departure of Alexis
The Spiritual Battle: a discourse
The significance of the text
The pictures explained
The Dove and Geoffrey
The theme of St Alexis’ life has been seen as a parallel for Christina’s own, particularly because Alexis dramatically renounces his marriage by the bedside on his wedding night, in order to become a hermit. His cult at St Albans seems to have been relatively short lived because his feast only appears once, in the Egerton calendar, and once in the St Albans Psalter litany. However his story must have been frequently discussed in Christina and Geoffrey’s day. His cult was introduced by Abbot Richard and his chapel in the abbey had recently been dedicated by Bishop Ranulf Flambard of Durham. The dedication took place between 1099 and 1119 (GA, 118). It is quite possible that Christina was introduced to the story of Alexis by Bishop Flambard himself, on one of his conjugal visits to Christina’s aunt’s household (Talbot, 1998, 41-2). From Christina’s account, one may picture Flambard, feasting with a few flagons of ale in the home of his mistress, flanked by his illegitimate children and Autti’s family including the delectable Christina, perhaps recounting his recent task of dedicating the chapel at St Albans.
Most illustrations of Alexis’ life concentrate on the later part of his story, particularly his family’s lack of recognition and his incarceration under the stairs (AP, 135-140). So, for this book, a deliberate choice has been made to place the grieving, bereft bride centre stage, flanked by tender scenes of her departing love.
Captions are necessary to explain the bride’s importance in these scenes, because she remains mute at this point in the Chanson (lines 61-75). Scribe 3 has no choice about the rather harsh words with which Alexis addresses his stunned bride in the poem ‘Hearken to me, maiden’ (line 66), but in the caption he is free to make a more personal and sympathetic address. Whereas the other captions employ the third person, the direct vocative address is used for ‘O blessed bride, forever bound to grief’. The bride, pivotal in the picture, plays a smaller part in the poem, always following Alexis’ father and mother. She does not even have a name; although she laments poignantly (lines 468-95), her eternal grief is nothing compared to that of Alexis’ mother.
Pächt understood the picture as a parallel for Christina’s life: the chaste wedding night and departure for an ascetic life far from home superficially fit her circumstances (AP, 136). However, evidence on every level suggests the entire insertion of the Alexis quire was Abbot Geoffrey’s idea, and reflects his relationship with Christina rather than her own preferences. He too left his home and found a new life serving God in a foreign land. He sustained a lifelong, pure and spiritually enlightened relationship with Christina, where many previous men in her life had been overcome by her physical attractions. Both Geoffrey and Alexis gave away their riches to the poor (lines 91-7; Talbot, 1998,150-1)
Alexis was, after all, a continental male cult figure recently adopted by St Albans Abbey whereas St Cecilia was the female equivalent, familiar to Anglo-Saxons and invoked by Christina. The poem certainly does not fit Christina’s life in detail. Alexis complied with his father’s wish for the marriage and enjoyed a splendid wedding; Christina fought all the way. Alexis, over the untouched wedding bed, tenderly hands his wife gifts symbolising fidelity and she pines for ever like a turtle dove after he departs; Christina sat her husband firmly down on the bed and lectured him about the virtuous marriage not of Alexis but (more naturally) of St Cecilia. She made desperate attempts to escape, even jumping out of the window. She certainly did not weep for her spouse. The prologue below mentions those ‘who take delight in virginal marriage’; her unconsummated marriage to Burhred was far from delightful (Talbot, 1998, 44-55). All these features suggest that the choice of illustration may have a different meaning.
The entire codicological evidence of this quire (vellum, ruling, scribe, ornament, contents, language) indicates that it was compiled as a separate project, after the psalter itself. And yet, it too was a gift from Geoffrey to Christina. Historical events may explain the unusual iconography of the illustration and explain why the distraught grieving woman is the centre of the composition.
In 1136 Geoffrey was summoned to Rome and he went to consult Christina about the journey. ‘He admitted his sadness and shed tears as proof of his grief.’ Christina’s ‘countenance was bathed with tears, her heart torn with sighs’ and she prepared gifts for his departure (the cosy, personally- stitched undergarments, Talbot, 1998, 161). This was indeed a chaste and sorrowful parting, with gifts. A second visit to Rome, proposed in 1139, met with equal resistance from Christina, who once more summoned up the powers of divine visions to underline her anxiety. Her prayers to prevent the journeys succeeded because ‘she knew how to love to supreme advantage’, a phrase which even suggests emotional blackmail (Talbot, 1998, 164-5). As it turned out, Christina’s divine prescience and a change of events prevented Geoffrey’s journeys altogether (Talbot, 1998, 160-3).
Alexis was dead in Rome when the pope saw him; Geoffrey was proposing to see the pope in Rome. The bride experiences her noblest moment when, after years of grieving for her absent love, she realises that true fulfilment is found in loving God and as a reward she is united with Alexis in heaven (lines 493-5, 606-610 ; Schmolke-Hasselman,1977,311). The poem thus offers consolation for the abandoned bride and perhaps a gentle reminder for Christina to release Geoffrey to perform his duties with less emotional pressure. The titles beatus/beata in the captions indicate that the couple achieve beatitude in the after life.
While Christina was possessive about Geoffrey, fretting over every detail of his life (Talbot, 1998, 192-3) and wanting him to remain nearby, he was also jealous and possessive about her. He noticed how, even when he was providing her with material assistance, she would simply ignore him while she communed with God. He commented, almost petulantly, ‘You fail to realise that I am present’(Talbot, 1998, 154-5). Thus, he was not a man to glorify her failed and turbulent marriage to Burhred, but was more interested in his own successful and chaste relationship with her. Theirs was the tested and faithful love illustrated in the picture, which offered eternal union in heaven.
If either of these journey episodes, in 1136 or 1139, prompted the Chanson, possibly as a ‘final gift’, then they may serve to date at least the Chanson pages, if not the entire quire.
If the Alexis Chanson was specially made as a gift to Christina, it is not clear how much of it she could understand. If she could not read the words, she may have been familiar with the story through performances, which the prologue indicates with ‘we have heard readings and song’. Great efforts are expended to make the French words arresting by using coloured inks, but the captions which emphasise the grieving bride on this page are in Latin. The text by Pope Gregory which follows the Chanson (p68) is written twice, in both Latin and French, to make sure it is fully understood, perhaps as a teaching exercise.
These two pages are probably the most important and impenetrable in the whole book. They throw up a wide range of questions which are explored here, but satisfactory answers are harder to find. It is clear that to the scribe or author, the aesthetic effect of his noble introduction to the psalms was less important than the intense passage of text which wraps itself untidily around the illustrations. The passage itself is convoluted, making allusions which were probably understood by the recipient but which are now hard to grasp. And lastly, the author speaks with his own voice, directing his words to a single reader, and producing a classic passage on the meaning of art to a medieval audience. (This area of the psalter has received relatively little critical study so far, and many of the ideas which follow are thanks to the notes by Christopher Hohler).
Problems with the lay out are discussed in the commentary for pp 71-72. The regularity and control displayed in the main part of the psalter emphasise the improvised nature of these two pages. If a tidy model lay behind the psalter itself, then this introduction was a spontaneous change of plan. This uncertainty about the beginning of the psalms carries on to the following bifolio (pp73, 74, 91, 92) which was removed and replaced. However, it should be noted that even in the classic illustrated psalters, Utrecht and Eadwine, the beginning is tentative and does not follow the regular pattern for the rest of the book (van der Horst, 1996, 43-4,57; Heslop, 1992, 43-9).
The regular pattern for the St Albans Psalter requires an historiated initial illustrating words of the adjacent psalm, accompanied by a title containing words lifted from the psalm, which usually provides the key to the picture. The title was sometimes written into the initial itself as a caption to a book. It is obvious that all the titles were written after both the text and painting, by Scribe 3, the writer of pp71-2.
A long tradition made the first initial, B, a stately frontispiece, often on its own, sometimes incorporating David as the psalmist (Steger, 1961, 98-103). On p72 the visual messages are more diffuse because the design of inspired psalmist is deliberately tied in to that of the fighting horsemen. Moreover, the horsemen are placed in the margin, blank space which is normally respected in this book. The trimming shaves off part of the drawing, and the text on p71. Space is also tight on p71 where the framed illustration is squeezed to one side in order to fit in the discourse. Further diffusion is caused by the caption which does not come from the psalm at all, but brings in a new idea, referring to David’s prophesy of the Incarnation: ‘The blessed psalmist David, whom God has chosen, has gushed forth the annunciation of the Holy Spirit’. These words were apparently written at the end of the discourse but were erased, presumably because they duplicated the rubric in the little book (AP, 148,n4. The erased words are no longer legible). It was essential for the horsemen to be linked visually to the psalmist on p72, because on p71 at the start of the discourse, the writer has to remind the reader that the prompt for his text is to be found on the following page. This visual link must provide one clue to the meaning of the passage, namely that David’s revelation fortifies the spiritual warrior in the struggle between good and evil.
The text falls into two sections: the spiritual battle; and the meaning of the Beatus initial. Openshaw (1993, 17-38) points out that in earlier psalters illustrations of the spiritual battle provide a key interpretation for the psalms. Full page pictures of scenes like David and Goliath, Christ’s temptation, the Harrowing of Hell show the triumph of Good over Evil (in the Southampton Psalter, Cambridge, St John’s College MS C.9; B.L. Cotton Tiberius C.VI). By contrast in the St Albans Psalter, the ‘battle with the Devil is not an overt aspect of the extensive pictorial cycle’, the two little warriors are secular and they are confined to a margin (Openshaw, 1993, 37).
The metaphor of a Christian soldier taking up arms against evil is expressed by St Paul (Ephesians 6:13-17): the armour of God, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit; (1 Thessalonians 5:8): the breastplate of faith and love, the helmet, the hope of salvation. The theme of spiritual battle is effusively developed by St Anselm in his Similes (AP, 150; Southern, 1969, 97-102). For him, the metaphor of the horse as a charger against the devil occupies several pages. Although the secular horsemen are described as ‘leaders’ and ‘these two warriors’, they are also called ‘holy figures, armed in a manly spirit’. The discourse emphasises that this battle is undertaken by monastics, ‘Upon that war and divine inheritance there meditate, by day and night, good people of the cloister’. The theme of hermits fighting the battle against evil is developed by Peter Damian, in a chapter entitled ‘Praise for eremitical life’. He refers to the hermit’s cell as a field of divine war, a spiritual arena. A copy of his book was written at St Albans at the same time as the psalter (Oxford, Christchurch 115, ff22-3; AP, 150). Christina herself, helped by the psalms, grappled with the devil in her cell while she hid at Flamstead. ‘Her peaceful existence irritated the devil: her reading and singing of the psalms by day and night were a torment to him. And so to terrify the reverend handmaid of Christ toads invaded her cell to distract her attention by all kinds of ugliness from God’s beauty’ (Talbot, 1998, 98-9).
The struggle culminates in the last battle, redolent with phrases from Revelation and Proverbs. Sentiments become apocalyptic, describing the divine battle between church and antichrist, the blood of the holy martyrs, the book of life, the two witnesses and victims of the battle (Revelation 20:8, 20:12, 17:6, 11:3-8). However where ‘it is written about wisdom’ remains elusive. Wisdom is personified as a woman in Proverbs1:20 but as a queen on a white warhorse (dextrarium) she appears to mingle with the rider of the Apocalypse. The white horse in Revelation (19:11-16) is ridden by a man who was called Faithful and True, wearing many crowns and named The Word of God. He smites the nations as Wisdom smites ‘the lost army’. The attributes of Wisdom in Proverbs 9 are close to those of the horseman: faithful and true. The Word of God (John 1) was there before the Creation, like Wisdom (Proverbs 9:22-32). The shout at the end of the last battle is mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 4:16. All the sentences and phrases where godliness and evil are balanced as opposing pairs reflect the structure of exhortations in Proverbs where virtue and vice are contrasted in many verses (eg Proverbs 10).
Sentences switch, in a sometimes arbitrary way, between the impersonal ’he’ and ‘they’, to ‘we’ and eventually ‘I’. The discourse begins as a rather theoretical description of the horsemen, and addresses a generically masculine viewer, ‘whoever wishes to be a son of God’. The picture ‘which he here observes drawn out’ refers equally to the writer and viewer. It is significant that the B and horsemen were inserted before the surrounding script, so that the scribe is looking at them while he writes (see Commentary). A possible implication is that the writer is also the author, observing the picture in the present tense. The tone quickly changes to something shared directly by the author and reader. The author teams up with the reader: we religious are doing the right thing while those outside are heading for perdition. ‘And just as they are puffed up, bodily, with pride and malice, likewise we must be tamed, spiritually, in humility and divine blessing. Just as they are given over, bodily, to anger and evident madness, so must we be in peace and wisdom, spiritually.’ The writer and reader are in the battle together: ‘..we likewise, ..with the eyes of the heart must always keep watch with all virtue against our adversary who is constantly lying in wait to ambush us’. ‘Our adversary wishes and reckons to rain down upon our head every evil that arises in their struggle’. ‘Unless we kill our invisible adversary, we ourselves shall be killed.’
The communication becomes more intimate. Earlier, in the Alexis prologue, the writer has experienced a performance of the Chanson with the reader, ‘Here begins the pleasant song and pious recital about that noble lord named Eufemien and the life of his blessed son about whom we have heard readings and song.’ At this point it is indicated that the discourse had apparently been a subject of verbal discussion between the writer and reader:
The ‘verse which shall be written’ presumably refers to the title which was about to be penned at the conclusion of the page, and was then repeated as a caption in David’s book. The words of the caption are ‘The blessed psalmist David, whom God has chosen, has gushed forth the annunciation of the Holy Spirit’. However, the word ‘versus’ is also used by the author at the start of the discourse, ‘This verse speaks of the leaders’. Pächt assumed that a short title, possibly written in a different colour had been trimmed from the top of the page (AP, 151). However, the entire discourse is written in arresting colours and serves as an extended versus to the fighting horsemen.
Topics for discussion shared by the reader and writer thus covered spiritual war, heavenly love, and David prophesying the Incarnation. The sentence is couched in very defensive terms. This discussion was seemingly to rebut criticism from gossip mongers. Knowing the connection which this book has with Christina and Geoffrey, this rather tortuous passage seems to reflect the scandalised murmurings which their companionship provoked. Christina’s Life refers to the jealous rumours with similar words, borrowed from Horace: her intimacy with Geoffrey did not happen ‘without the wagging of spiteful tongues’ (‘Nec sine multorum livido dente’, Talbot 1998, 148-9; Horace, Epodes, 5.47). Gossips called her a dreamer, seducer of souls, worldly-wise business woman, a loose woman attracted to the abbot by earthly love, while Geoffrey was also a seducer (Talbot, 1998, 172-5; Koopmans, 2000, 681-5). The Gesta Abbatum provides a view from the abbey: ‘so great was the affection of mutual charity between them that, unless the whole multitude had known how holy both were, it may be that evil suspicion would have arisen from so great love’ (‘tantaque fuit inter eos mutuae caritatis affectio, ut nisi notissima fuisset toti vulgo sanctitas utriusque, fortassis orta fuisset de tanta dilectione mala suscipio’ GA, 105)
If malicious people should enquire what was going on between the abbot and anchoress, then these pages would provide justification, perhaps even an alibi. Although their minds were no doubt focussed on spiritual issues, Christina’s Life recalls their intellectual moments at a high emotional key. ‘Who shall describe the longings, the sighs, the tears they shed as they sat and discussed heavenly matters? Who shall put into words how they despised the transitory, how they yearned for the everlasting?’(Talbot, 1998, 57). Christopher Hohler (notes) engagingly conjures up the scene of Geoffrey spending hours alone with Christina in her cell, leaning on her shoulder, discussing spiritual and theological issues raised by the illustrations in the psalter, pointing to each picture in turn. Those outside, perhaps hearing the tears and sighs, might well jump to scandalous conclusions, but the psalter survives as evidence of the spiritual sincerity expressed by this introductory passage.
The writer is at pains to explain that the pictures have a specific meaning. The little horsemen represent the fight for justice and the reader engages in the fight by looking at the image:
The writer explains how he wanted David to be drawn, in the appearance of a king.
According to Pächt , Scribe 3 was both the author of this passage and the artist, the Alexis Master himself (AP, 137,149). On the contrary, the sentence suggests rather a rumination by the author, explaining to the artist how the king should be drawn. The scribe could not write ‘the blessed annunciation’ into the psalter until the picture was complete.
In the final passage, the explanation shifts from a literal description of the objects to a deeper understanding of their allegorical meaning.
David’s lyre is the voice of the church and the book of psalms itself contains the divine prediction of the Incarnation. To claim that the psalms sow sweetness in the heart of the reader requires a selective emphasis of their words. A great number of the psalms are bloodthirsty, violent and vengeful, calling for mercy on the true believer and retribution on all evil doers and the enemy. However, it is a notable feature of the psalter initials which follow that they accentuate positive aspects of the creation. They do not dwell on confession, punishment, remorse and contrition (Haney, 2002, 102-3). Christina would be included among those spiritual people who dearly loved the psalter (Talbot, 1998, 98-99) and undoubtedly Geoffrey rejoiced in the sweetness of her heart, in his ‘beloved’ (GA, 103).
The words of this title are strung together by the author of the discourse. They are not extracted from the adjacent psalm, as was normally the case. The choice of words may therefore be significant. The verb eructare basically means to vomit or disgorge but can be applied to speech in the sense of an eruption of words, here translated as ‘gushed forth’. Anyone familiar with the psalms would associate it with the start of psalm 44, My heart has gushed forth a good word. This psalm contains many words, phrases and concepts which are found in the preceding discourse: with sword and arrow, truth and justice shall prevail; the only queen in the psalms is mentioned here, and she is admired for her beauty; the actions of speaking and writing find the memorable phrase My tongue is the pen of a scribe who writes swiftly. In addition, this psalm was thought to have been written for the marriage of Ahab and Jezebel and verses from it are used for feasts of Our Lady and other virgin saints (Christopher Hohler, Notes).
The same verb is
used in psalm 18, Day to day utters speech (Dies diei eructat verbum),
also in association with marriage. The title of this psalm is a ‘bridegroom
coming out of his marriage chamber’. Christ was described as
the bridegroom (John 3:29) and the bride-chamber symbolises the Virgin’s
womb (Augustine, PL, xxxvi, 155). Hence the bridegroom coming
out of the marriage chamber refers to Christ’s entry into the world
(AP, 213). Moreover, this psalm was already in the mind of the
artist or patron when the Alexis
scene was painted on p57 because the position of Christ
leaving his marriage chamber on p104, psalm 18 is so similar to Alexis
These two allusions to marriage and virginity, conjured up by the word eructavit and its association with psalms 44 and 18, carry on the theme begun with the Chanson.
Psalm 1, which should supply the title theme, is overlooked in favour of psalm 2. This psalm underlay David’s status as prophet of Christ’s coming because he refers to the Son of God, the anointed one (Christ). The words of Psalm 2:7 You are my son are paralleled in Matthew 3:16-17 This is my beloved son, when the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends upon Christ at his baptism.
The dove thus indicates both David and Christ as the chosen one (elegit), blessed (beatus) by the Holy Spirit. The concept of the Chosen One both introduces and concludes the Alexis quire, and in each case the words are extraneous to their context, that is, they are deliberately introduced by the author. The Chanson neither refers to Alexis as the chosen one nor mentions the dove but the Latin title above his picture refers to him as ‘Blessed Alexis, chosen youth’ ‘Beatus Alesis, puer electus’, and the dove appears above him. In his first portrait (p417) David simply plays his rebeck, surrounded by other musicians. At the end of the miniature sequence, his image on p56 is altogether more numinous. Although he still plays his rebeck, he is receiving inspiration from the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove, and this David the shepherd is pointedly sitting in judgement above a sheep and a goat. David on p72 goes one stage further: he still plays his instrument but he is holding the very book which the huge flapping dove (more like a goose, who tramples on his hair) inspires him to write.
If designation by a dove applied to David, Alexis and Christ, it also applied to Geoffrey, under most dramatic circumstances. The abbot sometimes felt excluded by Christina’s all-absorbing contact with God, to such an extent that she often ignored Geoffrey when he was in the room with her. Christina wished Geoffrey could be sure of his salvation by some divine sign, and she therefore ‘stormed God in prayer’. In the following vision
Clearly this episode had an enormous spiritual impact on both Geoffrey and Christina, for it was used to illustrate the initial of the litany (p403). Geoffrey is the largest and most active figure in this initial, almost overshadowing in his bustling brightness the key motionless figures of Christina and the Trinity. Moreover, an exact detail was essential for the final image: the dove had been drawn flying over the Father and Son, but the painter was instructed to depict it at rest, as the vision recounts (Peter Kidd, pers. comm.). Ultimately the cell at Markyate was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, perhaps in respect of this moment when the two humans made contact with the Divine together. It seems to have been a vivid turning point for Geoffrey, changing his former materialistic nature to one charged with spiritual grace.
The following observations may be guilty of reading too much into the above evidence but they propose a link between several puzzling aspects of the book. The analysis of the initials suggests that the psalms began in a ‘gender neutral’ way, perhaps intended for use at St Albans, or even for Geoffrey himself. At some point around psalm 105, Christina became the intended recipient and she is illustrated introducing the monks of St Albans to Christ and asking for his mercy (Parce tuis queso monachis clementia IHY). This picture closely reflects Christina in the vision, introducing Geoffrey to Christ and pleading for mercy. It may be that this vision, which granted him the redemption he sought, actually inspired Geoffrey to give the book to Christina. In that case, the former frontispiece of David the musician (p417) became irrelevant as Geoffrey became inspired to direct the project in a more personal way. The new David (p56) is inspired by the dove, and on the Beatus page (p72) the dove is shown flapping alarmingly around his head just as it did in the vision.
Moreover on p72, David holds the book with the words written by Scribe 3, demonstrating the direct link between the flapping dove and the production of this very psalter. It was perhaps in response to the vision that Geoffrey wished to scrap the first version of Beatus vir and replace it with this highly personal but subtly coded image and title. It has been suggested above that Geoffrey may have in some ways identified himself with Alexis. In that case, the additional detail of Alexis the Chosen One, designated by the dove, also ties the saint to Geoffrey.
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