Art, Exhibitions and Installations, Manuscripts and Books

An Illuminated Christmas

The Nativity in the St. Albans Psalter / Alexis Master

The Nativity in the St. Albans Psalter, 1130, Alexis Master. Tempera and gold on parchment, 12 3/16 x 8 5/8 in. Dombibliothek Hildesheim

The St. Albans Psalter is one of the most luxurious books created in medieval Europe—and within it, the most opulent set of pages is the so-called “Picture Cycle,” 40 full-page paintings in gold and jewel tones depicting the events of Christ’s birth, life, and death.

In the words of curator Kristen Collins, co-curator of the exhibition Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister, these illuminations “functioned as a symbolic bridge” to the Psalms, which follow them in the book. They also acted as aids to private devotion, prompting the reader to recite prayers or recall sacred texts, such as the Gospels.

Detail of Christ and Mary from the Nativity in the St. Albans Psalter / Alexis Master

The graceful nativity scene shown above has been on view at the Getty Center since November 26, when the pages of the Psalter were rotated to present fresh images for visitors returning to the exhibition. The tiny swaddled Christ Child is the center of the image, but is easy to miss at first (do you see him?). He is separated from Mary and Joseph by a baldachin, a columned canopy reminiscent of those that topped altars in medieval churches. He and a blessing angel occupying a heavenly blue zone, separate from his parents’ earthly purple and green. He is sacred, protected, yet small and vulnerable.

No one knows for sure who originally owned the St. Albans Psalter, though evidence points to medieval holy woman Christina of Marykate. She came to St. Albans Abbey to hide away from a detested arranged marriage and became friend and advisor to its abbot, Geoffrey Gorron, who may have commissioned the book as a gift for her. It’s tempting to picture Christina holding the psalter, precious then and even more so now, and being moved by this image on a Christmas long past.

Installation of The Nativity in the St. Albans Psalter, 1130, Alexis Master. Tempera and gold on parchment, 12 3/16 x 8 5/8 in. Dombibliothek Hildesheim

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      I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower—and a troop of tidy, happy villages please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

      Marianne looked with amazement at Edward, with compassion at her sister. Elinor only laughed.

      —Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, published on October 30, 1811

      Wooded Landscape by Paulus Lieder and Landscape with a Bare Tree and a Ploughman by Leon Bonvin, The J. Paul Getty Museum; Fantastic Oak Tree in the Woods, Carl Wilhelm Kolbe the Elder, The Getty Research Institute

      10/30/14

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