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Illuminating Christmas with the friars

21 December 2012

Pamela Tudor-Craig, with Nicholas Rogers, reflects on the context of an image of the Holy Family



Helpful spouse: the Blessed Virgin Mary reads in bed, as St Joseph nurses the Christ-child inHorae, French, Fitzwilliam MS 69 folio 48r,The Nativity

Helpful spouse: the Blessed Virgin Mary reads in bed, as St Joseph nurses the Christ-child inHorae, French, Fitzwilliam MS 69 folio 48r,The Nativity

TWICE in my life, I have seen the herding of sheep. The first time was on the hills around the Sea of Galilee in 1982. The little flock that tumbled down a track was scraggy and assorted, goats as well as sheep. The shepherd stopped them while he tried to persuade us to taste their milk.

The second time, a small flock was hurrying through an orchard on the slope between Assisi and San Damiano, bunched and hassled along by a bossy sheepdog. On both occasions, it seemed that we had taken a tuck in the web of sequence, that it could have been AD 30 or 1210.

That telescoping of the years between the life of Christ on this earth and their present time was a constant aspect of the preaching of the Friars as they brought alive the Gospels, not in monastic enclosures but in the universities, the marketplace, and the home. For the first time, in the 1220s, the stories were recounted all over Europe and into the Near East in the vernacular, for everyone, not just the privileged, to savour and understand.

The Dominicans have always been associated with preaching among the learned, and the Franciscans among the simple. St Francis had excluded books in his prescription of holy poverty. But the distinction is too abrupt. It was St Anthony of Padua who immediately persuaded Francis to relax that stipulation; so there was always a strong Franciscan presence, as well as Dominican, in the universities and in the great houses.

St Anthony of Padua, nevertheless, found that the Infant Christ distracted him from his studies by sitting on his book, and so he is always represented. Admittedly, Albertus Magnus, a giant among medieval botanists, was a Dominican, but his precursor, Bartholomew the Englishman, whose De Proprietatis Rerum, was finished only a few years after Francis's death, was a Franciscan. Botany ought to have been a specifically Franciscan discipline.

The impact of Franciscan preaching on largely illiterate country people in the High Middle Ages is manifest wherever you find traces on the walls of village churches of medieval paintings. Admittedly, the chancel arch lays out the Doom where none can avoid it. Otherwise, setting aside the narratives of popular saints depicted in favourite corners, the staple subjects are the infancy and Passion of Christ. Up and down the country, from West Chiltington in Sussex through Ashampstead in Berkshire to Corby Glen in Lincolnshire, an angel greets the shepherds, and does so expansively.

At West Chiltington, such is their importance that each of the three shepherds has his own angel. To appreciate the immediacy with which this homely scene has been endowed, we have to go forward another half-century or so to the Mystery plays where they find voice, at its loudest in the Wakefield cycle.

At Corby Glen Church, the more decorous Magi wind their way along the nave north wall to the crib, while the shepherds opposite bring their sheep and a dog with them, all as large as life, as they stride the length of the nave to Herod - who would not have been pleased to see them. (A muddle there, rare in medieval iconography.)

The village of Corby Glen is next to Irnham, where they still celebrate the Luttrell family and their patronage of the famous Luttrell Psalter. The Dominicans often found themselves as confessors in large households, and a Dominican friar, a family relative, shares the Luttrell feast in the margin of the psalm referring to feasting in that manuscript. Part of the Dominican mission was to instil education into families. The menfolk were usually too occupied with killing things, but the ladies and their children were at leisure to be beguiled into learning.

The wonderful scenes of country life that make the Luttrell Psalter so popular today are accompanied by the most outrageous grotesques ever associated with a book of prayer, (rivalled only by that superficially demure little manuscript the Macclesfield Psalter, discovered in time for the great "Cambridge Illuminations" exhibition of 2005).

The only possible excuse for some of these margins is their potential appeal to the adolescent boys whom the Friars were anxious to persuade to study. The Friars had been associated with lavishly illustrated manuscripts to tempt a secular, often regal, audience since the glorious illustrated Apocalypses of the mid-13th century onwards, the Alphonso Psalter of 1284, and the Holkham Bible Picture Book of c.1300.

In the second half of the 14th century, a group of artists, one of them John de Teye, an Augustinian Friar (so, like the Franciscans and Dominicans, free to live outside the cloister), illuminated very lively manuscripts for the de Bohun family, working from the de Bohun castle at Pleshey in Essex.

If the Franciscans were behind the rustic procession to the crib in the nave of Corby Glen, the Dominican touch may be recognised in the north aisle, where among popular devotional images the special subject of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read was rediscovered a few decades ago.

This picture was especially dear to the Dominicans, for obvious reasons. Most late-medieval pictures of the annunciation show the Virgin interrupted as she reads her Office. If she and her cousin Elizabeth could not read, how did they know the Song of Hannah? So the part played by Mary's mother, St Anne, is marked: she must have taught Mary to read.

The source of this expansion of the Gospel accounts was The Golden Legend, the great work of Jacobus de Voragine, the Dominican Archbishop of Genoa who died in 1292. That The Golden Legend, and especially St Anne as the role-model for all families educating their children, was immediately dear to the Dominicans in this country is witnessed by the survival of 15 paintings of Anne teaching the child Mary to read in English churches.

Croughton in Northamptonshire, c.1310, is probably the earliest to survive, though Corby Glen is not much later. It is again one of the subjects on the frontal in the Cluny Museum in Paris, belonging to the same Dominican altarpiece as the Thornham Parva Retable, both of them having been painted in c.1330 for a Dominican friary in East Anglia.

SO WE are equipped for the shock of this year's miniature of the nativity in Fitzwilliam MS 69. Nicholas Rogers, an authority on this genre of illuminated manuscript, kindly visited the Fitzwilliam, and contributes his analysis of the manuscript and its implications:

"Once one has got over the initial shock of the 18th-century French harlequin binding, a jazzy composition of coloured lozenges that look more 1930s than 1730s, MS 69 in the Fitzwilliam Museum seems to be an ordinary French Book of Hours of the mid-15th century, illuminated by a provincial artist who, to be honest, is not very good, although aspects of his style suggest an acquaintance with the work of the Rohan Master, the most individual French illuminator of the early 15th century.

"The contents are unexceptional: a calendar in French, the beginning of St John's Gospel, the Hours of the Virgin, penitential psalms, litany, Hours of the Cross, Hours of the Holy Spirit, and eucharistic and Marian devotions. The illustrations are conventional in appearance, but the depiction of the nativity presents a novel reworking of a familiar theme. All the usual elements are there - Mary, Jesus, Joseph, ox and ass - but it is Joseph, seated humbly on the ground, who nurses the Christ Child, while the Virgin, in a golden kirtle and white headdress, sits up in bed reading. Mary and Joseph are linked compositionally by the ox and ass, which are penned in by a wattle fence. The ass appears to be nibbling at St Joseph's halo.

"Joseph first appears in nativity scenes in the fifth century. He is depicted as a seated, contemplative figure. Sometimes he seems to be asleep, reminding us of the important role of dreams in guiding Joseph. This mode of representation remained standard in the East. In the West it was not until the 13th century that Joseph is seen taking a more active role in the nativity. In a fragment of the destroyed 13th-century rood-screen at Chartres Cathedral, Mary, resting in bed, touches the swaddled Child in the manger as a solicitous Joseph offers a cloth.

"In 14th- and 15th-century Netherlandish and German art, Joseph is engaged in a variety of tasks. He can be found warming swaddling clothes, cooking food, or blowing a fire into life. In the mid-14th-century Bohemian Hohenfurth altar, he helps prepare the Child's bath. A particularly charming example is the Netherlandish nativity of c.1400 in the Museum Mayer van den Berg, Antwerp, part of a portable altarpiece, which shows him cutting up his hose to make swaddling bands for the Child.

"In another depiction of this motif, Joseph addresses the Virgin: 'Mary, take my hose and wind your dear babe in them.' Such familiar images of Joseph may derive from his depiction in Mystery plays. It is rare for Joseph to be shown holding the Christ-child. He does so in the Petri-Altar by Master Bertram, of c.1379, now in the Hamburg Kunsthalle, but there he is clearly handing the Child over to his Mother. In Fitzwilliam 69, the emphasis is more clearly on his role as foster-father.

"This function is most commonly depicted in late medieval German art. A woodcut of the 1470s shows Joseph leading the Christ-child by the hand, perhaps on the return from Egypt. In an altarpiece by a follower of the Lower Rhenish artist Hendrick Bogaert, Jesus assists Joseph in the carpenter's shop. Out of elements of the iconography of the nativity and the flight into Egypt, devotional images of the Holy Family were created in the Low Countries and Germany in the 15th century. An early woodcut of the Holy Family in the Albertina shows the enthroned, crowned Virgin nursing the Child while St Joseph cooks a meal.

"In Joos van Cleve's Holy Family in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Joseph is depicted as an old man, with missing teeth and a stubby beard, holding a pair of spectacles. This is an extreme example of the standard medieval portrayal of him as a patriarchal, grey-bearded figure. The theologian Jean Gerson, the chief promoter of the cult of St Joseph in 15th-century France, objected to the depiction of the saint as a decayed old man, arguing that the Virgin would have required the support of someone in full vigour, especially during the Flight into Egypt. However, the representation of Joseph as a grey-beard remained standard until the 17th century.

"The Blessed Virgin Mary is most commonly associated with a book in the context of the annunciation, reading the word at the moment when the Word became incarnate. Sometimes, the book is inscribed with the words of her response to the angelic greeting. The book she reads in the Fitzwilliam nativity is meant to remind us of that event, just as the book which St Anne uses to teach the Virgin foreshadows the annunciation. The Virgin's book also provides a point of contact with the user of the Book of Hours, who is thereby encouraged to cultivate a spiritual union with Mary in her devotional reading, linking her prayers with those of the Virgin at the nativity.

"What do we know about the person for whom this image of the nativity was created? There is no coat of arms or inscription to enable the first owner of Fitzwilliam 69 to be identified, but there are several clues. De Gaulle once complained about the difficulty of governing a country that has 246 different kinds of cheese. Many popes must have felt the same when faced with the Gallican Church, with its multiplicity of local liturgical Uses.

"Fitzwilliam 69 is of the Use of Besançon in the Franche-Comté, between Burgundy and Switzerland. The calendar and litany are peppered with obscure local saints: Ferreolus, Ferrutio, Antidius, Nicetius, Prothadius. The book was made for a lady who is depicted kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child at the beginning of a French translation of the prayer 'Deprecor te domina'. Her rose-madder gown with white turned-down collar and green heart-shaped horned head-dress would have been fashionable in the 1440s. It is possible that the book was a wedding present. It was customary in France well into the 20th century for a bride to be given a Book of Hours, or, later, a paroissien (a layfolk's missal with added devotions) on her wedding day. Some 30 years later, either this owner or a subsequent one had further Gospel readings added at the end of the book. Thereafter, there is no sign of usage until the book passed into the collection of Richard, 7th Viscount FitzWilliam."

THERE was a Dominican presence in Besançon. (Where was there not?) A son of the city, Stephen of Besançon, served briefly as Master of the Order in 1292-94.

I am tempted to add just one more example to Nicholas Rogers's list of helpful St Josephs. In the years 1350-63, the newly built private chapel for Edward III and his Queen, Philippa, in Westminster Palace was painted with the royal family coming in state to worship the Holy Family, and with scenes of the Old and New Testament. Only pathetic fragments of the paintings survived the disastrous fire of 1834, and are now in the British Museum.

A few copies were made, however, when the paintings were rediscovered behind panelling in the first years of the 19th century. Among these was a poor rendering of the annunciation to the shepherds by J. T. Smith of 1804.

We must thank him, despite his inept brush; for without him we would not have any account of this bucolic scene - four shepherds again, a sufficiency of sheep with a dog - and then, above them all, the Virgin in bed with a plainer red rug over her, ox and ass in support, and Joseph helping to wind up the baby in his swaddling cloth - a role-model for the private devotions of one of our most powerful kings and his family. The representation in the Besançon hours of a century later is luxurious in comparison.

To return to it: in the unprecedented emergency in which they have found themselves in this account of the scene in the stable at Bethlehem, the ox and ass have come to a mutual arrangement. They have split forces: the ox keeps Mary warm, while the ass, bending over Joseph, directs his breath, the reassuring warm breath of stable and straw, on to the Infant Christ (and, if he is tempted to nibble Joseph's halo at the same time, we are not criticising).

In this version, the helpful way in which Joseph is sharing the care of the Holy Infant means that the exhausted mother has a small space in her life to do something else. Let us hope that the joyful bride who first received this book found such a space. In the myriad images of the nativity which have come our way, neither Nicholas Rogers nor I have seen elsewhere this endearing iconographic touch.

Dr Tudor-Craig is an art-historian. Nicholas Rogers is the archivist of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. The authors acknowledge the help of Dr Nicholas Robinson of the Manuscript Department of the Fitzwilliam Museum.


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