Heralding the Beginning

Heralding the Beginning

Canterbury Cathedral Library, H/L -3-2, f.33r.

As the first picture in this newly launched series of monthly insights into images held within Canterbury Cathedral Library, a depiction of the Annunciation is a very good place to start. As the absolute beginning of Christ’s life on Earth, the Annunciation was traditionally the opening picture for the first of the eight prayer offices of the day. Each office had a different image that served multifunctionally as a pictorial signpost for each section of the book, a focus for devotion, an image from which to learn and, sometimes, just as artwork to look at and share. This particular image comes from a fifteenth century Book of Hours, that is a private prayer book based on the monastic offices of the day. From the fourteenth century, Books of Hours became immensely popular with the gentry and richer members of society, indeed the rich were the only ones who could afford them. Whether bespoke or ‘off the shelf,’ manuscript (hand-written) books were costly enough, but books with any coloured images were truly elite and the preserve of the very wealthy. Highly decorated books became status symbols as well as devotional aids.

The images in this Cathedral Library book are well-executed and both gold leaf and shell gold paint has been used throughout. At 17.5cm x 12.5cm the book is small enough to carry around and would have been used in private devotions at home and also, in all probability, carried to church to enable the owner to follow the service. The Annunciation scene sits above the opening words of Matins (Domine labia mea aperies, et os meum annuciabit laudem tua: Lord open thou my lips and my mouth shall pour forth thy praise) and has much of the conventional imagery connected to this subject matter. The scene occurs in an interior where the kneeling Mary, book open on prie dieu, has been interrupted at her devotions by the appearance of God’s messenger. The angel Gabriel, dressed in a sumptuous gold over garment, adopts an attitude of kneeling reverence to Mary as he imparts the news of God having chosen her to bear the Messiah. Rather unusually, Gabriel has his hands crossed over his breast, this is very often the body language given to Mary in this scene as it is a gesture of both acceptance and humility; here it accentuates the angel’s deference to the maiden. Gabriel’s wings are a rich blue with gold patterning, a rather nice artistic touch which evokes the idea of the star-studded heavens from whence he has descended to Earth on God’s errand. The blue wings also act as a compositional balance to the Virgin’s cloak. From early times, blue came to be the colour associated with Mary’s mantle as traditionally blue was a precious colour due to the paint pigment coming from the crushed semi-precious stone of lapis-lazuli. Here the cloak is doubly precious as the highlights of the folds in the drapery are picked out with gold paint, which lends a shimmering celestial quality to the garments.

Mary’s hair hangs loose over her shoulders as a sign of her virginity and her hands are together in the universally recognisable position of prayer. From the top left of the image the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove flies down on golden rays towards her, and it is through this trope that the idea of immaculate conception is regularly portrayed in Annunciation scenes. Usually, Mary, Gabriel and the Holy Spirit are alone, but this rendering of the scene has the atypical feature of other angels present as witnesses to the event. However, though present, they are outside of the room and therefore a sense of the intimacy of the occasion is preserved.

The wide borders that surround the Annunciation scene teem with the exuberant energy of the natural world. Like the miniature above it, they are executed with some degree of compositional and technical skill; qualities not always present in illuminated manuscripts! On a shell gold background, daisies, violets cornflowers, periwinkles, strawberries and other plants curl and twist together with acanthus ribboning. Directly beneath the miniature is an intriguing hybrid creature, half man half beast, playing the bagpipes whilst facing back to front. Such beasts were commonly found in borders as visual jokes and, some believe, as a reminder that Satan’s dangers lurked all around. Looking around the border it is also possible to pick out an ermine and a snail hidden in the foliage and ribbons. These beautiful borders with their hybrids and hidden creatures probably helped to alleviate the boredom of overlong church services!

Jayne Wackett, Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent

Further Reading:

  • Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The margins of medieval art (London:1992)
  • Eamon Duffy, Marking the Hours: English people and their prayers, 1240-1570 (Yale: 2006)