The Baptism, from The Benedictional of St Æthelwold by The Baptism, from The Benedictional of St Æthelwold

Unknown English artist

The Baptism, from The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, 963–84, Illuminated manuscript, 290 x 225 mm, The British Library, London, Add MS 49598, fol. 25r., © The British Library Board (Add MS 49598, fol. 25)

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Making (a) Way

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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.


References

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


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