St Thomas Receiving the Virgin Mary’s Girdle at her Assumption
Church of the Assumption of St Mary the Virgin, Beckley, Oxfordshire; 1325–50; h 0.56m, w 0.46m.
This quadrilobed tracery light is but half a meter square, yet speaks volumes about the practice of religion at the parish church of Beckley, Oxfordshire, in the first half of the fourteenth century. It is from the tracery of the east window there (I A2), dated on stylistic grounds to the second quarter of the century, and is the second of two surviving panels from the church that depict the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. However, while the other panel is conventional, this one is notable for its idiosyncrasy. The scene depicts the Virgin handing down her girdle to St Thomas the Apostle as she is bodily transported to heaven by four angels, who hoist her reclining figure up in a cloth. Two of these angels support her weight from below and are nestled into the horizontal lobes of the light, their wings merging with the decorative border of the panel; the other two rise into the upper lobe, clutching at the corners of the bundled cloth. Above, the hand of God reaches down in blessing, transcending the boundary between heaven and earth in a series of wavy lines. The groundline is suggested by the monolith of flecked marble that is Mary’s empty tomb. In front of this monument, the nimbed Apostle extends both hands before him to receive the gift of the girdle. The tilt of his head lends a three-quarter view to what is otherwise a profile figure. The same is true of the angels who turn their faces towards the viewer while their bodies remain in profile. Only Mary twists her upper body into a frontal alignment as she reaches down from the cradle of her mantle.
The restoration diagram published in Peter Newton’s CVMA volume on Oxfordshire identifies the majority of the glass as either post-medieval or re-used medieval glass. Working upwards, the lip and interior of the tomb are constituted of re-used medieval glass, while the red background and ornamental borders are of modern manufacture. The girdle too, along with the portion of the carrying cloth that sweeps across the front of the Virgin’s body and the robes of the two uppermost angels, are composed of post-medieval glass. The right-hand angel and the hands of the one on the left, as well as the hand of God (and the clouds from which it emerges), are all constructed from medieval glass alien to this panel. The decorative borders, however, replicate the original design preserved in two other tracery lights of the same date depicting the Coronation of the Virgin (Fig. 1) and the standing figure of St Edmund (Fig. 2). The red background, although here enlivened by white vine scroll, is present in the Coronation of the Virgin. Newton compared this canny restoration work, which probably took place in c.1895, to that of Caldwell & Son of Canterbury.
While the quantity of medieval glass surviving in its original position is therefore limited, it is nonetheless sufficient to assure the key features of the composition. The original glass still extant confirms the structure and content of the scene: St Thomas, in front of the tomb, occupies the lower portion of the scene. Directly above him, at the neck of the upper lobe, hangs the recumbent Virgin. Her extended arm with clutching hand occupies the centre of the light. To the left is the body of a supporting angel, which may well have been mirrored by another on the right. A further two angelic figures certainly supported the weight of the Virgin from above, as witnessed by the survival of their heads and hands in the upper lobe.
The other panel of the Assumption of the Virgin at Beckley, dated to the early years of the century on the basis of style, has faired much better (Fig. 3), with only the skirt of the Virgin’s robe and the heads of two angels and a wing restored. In contrast to the composition just described, which is defined by dynamic movement, this one is static and hieratic. It depicts the bodily ascension of the Virgin with her hands clasped in prayer upon her chest. This time she is graced by a halo and surrounded by a mandorla, which is lifted up by four angels and censed by a further two. A line of symmetry can be drawn along the vertical axis of the panel, and the figure of the Virgin is marked out from the peripheral angelic ones by a ruby background and the Virgin’s frontal pose, as she occupies the central ground. This is the usual iconography of the Assumption of the Virgin in the period.
The gift of the girdle at the Assumption is unusual. Newton identifies seven examples produced in England across a range of media, suggesting that interest in the iconography in England during the late thirteenth and first half of the fourteenth centuries may have been stimulated by the arrival of a relic of the Virgin’s belt at Westminster Abbey. A similar relic of the Virgin’s girdle in Prato, Tuscany, has been shown to have inspired representations of the Madonna del Parto of the fourteenth century, in which a standing figure of the pregnant Virgin Mary wears a sash tied and knotted above her prominent belly. In fact, the girdle of the Virgin Mary features in a relatively late account of the Assumption that appears first in the East, attaining currency in the West by the fourteenth century. It expands on an earlier account, narrating that while the other Apostles were miraculously transported to the Virgin’s deathbed to witness her death and conduct her funeral, Thomas was absent, and that he alone witnessed her Assumption.
Thomas was suddenly brought to the Mount of Olives and saw the holy body being taken up, and cried out to Mary: ‘Make thy servant glad by thy mercy, for now thou goest to heaven’. And the girdle with which the apostles had girt the body was thrown down to him; he took it and went to the valley of Josaphat. When he had greeted the apostles, Peter said: ‘Thou wast always unbelieving, and so the Lord hath not suffered thee to be at his mother’s burial.’ He smote his breast and said: ‘I know it and ask pardon of you all,’ and they all prayed for him. Then he said: ‘Where have ye laid her body?’ and they pointed to the sepulchre. But he said: ‘The holy body is not there.’ Peter said: ‘Formerly you would not believe in the resurrection of the Lord before you touched him: how should you believe us?’ Thomas went on saying: ‘It is not here.’ Then in anger they went and took away the stone, and the body was not there; and they knew not what to say, being vanquished by Thomas’s words. Then Thomas told them how he had been saying mass in India (and he still had on his priestly vestments), how he had been brought to the Mount of Olives and seen the ascension of Mary and she had given him her girdle and he showed it. They all rejoiced and asked his pardon, and he blessed them and said: Behold how good and pleasant a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity.
The text is written in the voice of St Joseph of Arimathea (‘I am that Joseph who laid the body of the Lord in my tomb.’). However, the putative author is probably a rhetorical device. The elaboration of the account to include the episode of Thomas’s receipt of the girdle (like the Madonna del Parto) has been connected with the relic of the Santa Cintola, acquired by the church of Santo Stefano, Prato, at the end of the twelfth-century and certainly documented there in the 1270s. The relic coincides with the popularization of this version of Mary’s Assumption account in the West. Brendan Cassidy (see Further Reading) has suggested that representations of the Madonna del Parto had a talismanic function for expectant mothers. This appears to have been the case for relics of the Virgin’s girdle in England too. The relic of the Virgin’s girdle at Bruton Abbey, Somerset, was worn in the fifteenth century by Elizabeth of York during her lying-in, and its amuletic function was also described in a letter from Dr Richard Layton to Thomas Cromwell in 1535: ‘I send you … Our Lady’s girdle of Bruton [Abbey in Somerset], red silk, which is a solemn relic sent to women travelling, which shall not miscarry.’
However, the iconography of the reclining Virgin handing her girdle to St Thomas at Beckley distinguishes it from other representations, and Peter Newton noted this deviation from standard iconography: ‘The Beckley panel is unusual in the reclining position of the Virgin, as she is carried upwards by the angels, and she herself hands down the girdle to St. Thomas, instead of standing upright with the girdle falling from her.’ The panel at Beckley is not an example of an iconographic ‘type’ such as the Madonna del Parto, and we must look elsewhere for the compositional choices that govern this particular rendering of the subject.
Beyond the obvious dedication of the church at Beckley to the Assumption of the Virgin, Newton wondered if the attention to her cult at the site may have been influenced by the presence in the parish of a convent dedicated to the Virgin (Studley Abbey). However, in relation to this month’s panel, several factors need to be taken into consideration. The representation of a relic so strongly associated with childbirth is not perhaps the first choice one might expect of enclosed nuns. Newton’s suggestion further implies that the Virgin Mary was especially important to religious women on the basis of a shared gender identity, and he cites the depiction of the Annunciation on the convent’s seal as possible corroboration. However, the subject of the Annunciation is ubiquitous in medieval art, and in this instance must relate directly to the convent’s dedication to the Virgin Mary rather than any devotion presumed to be particular to religious women. Such overly simplistic and straightforward associations between biblical figures and real women have since been questioned and dismissed. In fact, the cult of the Virgin Mary in England was notably promoted by Anselm of Bury, nephew of the archbishop of the same name. More importantly, the nuns at Studley Abbey do not appear to have been particularly disposed to act as patrons towards the local church. While the church at Beckley was given to the convent in 1226, patronage was ceded to Bishop Gravesend ‘because by the weakness [fragilitatem] of our sex, and from the fact that we do not mix with men, we might be ignorant who was suitable for the post of parson.’ While the nuns’ fragilitas may have been a figure of speech to facilitate their relinquishing of responsibility, it seems clear they had no interest in decision-making at the parish church.
No documentary evidence survives for the commission, yet what is left to us – the arrangement of the surviving medieval glass – can be examined for further clues. In his catalogue entries accompanying the exhibition of art in Plantagenet England, David O’Connor observed greater tension in this month’s Panel of the Month when compared with the more traditional one at Beckley: ‘It is much less iconic than the earlier version … the somewhat awkward adaptation of the design to the shape of the opening contrasts sharply with the poise of the earlier panel.’ Rather than a failing, I would venture that this awkwardness is in fact meaningful. The incongruous features of this panel serve to highlight a particular interpretation of the apocryphal legend.
In the Beckley panel the recumbent pose of the Virgin diverts attention away from her body in favour of the girdle. While the original glass depicting the girdle has not survived, it is clear from the gestures of both the Virgin and St Thomas that the girdle occupied the centre of the composition. The primary subject is not then Mary’s Assumption, but the gift of her girdle to St Thomas as proof of the event. The gift of the girdle links the figures of the Virgin and St Thomas. This chain between earthly and heavenly figures is reinforced by the structure of the composition. Thomas looks up towards the girdle while the Virgin looks down as she bestows it, each figure emphasising this vertical action with the gestures of their hands. That Thomas’s raised hands resemble the conventional attitude of prayer in the Middle Ages is no accident. At the foot of the panel, he provides the viewer with a subject position from which to relate to the rest of the composition. That is to say, Thomas’s attitude of prayer and his location at the base of the panel serve to mediate the viewer’s gaze. Thomas is the figure that the viewer is most likely to identify with in the composition.
The intended audience can be reconstructed from the panel’s location within the building. In this instance, it was the clergy rather than the congregation who would have been in the best position to view this account of the Virgin’s Assumption. At Beckley, the chancel was distanced from the nave by an embattled tower. It is also in this period that the laity was increasingly distanced from active participation in the Mass, the performance of which became the principal identifier of the priesthood. Returning to the legend attributed to St Joseph of Arimathea, we are reminded that when Thomas was transported back from India to witness the Assumption of the Virgin, he was still in his Mass vestments. If we then consider Thomas as a signifier of the priesthood we can read the panel as a statement about divinely ordained priesthood. At the moment at which the priest elevated the transubstantiated host (Fig. 4), his gaze may have alighted on the tracery light above him in which Thomas’s prayer-like gesture mirrored his own. Rather than the neighbouring nuns or the pregnant women of the parish, this pictorial version of the legend of the Virgin’s Assumption into heaven spoke to the man at the altar of his own waxing authority.
Peter Newton, The County of Oxford: A Catalogue of Medieval Stained Glass, Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi (GB), I, London, 1979
On the relic of the Virgin’s girdle in Prato, see G. Bianchini, Notizie istoriche intorno alla Sacratissima Cintola di Maria Vergine che si conserva nella città di Prato in Toscana, Florence, 1722; and Brendan Cassidy, ‘A Relic, Some Pictures and the Mothers of Florence in the Late Fourteenth Century’, Gesta, xxx/2, 1991, pp. 91–99.
For the narrative of Thomas and the Virgin, see M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, Oxford, 1960, pp. 217–18.
For the letter to Cromwell, see Maria Hayward ‘Reflections on Gender and Status Distinctions: An Analysis of the Liturgical Textiles Recorded in Mid-Sixteenth-Century London’, in Barbara Burman and Carole Turbin (eds), Material Strategies: Dress and Gender in Historical Perspective, Oxford, 2003, p. 40.
On the associations between biblical figures and real women, see for example Penny Schine Gold, The Lady and the Virgin, Chicago, 1985.
On Anselm’s promotion of the cult of the Virgin, see Richard Southern, ‘The English Origins of the Miracles of the Virgin’, Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies, iii, 1954.
On the nuns at Studley, see ‘Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of Studley’, A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2 (1907), pp. 77–79 (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=40180, accessed: 24 March 2008).
For David O’Connor’s catalogue entry on this month’s panel, see J. J. G. Alexander and Paul Binski (eds), Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400, London, 1987, p. 213.
On the layout of the church at Beckley, see ‘Beckermet – Bedlington’, A Topographical Dictionary of England (1848), pp. 188–94 (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=50788, accessed: 25 March 2008).
On the mass as an identifier of priesthood, see Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture, Cambridge, 1991.