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The Martyrdom of a Manuscript

Canterbury Cathedral, MS. Lit. E. 42, f. 9r: Historiated Initial, the Martyrdom of St Vincentst-vincent

This much-damaged leaf survives among the fragmentary remnants of a multi-volume passionale (a collection of martyred saints’ stories), produced in the Cathedral’s own scriptorium in the first quarter of the twelfth century. The remains of this manuscript have been reconsolidated after its contents, including the illuminated leaf in question, were unscrupulously recycled as binding material in the 1570s and 80s. Originally comprising seven volumes, the weathered, stained and scarred remnants of this once-magisterial work are now dispersed across several institutions. In its original form, though, this manuscript served the monastic community of Christ Church, continuing in use up to the Reformation. As part of a passionale, the account of Vincent’s death and its accompanying image are but one component of a collection of many such stories of Christian martyrs, likely read aloud during early morning prayer services. Each vita – or ‘life’ – was headed by a large, decorated initial (though not all contained a narrative scene like that preceding the account of St Vincent), acting as a marker for the beginning of every saint’s story.

Saint Vincent of Saragossa, killed c. 304, is the Protomartyr – i.e., first martyr – of Spain. According to the enormously popular thirteenth-century hagiographical collection, the Golden Legend, by Jacobus de Voragine, Vincent was deacon to Valerius, bishop of Saragossa, for whom he acted as spokesman and preacher. Under the orders of the Roman governor, Dacian, both Vincent and Valerius were summoned to Valencia and there imprisoned for propagating their Christian beliefs. Accused of sedition, Vincent vociferously defended his evangelising before Dacian, incurring the pagan governor’s wrath. Bishop Valerius was punished with exile, but Vincent was held to be made an example of.  Dacian commanded that Vincent be tortured in all manner of cruel ways: he was stretched on the rack and torn limb from limb, disembowelled with iron hooks, and griddled over a fire à la Saint Lawrence. However, much to the chagrin of his pagan persecutors, Vincent greeted his punishments with glee, expressing his delight at suffering so for his beliefs. Like so many early Christian martyrs, Vincent embraced his violent fate willingly and defiantly, unwavering in his faith. Eventually, Vincent’s resilience in the face of his torturers’ efforts overawed them and they converted to Christianity. Dacian, infuriated by Vincent’s persistent defiance, vowed to nullify the saint’s glory by having him restored to health before renewing the torment. During this convalescence, however, Vincent finally succumbed.

Romanesque decoration

The initial’s decoration is typical of Christ Church’s late eleventh- and early twelfth-century scriptorium, while also maintaining vestiges of Anglo-Saxon design, such as the foliate boss on the curve of the ‘P’. The initial showcases several of the hallmarks of Romanesque decoration in its intricate interlacing of foliate curls with animal (or ‘zoomorphic’) forms. There are three dragon hybrids entwined with the form of the initial itself. The head of one protrudes from the top-left of the initial, resembling the architectural grotesques that adorn the outer surfaces of Gothic churches; another is alarmingly close to devouring the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) embossed within a protective roundel; while the third is creeping along the lower stem of the ‘P’, gnawing on its own tail in a manner characteristic of Romanesque marginal decoration (consider, for comparison, the diverse sculptures adorning the stone capitals in the Cathedral’s Crypt and on the exterior walls of the Quire).

As for the main subject, we are witnessing a snapshot of the bloody episode described above: Vincent, tied by hands, neck, and feet to the rack, is being flayed and flogged by his pagan persecutors, one of whom wields the vicious iron hook featured in Jacobus’s account of the martyrdom. Vincent, tonsured and wearing only a loincloth, appears defiant in the face of his extreme suffering. The Agnus Dei in the stem of the initial echoes the suffering and death of Christ, and Vincent’s eye line is arguably directed at this symbol of sacrifice and resurrection. Vincent’s persecutors are not presented in a particularly derogatory manner, though the size of the image limits the potential for this somewhat. The torturer on Vincent’s left, however, with his vivid red hair and face in profile, perhaps allowing for the accentuation of a harsh physiognomy that was often a feature in artistic representations of evil persons, does stand out as an inimical figure. Admittedly, the artist’s portrayal of the figures’ heads is rudimentary; Richard Gameson has described the artist’s talent as ‘comparatively modest’, but the image is not without its charm. The animated postures of the figures and the bright array of colours on display certainly capture the viewer’s attention. The cruelty of Vincent’s treatment is readily palpable in the image’s depiction of the torturers’ actions. Moreover, small details such as the mismatched shoes of the tormentors and the green-robed figure’s placement around the stem of the ‘P’, incorporating the letter itself into the action of the scene, vivify the image. The scene of the martyrdom, the intertwining foliage, and the writhing hybrids are all organically infused with the initial, lifting it off the page.

Our concluding thoughts on this image might rest with its post-Dissolution history. The manuscript in which this leaf was originally contained was a victim of changes in attitudes towards the sacred. It has been sorely damaged through the vicissitudes of time and the rampages of religious reformation. Most of the book was progressively dismembered and recycled as binding and covers in the last third of the sixteenth century for the proceedings of the archidiaconal, consistory and probate courts; one portion was even appropriated for the use of the Accounts of the Commissioner of Sewers for the Level of Romney Marsh. The beautiful initial examined here – and its many decorated companions – remained concealed in this new setting until 1888, when the painstaking task of extracting and regrouping them was begun by the librarian to the Dean and Chapter. This tumultuous history is a reminder of the fluctuating value ascribed to material objects, once deemed sacred, which are then discarded as opinions evolve. Vincent’s pagan persecutors refused to acknowledge his sanctity, as the busy bureaucrats of the sixteenth century disregarded the significance of the manuscript that bore his image. As Vincent was martyred by profane pagans, so too was this manuscript for banal bureaucracy. This page is a lesson in the ongoing potential for new discoveries as such long-forgotten fragments of history are renewed to their former prestige. As this page was extracted from its new setting as a supplement to administrative records, its sanctity was restored, but as an invaluable historical artefact and piece of Canterbury’s ancient history.

Dan Smith, MEMS, University of Kent

Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further Reading:

Dodwell, C. R., The Canterbury School of Illumination, 1066-1200 (Cambridge: CUP, 1954)

Gameson, Richard, The Earliest Books of Canterbury Cathedral: Manuscripts and Fragments to c. 1200 (London: The Bibliographical Society; The British Library; The Dean and Chapter of Canterbury, 2008)

De Voragine, Jacobus, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. By William Granger Ryan, 2 vols (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1993)

image of the Cathedral
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