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12 posts from February 2014

09 February 2014

Happy St Apollonia's Day!

For more on this ongoing series about medieval saints, see our post Saints' Lives...and Deaths.

Today is the feast day of St Apollonia, an early Christian martyr. While relatively unknown in the modern era, St Apollonia – and her gruesome torture – was frequently depicted in medieval art.   

Detail of a miniature of the martyrdom of St Apollonia, from the Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1440 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 284v

We know of Apollonia through a letter written by Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria from 247 to 265, which is preserved in extracts in Eusebius’s Church History. According to Dionysius, during the festival to commemorate the first millennium of the Roman Empire in about the year 249, a local poet prophesied a pending ‘calamity’. Spurred by fear, the pagan majority then carried out a series of attacks against the local Christians, many of whom were tortured and put to death. After describing these horrors, Dionysius continues: ‘At that time, Apollonia, the parthénos presbûtis [or virgo presbytera, which probably indicated that she was a deaconess in the Christian community] was held in high esteem. These men seized her also and by repeated blows broke all her teeth. They then erected outside the city gates a pile of faggots and threatened to burn her alive if she refused to repeat after them impious words (either a blasphemy against Christ or an invocation of the pagan gods). Given, at her own request, a little freedom, she sprang quickly into the fire and was burned to death’. 

Yates Thompson MS 4 f. 190v C1305-09a
Detail of a miniature of St Apollonia holding a tooth, at the beginning of her suffrage, from the Hours of Jacques de Brégilles, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1460, Yates Thompson MS 4, f. 190v

As is the case with many of the early martyr saints, the actual moment of Apollonia’s death is rarely shown. Instead, many of the images that survive represent the torture she suffered prior to her death, but rather than the troubling tooth-breaking scene described in the letter of Dionysius, most images represent her teeth being removed by pincers, or show her holding an ominous pair of tongs. Unsurprisingly, Apollonia is the patron saint of dentistry and those suffering from toothache, and in the medieval era she was frequently included in Books of Hours and other suffrages. A few of our favourite British Library images are below; we wish you a painless St Apollonia’s Day!

Egerton MS 2019 f. 217r K022760
Detail of a miniature of the martyrdom of St Apollonia, at the beginning of her suffrage, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1440 – c. 1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 217r

Harley MS 1211 f. 90v K022768
Detail of a miniature of SS Anthony and Apollonia, at the beginning of their suffrages, from a Book of Hours, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1465, Harley MS 1211, f. 90v

Harley MS 1251 f. 50r K063033
Miniature of the martyrdom of St Apollonia, from the Hours of Eleanor Worcester, France (Rouen), c. 1430 – c. 1440, Harley MS 1251, f. 50v

Harley MS 2989 f. 124r K022771
Miniature of the martyrdom of St Apollonia, from a Book of Hours, France (Rouen), c. 1460 – c. 1470, Harley MS 2989, f. 124r

-  Sarah J Biggs

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

07 February 2014

Saints' Lives... and Deaths

With the twin goals of our readers’ edification and entertainment forever at the forefront of our minds, we at the BL Medieval Manuscripts Blog have hatched a plan for a series of posts on saints over the coming weeks and months, timed to coincide with their individual feast days.

In devotional compilations such as Books of Hours, miniatures of saints were a common presence alongside biographies of their lives or other texts to be read during private prayer or reflection.  The choice of which saints to include in one’s book could be a very personal one.  For example, the decoration in the magnificent Bedford Hours (Add MS 18850) was adapted following the marriage of John, duke of Bedford, to Anne of Burgundy. 

Prefacing the portion of the manuscript containing suffrages to the saints is a large miniature showing Anne of Burgundy kneeling in veneration before her namesake and patron, St Anne, who is accompanied by her daughter the Virgin Mary, and her grandson, Jesus Christ. 

Miniature of Anne of Burgundy, venerating St Anne, St Mary and the Infant Jesus, from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-c.1430, Add MS 18850, f. 257v

The association of saint and book-owner is continued in the border, for example with Joachim and Clopas, each of whom is identified by different interpretations of the Bible as the father of St Anne.

Miniatures of St Joachim and St Clopas, Add MS 18850, f. 257v

Saints could be depicted in a variety of contexts in manuscript miniatures.  On this page of the Bedford Hours, we see them thinking, reading, writing and discussing, enclosed in private alcoves or chambers that evoke the architecture of the medieval palace. 

Miniatures of St ‘Salome’, St Alpheus and St ‘Maria Yaque’, and St Zebedee and St Mary Salome, Add MS 18850, f. 257v

By reflecting the reader’s own behaviour and environment as she studied her Book of Hours, these miniatures complemented the text by cultivating her identification with a saint’s life.  Enhancing the exemplary of these lives in this way further encouraged the reader to emulate a saint’s virtues or good works, to shape her behaviour according to the saintly mould she held before her.

First, though, a little taster of what is to come of our series of saints.  Certain objects or animals became associated with a saint as a consequence of the events of his or her life or the manner of his or her death.  These attributes made depictions of saints in stained glass, stone statuary or manuscript books readily identifiable to anyone familiar with their stories.

In Harley MS 2332, we see saints’ attributes being used as a visual shorthand for the dates of their feast days during the calendar year.  This physicians’ almanac has appeared a couple of times on this blog before: when we solicited help assigning a date of production on the basis of a series of pictograms and dates attached to them; and when the volvelle on f. 23v appeared in Guess the Manuscript

The book is small; measuring only 140mm x 100mm, it was designed to be portable.  It was made using a less expensive grade of dark and thick parchment, and was quite possibly written and even illustrated by the person who owned it.  It was produced perhaps around 1412.  It is of English origin, but the selection of certain saints for the calendar at the beginning of the book strongly suggests a connection or at least familiarity with eastern England: East Anglia and Lincolnshire (Sts Guthlac and Edmund), Yorkshire (Sts John of Beverley and William of York) or Northumberland (Sts Cuthbert, Oswald and Wilfrid).

Calendar pages for February, with tinted pen-drawings of the Labour of the Month, zodiac symbol and religious feast days, from an illustrated physician’s almanac, E. England, c. 1411-12,
Harley MS 2332, ff. 2v-3r

Each month in this calendar occupies an opening, with the traditional activity of the month and the relevant zodiac symbol on the left.  Along the top, symbols provide a quick visual guide to significant dates within the month, with lines directing the reader to when these feasts should be celebrated. 

There are the well-known evangelist symbols:  Matthew (21st September, f. 10r), Mark (25th April, f. 5r, see below), Luke (18th October, f. 11r) and John (27th December, f. 13r). 

Evangelist symbol of Mark,
Harley MS 2332, f. 5r

There are also symbols relating to saintly miracles or acts. 

Three candles in a chalice, attributes of St Blaise,
Harley MS 2332, f. 2v.

St Blaise’s day (3rd February) is represented by candles used in the Blessing of the Throats ceremony, which commemorates his curing of a boy choking on a fishbone. 

Hammer and horseshoe, attributes of St Eligius,
Harley MS 2332, f. 7r.

The hammer and horseshoe recall the legend that St Eligius (25th June) shod a skittish horse through the novel practice of first cutting off its leg, attaching the shoe, then miraculously reattaching the leg.

St Edmund, king and martyr, holding a ring,
Harley MS 2332, f. 4r.

Here the creator of the tinted drawings has conflated two different St Edwards.  On the feast day of St. Edward, king and martyr (18th March), he has drawn Edward holding a ring.  This refers to a story from the life of St Edward the Confessor, whose feast day is 13th October.  A beggar requested alms from Edward the Confessor in the name of St John.  Having no money on his person, the king instead gave the beggar a ring from one of his fingers.  Certain legends have St John guiding some Englishmen to safety during their pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and handing them the ring to give to the king; others record the saint appearing before the king and returning the ring personally.

Shoe and crozier, attributes of St. Botulph,
Harley MS 2332, f. 7r.

Other symbols evoke the subsequent patronage of saints.  For instance, St Botulph (17th June), patron saint of travellers, to whom churches at town gates were often dedicated, is represented by a shoe (the crozier poking out of it refers to the fact that he was sometimes referred to as ‘bishop’). 

St Jacob/James, dressed as a pilgrim,
Harley MS 2332, f. 8r.

St Jacob/James, whose shrine at Compostela was and remains a major pilgrimage destination, is shown as a pilgrim with a walking staff and scallop badge (25th July). 

A ship, attribute of St Simon,
Harley MS 2332, f. 11r.

St Simon, patron of sailors, and St Jude, patron of last causes, share a feast day (28th October) and are represented by a ship. 

And finally (what you’ve obviously been patiently waiting for), some symbols represent the ways in which particular saints were martyred. 

Instruments of the martyrdom of St Vincent and St Paul,
Harley MS 2332, f. 2r.

St Vincent and St Paul (22nd and 25th January) each hold tools used to kill them: a saw, representing St Vincent’s torture; and a sword, representing the beheading of St Paul. 

St Agatha being mutilated,
Harley MS 2332, f. 2v.

On the 5th of February, the gruesome mutilation of St Agatha is illustrated. 

Instrument of the martyrdom of St Bartholomew,
Harley MS 2332, f. 9r.

St Bartholomew, who was flayed alive then crucified, is drawn holding a knife (24th August), alongside the decapitated head of John the Baptist (29th). 

Instrument of the martyrdom of St Leodegar,
Harley MS 2332, f. 10v.

Leodegar had the misfortune to have his eyes put out with a drill, which instrument is shown next to his feast day on 1st October.

These are just a few examples; we’ll let you figure the rest out!  The manuscript is available in its entirety on Digitised Manuscripts.  There are still some unresolved puzzles in the manuscript: for instance, does anyone have idea what event was commemorated here? 

Erasures and checkerboard pattern,
Harley MS 2332, f. 1v.

The title has been erased, and the connecting line to the calendar is heavily smudged – but what is the meaning of the checkerboard pattern, and what might its connection be to the 13th of January?

Keep your eyes out (sorry St Leodegar!) for future posts on saints…

- James Freeman

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

04 February 2014

'More Unique Than Most': the Benedictional of St Æthelwold

We are absolutely thrilled to announce the recent upload of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold to our Digitised Manuscripts site.  This manuscript, Add MS 49598, is one of the British Library’s greatest treasures, and is a masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon art.  As a notable professor of our acquaintance once said, ‘All medieval manuscripts are unique, but the Benedictional of St Æthelwold is more unique than most.’

The uniqueness of this manuscript begins with its text.  A benedictional contains the various blessings pronounced by a bishop throughout the ecclesiastical calendar, and its specialised nature makes it comparatively rare among medieval manuscripts.  It is even more uncommon for such texts to include a cycle of illumination, and the Benedictional of St Æthelwold is the earliest such illustrated manuscript in existence. 

Historiated initial ‘O’(mnipotens) of Christ in Majesty, preceding the benediction for the Octave of the Pentecost (or Trinity Sunday), from The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, England (Old Minster, Winchester), 963-984, Add MS 49598, f. 70r

As might be obvious from its title, this benedictional was created for one of Anglo-Saxon England’s greatest clerics, St Æthelwold.  He was born in Winchester about the year 909, and entered the church as a young man.  He eventually became Abbot of Abingdon, and in 963 was appointed to the bishopric of Winchester, a vitally important religious institution in this period.   Æthelwold embarked on a programme of building and renovation at Winchester, which culminated in a splendid re-dedication ceremony of the cathedral in the year 980.  Æthelwold was renowned as a scholar, and was responsible for a number of glosses, commentaries, and translations of religious texts; he was so well-regarded that the future King Edgar was sent to study with him.    

Full-page miniature of the baptism of Christ, preceding the benediction for Epiphany, Add MS 49598, f. 25r

The Benedictional of St Æthelwold was created between 963 (the time of Æthelwold's appointment to the see of Winchester) and 984 (the year of his death).  It was written throughout by a single scribe named Godeman, who was responsible for a number of other related Winchester manuscripts from this period.  The text of this Benedictional appears to have been a deliberate attempt to synthesize the two main contemporary forms of this type of text, the Gallican and the Gregorian, and it is likely that the creation of this hybrid was initiated and closely supervised by the erudite Æthelwold.  Indeed, many of the blessings included are only found in the English tradition; that for the feast of St Ætheldreda, for example, appears to be a work of Æthelwold himself. 

Full-page miniature of St Ætheldreda [Æthelthryth], holding a book and a flower, at the beginning of her benediction, Add MS 49598, f. 90v

It is not clear who created the magnificent illuminations that are included within the folios of the manuscript, but some scholars maintain that this work should be attributed to Godeman as well. They are certainly perfect examples of the famous Winchester style, which features elaborate acanthus sprays in the borders, vibrant lines, and a lavish use of gold. 

Beginning of the poem describing the creation of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Add MS 49598, f. 4v

We know as much as we do about the creation of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold in large part because of an extraordinary poem, written in gold letters across two folios, which precedes the benedictional proper.  This poem tells us that ‘The great Æthelwold, whom the lord had made patron of Winchester, ordered a certain monk subject to him to write the present book … He commanded also to be made in this book many arches well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colours and with gold.’  It continues with a description of Æthelwold’s motivation in creating this book: ‘that he might be able to sanctify the people of the Saviour by means of it… and that he may lose no little lambkin of the fold’.  The poem concludes with a prayer for the soul of St Æthelwold, and, in the final lines, for that of the scribe responsible for it: ‘Let all who look upon this book pray always that after the term of the flesh I may abide in heaven. Godeman the writer, as a suppliant, earnestly asks this.’ 

A few more images from this magnificent manuscript are below; please spare a thought for Godeman and St Æthelwold as you scroll through its glories!

Full-page miniature of the Annunciation, preceding the benediction for the first Sunday in Advent, Add MS 49598, f. 5v

Full-page miniature of the Second Coming of Christ, preceding the benediction for the third Sunday in Advent, Add MS 49598, f. 9v

Full-page miniature of the Ascension of Christ, preceding the benediction for Ascension, Add MS 49598, f. 64v

Full-page miniature of St Benedict, preceding the benediction for his feast, Add MS 49598, f. 99v

Miniature of a bishop, probably St Æthelwold, pronouncing an episcopal blessing on a congregation of monks and clerics (possibly related to the dedication of Winchester Cathedral in 980).  This miniature appears unfinished but is probably deliberately so; perhaps to indicate the importance of the dedication blessing, Add MS 49598, f. 118v

- Sarah J Biggs

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

01 February 2014

A Calendar Page for February 2014

For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

Our calendar pages for February contain two scenes of labourers trimming vines, one of the traditional labours for this unpleasant month. In the first scene, below the saints days for February, two men are at work in a wintry landscape, and appear to be appropriately bundled against the cold.  The following folio continues the listing of feasts for this month. In the lower roundel, beneath two fish for the zodiac sign Pisces, another chilly-looking labourer is carrying a basket of trimmings through fields in which the remains of a snowstorm can be seen.

Calendar page for February, with a roundel miniature of two men at work trimming vines, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 2v

Calendar page for February, with a roundel miniature of Piscese and a man carrying vine-trimmings in a wintry landscape, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 3r

- Sarah J Biggs

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.