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Treasures known and unknown in the British Library

Knowns and unknowns Passio of St Margaret Kissing Images Textiles and Books Tall Narrow Books Egerton 1900 Journey of Unknowing

Kissing Images


BL MS Stowe 10


Stowe 10, f. 113v-114

Stowe 10, f. 113v-114


Kissing is an interesting topic, so we might remain with it for a while. At the opening of the canon of the mass, the text beginning Te igitur, the officiating priest was instructed to kiss an image of the cross in the missal or sacramentary he was using. In such books there was often an image of the Crucifixion at this point, but in order to preserve its painted surface a simple gilded cross might also be supplied in the lower margin as what might be termed a sacrificial substitute (as in the North French Missal, Stowe 10, of around 1460). (Here the Te igitur begins on the facing page with an initial showing Christ with the instruments of the passion). Note that neither the Crucifixion nor the small cross appear in this case to have been frequently kissed, for reasons that we can ponder.



BL MS Harley 2985


Harley 2985, f. 37v

Harley 2985, f. 37v



The habit of kissing figurative images in books (as in the Passio of St Margaret), rather than, for example, signs of the cross, was, however, relatively uncommon. It is therefore interesting to observe the irregular pattern of devotion, as exemplified by kissing, in this Flemish Book of Hours of the third quarter of the fifteenth century; a book of Sarum use, made for export to England, and now MS Harley 2985.6 If we start with the suffrage to St Margaret we can see that its image received no signs of particular devotion (note that the hymn Gaude virgo gloriosa / Margareta preciosa / rubricate sanguine makes no mention of childbirth).


Harley 2985, f. 71v

Harley 2985, f. 71v




But turning the pages of the book it is striking that the figure of Christ in the descent from the cross has been thoroughly kissed, whereas the figure of Christ in the tomb surrounded by the instruments of the passion has been left untouched.


Harley 2985, f. 140v

Harley 2985, f. 140v




Why should this discrepancy have occurred? Could it be that the image on the right was indulgenced whereas the Descent from the Cross on the left was not, and the indulgence was gained by reciting prayers while contemplating the image at the right, not by kissing it? We cannot be certain of this, but we shall see a related example of an indulgenced image shortly.


Harley 2985, f. 23v

Harley 2985, f. 23v



Elsewhere in this book we find two other images among the nineteen that survive (a further seven are probably lost) that have been kissed to differing degrees: Christ’s body in the Lamentation, and St John the evangelist’s head. Perhaps St John was the owner’s patron saint. Is the St John more worn because he was kissed more frequently, or more vigorously, or both? Does the kissing represent the practice of one owner, or several? Did it take place when the book was new, or when it was perhaps several generations from its first owner? I leave you these unknowns to ponder.


Harley 2985, f. 29v

Harley 2985, f. 29v



But I also leave you with this remarkable opening, in which the suffrage of St Thomas Becket has been removed, in accordance with Henry VIII’s prescription of 1538: ‘the service, office, antiphones, collects, and prayers in his name shall not be read, but razed and put out of all the books.’ Yet Thomas’s image has survived unscathed, even though Henry VIII also required that ‘his images and pictures through the whole realm shall be put down and avoided out of all churches, chapels, and other places.’ The image is a very rare survival in an English context, and the reason for its survival here is, at present, another unknown.




A Book for Devotion: BL MS Egerton 1821

Egerton 1821, f. 1v-2

Egerton 1821, f. 1v-2


The most remarkable example of a book of devotion that may show signs of having received that devotion in a direct physical form is Egerton 1821, an English product of around 1490. 7 This book is known to those who work on prints, and was exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington DC in 2005,8 but is still largely unknown, I think, to those who work on manuscripts. It begins with three pages, each painted black, on which large drops of blood trickle down. The third page has been thoroughly worn. I am not absolutely certain this is the result of kissing, and part of it has been rubbed and smudged rather than merely kissed, but I think it very well could have been partially erased by kissing.


Egerton 1821, f. 2v

Egerton 1821, f. 2v




The black and blood-spattered pages are followed by seven uncoloured pages, on the first of which is a pasted-in woodcut of the Virgin feeding the Christ child, surrounded by verses from the rosary. This is followed by excerpts from the rosary likening the Virgin in turn to five lilies.


Egerton 1821, f. 6v-7

Egerton 1821, f. 6v-7



After this the pages turn blood red, and thick gouts of blood pour down them from innumerable wounds. This disturbing decoration continues for ten consecutive pages (the last folio was cut out at some date, leaving only a stub). I count approximately 540 wounds on the bloodiest page, so perhaps taken together they were intended to represent the 5400 or more wounds received by Christ according to texts of late medieval devotion.


Egerton 1821, f. 8v

Egerton 1821, f. 8v



There are two openings like this before one reaches a third with two further woodcuts pasted in. The first represents a Man of Sorrows surrounded by twenty small compartments with instruments of the passion. Facing it is a larger woodcut of the five wounds of Christ with a heart at the centre over a cross. The left image (think back to the miniature in Harley 2985) carries an indulgence (later defaced): ‘To all them that devoutly say five Pater nosters, five Aves, and a Creed afore such a figure are granted 32,755 years of pardon.’ (A combination of hyperinflation and opportunism by printers among others had seriously devalued the indulgence by this date.)




‘Send me salvation’

Egerton 1821, f. 9v

Egerton 1821, f. 9v


Turning the page we see another bloody opening with a woodcut on the left. A Carthusian kneels before a bloody Christ, who stands beside his cross. They converse by means of scrolls with texts in latin. The Carthusian petitions Christ: ‘O Lord I beseech, send me salvation’ (Domine obsecro dirige ad me salutem). Christ replies: ‘Son, shun (temptation, understood), subdue (it), say nothing, keep quiet (Fili fuge, vince, tace, quiesce). The formulation is found in Abelard’s Epistle VIII on the foundation of a women’s convent, and the context is how to avoid the temptation to sin. Below is a caption in English: ‘The greatest comfort in al temptacyon Is the remembraunce of Crystes passyon.’ Further research might, one would hope, trace these texts to a Carthusian milieu.

The book that follows this extraordinary prefatory matter is mostly written not in black ink but in the brilliant red pigment used for the blood. It contains various texts including two versions of the Rosary of the Virgin. The litany includes ‘St Augustine of Canterbury and all the saints of that monastery’, along with many women including Elizabeth of Spalbeck and Mary of Oignies. At the top of every text page is the abbreviated name of Jesus. This suggests that the manuscript came from the Carthusian house at Sheen, the Domus Jesu de Bethlehem, a royal foundation, but the litanies imply it may have been intended for use by a woman in Kent. Its first recorded owner was John Harris of Hackington, near Canterbury, in 1540.

This is a book which could well have prompted extremes of emotion and devotion. Why it opens with blood drops on black pages I do not know; I am hoping that posing the question will in due course elicit the answer.




Knowns and unknowns Passio of St Margaret Kissing Images Textiles and Books Tall Narrow Books Egerton 1900 Journey of Unknowing

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