This illumination is from the celebrated Benedictional of St Æthelwold, produced at Winchester or Thorney for the personal use of the bishop by the scribe Godeman.
Godeman describes how Æthelwold, ‘whom the Lord had made patron of Winchester’, commanded that the book should have ‘many frames well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with many beautiful colours and with gold’ (fol. 4v–5).
This illumination confirms that description, with its shimmering gold leaf, vibrant colours, exuberant imagery, and flowing lines. Its subject recalls John 1:32–33 in which the Baptist describes how he saw the Holy Spirit descend ‘as a dove’ and come to rest on Christ. The other three Gospels make plain that this descent took place during the baptism of Christ.
As often in this scene, angels wait upon Christ with towels or perhaps robes. John is shown dressed in animal skin (a typical interpretation of Mark 1:6 and Matthew 3:4’s references to ‘camel hair’, and an effective visual shorthand for signalling the identity of this desert-dwelling saint). He is touching Christ with his right hand—and this, as we shall see, is important—while his raised left hand displays its open palm. The Baptism was celebrated on the feast of the Epiphany in addition to the coming of the Magi, and in the Benedictional this illumination precedes the benediction for the Epiphany. (The image before it—fol. 24v—is of the Magi.)
The horned figure on the left in the posture of a river god probably represents Moses (Lester 1973: 32–33). As the embodiment of the Old Law that was being replaced by the New, in Christ, he is planted firmly on the left bank of the Jordan, whose waters he pours out.
Moses, we recall, never got to cross this river (Deuteronomy 3:23–29). Yet he was vouchsafed a vision of God (Exodus 33:11; 34:5–7). The Baptist too sees the divine mysteries: ‘I saw the Spirit descend…’ (John 1:32); ‘I have seen … that this is the Son of God’ (v.33). And here we see the Spirit in the form of a dove descending on Christ.
Lester, G.A. 1973. ‘A Possible Early Occurrence of Moses with horns in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold’, Scriptorium, 27: 1
McDonagh, Melanie. 2001. ‘Devotion to St John the Baptist in England in the Middle Ages’, PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge
32And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
35 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; 36and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.