Medieval manuscripts blog

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4 posts from December 2022

21 December 2022

Chi-rho pages for Christmas

It’s not something you’ll find on your average Christmas card, but the Chi-rho is a Christmas symbol that appears in some of the oldest surviving gospel-books. One of the most spectacular examples is the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, which is now on display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. But this is far from the only Chi-rho page in the Library’s collection. With Christmas just around the corner, we think it’s the perfect time to celebrate some of our festive Chi-rhos and their rich meanings.

Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, with large decorated letters 'XPI'
Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, Northumbria, c. 700: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

What is a Chi-Rho page?

Chi-rho pages are a feature of Insular gospel-books. These are copies of the biblical accounts of the life of Christ in Latin, produced within the monastic culture that developed in Ireland, Britain and closely connected centres in the 7th-8th centuries (known as Insular in reference to ‘the Isles’).

The Chi-rho is the abbreviated name of Christ in Greek, spelled chi-rho-iota and written with the capital letters ‘X-P-I’. In Insular gospel-books there is a large decorated Chi-rho at the beginning of the account of the Incarnation at Matthew 1:18, ‘Christi autem generatio sic erat’ (Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this way). In the most magnificent examples like the Lindisfarne Gospels, made in Northumbria in the early 8th century, the letters fill almost the entire page with brilliant pattern.

Detail of the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, showing the intricately decorated letter 'X'
Detail of the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, Northumbria, c. 700: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

History of the Chi-rho page

The practice of abbreviating divine names, or nomina sacra, goes back to at least the 2nd century, when letters representing the name of Christ were employed as Christian symbols. Nomina sacra were commonly abbreviated in early Greek bibles as a way of showing reverence and making them stand out visually. For example, in the 6th-century Greek gospel-book the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus (Cotton MS Titus C XV), the main text is written in silver ink while the nomina sacra are abbreviated and written in gold. Insular Chi-rho pages took this much older practice and expanded it to make the sacred name a major focus of decoration.

Detail of a Greek gospel-book written in silver and gold ink on purple parchment
Abbreviated nomina sacra written in gold ink, including ‘XC’ (Christ), ‘YC’ (Son), ‘ΘΥ’ (God) and ‘IC’ (Jesus), from a Greek gospel-book, the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, 2nd half of the 6th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 2v (detail)

The earliest surviving Chi-rho pages date from around 700, and they appear in gospel-books from Ireland, England and areas where Insular scribes were working or had strong influence. By contrast, most gospel-books produced in continental Europe followed the late antique practice of placing no or very little emphasis on the text of Matthew 1:18.

An interesting example of a continental gospel-book which has a Chi-rho page is the Schuttern Gospels (Add MS 47673), made at the Benedictine abbey of Schuttern in southwest Germany in the early 9th century. Schuttern was one of many monasteries in the Upper Rhine and Lake Constance area founded by Irish monks in the 7th century. Liutharius, the deacon who wrote the Schuttern Gospels, was probably a local judging by his name, and he wrote in a Carolingian minuscule script. Nevertheless, the decoration of the manuscript is strongly Insular, suggesting that the monastery’s early history still held major influence in its scriptorium.

Chi-rho page in the Schuttern Gospels, with the letter 'X' decorated with interlace
Chi-rho page in the Schuttern Gospels, Schuttern in southwest Germany, early 9th century: Add MS 47673, f. 19v

Although Chi-rho pages stopped appearing in English gospel-books after about the 8th century, they continued in other areas until much later. One of the latest surviving Chi-rho pages is in the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), made in Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1138. You can read more about this fascinating manuscript, written by the 28-year-old scribe Máel Brigte and illuminated in an Irish-Scandinavian style, in our previous blogpost.

Chi-rho page in the Gospels of Máel Brigte, with the 'X' decorated with brightly coloured animal interlace
Chi-rho page in the Gospels of Máel Brigte, Armagh, 1138: Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

Symbolism of the Chi-rho page

Coming at the beginning of the narrative about Christ’s birth in the Gospel of Matthew, the Chi-rho is generally seen as a symbol of Christ’s Incarnation, or human conception and birth. In the Gospel of John the Incarnation of Christ is mystically described as the moment when ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). By emphasising the word ‘Christ’ at the beginning of the Nativity account, the Chi-rho can be seen to literally illustrate the idea of the Word becoming flesh, especially since Insular gospel-books were written on parchment made from animal skin.

Yet the Chi-rho is also particularly evocative because the letter chi is in the shape of a cross, so it could signify both Christ’s name as well as his Crucifixion and its redemptive power. For Christians, the human birth of Christ is significant because it meant that he could die a human death and so save humanity from sin. Through its shape the letter chi poignantly connects these two important events.

Chi-rho page in the Bodmin Gospels, with a modestly decorated letter 'X'
Chi-rho page in the Bodmin Gospels, Brittany, late 9th century: Add MS 9381, f. 14v

The idea that the Chi-rho symbolises the living Word and the life-giving Cross perhaps explains why Insular Chi-rhos are often teeming with life. For example, in this gospel-book, made in Brittany in the early 10th-century and digitised by the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project (Royal MS 1 A XVIII), animal heads with foliage sprouting from their mouths emerge from the end of each stroke of the letter chi. This gives the impression that the letter is bursting with life and abundance.

Chi-rho page with animal heads emerging from the ends of the strokes on the 'X'
Chi-rho page in a gospel-book from Brittany, early 10th century: Royal MS 1 A XVIII, f. 13r

A cryptic symbol

Greek was not widely known in western Europe in the early Middle Ages. Both the use of Greek letters and abbreviation made the Chi-rho difficult to understand. This cryptic quality was probably part of its appeal, suggesting the mysterious nature of God. The Chi-rho was not simply a word but a symbol of something inexpressible.

Nevertheless, the Chi-rho proved too enigmatic for some scribes and readers, as shown by the garbled Chi-rho in a gospel-book made in Northumbria in the first half of the 8th century (Royal MS 1 B VII). Here it seems that the scribe mistook the Greek letter rho for a Latin letter ‘P’, and transliterated it to the Greek letter pi (Π). They also wrote the letter ‘H’ instead of ‘A’ at the beginning of the Latin word autem, perhaps misunderstanding the Irish convention of spelling the word with an added ‘h’ at the beginning, as hautem. The result is that instead of ‘XPI AU/tem’, the scribe has written ‘XΠI HU/tem’ – a string of letters that make no sense.

Chi-rho page in the Royal Athelstan Gospels
Chi-rho page in the Royal Athelstan Gospels, Northumbria, first half of the 8th century: Royal MS 1 B VII, f. 15v
The garbled Chi-rho in the Royal Athelstan Gospels
The garbled Chi-rho in the Royal Athelstan Gospels, Northumbria, first half of the 8th century: Royal MS 1 B VII, f. 15v (detail)

Discover more

The Chi-rho page also stars on the front cover of the newly published book about the Lindisfarne Gospels: Eleanor Jackson, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration (London: British Library, 2022). Written by the British Library’s Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, the book is an accessible introduction to the production, decoration and history of the manuscript. It is fully illustrated in colour and is available from the British Library Shop.

Lindisfarne Gospels book display
Display of the newly published book on the Lindisfarne Gospels in the Laing Art Gallery shop

Looking at these majestic Chi-rho pages, we can get a sense of some of the awe, mystery and joy with which monastic scribes and readers regarded the birth of Christ many centuries ago. From everyone in the Medieval Manuscripts team, we wish you a very Happy Christmas!

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Polonsky Foundation logo

15 December 2022

The Lindisfarne Gospels back at the British Library

The Lindisfarne Gospels is back on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library, following its loan to the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle from 17 September to 3 December 2022. The exhibition in Newcastle, which was the culmination of a year-long programme of cultural events across the North East, attracted over 56,000 visitors. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost.

The Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, featuring the large decorated letters 'XPI'
Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

The Lindisfarne Gospels is now on exhibition at the British Library showing the Chi-rho page, a particularly appropriate display for Christmastime. The Chi-rho is the abbreviated Greek name of Christ, spelled Chi-rho-iota, or ‘XPI’. In some early Latin gospel-books, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, there is a large decorated Chi-rho at the beginning of the account of the Incarnation at Matthew 1:18, Christi autem generatio sic erat (‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this way’).

In the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Chi-rho fills up almost the entire page. The insides of the letters are dense with knotted birds and interlace, while the outsides spin with an almost cosmic display of swirls. The letter chi looks as though it is leaping across the page on lithe legs, leaving trails of spirals in its wake – a jump for joy in honour of Christ’s birth.

Detail of the Chi-rho page showing the letter 'X' filled with intricate animal interlace pattern
Detail of the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

The Chi-rho page also stars on the front cover of the newly published book about the Lindisfarne Gospels: Eleanor Jackson, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration (London: British Library, 2022). Written by the British Library’s Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, the book is an accessible introduction to the production, decoration and history of the manuscript. It is fully illustrated in colour and is available from the British Library Shop.

Display of books featuring the Chi-rho page on the cover
Display of the newly published book on the Lindisfarne Gospels in the Laing Art Gallery shop

You can also view the Lindisfarne Gospels online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website, and keep an eye on the blog for more Christmassy Chi-rho content coming soon!

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

07 December 2022

From Julian of Norwich to Eleanor Cobham: more magnificent manuscripts online

Readers of this Blog may know about out ambitious project to digitise a selection of manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with Medieval and Renaissance Women. Here we reveal another ten volumes that are now available online, including important literary manuscripts, a guide for female recluses, obituary calendars, and a volume with its own embroidered bookbinding.

The opening page of the obituary calendar of the abbey of St Quirinus

The obituary calendar of the abbey of St Quirinus: Add MS 15456, f. 2r

This selection notably includes two complete copies of the Long Text of The Revelations of Divine Love by the English mystic Julian of Norwich (d. after 1416). Julian's work is an account of her reflections on a sequence of visions of the Crucified Christ, experienced while lying on her sickbed with a near-fatal illness in 1373. It survives in both a short and long version and represents one of the earliest known works in English by a named woman. Very few copies of Julian’s work now remain, and the only complete copies of the Long Text date from after the end of the medieval period. This includes both of our manuscripts (Sloane MS 2499 and Sloane MS 3705), which were made by English recusant nuns living in France in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A page of the manuscript of the Revelations of Divine Love

The Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text) by Julian of Norwich: Sloane MS 3705, f. 2v

Julian of Norwich was an anchoress, one of a number of medieval women who for religious reasons withdrew from secular society. Another manuscript included in the project is a work known as the Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous monastic rule (or manual) written for anchoresses. This work was originally composed in Middle English in the early 13th century, apparently for three sisters who chose to enter the contemplative life, but the text was also copied and translated into many languages, including Anglo-Norman French. One of the earliest translations survives as Cotton MS Vitellius F VII, where it appears as part of a compendium of devotional works and prayers. An inscription at the back of the volume indicates that it was once owned by Eleanor Cobham (b. c. 1400, d. 1452), Duchess of Gloucester, who was infamously sentenced to life imprisonment after she was charged with necromancy.

The fire-damaged manuscript of Ancrene Wisse

The opening of the Anglo-Norman version of Ancrene Wisse, damaged in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731: Cotton MS Vitellius F VII, f. 2r

Another significant manuscript now online is the Felbrigge Psalter (Sloane MS 2400). This 13th-century Psalter is named after one of its later owners, Anne Felbrigge, a nun from the Franciscan abbey of the Annunciation of St Mary, Bruisyard (Suffolk), who signed her name in the book and added the obits (death-days) of her mother and father in the Psalter’s calendar. Anne may also have been responsible for the manuscript’s beautiful embroidered binding (dated c. 1300–1330), handstitched in coloured silks and silver gilt thread, with panels depicting scenes of the Annunciation and Crucifixion on the upper and lower covers. This binding is one of the earliest embroidered examples known to survive.

The upper cover of the Felbrigge Psalter

The upper cover of the ‘Felbrigge Psalter’, featuring an embroidered panel depicting the Annunciation: Sloane MS 2400

Many of the manuscripts in the project were made by female scribes. One is a copy of the Vitae Patrum et Verbis Seniorum (Lives and Sayings of the Fathers), an encyclopaedic work comprised of writings on the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers of early Christianity. This manuscript (Add MS 22562) was written in 1449 by two scribes, Ava Trici and Gheeza Ysenoud, nuns of the convent of St Margaret at Gouda, who identify themselves in a closing note at the end of the text. In a delightful detail, the two sisters explain that they were given the parchment for the volume by a certain Nicolaus de Wyt, prior of the nearby Augustinian convent of St Michael in Schoonhaven.

The opening page of a manuscript written by two nuns at Gouda

The opening of the Vitae Patrum et Verbis Seniorum, written by Ava Trici and Gheeza Ysenoud: Add MS 22562, f. 2r

This volume was one of at least 70 housed at St Margaret’s by the end of the medieval period. Another manuscript digitised in our project is the convent’s chapter book (Harley MS 2939). The manuscript opens with a necrology, or obituary calendar, inscribed with the names of many of the community’s members, and to be consulted at the convent's daily chapter meetings.

The obituary calendar of the abbey of Gouda

A page from the obituary calendar of the chapter book of St Margaret’s, Gouda: Harley MS 2939, f. 5r

At the beginning of the project, we invited our readers to suggest manuscripts they were keen to be digitised. Among the requests were for us to include items relating to the economic management of female religious houses. Two such items are a census and a list of rents and payments (Add MS 21072 and Add MS 21177) owed to St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey in Cologne, a house of sisters of the Penitential Order of Mary Magdalene. This Order was established as a refuge for former sex-workers, an act that caused outrage at the time.

A page from the Cologne census

A page from the census of St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey in Cologne: Add MS 21072, f. 8r

Here is a list of the most recent items to have gone online:

Add MS 15456

Obituary calendar of the Abbey of St Quirinus, Neuss

Neuss (Germany), 1421–17th century

Add MS 21072

Census of St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey, Cologne

Cologne (Germany), 2nd half of the 14th century–1st half of the 15th century

Add MS 21177

Revenues and expenses of St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey, Cologne

Cologne (Germany), late 13th century

Add MS 22562

Vitae Patrum et Verbis Seniorum, written by Ava Trici and Gheeza Ysenoud

Gouda (Netherlands), 1449

Cotton MS Vitellius F VII

Ancrene Riwle and other texts

England, 1st quarter of the 14th century

Harley MS 2939

Chapter book of the convent of St Margaret in Gouda

Gouda (Netherlands), 3rd quarter of the 15th century

Royal MS 19 C VII

Geoffroy de la Tour-Landry, Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour-Landry

Northern France, middle of the 15th century

Sloane MS 2400

'The Felbrigge Psalter'

Northern France, 2nd quarter of the 13th century–3rd quarter of the 13th century

Sloane MS 2499

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text)

Cambrai or Paris (France), c. 1650

Sloane MS 3705

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text)

Cambrai or Paris (France), 1st half of the 18th century

The opening page of Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry

The decorated opening of Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry: Royal MS 19 C VII, f. 1r

Stay tuned for more updates from our project as we continue to digitise more manuscripts. We are very grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for supporting Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 December 2022

The emperor and the Sun King

As the creator of one of the first and largest multicultural empires of the ancient world, Alexander the Great inspired generations of later rulers to follow his example. Soon after his death in 324 BC, his successors used his legacy to legitimise their own rule. Some of them put Alexander’s portrait on their coins, others fashioned their own portraits to look like him, hoping to be regarded as his heirs and descendants.

Face of Alexander the Great in profile. Rams horns are visible through his hair

Alexander’s face with the horns of the god Ammon, on the tetradrachm of Lysimachus, Alexander’s successor as King of Thrace (305 BC–281 BC): British Museum, 1841,B.506.

As legends about Alexander and his conquests spread in the ancient Mediterranean, new leaders were inspired by his legacy. In 62 BC, when serving as the young governor of Spain (Hispania Ulterior), Julius Caesar read Alexander’s histories in his free time. According to his biographer Plutarch, Caesar burst into tears, lamenting that, 'while Alexander, at my age was king of so many people, I have achieved no brilliant success'. Later, Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, was so deeply indebted to Alexander’s legacy that he made a pilgrimage to his tomb in Alexandria.

Augustus_at_the_Tomb_of_Alexander_-_Courtois_1878

Gustave Claude Étienne Courtois, Emperor Augustus at Alexander’s Tomb in Alexandria (1878): Vesoul, Musée Georges-Garret (Wikimedia Commons)

As the glory of Alexander gathered momentum in the Middle Ages, he was made one of the Nine Worthies, a group of half-mythical heroes associated with military success and just leadership. In the 16th century, as the more legendary aspects of Alexander’s legacy faded, he became regarded as a talented statesman and politician, being invoked in English royal propaganda as well as by the French monarchy.

In the 17th century, Louis XIV, one of the most powerful French monarchs (often called the 'Sun King'), loved to compare himself to Alexander the Great. At the peak of his rule in the 1660s, Louis's identification with Alexander strongly influenced his style of kingship.

Alexander the Great standing in a chariot drawn by two elephants as he makes his triumphant entry into the Persian capital of Babylon

Charles Le Brun, Entry of Alexander into Babylon (1665): Musée du Louvre (Wikimedia Commons

In 1661, Louis commissioned a series of enormous paintings from his court painter, Charles Le Brun (1619–1690). The five paintings executed by Le Brun were meant to be designs for Gobelin tapestries, to be woven in Paris and hung in the royal palace. Le Brun’s canvases represented Alexander’s greatest military successes: the defeat of Porus in India, the battle at Granicus and Arbela, and the clemency of Alexander to the family of Darius, the defeated Persian emperor. Le Brun emphatically identified Alexander with Louis: the ancient hero has the facial features of the French king in all of these paintings.

Open book image. Printed book. This opening shows Jean Racine’s dedication of his play Alexandre le Grand to Louis XIV

Jean Racine dedicated his play Alexandre le Grand to Louis XIV, comparing him to Alexander as the wisest king on Earth (Paris: Pierre Trabouillet, 1672): British Library, C.30.a.20.

Louis’s aspiration to become the new Alexander went beyond the figurative art he commissioned. In his 1665 tragedy Alexandre le Grand, Jean Racine, Louis’s court playwright, addressed the king as a monarch 'whose fame spreads just as far as Alexander’s'. In addition to his political and military achievements, Louis was a talented dancer who often performed in courtly celebrations. In the grand ballet La Naissance de Venus, authored by Isaac Benserad (1613–1691) with music by Jean Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), Louis danced the role of Alexander on the stage.

Page from a printed book

Louis XIV performing Alexander the Great in the Ballet Royal de la naissance de Vénus: dansé par sa Majesté (Paris: Robert Ballard, 1665): British Library 839.e.2.(8.), p. 54

Louis’s propaganda, portraying himself as the Alexander of his time, reached beyond his own court. The artwork, literature and music identifying him with the Greek hero spread to other European countries. Racine’s tragedy was followed by various Alexander plays in western Europe. Le Brun’s enormous paintings were also adapted for wider circulation. His Alexander compositions were woven in tapestries and purchased by European royalty, including George I of England, who placed them in the Queen’s Gallery at Hampton Court Palace.

Alexander’s Entry to Babylon, Alexander in a elephant drawn chariot

Alexander’s Entry to Babylon, woven silk and wool tapestry (early 18th century): Royal Collections Trust RCIN 1079 

The image of Louis as Alexander spread far and wide. A fan from late 17th-century Italy represents Alexander’s triumphal entry into Babylon based on Le Brun’s painting in the Louvre. The composition of the painting was adapted to the curved shape of the fan by shifting the trophy-bearers to the far right. The artist emphasised the identification of Louis and Alexander by replacing the yellow cloak that Alexander wore in Le Brun’s painting with a striking blue one, traditionally associated with the French monarchy.

Alexander’s entry into Babylon, Alexander is in an elephant drawn chariot

Alexander’s entry into Babylon, on a folding fan (Italy, 1690–1700): Victoria and Albert Museum, no. 2276-1876.

The fascination of Louis XIV with Alexander the Great, resulting in some of the finest art and literary works of his time, is one of the many entangled aspects of Alexander’s afterlife across two millennia. Join us to explore these incredible adventures in the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, until 19 February 2023, or explore more online at bl.uk/alexander-the-great.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for supporting the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.