Which Mary?

[Photos and minor text revisions May 2010]

As I mentioned in my review of Blanton’s Signs of Devotion, I decided that I need to follow up on the interpretation of the choir of virgins in the Benedictional of Aethelwold.

So I picked up these books from the library:

Prescott, Andrew. intro. The Benedictional of St Aethelwold: A Masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon Art: A Facsimile. The British Library, 2002.

Deshman, Robert. The Benedictional of Aethelwold. Princeton UP, 1995.

The photos below were the best I could find online (here), but are really poor compared to the 2002 facsimile.

The Prescott facsimlie is excellent! The pages even have that slightly waxy feel that I imagine the manuscripts have and the gold paint/ink looks like gold, which never really shows up well even in Deshman’s color photos. Looking at this gold ink, it is easy to see how it could have flaked off. I wonder if it made the pages rigid. Surely the ink is somewhat rigid so that bending the pages could make it flake.

Ok, so the page in question is the choir of virgins two page display. The page highlights two figures on the right page (folio 2), one in the forefront and one slightly behind her but standing out from all others. They are distinguished in three ways: they have halos rather than crowns, carry a book with their name written on it, and are both covered in gold (gold veils, books, and undertunics). The other virgins have gold crowns and gold hems on their gowns. The right hand figures in both folios look like there is some gold wash on their otter tunic, but is somehow mixed with reds. The mirror lead figure in the left folio (folio 1v) also has a gold veil and her golden book just has crosses + marked on it. If they carry a book, then it is gold.

Choir of Virgins, Benedictional of Æthelwold (Prescott, 2002)

The figure in the forefront is the one at contention, as either being Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary. The second figure is agreed by all to be St Aethelthryth (on the left). The main problem is that part of the gold on Mary’s book has flaked off so that the second identifier is illegible. It should also be noted how small the books held by Mary and Aethelthryth, meaning that any identifier must have been abbreviated. The figure to the right has a book easily 2-3 times as large as Mary’s.

Deshman shows that previous reconstructions of the text on Mary’s book appears to read: (given the reconstructions it is impossible to tell how large the spaces are)

S_a Ma_ia Ma_____n.

Westwood in 1868 called it : “S(anct)a Ma(r)ia Ma(gdale)n(a)”

Warner and Wilson in1910: “S(an)c(t)a Maria Ma(ter Christi)”

Gage engraving in 1832?: “S(an)c(t)a Maria Magdalene”

Now first of all part of the problem is that these words will not fit on the book fully spelled out, some abbreviations must have been used. Modern authors appear to be happy with follow Westwood on St. Mary Magdalene in part on the assumption that the ink may have been in better shape then. I think that is a huge assumption considering how old the book is. If that n shown by Westwood is a real reading then I would also offer: “Sta Maria Mater Virginum

I also think its relevant that Warner and Wilson went with the Virgin Mary rather than Mary Magdalene because they actually considered the rest of the book. The Virgin Mary is a major figure in the illustrations and it lacks a collect or any recognition of Mary Magdalene’s feast day. Deshman writes that “this argument does not stand scrutiny, however, since the lack of a feast for Saint Cuthbert did not prevent his inclusion as one of the three labeled confessors.”(p. 146). This also means that the Virgin Mary is not depicted among the Virgin Choir at all nor in any other of the choirs in the opening of the book. Considering how often she is depicted in the illustrations for feasts, this is very odd and some have suggested that she may have been part of one of the lost front folios (convenient!) but even if that were true, she should be in the virgin choir. There are plenty of virgins to name others as well. The left hand folio (folio 1v) is a mirror image of virgins (with all crowns) and some of them could have easily been named if the design called to honor Mary Magdalene as well as the Virgin Mary and Aethelthryth.

If we look at the other illustrations in the book we find that the Virgin Mary always has a gold veil, and usually gold cuffs and hem. The remainder of her gown is usually rose with the same star or flower pattern as the lead figure in the choir of virgins folio. You can see the pattern well on the close up of the annunciation folio below and then the gold veil, hem and cuffs is shown best on the ascension folio (though the gold is present on all the Virgin Mary illustrations). The ascension folio doesn’t have the flower/star pattern but is the same rose color. The assumption of Mary folio shown below with the blue dress is the only Marian illustration where she is not in the rose color.

Annunciation, Benedictional of Æthelwold (Prescott, 2002)

Asumption of Mary, Benedictional of Æthelwold (Prescott, 2002)

Lets look at the one Mary Magdalene we do know for sure in the Benedictional of Aethelwold:

Here is Mary Magdalene with the other women at the tomb. She really doesn’t stand out from the others. It fact its an assumption that she is there considering there are no indications of identity. Note that there is no gold on her dress or veil at all. I know the veil looks a little shiny in this picture but in the 2002 facsimile it is clear that it is not gold. (Gold appears dark in these pictures like the angel’s sleeve.) The only gold present is the round disk she holds and the censor. In fact the veil is a solid rosy color. Granted red is sometimes seen as Mary Magdalene’s color, but I’m not sure that was set by this period. I think its also notable that none of these women have a nimbus, unlike all the apostles in the Thomas folio and all the figures in the Ascension and Pentecost folios (i.e. all witnesses to the resurrection).

If we look at the benedictionals (as given by Prescott) there are a variety of prayers related to the Virgin Mary including her birth and assumption. Of the female saints there are only benedictionals for Agnes (2), Agatha, Cecelia and of course, Aethelthryth. So the only three women other than Aethelthryth and the Virgin Mary are also listed in Bede’s hymn on Aethelthryth as being virgins like Aethelthryth. I don’t think there is any room for someone like Mary Magdalene in this theological framework that prizes virginity so highly. Since the time of Gregory the Great, Mary Magdalene has been linked with the sinful woman and so could not have been promoted in reform movement that prized virginity so highly — even if Mary Magdalene had been so highly honored and cleansed/cured by Jesus.

I am really forced to conclude that the lead figure in the virgin choir was intended by the illustrator to be the Virgin Mary. Everything about the iconography and the text says so. I suppose it is possible that someone other than the illustrator labeled the figures in the illustration (as they did to Sta. Maria in the Annunciation), but here did it incorrectly. Barring someone finding more antiquarian notes about this folio that describe a more complete inscription, I think this has to be considered to be the Virgin Mary.


8 comments on “Which Mary?

  1. Michelle, this is a painstaking piece of reconstruction work and I applaud you for it. The one spot of uneasiness I had with your argument, and it may an anachronistic one, is that your suggested reading contra Deshman, “Sta Maria Mater Virginum”, doesn’t seem as likely to me because I’d expect ‘virginum’ to be terminated with a colon to signify the suspension. I realise there’s not much room, but the ambiguity of the case otherwise is a problem. Wouldn’t an expansion to virginis be more usual anyway? In which case I’d expect a mark of abbreviation over the ‘n’ if it was indeed there, but that might have gone with its letter. I do agree that it’s simpler to posit that the ‘n’ was simply never there. I find your arguments from the illustrations fairly convincing so I think I’d favour the `Deshman had letters before his eyes’ hypothesis myself.

  2. As I don’t do Latin, virginis could well be the better form. Either way it accounts for the ‘n’ suspended away from the remainder of the inscription. The Ma is probably real so it would need to be Mater ___. Or, if the person writing identities on the figures is not the same person as the illustrator, the figure could be labeled with Mary Magdalene according to the labeler’s wishes. I just can’t see Mary Magdalene being given such an honor when she is ignored in the rest of the book. As for Deshman’s argument that Cuthbert proves this is possible, I think it is more likely that a local saint like Cuthbert would appear that way rather than a biblical saint otherwise ignored in the text.

  3. It just occurred to me on the three women at the tomb lacking halos…. none of them were considered to be virgins. Traditionally, Mary Magdalene was considered to be a repentant sinner and the other two women were wives and mothers. Elizabeth isn’t given a halo in her scenes either. There isn’t an illustration for the Visitation. At the presentation of Jesus at the temple, only the man Simon has a halo but not Anna. In the scene for the birth of John the Baptist, Elizabeth lacks a halo. Sometimes the Virgin Mary lacks one also, specifically at the Nativity and the Presentation at the temple (before she was purified after giving birth?). The Annunciation (above) also lacks a halo but the nimbus is more pronounced there and highlighted by the architecture). Some of them may have a nimbus (glowing around them that could substitute for a halo) but that seems rather vague to me. None of the women surrounding Mary in the other scenes have halos either, including her Assumption where all the apostles are gathered (and haloed). So are virgins the only women in Aethelwold’s reform movement capable of having a halo?

  4. Oh now there has to be a paper in that 🙂

  5. Laura says:

    Michelle, have you done anything more with this work? I am interested in incorporating it into my dissertation in some way. Contact me if you’d like to follow up. Thanks – Laura Miles (Yale English PhD ’11)

    • Michelle says:


      It will partially factor into a Kzoo presentation I’ll be giving this May. If you email me (email above) we can talk more about it off the blog.


      • Jessica says:

        Does anybody know what the appropriate chapter, verses of the applicable Gospels in the New Testament these relate to?
        Thanks, -Jessica

Comments are closed.