Sacred vision

ST ALABAN'S PSALTER

 

No apology is necessary for sharing another picture from The St Alban’s Psalter (Edited by Jane Geddes, published by British Library at £25; reviewed last month). Its sequence of forty full-page illustrations of the life of Christ, with no accompanying text, is a masterpiece of twelfth century English art. They were designed specially for the Anglo-Saxon hermitess, Christina of Markyate.

In this scene Mary Magdalene comes and tells the eleven apostles that she has seen the risen Lord Jesus. Such depictions were rare in western art at this time, and it suggests a Byzantine influence. She has left behind her jar of ointment, which she was shown holding in the previous scene at the empty tomb.

There can be no doubting Mary’s calm authority, her separate, almost enclosed status, offering a clear vindication of a female solitary vocation. She is everything, it seems, that a twelfth century feminist might wish for. There is a confident equality, even a calm superiority to the men: she has seen what they have not, and her words carry authority. She is clearly playing the leading role in the scene.

And yet, she is not, pace twenty-first century feminists, one of the apostles. She is not numbered among them, and here they stand as a solid body of men, carrying their books of testimony, ready for their own revelation and commissioning a few hours later. Magdalene’s unique role is neither compromised nor challenged by the separate tasks of the men.

Nicholas Turner

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