bridge and bumpy tip. This nose profile is also found on the St Albans manuscript Princeton, University Library Garret 73, f1a and the Shaftesbury Psalter (Thomson, 1982,116, pl 120).
The Princeton manuscript, Haimo’s commentary on Isaiah, is written by a St Albans scribe and has a St Albans ex libris. Pächt attributes its three initials simply to a ‘follower of the Alexis Master’ (AP, 168, pl. 156a,c). Ayers more confidently asserts that the artist of the Princeton manuscript was resident at St Albans and added the pasted initial to Psalm 105 after Christina’s death (1974, 215-6). Thomson, rightly in my view, distinguishes two artists in the Princeton manuscript (1982, 116, 33-5). One, who paints the seated Isaiah, f1b, is ‘in the style of the Alexis Master’, while the other who paints the dragon initial, f1b, more closely resembles Winchester work of the ‘Entangled Figures Master’ in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Auct. E inf. 1-2, and the Shaftesbury Psalter, British Library, Lansdowne 383. Close points of comparison between Princeton f1a and Albani Psalm 105 are the spurred foliage, the dented noses and expressive eyes. By contrast, on f1b the eye of seated Isaiah is droopy and formulaic while his hands are schematic and feeble compared with the fluttering and nervous fingers of Psalm 105. It is therefore possible that Artist 3, while familiar with the evolution of the Alexis Master’s style, was a temporary import from Winchester.
Artist 3 may never have seen the psalter itself, because he forms his letter C differently from the others in the book. His C is a single gold band while the others swell with foliage in the bow. By contrast, the adjacent hexameter, also on the patch, was written ‘in house’, by Scribe 1. Both the coloured inks and the handwriting are the same as those on the calendar. Moreover, Scribe 1 added his rubric after the patch was glued in: the mordant green ink of his letters has seeped through onto p286 while the green in the initial itself has not.
If Artists 1, 2 and
3 were working at the same time, or even if the pasted initial was added
at a later date, one might speculate why a different artist was chosen
for this special image of Christina. The patron has clearly created an
aesthetic hierarchy for all the pictures in the book: relatively workaday
craftsmen produce the majority of images dealing with a spiritual eternity
in the psalter section; Artist 1 worked more elegantly in the calendar;
the Alexis Master painted the sublime Life of Christ with its full page
miniatures but the Emmaus scenes which relate to Christina, and the Life
of Alexis are painted with washes. Within this scale of quality and importance,
perhaps Artists 1 and 2 with their schematic faces were simply not adequate
for the living portrait Geoffrey wanted of Christina.
collaboration between History of Art
and Historic Collections
University of Aberdeen - King's College - Aberdeen - AB24 3SW