07 April 2023
Picturing the Crucifixion
This Good Friday, we have gathered a selection of illustrations of the Crucifixion from some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in our collections, dating from as early as the 11th century up to the end of the Middle Ages.
The Sherborne Missal
The Sherborne Missal is one of the masterpieces of English book production in the 15th century, a gigantic volume with nearly every page decorated with elaborate borders and historiated initials in colours and gold. The manuscript is a service book containing all the texts required for the celebration of Mass on the different feasts, holidays and saints’ days throughout the year, made for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, between approximately 1399 and 1407. The single full-page illustration in the manuscript is a depiction of the Crucifixion that introduces the Canon of the Mass. Christ is shown on the Cross, flanked by the two thieves, with the Virgin Mary fainting at its foot. Beside her appear the figures of St John and Mary Magdalene, while a crowd of mounted onlookers in contemporary dress gather behind the three crosses. The illustration is accompanied by portraits of the Four Evangelists writing in the corners of the frame, and a series of roundels containing depictions of related episodes from the Old Testament.
Read our previous blogpost on the digitisation of the Sherborne Missal here!
The Sherborne Missal, c. 1399-1407: Add MS 74236, p. 380
The De Brailes Hours
Depictions of the Crucifixion commonly feature within Books of Hours, prayerbooks that were hugely popular among lay people during the Middle Ages, allowing them to develop and observe their own routines of personal devotion throughout the day. Named after its designer and painter William de Brailes (active c. 1230–c. 1260), this small, portable volume (measuring only 150 x 125 mm) is the earliest known surviving English Book of Hours, made in Oxford around 1240. Its Crucifixion scene appears at the beginning of the section called None, referring to the ‘Ninth Hour’ of the day, and is divided into three sections, showing Christ on the Cross between the two thieves, Christ before the Virgin Mary and St John, and Longinus piercing Christ’s side.
Book of Hours (‘The De Brailes Hours’), c. 1240: Add MS 49999, f. 47v
The Holkham Bible Picture Book
The Holkham Bible Picture Book is a unique copy of the Bible that was made in London in the early 14th century. Rather than focusing on the Scriptural text, this manuscript is composed principally of over 230 vivid illustrations depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments, with accompanying captions of varying length, mostly written in Anglo-Norman French. The Passion sequence is depicted over a series of folios towards the end of the manuscript. On this opening, Christ is nailed to the Cross and his garments divided among the Roman soldiers, while the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is shown writing the sign that will be displayed above Christ’s head. The Crucifixion is shown on the opposing page. Scrolls issue from the mouths of figures within the scene, indicating portions of speech. At the foot of the Cross, a cluster of bones and skulls have been painted, reflecting the name Golgotha (literally ‘Skull’ in Aramaic), the site of the Crucifixion in ancient Jerusalem.
The Holkham Bible Picture Book, c. 1327-1335: Add MS 47682, ff. 31v–32r
The Biblia Pauperum
Another unique type of illuminated picture Bible is this Biblia Pauperum (or Bible of the Poor), made in the Northern Netherlands around the turn of the 15th century. It features a series of images of the life of Christ painted in colours and gold, accompanied by images of episodes from the Old Testament that were thought to prefigure it. Here, for example, the Crucifixion appears in the centre of the page, with a depiction of the Binding of Isaac, son of Abraham, from the Book of Genesis, on the left, and Moses lifting up the bronze serpent on the right, from the Book of Exodus.
Biblia Pauperum, c. 1405: Kings MS 5, f. 17r
The Tiberius Psalter
The Crucifixion often appeared as part of prefatory cycles of images at the beginnings of Psalters (Book of Psalms). The Tiberius Psalter is one of the earliest surviving English examples, made in Winchester in the 3rd quarter of the 11th century. Its sequence of drawings, outlined in blue, red and green, depicts episodes from the lives of David and Christ, with an especial focus on the Passion. In the Tiberius Psalter’s depiction of the Crucifixion, Christ is shown on the Cross, with the Roman soldier Longinus piercing his side with a spear, and another holding to his mouth a sponge soaked in vinegar.
The Tiberius Psalter, 3rd quarter of the 11th century–2nd half of the 12th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 13r
The Monte Cassino Exultet Roll
The medieval churches of Southern Italy celebrated the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday from rolls designed to be used once a year for this specific ritual. The Exultet is a lyrical prayer, named after its opening words (‘Exultet iam angelica turba caelorum’), which is chanted during the ceremonial lighting of the Paschal candle during the Easter vigil. The British Library’s Exultet roll (Add MS 30337) was made at the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino around 1075–1080 and features numerous illustrations, including a depiction of the Crucifixion that appears at the centre of the sixth membrane. Notably, the image is displayed upside-down upon the roll. This is because the deacon given the responsibility of reading the prayer would turn the top of the roll over so that it draped in front of the church’s ambo (a raised platform for liturgical readings) and display the images to the congregation the right way up. You can read our previous blogpost on this incredible item and the special way it was used in the performance of the Exultet.
The Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, c. 1075–1080: Add MS 30337, membrane 6
We wish our readers a peaceful and Happy Easter!
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval