Sacred vision

St Martin - the Alexis Master

This full page illustration from the St Alban's Psalter (c. 1130) by the Alexis Master was designed for prayerful meditation. With no accompanying words nor explanation, it relies on the knowledge of the viewer; but by its careful arrangement of known and recognized elements it presents a new perspective on a well-known story

What this teaches is the sacramental quality of almsgiving. In the lower picture, St Martin the soldier encounters the naked beggar on his journey and with his sword cuts his cloak in two, so as to share it with his brother in need. In the picture above, Martin is asleep in bed. In his dream, he sees the Lord Jesus enthroned in heaven wearing the same cloak that he gave to the beggar.

The painting is strong, and apart from the robust ornamental border free of decorative detail. The characters, with their piercing eyes, interact in a simple and vivid manner. With the possible exception of the two angels, there are no distractions. We have a clear, dramatic and spiritual encounter.

Here is portrayed the sacramental quality of acts of mercy. For someone unable to attend Mass every day (such as the solitary female religious for whom this psalter may have been devised) this illumination offers the assurance that deeds of mercy done 'to one of the least of my brothers' [Matthew 25.40] are done directly to the Lord Jesus himself. Christ is sacramentally present not only in the Mass (this we know) but also to those who minister to him in the simple, direct acts of giving.

Anthony Saville

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