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596 posts categorized "Illuminated manuscripts"

25 September 2017

Drop dead gorgeous

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At the beginning of the Office for the Dead in a 15th-century Book of Hours at the British Library, an initial was decorated with an image of a richly-attired skeleton admiring herself in a mirror.  This image may already be familiar to readers of this blog. What we haven't previously mentioned, however, is this manuscript's connection to a powerful duchess, the Renaissance artist Titian and a real skeleton. 

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Detail of an initial in the Office for the Dead, from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino, Central Italy, c. 1480–1520, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 174r 

The stylish skeleton appears in a Book of Hours owned by Eleanora (also called Dionora) Gonzaga della Rovere, duchess of Urbino. She was an important patron of the arts and a political figure. We know that this book was owned by Eleanora because it is inscribed with her name and because her family's arms and her husband's arms appear throughout the decoration. The scribe, who signed his work, was Matteo Contugi de Volterra, who worked around the year 1480. The illumination, completed later, may be the work of one of the most notable illuminators from Renaissance Italy, Matteo da Milano. 

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Detail of a border with the inscription 'Diva Dio(nora) Duci(ssa) Ur(bini)' and with the arms of Della Rova impaling Gonzaga, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 14r

Eleanora was a great patron of other artists, too. She supported writers such as Baldassare Castiglioni and the poet, Torquato Tasso. Today, she is particularly associated with Titian, who painted her portrait and that of her husband. Some people have even argued that Titian used Eleanora's face as a model for other paintings, namely La Bella, Girl in a Fur Cloak and the Venus of Urbino, although this is now disputed. That is probably just as well: the Venus of Urbino was bought by Eleanora's son Guidobaldo, possibly as a gift for his wife, so it might have been a bit odd if Titian had used the eventual recipient's mother-in-law as one of the models!

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Spot the difference! Yates Thompson MS 7, Titian's portrait of Eleanora (now in the Uffizi Gallery) and the Venus of Urbino (now also in the Uffizi Gallery)

Eleanora Gonzaga della Rovere died in 1570 and she was buried in the church of Santa Chiara in Urbino. All that now remains of Eleanora , former owner of the British Library's Book of Hours, is a skeleton. Indeed, the skeleton believed to be hers was exhumed and analysed in 2005, with the study using craniofacial superimposition to compare its skull with Titian's portrait of Eleonora. The analysis concluded that 'the face of Eleonora [in the painting] matches the skull fairly closely except for the length of the nose'. Titian may have portrayed her with a smaller nose to exaggerate her beauty. If that was the case, it is an interesting coda to the story of the duchess who owned this Book of Hours, with its famous image of a skeleton warning against vanity!

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Detail of a border and an initial 'D' inscribed with the words 'Dionara Gonzaga Duc(issa) Urbini et cet[era]' , Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 42v

 

Alison Hudson

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22 September 2017

Inside the Tudor court

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The House of Tudor reigned over England for almost a century and a quarter, and is renowned for its displays of indulgence. King Henry VIII (1509–1547) is especially associated with having led a luxurious and decadent lifestyle: he is thought to have squandered a large part of the treasure amassed by his father, King Henry VII (1485–1509), on banquets and festivities. Even so, their account books show that the Tudor kings, including Henry VIII, were very much interested in book-keeping, and did not simply throw money around at will. Such behaviour was thought to have a corrupting effect — it was portrayed as a shower of coins in a near-contemporary prayer-book commissioned by William of Hastings (d. 1483), Master of the Royal Mint.

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A shower of coins in the borders of a prayer to the Three Kings, in the Hastings Hours: Add MS 54782, f. 43r

The British Library has recently digitised four account books of Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII. These two kings clearly kept track of their income and expenses by inspecting their account books. This is indicated by the fact that three of the account books, (partially) written by John Heron (1470–1522), Treasurer of the Chamber, include the kings’ signatures at the end of several of their entries.

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The signature of King Henry VII, 1499–1505: Add MS 21480, f. 10v

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The signature of King Henry VIII, 1509–1518: Add MS 21481, f. 4v

The household books give us an insight into the life and activities at the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. They contain records with payments for many types of labourer and artisan: gardeners, such as the ‘moletaker’; cooks, such as the ‘Frenche coke’ employed by Henry VIII; tailors, such as the ‘yeman of the robes’ and the ‘fethermaker’; falconers; trumpeters; crossbow makers and maintainers, known as the ‘grome of the crosbows’; clockmakers, such as Nicholas Kratzer, a German astronomer who was commissioned by Henry VIII to design an astronomical clock for Hampton Court; engravers, referred to as  the ‘graver of precious stones’; courtiers; soldiers; secretaries; ambassadors and other officials. They also document material goods, such as horses and greyhounds, as well as spiritual goods, such as alms and prayers.

One account book (Add MS 21481) contains a letter dated 23 January 1512 (ff. 347r–348v), in which Henry VIII orders John Heron to make payments to Gilbert Talbot (1452–1517), Lord Deputy of Calais, and Edward Poynings (1459–1521), military commander and diplomat, for ‘certain men of arms and houses in Flanders for our war’s purpose’ [‘certain men of armes and hooysse in fflaunders for oure werres use’] in preparation for a campaign against France. But the books also give insight into the kings' personal lives. For example, we can see that Henry VIII, several years after the annulment of his marriage with his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was still making payments directly to her and her treasurer Wymond Carewe, for ‘her officers and certain gentlewomen an gentlemen’ [‘her Officers and certeyn gentilwomen and gentilwomen’]. 

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An entry for a payment to Anne of Cleves, 1543–1544: Add MS 59900, f. 70v

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An entry for a payment to Wymond Carewe for the household of Anne of Cleves, 1543–1544: Add MS 59900, f. 63r

You can explore the world of the Tudor court for yourself by viewing the following household books online:

King Henry VII’s household book for the years 1499-1505

King Henry VII's household book for the years 1502-1505

King Henry VIII’s household book for the years 1509-1518

King Henry VIII's household book for the years 1543-1544

 

Clarck Drieshen

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19 September 2017

Richard the Lionheart in Speyer

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A major new exhibition devoted to Richard the Lionheart has recently opened in Speyer, to which the British Library is pleased to have loaned three of our magnificent medieval manuscripts. The books in question can be viewed in Richard Löwenherz: König-Ritter-Gefangener (Richard the Lionheart: King, Knight, Prisoner) at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz until 14 January 2018. Alongside precious artefacts such as the Cross of Henry the Lion, the exhibition features the Psalter of Henry the Lion, Matthew Paris's Chronicles of England and pages from an illustrated, verse chronicle. Here we tell you a little more about the stunning Psalter on loan to the Speyer exhibition.

In February 1168, Henry the Lion, Duke of Bavaria and Saxony (b. 1129, d. 1195), married the 12-year-old Princess Matilda of England in Minden Cathedral. Matilda provided an important political connection for Henry: she was the third child and eldest daughter of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and she had four surviving brothers, including Richard the Lionheart. The ducal couple had five children, the last of whom was William of Winchester, who was born while Matilda was in England, as his epithet suggests. Matilda died a few days before her father, in the summer of 1189, so she did not live to see her brothers, Richard the Lionheart and John, become kings of England. Nevertheless, her descendants also became kings: the current English royal family is descended from William of Winchester through the ducal house of Brunswick-Lüneburg and the royal house of Windsor.

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Representation of the Crucifixion with a portrait of Henry and Matilda (below), from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 10v 

A portrait of Henry and Matilda is preserved in an image that originally formed part of a luxury copy of a Psalter (British Library Lansdowne MS 381/1). The ducal pair appear below a representation of the Crucifixion, and opposite the Resurrection. They are identified with their names and titles ‘Henricu[s] dux’ (Duke Henry) and ‘Mathilt[a] ducissa’ (Duchess Mathilda) just above them, and each holds a scroll with a text appropriate to the scene above, from the Feast of the Inventio Crucis (the Finding of the Cross). Henry’s scroll reads ‘Adoram[us] te xre [Christe] et benedicim[us] tibi’ (We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you), while Matilda’s declares ‘Salva nos xre [Christe] salvator p[er] virtute[m] crucis’ (Save us, O Saviour Christ, by the virtue of the Cross).

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Calendar page for the month of September portraying the zodiac symbol of Libra and the month’s labour of wine-making, from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 5v

Only eleven leaves from this small Latin Psalter are preserved, but they give an indication of just how splendid the book must have been originally. Psalters include the book of the Psalms, but also other texts that add to the book’s devotional character, such as a calendar, which provided its user with information about saints’ days and other holidays. In the Psalter of Henry the Lion, six months of the calendar survive, showing the saints’ days for June to December. In most Psalters the Canticles and personalized prayers and litanies follow the Psalms, but these are not among the surviving leaves of the Henry the Lion Psalter.

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Representation of the Resurrection, from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 11r

Particularly opulent Psalters, like this one, also featured full-page devotional images, usually placed before the Psalms. Two such paintings survive in the Henry of Lion Psalter (the Annunciation and the Presentation), but, more unusually, full-page scenes also appear at important divisions of the Psalms itself. For example, the Duke and Duchess were placed right before the beginning of Psalm 101, as is clear from the text on the other sides of the Crucifixion and Resurrection scenes. This is an important position in the book, at a division of one of the so-called ‘three fifties’, dividing the Psalms into three groups, and at a point where a donor portrait sometimes appears.

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Opening of Psalm 1 with foliated initial of ‘B’(eatus vir), from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 8v

The decoration and painting in the Psalter is of high quality, and includes precious materials. Moreover, the beginning of Psalms 1 and 101 and the calendar pages are written on a stained or painted purple background, and written in liquid gold ink. Purple is replete with both imperial and spiritual references; certain Roman emperors famously reserved the use of purple clothing for themselves, and books, too, written on purple were high-status objects. In a Christian context, the purple also may refer to the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, while the gold and silver reflected the preciousness of the sacred text itself. The richness of the illumination is appropriate as well to the status of the book’s princely owners.

The Psalter of Henry the Lion together with the Chronicles of England (Cotton MS Claudius D VI) and the illustrated verse chronicle (Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII/1) can be viewed in person at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz in Speyer until 15 April 2018. We would be delighted if you were able to visit the exhibition; but if you can’t get to Germany, you can also see all three manuscripts online in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website.

Kathleen Doyle

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12 September 2017

The Mostyn Psalter-Hours: a new acquisition

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We are delighted to announce that the Mostyn Psalter-Hours has been acquired for the national collection at the British Library, thanks to the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and other generous supporters. The manuscript is a late 13th-century illuminated Psalter-Hours produced in London, and is now Additional MS 89250.

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The Mostyn Psalter-Hours: British Library Add MS 89250, f. 52r

The book includes a calendar, decorated with twenty small miniatures of the labours of the months and the signs of the Zodiac (two months are lacking), and a Psalter with eight of the original ten large historiated initials, the Hours of the Virgin, and the Office of the Dead. 

The manuscript’s original patron is unknown, but its high quality illumination indicates that it was made for an important individual, possibly a bishop, as an image of a bishop appears in the illustration for Psalm 101, where a donor portrait might be expected.      

Importance to the national heritage

The manuscript can be identified securely as having been produced in London: its calendar records a sequence of London saints, including the 7th-century bishops of London, Melitus and Erkenwald, and the feast of the translation of Edward the Confessor in Westminster in 1269. Relatively few examples of luxury books made in London survive from the medieval period. The book is therefore of clear national heritage importance and a natural fit for the national collection, which holds the largest collection of English Psalters made in this period. 

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The Mostyn Psalter-Hours: British Library Add MS 89250, f. 13r

As an outstanding example of English illumination of the highest quality, the manuscript represents a crucial piece of evidence for the history of English painting. Textually, it is an interesting example of a combined Psalter Hours. Because it is localised to London, it is a critical focus around which to group other manuscripts—of Psalter texts and others—in a Westminster/London context, and to compare with books made in other centres.  

The addition of the Mostyn Psalter to the British Library’s collections will facilitate identification of other London-based scribes and artists in other manuscripts. Similarly, the representation of the possible patron within the book, as noted above, may also shed light on the production of these luxury books. 

Access

The manuscript has been digitised in full, and has been added to our Digitised Manuscripts website (Add MS 89250), where it may be accessed free of charge. In the coming months it will be placed on display in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, which is open seven days a week. Thereafter it will be available to scholars in the Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room. 

Funders

The purchase price of the manuscript was £775,000. We are grateful to the many funders who made this acquisition possible: the National Heritage Memorial Fund, who contributed £390,000, the Art Fund, Sir Siegmund Warburg’s Voluntary Settlement, the late Bernard Breslauer, the Friends of the British Library, and the Friends of the National Libraries. 

21 August 2017

Total eclipse of the Sun

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On 21 August 2017, American readers of our Blog have the exciting opportunity to witness a full solar eclipse (some of them may even be able to hear Bonnie Tyler singing 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' at the very same time: what more could you want?). Of course, solar and lunar eclipses have been a source of wonder across the centuries, with or without Bonnie Tyler. Since Antiquity, astronomers and astrologers have had a clear understanding of how and why eclipses occur, and they were able to predict their arrival using diagrams and tables. Eclipses were also described by medieval chroniclers, who often interpreted them as an omen.

Our first historical example of an eclipse is found in this 15th-century French manuscript of the History of Alexander the Great. The scene it depicts is not a contemporary one, rather it shows the lunar eclipse which occurred during the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, when Alexander the Great’s army met the Persian army of Darius III. Alexander is shown consulting his astrologers about the eclipse's meaning: the soldiers perhaps interpreted it as a bad omen.

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Miniature of Alexander the Great consulting his astrologers about an eclipse of the sun after the battle of Arbela: British Library Burney MS 169, f. 69r

Early medieval scholars knew that a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Sun and Earth. One of our favourite medieval writers, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede (d. 735), explained this phenomenon in his scientific texts entitled De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things), composed around 703. In the chapter headed 'On the eclipse of the sun and the moon', Bede described how a solar eclipse occurs when the Sun is hidden by the intervention of the Moon, and a lunar eclipse when the Sun, Earth and moon are aligned with Earth in the centre.

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Extract from an 11th-century copy of Bede’s De natura rerum: British Library Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 18r

In some medieval manuscripts, astrological texts are accompanied by diagrams illustrating an eclipse. For example, this diagram, found in  a 14th-century compilation of mathematical and astronomical texts, illustrates the Sun's position in relation to the Earth and Moon.

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Diagram of a solar eclipse: British Library Royal MS 12 C XVII, f. 32r

Elsewhere, we sometimes find diagrams showing the different stages of the Sun's visibility during an eclipse.

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Series of diagrams of solar eclipses: British Library Additional MS 10628, f. 28r

Diagrams of lunar and solar eclipses could also be included in almanacs, alongside calendars and other astrological material. Almanacs were used to predict the movement of the stars and the tides, often during medical consultations. A special kind of folding almanac, favoured by medical practitioners, could be hung from its owner's belt. This folding almanac, produced in the 15th century, contains a series of diagrams of the solar eclipse, based on the Kalendarium of John Somer.

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Diagrams of solar and lunar eclipses: British Library Harley MS 937, f. 8r

For those with no astronomical knowledge, the darkening of the sky during a solar eclipse may have been particularly ominous. People would have heard or read about such events from the Old Testament story of the Plagues of Egypt, describing a darkness that lasted for three days. According to the Gospel of St Matthew, a period of darkness lasting for three hours, accompanied by earthquakes and the raising of the dead, followed the Crucifixion of Christ. These apocalyptic associations were supported by other medieval accounts. For instance, the Middle English copy of The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday found in British Library Harley MS 913, explained that the first sign of the approaching Apocalypse is that the ‘Sun will give no light and will be cast down to Earth – while you now see it [the Sun] as pleasing and bright, it will become as black as coal.'

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The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday: British Library Harley MS 913, f. 20v

You may wish to muse on this as you observe or read about this August's solar eclipse (with or without Bonnie Tyler on your headphones, obviously!). 

Sun and moon

God creating the Sun and the Moon: British Library Additional MS 18856, f. 5v

Becky Lawton and Clarck Drieshen

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20 August 2017

Guess the song 3

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We're on a bit of a (rock and) roll now with our Guess the song competition. But we've decided that the previous ones haven't been devious enough, so this week we are making it ever so slightly trickier.

There are no prizes, just smug satisfaction when you get it right. Simply guess the name of the popular song from the clues provided by these medieval manuscripts. You can send us your suggestions via Twitter or using the comments field below this post. Good luck!

 

Update 21 August: Did you work it out? See below for the answer!

 

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Image 1, from Boccaccio’s Des cleres et nobles femmes 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal 20 C V, f. 54r

 

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Image 2, from Christine de Pizan, Collected works (‘The Book of the Queen’), c. 1410–c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 259v

 

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Image 3, from Boccaccio’s De Claris mulieribus, c. 1440, Royal MS 16 G V, f. 80r

 

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Image 4, from the Alphonso Psalter, c. 1284–1316, Add MS 24686, f. 2r

 

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Image 5, from the Golf Book, c. 1540, Add MS 24098, f. 21v

 

Answer

 

1. Helen of Troy 2. Christine de Pizan teaching 3. Jaia with sculptor's tools 4. St Martin 5. Couple courting

She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge, she studied sculpture at St Martin's College, that's where I caught her eye

= Pulp, 'Common People'!

 

19 August 2017

The Art of the Bible at Edinburgh

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Next Thursday, 24 August, Dr Scot McKendrick (Head of Western Heritage Collections at the British Library) and Dr Kathleen Doyle (Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts) will be speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about their recent publication, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (Thames & Hudson and British Library Publications, 2016). 

Bibles cover

For two millennia the Bible has inspired the creation of art. Within this legacy of remarkable art and beauty, illuminated manuscripts of the Bible offer some of the best evidence for our understanding of early Christian painting and artistic interpretations of the Bible. Scot and Kathleen's book examines 45 illuminated manuscripts from the British Library, ranging from the exquisite Golden Canon Tables, made in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, to a 17th-century Ethiopian Octateuch and Gospels.

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Two decorated arches with a bust portrait, enclosing Canons 8-10 of Eusebius’s canon tables: British Library Additional MS 5111/1, f. 11r

Richly illustrated itself, The Art of the Bible seeks to immerse the reader in the world of illuminated manuscripts of the Bible. Each of the manuscripts featured is a treasure in its own right.

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Jonah is cast overboard from a ship into the mouth of a whale, and disgorged on the shore outside a city, at the beginning of the book of Jonah: British Library Royal MS 1 E IX, f. 232v

Scot and Kathleen will give a short presentation of several highlights from the book, followed by a discussion about it and the Library’s collection of illuminated biblical manuscripts, chaired by Rosemary Burnett.

Tickets and information are available here

 

Kathleen Doyle & Scot McKendrick, 'A Divine Art Collection'

Edinburgh International Book Festival

24 August, 14.15–15.15 (Garden Theatre)

 

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17 August 2017

Snakes or scrolls? 11th-century wall paintings in Norfolk

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Our manuscripts contain so many hidden gems of medieval art, and one of this Blog's aims is to bring them to light. It is worth remembering, though, that many wonderful medieval paintings survive on the walls of country churches in forgotten corners of Britain. The styles and subjects are familiar, and they also have amazing stories to tell.

This image of a series of saints or apostles in roundels, holding scrolls, is from the wall of the tiny church of St Mary, Houghton-on-the-Hill, in Norfolk. which contains perhaps the most complete set of early medieval wall paintings in England; they date from the 11th century, shortly after the Norman Conquest of England. The figure on the right may be Jesus and on his left, not shown here, are demons, also holding scrolls (or are they snakes?).

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Nave east wall: detail of the border with the saints (and Christ) holding scrolls, St Mary’s, Houghton-on-the-Hill (courtesy of the Friends of St Marys website)

The shape of the scrolls and the way the figures hold them up recalls this image of King Edgar, with Bishops Dunstan and Æthelwold, in a copy of the Regularis Concordia, made at Christ Church, Canterbury. in the first half of the 11th century.

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King Edgar, with Bishops Dunstan and Æthelwold, Regularis concordia, England (? Christ Church Canterbury), first half of the 11th century: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 2v

The way the wavy scroll is held up by the three figures above and its undulating shape, shaded in brown, green, mauve and ochre, repeated in the image of the monk holding the scroll below, is reminiscent of the wall painting. It has the same clear ochre outlines, though there is predominant use of yellow, and traces of white, red and green have been found on the plaster. However, the image in the Regularis concordia is clearly one long scroll held by all three people whereas the three in the St Mary’s church border are detached from each other.

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The east wall with the Last Judgement including the ‘Throne of God’ Trinity, St Mary’s Church, Houghton-on-the-Hill

The roundels are part of a scene of the Last Judgement that covered the east wall of the church, over the chancel arch. At the centre in a triple mandorla, now rather damaged, is a representation of the Trinity known as the ‘Throne of Grace’, where God the father, seated, holds the cross with Christ on it and a dove with wings outstretched represents the Holy Spirit. On God’s knee is a quatrefoil (not visible in the photographs), an Anglo-Saxon motif that indicates a very early date of before 1090 for these paintings; it is found in a number of 11th-century manuscripts.

In this image in the 'Eadui Psalter', the seated St Benedict has quatrefoil shapes on each knee, and one above and below. We have published a detailed analysis of those quatrefoils (with astonishing results) here.

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A group of monks presenting a copy of the Rule of Benedict to St Benedict who sits enthroned while another monk prostrates himself at Benedict's feet, the 'Eadui Psalter', England, S.E. (Christ Church, Canterbury), 1st half 11th century, British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

If the dating is correct, this remote church may contain the earliest known example of the ‘Throne of Grace’ Trinity. Two French works of the early 12th century are the earliest manuscript witnesses (Cambrai, Bibliotheque Municipale, ms. 0234 and Perpignan, Bibliotheque Municipale, 1: see Park and Heywood, ‘Romanesque Wall Paintings’). Representing the difficult concept of the Trinity in art was first undertaken in this period; the ‘Throne of Grace’, an early attempt to depict the relationship between the three figures, became the most popular form throughout Europe from the 12th century onwards. Here is a later example from the Egerton Psalter, originating in East Anglia in the late 13th century.

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Historiated initial 'D'(ixit) with a Throne of Grace Trinity, the 'Egerton Psalter’, England (East Anglia), c. 1270–c. 1290: British Library Egerton MS 1066, f. 83r

A manuscript from the early 11th century (before 1029), containing a liturgical and computistical collection known as ‘Ælfwine’s Prayerbook’, has this image of the Trinity, with the Father and Son seated together and the dove on Mary’s head, as she holds the infant Christ.

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The Trinity with Mary and a hell mouth below, Ælfwine’s Prayerbook’, England (New Minster, Winchester), 3rd decade of the 11th century: British Library Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 75v

On the north wall of the church are scenes from the Old Testament, including a well-preserved image of God creating Eve from Adam’s rib, and a trace of what is believed to be Noah’s Ark. On the south wall is a fragment of a Wheel of Fortune (or perhaps a Wheel of Life), once again an early representation of this subject that was popular with later manuscript illuminators. The Friends of St Mary’s are currently raising funds to complete the uncovering of the medieval paintings on this wall.

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Historiated initial 'D'(ixit) of the Wheel of Fortune, at the beginning of book 4. Quadripartitum of Ptolemy, England, 1st quarter of the 14th century: British Library Royal MS 12 F VII, f. 182v  

Although the subjects may be familiar, their innovative iconography and style for the Romanesque period, and the fact that they were created in a small church in a remote corner of Norfolk, makes these paintings exceptional. But even more exceptional is the story of their survival and restoration in the late 20th century.

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Photographs of the tower of St Mary’s church, Houghton-on-the Hill, before and after restoration

St Mary’s church is at the end of a bridleway, west of the village of North Pickenham in Norfolk, close to an old Roman road known as Peddars Way. The original village of Houghton-on-the-Hill was mentioned in Domesday Book, but earlier Saxon artefacts from the 5th to 7th centuries have been found in the fields nearby. Sir Robert Knolles, an infamous commander in the Hundred Years War, who ravaged large parts of Normandy, was Lord of the Manor from 1376 until his death in 1407. The church is believed to have been built in 1090 and was extensively altered in the 14th century, perhaps by Knolles. The congregation gradually dwindled as the village shrank in size and, following damage by a First World War Zeppelin in 1916, it was finally abandoned in 1937.

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The interior of St Mary’s, Houghton-on-the-Hill, before restoration (courtesy of the Friends of St Marys website)

The crumbling, desecrated ruins, covered in ivy were discovered in 1992 by a remarkable local resident, Bob Davey, who, with his wife Gloria, worked tirelessly to restore this beautiful little church. Bob started and even paid for some of the restoration work himself, although once the wall paintings were discovered, experts were called in to continue the renovations.

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Bob Davey MBE, with the wall paintings in the background (courtesy of the Friends of St Marys website)

Bob Davey is usually found at the church in the afternoon, accompanied by one of the Friends of St Mary's, and he talks movingly about the building he loves so much, its history and decoration. He has his own theories on the wall paintings. For him, the figures in the roundels are holding not scrolls but snakes: the ones on the right held by Satan and his companions (not shown), drooping down at the ends, signify the Fall; whereas those on the left held by the saints have upturned ends.   

With thanks to the Trustees of the Friends of St Mary’s for the information in this blogpost, for the use of their images and for their dedication to preserving this gem of medieval art, now a working church. Their website contains further information and opening hours.

 

Bibliography

Clive Rouse, Medieval Wall Paintings (Princes Risborough: Shire Publications, 4th edn., 1991).

David Park and Stephen Heywood, ‘Romanesque Wall Paintings Discovered in Norfolk’, Minerva, 8.2 (March/April 1997), 8–9.

‘Parish history booklet: Church of St Mary, Houghton-on-the Hill’ (Friends of St Marys, 2007), online here.

Nick Mayhew-Smith, Britain's Holiest Places (Bristol: Lifestyle Press Ltd, 2011), pp. 131–33.

Florence Close, ‘Imaginer l’indicible: à propos de la mise en mouvement des images dans les récits de visions de la Trinite des hagiographes et des mystiques médiévaux (vii-xiie siècles)’, MethIS (2016), 49–76 (pp. 50, n. 5), online here.

 

Chantry Westwell

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