Skip to main content

Axis of Morality

Axis of Morality

Axis of Morality

Canterbury Cathedral H/N-2, H-N-2-1

As we are particularly reminded in this Easter month, images of the Crucifixion, the pivotal moment of Christian faith, were ubiquitous in pre-Reformation England. Representations of this subject matter would have appeared in public and private spaces and in many different media: wall paintings, stained glass, statues, ceiling bosses, embroidery, altar panels, jewellery, crosiers, pyxes, patens and books of all natures. Some images of the Crucifixion would have been shared, whilst others would have been limited to a few viewers, either clergy or laity. The depiction of the Crucifixion which is the image for this month’s ‘Picture this…’ is an example of an illustration from a private devotional book. Unfortunately, the book does not survive in its entirety and the Crucifixion image is found on just one bifolio of paper (one folded sheet making four pages). The book has been identified as a book of hours and the manner of its decoration reveals that it was printed in France in the sixteenth-century.

The four pages are filled with printed woodcut images and the inclusion of a later owner’s (presumably) coat of arms. The text is such a good imitation of handwriting that it takes no small scrutiny to ascertain that it is, in fact, printed. The printed woodcut images have been hand-painted; the largest and most sophisticated is the representation of Christ crucified.

The composition of the scene reveals that it has taken on aspects of the Italian trecento style. Until the 1300s, and commonly up into the 1500s, images of the Crucifixion tended to follow the formula of Christ crucified in the centre with Mary to the left, Christ’s right, and John the Evangelist to the right (see Canon Irvine’s July 2013 article). However, this image reflects the more inherently narrative and crowded Crucifixion scenes that began in Italian wall and panel paintings with such artists as Giotto (Capella Scrovengni, Padua, 1305); these works heralded the changes in art that blossomed during the Renaissance.

The image from the cathedral library’s bifolio (H/N-2) is based on a division of right from wrong with Christ as the moral and compositional axis. The figures to Christ’s right (viewer’s left) are his supporters: Mary swoons with grief and is supported as she sags by John the Evangelist, recognisable by his typical youth, long hair and red robe. Behind this pair is a haloed woman of indefinite identity, but very probably another of the three Marys or Martha. Even the crucified figure to the left is connected to good; he is the Good or Penitent Thief who asks for Christ’s mercy, to which Christ responds, ‘Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23: 43).

The figures on Christ’s left (viewer’s right) are associated with wrong. They are the people responsible for Jesus’ trial, arrest and crucifixion. The figure in red with an elaborate hat is probably Petrus, the centurion responsible for overseeing Jesus’ death and entombment. Portrayal of Petrus usually shows him in elaborate garb rather than uniform. In medieval tradition he is the centurion credited with saying of Jesus ‘truly, this was the son of God’. This admission of Jesus’ divinity would seem to vindicate Christ and yet the centurion is shown on the side of wrong. I believe that this is due to his words being wrung from him by fear rather than belief only after the storm and tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death: the full phrase is taken from Matthew 27:54: ‘So that the centurion and those who kept guard over Jesus with him, when they perceived the earthquake and all that befell, were overcome with fear; truly this was the Son of God.’ The crucified thief on the side of wrong is the Bad Thief who, according to Luke 23: 39, mocked Christ saying ‘If thou be Christ, save thyself and us’.

Despite being one of three crucified figures, Jesus is visually differentiated from the other two. Most obviously he is the only one who can be seen in full, due to the fact that no one stands in front of him. Furthermore, the other two thieves have different loincloths and rather than being nailed to their crosses they are tied and have tortuously bent arms. This phenomenon is not unusual and probably served to heighten the role of the nails as holy relics connected intrinsically to Jesus’ death. Also the more twisted forms of the crucified thieves as they fight against their fate highlights Jesus’ acceptance of his. As the stillest and palest figure in the image, the eye would come to rest naturally on Christ as the devotional focus.

H-N-2-1-pageThe picture is marred somewhat by the addition of a red paint line, which follows the shape of the miniature’s edge and then runs horizontally across its centre. Although it would seem to be a framing device of some sort there does not appear to be any logical explanation as to why the line should run, rather clumsily, across the middle as it does. The way that the paint obscures the details of the painting beneath shows that it is a later addition. Indeed, this image is not the only one to suffer at later hands. Many of the smaller marginal scenes from this very book, such as are present on this page, were cut out and pasted into a manuscript Bible. The Bible is also in the Canterbury cathedral library (H/N-2-1) and the bifolio was found inside it.

Though only four pages, this fragment is fascinating evidence of just what can happen to a book beyond its initial production. This book was printed and painted, only to be then dismembered with parts being cut up to be reused in the awkward decoration of an otherwise very fine manuscript Bible. The surviving fragment was then ‘embellished’ with a parchment coat of arms being stuck, in all probability, on top of an existing image of something else and an ungainly red frame was painted around and over a rather well-composed and painted miniature. As some recompense against these indignities, the bifolio is now very well-cared for in Canterbury cathedral library.

Jayne Wackett: MEMS, University of Kent and editor of ‘Picture this…’

Further Reading:

  • Richard Marks, Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England (Sutton Publishing, 2004)
image of the Cathedral
Top Of Page
New Website! What do you think?