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Myrroure of the blessyd lyf of Jhesu Crist

Myrroure of the blessyd lyf of Jhesu Crist

Dear Readers,

We find ourselves, once again, in the Christmas month and I am delighted that Cathedral Librarian, Karen Brayshaw, has been tempted by a favourite volume to write this year’s festive piece. As well as wishing all readers a very merry Christmas, I would like to take the opportunity to thank all of the contributors for another twelvemonth’s worth of insight into the Cathedral collections. 2014 has been particularly exciting as in August ‘Picture this…’ expanded to include materials from the Archives, which means we have more to discover in the coming year.

Best Christmas wishes, Jayne Wackett

Reflections in a Christmas Myrrour

Incipit Speculum vite cristi. : At the begynnynge of the prohemy of the boke that is clepyd the myrroure of the blessyd lyf of Jhesu Crist. …
[London] : [Colophon:] Emprinted by Richard Pynson, [1494].
Canterbury Cathedral Library W/S-11-9 (STC 3262, Duff 51)

In keeping with the festive season, the image featured in December’s ‘Picture This…’ is a simple woodcut depicting the Nativity taken from Nicholas Love’s The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, one of the most popular texts during the later medieval period. Nicholas Love (d. 1423/4) was prior of Mount Grace, a Carthusian house in North Yorkshire. The Blessed Life is Love’s only known work. The book is a series of meditations based on a translation of the Latin text of the Meditiones Vitae Christi, which was for many years mistakenly attributed to Saint Bonaventura (1218-1274). The most likely author of the Meditationes is thought to be Johannes de Caulibus, a Franciscan friar of San Gimigniano in Tuscany, writing sometime in the early part of the fourteenth century. Love’s work was widely circulated in manuscript form before continuing a steady production in print until the point of the Reformation. Between 1484 and 1530 it was printed nine times by three of the best known printers in England of the time, William Caxton, Wynkyn de Worde and Richard Pynson. The Cathedral’s copy of The Blessed Life is from Pynson’s press in 1494. Pynson’s (1449-1529/30) printing career probably began in the early 1490s, thus he was operating at the end of Caxton’s career and at the same time as Wynkyn de Worde, who took over the Caxton press.

The Cathedral’s copy measures 200mm x270mm, which makes it a medium size book; the woodcut measures 60mm x 93mm. The book’s purpose was to inspire and encourage the reader, or listener, to imagine the events of Christ’s life as a meditative exercise. In Love’s work the meditations are arranged in chapters grouped under the days of the week. Unlike today, when we tend to reserve the Nativity scene for the month of December, at the time this image was created it was usual to contemplate the scene of the Nativity (described in Luke 2) throughout the liturgical year. The woodcut of the Nativity appears in the first part of the book with the meditations for Mondays.

In the lower half of the image, left of centre, the infant Jesus is shown with a halo (it is just possible to make out a cruciform nimbus) laying on a ‘radiance’. The radiance motif gives the impression of a source of light surrounding, and indeed coming from, the newly born Christ; this is symbolic of the light that the Christ-child brings to the world at his birth. Joseph, shown to the left and kneeling behind the crib, is holding what appears to be a small candle, pale in comparison to the light surrounding Christ. Mary, like the infant, also has a nimbus. Her hands are held as if in prayer as she looks adoringly at her new son. In the upper left of the image is a nimbed angel holding a scroll bearing the words Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), the same words sung by the chorus of angels when the birth of Christ was announced to the shepherds (Luke 2:14). For economy of space, the scene of the announcement is represented by a single angel, but this rendition would have been easily understood by the contemporary reader/viewer as they meditated on the scene described in the Bible. The ox and the ass are placed in the upper right-hand corner of the image just inside the representation of a shelter. The beasts are both mentioned in a passage from the first book of Isaiah, which reads ‘The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master’s crib’.

The scene is set in a ruined building that represents the shelter in which Mary was delivered of the infant. If we look closely we can see the ruined wall, the hole in the roof and the weeds growing in the ground. Not only does it give the impression of poverty, but it also represents the ruined state of the old world. When juxtaposed with the newly born infant, surrounded by light (albeit in black and white), placed in prominence at the forefront of the scene it symbolizes hope of new things to come. The focus on this image is the humble beginning of Jesus’s life and of new hope.

Woodcuts were a relatively quick and easy way to illustrate multiple copies of a text. They were created with the image in reverse; the image was drawn onto a block of wood and any part for the surface not drawn on was carved away. The raised lines of the block could then be inked and pressed onto paper. In Edward Hodnett’s English Woodcuts 1480-1535 he notes that Pynson had a set of twenty-four new blocks prepared for his first edition of Love’s work. As well as these new blocks Pynson also used two others that are Flemish in style and show signs of wear. The figures in the set of twenty-four have bold black outlines and the image is surrounded by a double-lined border. The two pre-used blocks, of which the Nativity is one, have a single border surrounding the image, the figures’ outlines are paler and their faces are quite different in style from the main set of blocks.

Love wrote The Blessed Life at a time when Wyclif was associated with the translation of the Bible into English, a highly contentious and dangerous activity for which he lost his life. Love’s work contains anti-Lollard sentiments, which seems to have been approved at the highest level by Archbishop Arundel. The Blessed Life was a book Thomas More recommended as suitable reading for the uneducated at the time that William Tyndale was translating the Bible into English. The Reformation took place soon after the deaths of both Pynson and Tyndale and the Bible in English became the authorized version of the Book; The Blessed Life fell from popularity and was not printed again until modern times.

Karen Brayshaw (Cathedral Librarian)

Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further reading:

  • Printing in England in the Fifteenth Century: E Gordon Duff’s bibliography with supplementary descriptions, chronologies and a census of copies, Lotte Hellinga, London, The Bibliographical Society, The British Library, 2009.
  • Edward Hodnett, English Woodcuts: 1480-1535 (Oxford, 1935)
  • Michael Sargent, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ: a reading text, (Exeter, 2004)
  • “What do the numbers mean? A Textual Critic’s Observations on some Patterns of Middle English Manuscript Transmission.” In Design and Distribution of Late Medieval Manuscripts in England, ed. by Margaret Connolly and Linne R. Mooney. York Medieval Press, 2008, pp. 205-44.
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