Allan Barton on some medieval titles of Our Lady

This woodcut image is taken from a Missal printed in 1555. It is a Missal according to the Use of Sarum, and – like many liturgical books of the sixteenth century destined for the English market – it was printed in Paris, which was then a major centre for the print trade. The Missal was printed during the reign of Mary I, at a time when the churches of Our Lady’s Dowry had been despoiled by the reforming zeal of her Protestant brother, Edward VI. After her accession the printing presses of Paris were busy as they started producing the service books that were required to reequip the ravaged parish churches of England.

These books were clearly put together quickly and, though profusely illustrated, the blocks used were quite often recycled from earlier publications. This particular woodcut of Our Lady is a good example of such recycling. The missal’s printer, William Merlin, seems to have acquired this particular woodblock second-hand from the estate of another Parisian printer, François Regnault; for Regnault used it in the printing of a Sarum Breviary in 1535. The image doesn’t appear to have originated with Regnault either, for his wood block was a copy of an image printed from a metal block first used by another Parisian printer, Thielman Kerver, in a Book of Hours of 1505. The artist who produced that original metal block is known as the ‘Master of the Apocalypse Rose of the Sainte-Chapelle’, having produced the cartoons for a rose window of the Apocalypse in the French Chapel Royal. By the time this Missal was printed in 1555, then, the image was already fifty years old.

What an extraordinary image it is; and packed-full of detail. Merlin used this block to accompany the propers for the feast of the Conception of Our Lady, a feast that was only established in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. The woodcut presents to us a vision of Our Lady standing in heaven, surrounded by the billowing clouds of the firmament. Around her a host of objects appears, each item accompanied by a scroll representing both visually and textually one of the titles given to Mary in the Middle Ages. These titles are derived primarily from the Songs of Songs and Ecclesiasticus, and together they express the medieval understanding of both the nature of Mary and her role in the economy of salvation: her virginity, beauty, purity, humility, stability, and strength.

electa ut sol – Bright as the Sun

pulchra ut luna – Beautiful as the Moon

stella maris – Star of the Sea

sicut lilium inter spinas – As a Lily among Thorns

porta cæli – Gate of Heaven

exaltata cedrus – Tall Cedar-tree

oliva speciosa – Fair Olive-tree

turris David cum propugnaculis – Tower of David with Bulwarks

plantatio rosa – Planted Rose

speculum sine macula – Stainless Mirror

virga Jesse floruit – Flower of Jesse’s Stem

puteus aquarum viventium – Well of Living Waters

fons ortorum – Fountain of the Gardens

civitas Dei – City of God

ortus conclusus – Enclosed Garden

Above Mary’s image, topping the woodcut, God the Father appears in his power and glory to bless Our Lady. Below him is a scroll bearing the words ‘tota pulchra es amica mea et macula non est in te‘ (Song of Songs, 4.7)These words condense into one sentence the meaning of all the images that surround Mary in this woodcut: ‘you are all fair, my love; there is no spot in you’. The theological issues around Mary’s Immaculate Conception was still being hotly debated when this image was produced at the beginning of the sixteenth century; but this woodcut image demonstrates that the Church was heading towards a definition of that dogma. ND

The Revd Dr Allan Barton is Chaplain to the University of Wales Trinity Saint David at Lampeter, and Curator of the University Art Collections.