UNDERSTANDING THE INITIALS
The 'Christina' initial
The psalms were probably the best known piece of literature in the middle ages. They were used as a primer for teaching children to read; the entire psalter was recited once a week in sequence, as part of the monastic opus dei. Selected verses formed the basis for prayers, particularly for people who lacked the resources to follow the full monastic routine. Such a collection of sentences from the psalms was given to the semi-literate hermit Godric of Finchale c.1100 (Godric, c.9). As discussed below it is not clear how well Christina could read although she owned a psalter before she reached Markyate. Undoubtedly she knew most of the words by heart.
The initials of the St Albans Psalter have a vitality and urgency which allows them to be enjoyed at once by any modern reader who simply reads the adjacent psalm text. Nearly all of them provide a literal interpretation of the words. However, an educated medieval reader would see much more. The Scriptures could be interpreted on four levels, as designated by Cassian ( Collatio, xiv, 8; PL xlix, 962-5): historical, allegorical, moral and spiritual. For instance, in psalm 41, a hart is shown devouring a serpent, to illustrate the words ‘As the hart pants after the fountain of water, so my soul pants after you, O God’. The hart itself is an allegory for the soul panting for the waters of baptism. On a moral level, the snake represents sin, which the good Christian devours. On a spiritual level, the fountain applies to Christ’s allusion to a ‘fountain of water, springing up into life eternal’ (John 4:14). It represents the eternal life of heaven (AP,181). Even where all these levels could not be applied, the medieval reader would expect to spend long periods of time ruminating about the wider religious implications of both the picture and text.
This psalter is constructed along simple and logical lines. The initial illustrates a literal aspect of the adjacent psalm. The theme is highlighted by a short phrase in red, at the beginning of each psalm. While the general meaning is explained in the commentary, this essay deals with some of the anomalies, aspects of the illustrations which cannot be fully understood by the exact words of the psalm.
Dodwell identified the important scriptural sources which provide an explanation for several of the images (AP, 182-197). In addition to other locations in the Bible, they are Enarrationes in Psalmos by St Augustine, the Breviarium in Psalmos by St Jerome and the Diadema Monachorum by Smaragdus. A basic Christological assumption, explicit in many of the initials which show Jesus as the main character, is that David’s words anticipate Christ’s coming. This was explained by Cassiodorus in his tract De prophetia ( PL, 70, col 12,; Henderson, 1981, 22). It is also the message of the caption to Psalm 1 ‘The blessed David as psalmist uttered forth the Annunciation of the Holy Spirit’. The patron or artist was also strongly conditioned by the Rule of St Benedict whose daily recitation was the foundation for Benedictine monastic practice. Dodwell explains in detail how these texts elucidate the different levels of meaning in the initials (AP, 206-272). To these, Haney also added the writings and meditations of St Anselm (2002, 266-305).
However, for the limited scope of this website, these higher levels of interpretation, and outside references which cannot be illustrated, have only been introduced where they are essential for understanding the picture. So, for instance in psalm 82 God holds a star (not mentioned in the text) and blows destruction at trees on a hill. This is because St Augustine describes the enemies of God as star worshippers, and God is able to destroy them like the trees on the hill. In psalm 88 (p250), five holy ones receive a vision of God. Their number is made clear by St Augustine who identifies them with the prophets who foretold Christ’s coming. The complex iconography of psalm 79 is explained by Smaragdus. Almost all its diverse elements come from the psalm itself, but only Smaragdus mentions that the two doves beside God are sacrifices offered for the sins of omission and commission. This then provides the explanation that the psalm is about remorse and repentance.
Image © Hildesheim, St Godehard
In psalm 21, St Jerome explains why a man is leaping naked over a herd of cattle when the text only says ‘Many calves have surrounded me’. Calves represent lust and incontinence, a threat to the naked flesh. The soul is escaping, helped by the hand of God above. Psalm 118 (p315) advises the reader to turn away from the vanities of the world (see Commentary). Saints Ambrose (Expositio Psalmi) and Augustine specify exactly which types of vanities are to be avoided, and these are illustrated. The initial ends in a group of trees by a river, not mentioned in the psalm. However St Ambrose concludes his commentary with the exhortation to turns ones eyes instead to the earth and sea which are God’s creation. (pers. com. from Barbara Raw). In psalm 132, both Saints Jerome and Augustine relate the exhortation for ‘brothers to dwell in unity’ directly to the corporate life in a monastery. Since the initial depicts the exact opposite, the psalm must take on a very personal meaning which relates to the circumstances of the patron or artist or recipient (see below, The Title).
Dodwell considered the application of the Rule of St Benedict to these initials as a key to their originality (AP, 184-97). The Rule refers to the psalms more than fifty times so it is not surprising that its precepts are highlighted in the St Albans initials. Given a choice of many possible themes within a psalm, the designer often selects one endorsed by the Rule. For instance the wickedness of speech (apart from godly praise), the virtue of silence and listening, are themes both of the Rule and of the psalter where they are shown at least 19 times. Psalm 111 says ’he has distributed, he has given to the poor’. The initial specifically shows the gift of clothing to the poor, as advised in the Rule. Psalm 55 shows a monk being kicked. The text obviously does not mention a monk, but he is fulfilling the Rule by showing humility in adversity. Psalm 13 concerns the denial of God and shows a man being stripped for scourging. According to the Rule, denial of God was an extreme form of pride, for which punishment was the lash.
Illustrations to the
psalms have a long and rich pedigree (Horst, 1996). The Utrecht Psalter
(Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliothek, MS 32), made in Reims, 816-23, was
one of the most influential for the development of English illustrations
because it came to Canterbury at the end of the tenth century and served
as inspiration for the eleventh-century Harley Psalter (British Library,
MS Harley 603) and two later versions. In the Utrecht family, the images
are arranged as extensive landscapes. The astonishing originality of the
St Albans Psalter is to compress these discursive episodic scenes into
the disciplined framework of an initial. The Utrecht family shares with
the St Albans Psalter a word-for-word literal depiction of the text. Certain
similarities in iconography are inevitable, given that they all seek to
illustrate usually the same words literally. However, in the St Albans
Psalter some of the initials deviate from a strict illustration of the
adjacent words. Here one detects the influence of the patron, and the
remainder of this essay explores how the special circumstances of their
creation affect some initials.
In addition to the textual sources, there are historical and personal factors which affect the design of the initials. Scholars have long established that the psalter was made within the orbit of the Benedictine abbey of St Albans, under the abbacy of Geoffrey de Gorham, and tailored in some ways for the anchoress Christina of Markyate. Such a wildly extravagant production could only have been created with the direct approval and probably direct involvement of Geoffrey.
A key to the connection with Christina must be the initial to psalm 105, pasted onto p285. Almost the entire sequence of over 200 historiated initials follows the same basic formula and style, painted by Artists 1 and 2, but psalm 105 is painted by a different artist in a ‘later’ style (see The Artists, Artist 3).
Image © Hildesheim, St Godehard
On p285 the appropriate space for a normal initial has been left blank. There is no evidence of erased or preliminary material visible under the pasted parchment. There are two possibilities why this aberration should occur: either it was an oversight or it was deliberate. If it was an oversight, one must assume that within this tightly organised sequence of painting, one letter (which happens to be capital C) was overlooked and the initial was ‘pasted into the manuscript long after it had been produced, at a time, it would seem, when the psalter was being adapted for Christina’s use’ (Dodwell, 1993,328). Goldschmidt (1895, 118-9) also considered it was added later, Paecht specifying ‘not before the thirties’ (AP, 163). Swarzenski (1963, 80-1) suggested it was added in 1145 when Christina became prioress of Markyate. Ayers (1974, 215) proposed that it was a posthumous and commemorative gesture, added after 1155 at the same time as Christina’s obit in the calendar. Dodwell realised that the proposal of a later insertion was ‘difficult to understand’ (AP, 244), particularly when other gaps in the book, such as the words Q[uid gloriaris] at the start of psalm 51, have not been corrected.
If the blank space was deliberate, there are two possibilities. Peter Kidd [pers. comm] has suggested that the psalm 105 initial was painted before all the others. When Geoffrey decided to commission the psalter, it was produced as a preliminary sample within the scriptorium, to demonstrate what a psalter made for Christina could look like. This is why it shows Christina and is the letter C. It also explains why its iconography does not fit with the rest, because the full programme had yet to be decided. When Geoffrey gave his approval for the book to proceed, the Alexis master was chosen to prepare the initial drawings, and he left a gap for the existing sample to be pasted in. But why leave the gap on p285 when there are 7 initial C’s before this?
The last possibility is that the initial was created while the book was in progress. This scenario suggests that the lavishly illustrated psalter began as a book for the abbey, or even for Geoffrey himself. Indeed, the first part of the psalm section shows no features which connect it to Christina and perhaps some which connect it to the abbey of St Albans. The full page illustrations (pp416,417) of the Martyrdom of St Alban, and David the Musician would provide an appropriate introduction to such a St Albans book, but were relegated to the end as the book changed its shape and destination. So, apparently after the book was well under way, Geoffrey decided to give it to Christina and alter its design to reflect their mutual requirements.
There is evidence that the initial was created during the course of production. The image was painted and dry before it was stuck in but its caption was penned afterwards. It is clear from the verso (p 286) that wet ink, particularly the green, from the inscription has seeped through whereas little colour from the initial has spread. Since the lettering and ink of the inscription matches the work of Scribe 1 in the calendar, it is likely that these two items were made at the same time.
The inscription explains what Geoffrey expected from Christina in return for his many kindnesses. After their first recorded meeting ‘all he asked for was her intercession with God’ (Talbot, 1998, 139). In all the other psalms, and in their rubrics, ‘I’ refers to David the psalmist. All the requests for mercy are shown both in the pictures and the text to issue from the psalmist, uttered long ago in biblical times. In this initial the pronoun is individual, female and contemporary. ‘Spare your monks, I beseech you’ is uttered by the woman, Christina, directly relating to the monks of St Albans. This initial was therefore created in order to enhance her role of intercessor, in the expectation that she would repeat this rubric regularly. She was placed on a level with St Alban himself because of her spiritual powers to help the abbey. ‘And it should be borne in mind that as our blessed patron St Alban had her from the Lord as co-operator in building up and furthering his community on earth, so he had her afterwards as sharer of his eternal bliss in heaven’ (Talbot, 1998, 126-7). This function as intercessor is recorded in her Life before she made her profession in c.1131.
To reflect their new destination, the psalm designs began to change in subtle ways. There is a temptation to see this initial as literally the point at which Christina ‘comes into’ the book. The pasted insertion itself marks a radical change of plan (see also The Artists). Clearly the book continued to be produced by the same team of artists and the same scribes but some features seem to emerge more prominently in the later part. Before the circumstances for this change of plan can be proposed (see The Alexis Quire: the Dove and Geoffrey), it is necessary to establish if the psalter does indeed change direction from p285.
In order to draw out features which relate to the production, this study focuses on the depiction of women, the clergy and the role of the title at the head of each psalm. Implications which concern the literacy of the reader are also explored. The analysis is based on two preliminary observations: the initial illustrations are usually a literal depiction of the adjacent psalm; the title, written in red by Scribe 3 after the psalm text was complete, comes from the psalm and indicates the meaning of the initial. These features are so regular that any deviation must indicate a deliberate choice by the patron or artist. The anomalies are so stark when they appear that the reader is forced to ponder why they occur and why they shift the reader’s mind away from the direct message of the psalm or prayer.
20 initials depict women. In some cases they are a necessary part of the psalm content and cannot be avoided. However, an intellectual and artistic decision is being made where female figures are deliberately chosen when none is mentioned in the text.
In psalms 8, 50, 122, 148, the Canticle of Anna, the Magnificat and the Apostles Creed women are an essential part of the text and are therefore illustrated. In psalm 71, the Kings of Tharsis bringing gifts are simply translated into a New Testament context, illustrated by the adoration of the Magi before Mary and Christ. Moreover, this reflects the use of the psalm during the mass at Epiphany (pers. comm. Ursula Nilgen; Sarum Missal, 38).
Sometimes women are merely included as part of ‘the World’ or the ‘Children of Israel’ as in psalms 92, 109,136. In the Canticle of Symeon (p395) Joseph is omitted from the Presentation at the Temple, being replaced by a woman. (The same scene in the full page miniatures, p28, also replaces Joseph with female dove bearers). In the Canticle of Moses (p377) and psalm 149 a clear choice is being made to include women. In the canticle there is no mention of men and women praising God with timbrels as shown in the picture. Moses with his rod and a female leader direct segregated groups of men and women in their praise. In psalm 149, the penultimate song of praise, the words are gender neutral: ‘Let his praise be in the church of the holy ones… The holy ones shall rejoice in glory’ but a group of women are shown within a church. The text implies that the holy ones are the same people as the soldiers with swords, but the illustration makes a pointed distinction to depict women as the holy ones. Other contrary examples show that in this location, psalm 149, the choice of women is deliberate, providing a female coda to the psalms. A similar text in psalm 133 shows only men: ‘all servants of the lord. Who stand in the house of the lord’. Psalm 144 (p363) also chooses to represent men: ‘let your holy ones bless you’. None of the men is religious.
In other cases women are used to personify sins, even when they are not in the text. Psalm 36 refers to ‘delight in the Lord’. A woman, excluded from intimacy with the psalmist and God, holds the word ‘delight’ as a reminder of the sins of the flesh. Psalm 51 discusses malice, personified as a woman ensnared between greed and lust. Psalm 67 refers to God breaking the heads of his enemies: they are represented by embracing couples.
Image © Hildesheim, St Godehard
The massive design for psalm 118 (p315) was clearly intended to arrest the reader: the figures chosen to represent ‘vanity’ are a carefully thought out selection. One man flaunts fine garments (pomp) and the falcon of aristocratic leisure pursuits. The attributes of the second man signify cupidity and lust. The particular sins selected are not dependent on the psalm but are based on the commentaries of Ambrose and Augustine, and are given a female twist. They can be applied to Christina. She dressed well before running away from home and the details recorded about her clothing suggest she found them important enough to remember. At the feast of the Guild Merchant she took off her mantle ‘so that, with her garments fastened to her sides with bands and her sleeves rolled up to her arms, she should courteously offer drinks to the nobility’. Eventually she replaced her ‘silk dresses and luxurious furs’ with a rough habit (Talbot, 1998, 49, 93). Bishop Ranulf Flambard, ‘a slave to lust’ himself, perhaps knew her predilections when he attempted to buy her favours with rich gifts. From London he brought her ‘silken garments and rich ornaments…but she looked on them as dirt and despised them’ (Talbot, 1998, 45). Finally, lust affected even the pious Christina who was sorely tempted by a ‘certain cleric’ but throughout she ‘violently resisted the desires of her flesh’(Talbot, 1998, 115-117). Whereas psalms earlier in the book show women ensnared by vice (psalms 51, 67) a close look at this initial shows that the women are tempted but resisting. The first female holds a flowering branch, like the one given to Christina in a vision by the Virgin. This enabled her to repel her husband’s grasping hands and demands (Talbot, 1998, 77). The second woman holds up her hand to bless and quell the lustful man.
The Litany illustration creates the same astonishing impact as psalm 118, because of its great size and novel composition. The kneeling women are invoking the Trinity, and communally praying for intercession. The monk is not praying with them but is pointing to the captions about the Trinity. One woman reaches into the divine space occupied by the identical figures of God and Christ and the dove of the Holy Spirit. The implication is that this image represents the nuns of Markyate led by Christina, reciting this Litany, praying for intercession from the Trinity (Nilgen, 1988, 163). The monk is there pointing to the books which contain the nuns’ words.
Image © Hildesheim, St Godehard
This image relates directly to Christina’s vision of the Trinity with Geoffrey (Talbot, 1998, 156-7). She 'saw herself in a kind of chamber, pleasing in its material, design and atmosphere, with two venerable and very handsome personages clothed in white garments. Standing side by side, they differed neither in stature nor beauty. On their shoulders a dove far more beautiful than any others seemed to rest. Outside she saw the abbot trying without success to gain entrance to her... she pleaded with the Lord to have mercy on her beloved'. The composition is an interesting comment on the patron’s priorities. Geoffrey is the largest and most active figure, highlighting his own importance at the event, outshining the quietly contemplative women and the Holy Trinity. The exact position of the dove resting with his wings closed was also a crucial detail: the painter was asked to correct the drawing of the dove in whiich its wings were depicted flapping.(see The Alexis Quire: the Dove and Geoffrey).This vision is recorded after Christina’s profession c.1131 but before King Stephen’s accession is mentioned (1135) (Talbot, 1998, 15). The final female initial, for psalm 105, displays a whole range of anomalies which indicate its importance, as mentioned above.
A distribution chart shows there is a greater emphasis on women towards the end, after p285 when Christina ‘comes into’ the book. Moreover, their positive role becomes universal.
19 initials depict the clergy in some form. The first group is purely historical. Aaron is shown twice as the archetypal Old Testament priest, in psalms 99 and 132. Eli is correctly shown in the Canticle of Anna and Zacharias illustrates his own canticle. Saints Ambrose and Augustine are shown as authors of the Te Deum.
The second group applies the words of the psalm to a more contemporary clerical or monastic context. A cluster at the end of the book, among the songs and prayers, basically show the clergy involved in the words of the text, praising, praying, singing, blessing. (Ymnus Angelicus, Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian creeds, the Litany and two collects). These items would be hard to illustrate in any other literal way.
The remaining seven initials are within the psalms proper. Here, the inclusion of clergy is a deliberate choice by the patron, to represent liturgical functions. In one case the words of the psalm have been appropriated into the liturgy. In psalm 25, the words ‘ I will wash my hands among the innocent’ are used at the Offertory, during Mass. Psalm 110 depicts a priest and Christ dressed for the Mass, holding a chalice, to represent ‘ He has sent redemption’. Psalm 93 shows an abbot ordaining a priest, to represent ‘Blessed is the man whom you shall instruct’. By contrast in psalm 15, the title ’the Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my chalice’ are the very words used by the abbot and repeated by the monk when he receives his monastic tonsure, but no cleric is shown.
The Rule of St Benedict is invoked in psalm 55. Here a monk is being savagely kicked by another man. It relates to the fourth degree of humility in the rule, whereby monks are exhorted to patience in adversity (AP,225). Remorse, repentance and confession are implied by the initial to psalm 79 (AP,233). The combination of images, with the two doves (not in the text), sparrow, trees and the beasts are explained in a monastic context by Smaragdus in Diadema Monachorum. (PL, cii, 611-14 capp. xv-xvii).
That leaves the last two psalms, 66 (p197) and 105, which are pleas for divine mercy towards monks. Psalm 66 was recited every day at the beginning of Lauds, so the illustration probably refers to blessing all the works of the monastic day. Psalm 105, Christina interceding for the monks of St Albans remains the final anomaly, not connected with the text, the liturgy or patristic writings, but a direct and personal appeal. The monks crowd behind her like the souls being saved by Christ in the Harrowing of Hell (p49), while she and the first monk take the position of Adam and Eve.
However, two initials suggest that the audience for the initials was not exclusively or formally monastic. Psalms 106 and 118:161(p330) make an odd contrast. In the former, seven men (not monks) exalt God ‘in the church of the people’. The choice of seven figures may refer to praising God in the seven services of the monastic Opus Dei. In psalm 118, the caption reads ‘Seven times a day I have said praise to you’, the most direct and obvious reference to the monastic offices. Here the image is quite neutral, with no monks but the psalmist on his knees alone. Both of these could refer to an informal gathering of ascetics such as the hermits and anchoresses at Markyate.
These observations are backed by the wording of the collects which refer to God’s servants (generic, or masculine plural) and his handmaidens, living within communities. (See Calendar, The Collects)
A distribution chart of monks and clergy does not show a clear change of emphasis because the monastic world informs the whole book. However, before psalm 105 they occur at fairly regular intervals. At psalm 105 (p285) they are led by Christina. After that, there is a considerable gap until they reappear strongly at the end with the prayers, hymns and creeds, areas where priests would perform the ritual. Between psalm 105 and 150, clergy only occur twice, once in a liturgical sense (psalm 110) and once on a deeply personal level which was often discussed by Geoffrey and Christina (psalm 132). An explanation for psalm 132 follows below.
Almost every psalm is preceded by a short title written in red ink. If the title is not inserted in a space left at the beginning of the psalm, it is written into a little book illustrated in the picture. Hereafter the red title in the text is called a tag, and the writing in the little books is called a caption. Such titles were a common device to highlight a significant aspect of the psalm. The phrase is almost invariably taken from the adjacent text although towards the end of the book some sections are given a formal title (such as Canticum Anna).
Exceptions to this format indicate a deliberate editorial decision by the patron. There are only two exceptions where the title does not come from a psalm:105 and 1. In psalm 105 the tag is written by a different hand to all the others; it is written uniquely in red and green; it is an hexameter chosen to explain the illumination of Christina interceding for the monks. In psalm 1 the title was inserted into David’s book. It graphically emphasises David’s inspiration by the Holy Spirit in the creation of the psalms.
The relationship between the title and the image is remarkably direct, in almost every case. For instance, in psalm 91, the tag says ‘The just shall flourish like the palm tree’ and a just man is shown holding a palm frond.
If the illustration does not connect with the words of the title, then clearly the patron or artist have decided to apply a significant interpretation. Only seven out of 213 initials deviate. This occasional departure from a direct illustration gives the reader a shock and demands contemplation. Some deviations are obvious, such as the words of the Magnificat accompanied by a picture of the Annunciation. The words of Canticum Abacuc are accompanied by the story of Habakkuk as related in the book of Daniel.
Other initials require knowledge of further texts: psalm 107 requires the Commentary of St Jerome; and psalm 106 requires the Rule of St Benedict. The stag and serpent of psalm 41 was such a familiar image that the reader would probably not have to recourse to St Augustine for explanation.
For psalm 99, a glorious paeon of praise, the picture is a rather grim illustration of Moses confessing the sins of the Children of Israel. The reader is expected to be familiar with the story in Exodus and Numbers. Confession does not feature significantly in the initials so this image provided the required prompt for an area of prayer which is somewhat underplayed.
However, the last example, psalm 132, illustrates the exact opposite of the words. The text describes how ‘pleasant it is for brothers to dwell in unity’. The tag refers to the unction of blessing being poured on the head of Aaron the priest, a reward for his priestly leadership. This psalm was interpreted by Saints Augustine and Jerome as a eulogy of corporate life in the monastery (Jerome, PL, xxvi. 1217; Augustine, PL, xxxvii, 1730; AP, 260). The picture shows some happy brothers but one is excluded and resentful. Aaron is not receiving any unction but is being instructed to look at the factions above him. In comparative cycles with a similar scene (Utrecht University Library, MS 32, Stuttgart Psalter, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, MS Biblia folia 23, London, British Library, MS Harley 603 ), Aaron is anointed (Haney, 2002, 617).
Under Abbot Geoffrey, St Albans suffered factional strife, both because of his high-handed behaviour and because of the money he spent on Markyate and other charitable ventures. (Koopmans, 2000, 684-685). Geoffrey’s leadership was criticised, particularly by his own monks. ‘He began to grow more haughty than was right and relied more on his own judgement than on that of his monks. He decided to carry out a project which he knew could not be accomplished without the annoyance of his chapter’ (Talbot, 1998,34-5). The Gesta Abbatum records that ‘he impetuously conceded without the convent’s consent the whole of our toll’ (GA, 1,95). After Geoffrey’s death, the Epistola mentions ‘how that contrary part of his congregation suddenly and furiously laboured to undo those exterior things [which he had done] (Epistola, 1975,108).
Image © Hildesheim, St Godehard
The initial to psalm 132 is therefore a vivid allegory of strife within the monastery, and the witholding of divine approval from the abbot. Its unique contradiction of the text gives the reader as much of a shock as psalm 105 where Christina leads the monks to Christ.
The sheer quantity and exuberance of the initials provide the viewer of this book with a continuous temptation and encouragement to turn the page. This is particularly so towards the end where the frequency of initials increases. Up to page 284, there is roughly an initial every other page: 51% of the psalm pages are illustrated. From page 285 to the end, this increases to 68% illustrated pages. This is partly due to the nature of the material: the psalms and prayers are shorter, so initials are more frequent, sometimes with several to a page. However, it is also an editorial decision because long psalms could always be broken up. The following psalms are subdivided to allow greater illustration and ease of reference: 9, 17, 36, 67, 68, 77, 88, 103, 104, 105 (p285), 106, 118, 138, 143, 144. Psalm 118 (after p285) is broken up by no less than 22 historiated initials.
The size of initials is traditionally connected with conventional breaks in the psalter. In this instance the divisions are marked by larger initials and/or elaborate display script at the beginning of the psalm. The three-fold division is heralded at psalms 1,51,101 and the liturgical division at psalms 26, 38, 52, 68, 80, (97 excised), 109. These conventional divisions are a significant but not essential criteria for large initials. The some of largest, Psalm 118, p315 and the Litany, p403 are reserved for Christina’s topics.
There are several features in the book which are connected to the acts of looking and reading. The short colourful title to each psalm provides an instant key to both the text and the initial. In the Canticle of Moses, p383, the tag says ‘Hear [the things that I speak]’ and yet Moses is shown in the act of writing the book from which the canticle will be sung. Added authority is thus given to someone who both writes and speaks.
To emphasise the value of the word of God enshrined in the psalter, 79 images of books are included in the initials. Many of these have a significant caption written in them (Haney 2002, 59-62). Active efforts are made to guide the reader’s eye to important words. Many of the figures gesticulate wildly and amusingly, with double-jointed limbs. In the early part of the book, the figures point mainly to the black psalm text written by scribe 2 (eg, psalm 16, p96). Later on, they point overwhelmingly to the little book or the tag, all written by Scribe 3. This system becomes an almost playful game of ‘look and say’ when fingers point both to the title and the appropriate part of the picture. A typical example of this motif is psalm 118, p321.
This chart shows the distribution of pointing fingers, from this it is clear that in the early part of the book, the psalm text is most prominently indicated, while in the later part of the book, the indications to book and tag, are overwhelming. In the later part of the book, the reader’s eye is being excitedly guided to the words written by Scribe 3.
The psalm text is a solid block of black lettering written by Scribe 2. The tags and captions are added later in red by Scribe 3. In the latter part of the book, the artist has clearly been instructed to emphasise the contribution of Scribe 3. In turn, Scribe 3 encourages the reader to understand his short phrases by looking at the picture.
Scribe 3 shows the same solicitude for his reader in the Alexis quire. Here he writes both Latin and French in a dazzling display of coloured inks. However, there is some ambiguity about the reader’s understanding of both languages. Although the Alexis Chanson is written in French, the captions to its illustration are in Latin. Although the Chanson has only one illustration and 12 pages of text, it is followed by the letter of Pope Gregory. This explains the value of pictures for those who cannot read. To make the message doubly clear, the letter is written first in Latin and then in French. It could imply that the reader had some understanding of Latin but needed help with French. Pope Gregory’s letter also serves as an apologia for the innovatory sequence of the 40 full page miniatures of Christ’s life, which are presented with no words at all. Their interpretation relies on private meditation or close discussion with a mentor.
Although Christina’s Life narrates that she owned a psalter before she came to Markyate (Talbot, 1998, 98-99), many people simply knew the psalms by heart without necessarily being fluent Latin readers. If Geoffrey was trying to teach Christina to read both Latin and French, this could explain features in the Alexis quire mentioned above and the change in layout after p285. The pictures become more lavish and frequent to sustain her interest, while the gestures point to the short , bright explanatory tags and captions rather than the black text. Finally the evidence of the silk curtains over the illuminations suggests that the owner was more interested in the pictures than the text. In many instances, the stitching and position of the curtain makes the text difficult to read. As suggested earlier, the insertion of the curtains is likely to have occurred soon after the book was made, because it was complete before the Alexis quire was added (see Codicology: stitch marks).
These initials were
created to inspire meditation and delight in the reader. The overwhelming
majority serve to illuminate the meaning of the adjacent words. In a very
few initials, some personal interest seems to modify or inform the composition.
A key to this is psalm 105, introducing Christina to the text and the
ensuing subtext. Thereafter women are portrayed in a more favourable way,
attention to the rubric becomes more insistent and occasionally Geoffrey
appears to manifest himself personally as well, in psalm 132, and in the
Litany where he towers over Christina in their moment of shared glory
with the Trinity. His rubric encourages the viewer to develop reading
skills while the placing of stitched curtains over many passages of text
suggests that the owner valued the images over the written word.
collaboration between History of Art
and Historic Collections
University of Aberdeen - King's College - Aberdeen - AB24 3SW