Medieval manuscripts blog

24 December 2017

Illuminating the medieval Nativity

One of the British Library's newly digitised manuscripts is well worth a look this Christmas-time (Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1). It was made somewhere in North-East France or Flanders in the 12th century, and it contains eight sumptuous scenes from the early life of Christ. This cycle of images presumably once served as the preface for either a Psalter or a gospel-book.

Here we take a closer look at three key scenes in this manuscript: the Nativity, the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi. Each illuminated page has a luxurious golden background and the artist has used a gorgeously vibrant palette. The miniature of the Nativity has three distinct parts. In the main compartment, Mary is shown resting with the swaddled infant. Below, the midwives bathe the new-born, and beside them Christ is shown in the manger, overseen by an ox and an ass.


The Nativity: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 5r

In the following image, the angels’ appearance to the astonished shepherds offers a visual feast. Note the rich, varied tones used for their wings and robes. One angel relates the good news of the child in the manger. Above, in the celestial realm, the words of a modern Christmas Carol spring to mind, ‘Ding-dong merrily the sky, is riven with angels singing: ‘Gloo-o-o-ria! In Excelsis Deo!’


The Annunciation to the Shepherds: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v

In keeping with wider artistic traditions, the three magi, crowned as kings, are portrayed as the three ages of man.


The Adoration of the Magi: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 9r

The eldest wise man, usually Caspar, is shown offering his gift of gold. Look how carefully the artist has rendered his white locks of hair, his lined face and his full beard.

Cotton_ms_caligula_a_vii!1_f009r detail

The aged Caspar: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 9r

The full cycle of eight images comprises: the Annunciation (f. 3r); the Visitation (f. 4v); the Nativity (f. 5r); the Annunciation to the Shepherds (f. 6v); the Massacre of the Innocents (f. 7r); the Presentation in the Temple (f. 8v), the Adoration of the Magi (f. 9r); and the Baptism of Christ (f. 10v). We invite you to explore the full sequence on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


Amy Jeffs

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