Academic journal article Folklore

A Flowering Cross in the Robert De Lindesey Psalter C. 1220-1222(1)

Academic journal article Folklore

A Flowering Cross in the Robert De Lindesey Psalter C. 1220-1222(1)

Article excerpt

A most unusual illuminated miniature of a cross which flowered at the moment of Christ's death appeared as part of a crucifixion scene in the prefatory circle of a psalter made for Robert de Lindesey, Abbot of Peterborough from 1214-22 (Morgan 1982, 95). That Christ is dead is shown by the wound in his side and by his bowed head. This note is concerned with the possible origin of such a profound image in the early-thirteenth century.

In the crucifixion scene on f35v (Figure 1), the figure of Christ on the cross is shown in the traditional position between Our Lady on his right and St John on his left side. Emblems of the sun and moon, both with faces angled towards the cross, are shown above the horizontal limb of the cross. A three-layered frame, surrounded by a narrow green line, supports a medallion at each corner containing, clockwise from left to right, an image of Ecclesia (holding a chalice and upright banner, with her head held erect), Synagogue (with the Mosaic tablets of the Law and a broken pennant, with a bowed head), Moses (with horns, holding a book) and St Peter (with a book and the Keys of the Kingdom). Semicircular medallions on both sides contain unidentified persons, possibly disciples.


Sun, moon and human figures are placed against an incised gold background of great delicacy of design. Neither Our Lady nor St John are standing on a ground; both figures lean towards the cross but occupy mainly the outer half of the space allotted to them suggesting a certain reticence in drawing too close to the figure of Christ. Their stance is graceful, their expressions sad but apprehensive. Christ's figure, which is pitifully thin, is supple and full of pathos with blood flowing from wounds in his hands, feet and side. His head is bowed in death.(2)

Much of this iconography had been well-established in manuscript illumination, at least since the late-tenth century.(3) However, in other surviving manuscripts, the cross had been illustrated as being made of felled tree trunks but without giving the impression of growth. In the de Lindesey image the usual wooden cross is replaced in toto by horizontal and vertical green stems giving rise to two rows of alternate red and white, stylised, trilobed flowers. The cross is planted in three swirls of light brown earth. This colour arrangement, set against a vivid blue background, gives a three-dimensional impression of immediacy.

Usually, crosses in illuminated manuscripts were depicted as being made of bare planks, though some were formed of two tree trunks with lopped branches or were decorated along the free edges by small sprouts or were painted green.(4) Sometimes, the flat surface was engraved with a floral design; in the Berthold and slightly later Hainricus-Sacrista Sacramentaries, illuminated in Weingarten c. 1217, progression from an overall inert design to one of approximate foliage, restricted to the cross, can be seen (Figures 2 & 3). Hanns Swarzenski thought that these crosses and the Robert de Lindesey cross may have been derived from niello work but this assessment overlooks the dynamic quality of the Lindesey image which is lacking in the essentially two-dimensional treatment of the other works (Swarzenski 1943, 52).


It is possible that the imaginative move towards a living plant may have been part of a general interest at that time in portraying indigenous flowers rather than the acanthus leaves of antiquity. Joan Evans has suggested that hedgerow flowers or herbs and other plants that were grown for use in a monastery garden may have been the inspiration for such a change (Evans 1931, 41). No attempt has been made here, nor in another extant work by this artist,(5) to depict actual flowers, but the choice of two colours for the tri-lobed component of the plant against a green background, is a good indication that blossoming was intended. …

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