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Pourquoi les sceaux ? La sigillographie, nouvel enjeu de l’histoire de l’art

 | 
Jean-Luc Chassel
, 
Marc Gil Chassel

4. Transferts artistiques, appropriation, innovation

Biblical imagery on seals in medieval England and Wales

Elizabeth A. New

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Vulgate is of course the principal source, but some apocryphal material is also included. Bibl (...)

1The Bible is full of references to seals, both real items, such as the seals placed on Jeremiah’s deeds of purchase (Jer 32: 11-14), and in a theological and metaphorical sense, particularly in terms of God’s authority (for example, Jb 14:17) or confirmation of grace, the seal of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13). This is not however a paper about seals in the Bible, but is instead about the designs and legends used on seals in medieval England and Wales which were drawn from biblical sources1.

  • 2 The data for this study is drawn only from existing catalogues of British seals, and further seals (...)

2The first section will identify the types of biblical imagery and wording to be found on seals and comment on particular examples2. While a quantitative study is beyond the scope of this paper, obvious patterns will be highlighted and considered. The question of context and influence, particularly from contemporary visual media, literature and drama, will also be explored, as will the role of assumed scriptural and exegetical knowledge. Finally, which seal-owners used biblical imagery, and can we identify their reasons for doing so?

Seal Images from the Old Testament

  • 3 One was owned by an Adam de Howtone while the other is anonymous, Tonnochy, Catalogue of Seal Dies (...)
  • 4 It is interesting in this context to note that a number of twelfth and early-thirteenth century En (...)

3Following the internal chronology of the Bible, the first imagery found on English and Welsh seals is the Temptation in the Garden of Eden. This occurs on two personal seals which depict Adam and Eve flanking a tree around which the serpent is entwined3. In each case the legend, Est ade signum/vir, femina, vipa, lignum (“It is the mark of Adam, a man, a woman, a snake, and a tree”), is at first glance blandly descriptive, the owner perhaps making a pun on his name. The legend is however a hexameter, suggesting a more complex interpretation4. It certainly implies a high level of literacy, and raises interesting questions about how the owner used this image of the Fall.

  • 5 Ellis, Monastic Seals, M250; Birch, Catalogue, no 1656.
  • 6 Birch, Catalogue, n° 3489, 3492; Ellis, Monastic Seals, M529, M531.
  • 7 Fine examples of Noah’s ark can be found on the west front of Lincoln Cathedral, and on misericord (...)

4Another scene from Genesis found on seals is Noah’s ark, which appears on three monastic seals. The counterseal of Coventry Cathedral Priory shows the ark with the dove perched on the roof accompanied by the legend signvm clemencie dei (“Sign of the mercy of God”)5. The main Priory seal depicts the Virgin and Child, and so the juxtaposition of images works well, Christ incarnate being the fulfilment of the work of salvation prefigured in God’s mercy towards Noah. The Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew in Smithfield, London, used the ark as an image on the reverse of their Common Seal and on the priors seal of office6 (ill. 1). Here the typology is very clear, for the ark is accompanied by the words navis ecclesie (“Ship of the Church”). Both St Bartholomew’s and Coventry were important religious houses where the theological implications of seal design would presumably carefully have been considered. It is also of interest to note that, while the story of Noah was familiar to the medieval English laity as it featured in the mystery play cycles and a range of visual media, some of the finest surviving depictions are from cathedrals and religious houses7.

  • 8 An important discussion of the Psalms in a sigillographic context is G. Henderson, Studies in Engl (...)
  • 9 Henderson, Studies, p. 9; he cites Ps. 22, 35, 57 and 58 to support his argument.
  • 10 Birch, Catalogue, no 3762.

5The Psalms were central to medieval theological discourse and devotional practice. It is however quite difficult to relate seal design directly with Psalm imagery, although some correlation between the two may be suggested8. George Henderson has, for example, proposed that the seal of Sahar de Quincy, first earl of Winchester († 1219), draws upon Psalm imagery even though the legend is taken from the Gospel of Luke9. Another example also highlights the importance of viewing the seal as a whole. The thirteenth-century seal of Simon de Frolesham, prior of the Augustinian house at Norton in Oxfordshire, is an ancient gem with a bearded head facing right; the legend verba mea avrib[vs] p[er]cipe (“Let my words come to your ears”), is from Psalm 5: 210. The juxtaposition of image and text is fascinating, for the bearded head can be interpreted either as David the Psalmist, as the seal-owner seeking God’s help, or as God as the recipient of the plea. It is also significant that Psalm 5 contains a verse declaring that God “makes an end of all liars” (v. 6). This seal was Prior Frolesham’s guarantee of veracity and good faith; the legend would therefore have acted as a mnemonic device for anyone familiar with the Psalm, with its firm statements of truth, honesty and the castigation of false witnesses.

  • 11 Henderson, Studies, p. 26-28, figs. 169, 170

6There are in addition a number of seals whose imagery may have related to Psalter iconography, although in a subtle manner. The Holy Trinity, Virgin and Child and the Annunciation were for example used in iconographic programs for Psalter illumination, and seals that depict these images may have served as a visual aide memoire for the owner familiar with such manuscripts. Specific forms of iconography may have provided a similar mnemonic function. Henderson highlights the example of the Trinity in the form of God the Father and Son with the dove of the Holy Spirit between them, seated with the Enemy beneath their feet. This style of Trinitarian iconography was popular in late Anglo-Saxon England and was sometimes used in eleventh-to twelfth-century Psalters and Bibles to accompany Psalm 109; it is also found on a number of seals of the same date11.

  • 12 Birch, Catalogue, no 2705; ELLIS, Monastic Seals, Ml 10.

7The only prophet so far identified on English and Welsh seals is Ezekiel, who is alluded to, although not directly represented, on the fifteenth century Common Seal of Brecon Priory in Wales12. The eagle and wheel were interpreted by the original cataloguer (Birch) as the eagle of St John the Evangelist, to whom the house was dedicated, and the wheel of Ezekiel’s chariot, based upon the association of one of the four faces of the cherubim supporting the chariot with the Evangelist (Ez 10: 13-14, Rv 4: 6-8). Here the imagery works on several levels. Not only does the eagle represent the priory’s patron and the wheel allude to the origin of the evangelist’s symbol, but the combination of both brings to mind the eagles which appear later in the book of Ezekiel (Ez 17: 3-8) and the exegetical significance with which they are imbued.

  • 13 Both “dove with olive-branch” seals are accompanied by the legend Signvm Clemencie DEI (“Sign of t (...)
  • 14 T.A. Heslop, “The Virgin Mary's Regalia and Twelfth-Century English Seals”, in A. Borg and A. Mart (...)

8The dove after the Flood and head of Moses appear on a small number of personal seals, but apart from these images no other Old Testament scenes or figures have yet been identified on medieval seals from England and Wales13 There may however be allusions to them; T. A. Heslop has for example proposed that the sceptre often held by the Virgin Mary on twelfth-century seals may in fact represent the rod of Jesse (Is 11: 1) or of Aaron (Nm 17: 1-11), prefiguring the Incarnation14. The seal of Malvern Priory (Worcestershire), discussed in detail later, also uses an image related to the Old Testament.

Seal Images From The New Testament

  • 15 The story of Anne is drawn from the Protoevangelion of James, a widely known but uncanonical text. (...)

9The first New Testament image found on English and Welsh medieval seals is Anne teaching the Virgin to read, which appears on the seal of Knowle Collegiate Church, Warwickshire, and two personal seals15.

10The Annunciation (Lk. 1:26-33) is a far more popular design, occurring on numerous personal and official seals. In most cases the image is conventional and immediately identifiable, with Gabriel facing Mary and the dove of the Holy Spirit descending, but most obvious legend to use in conjunction with this design, Ave Maria gracia plena, Dominas tecum, (“Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee”) is, perhaps surprisingly, employed on only three Annunciation seals. It may be that seal-owners who chose this image were confident that it would correctly be identified, and therefore decided to use the legend to express something else, the name of the owner in most instances. It should also be noted that, while the Annunciation is biblical, the scene was closely associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary as the supreme intercessor, and this Marian emphasis, rather than its scriptural origin, may well have influenced its popularity.

  • 16 Ellis, Monastic Seals, M028; Ellis, Personal Seals, P205.
  • 17 Some of the main forms of Christocentric devotion in later medieval England are discussed in E. Du (...)
  • 18 Ellis, Monastic Seals, M770; Tonnochy, Catalogue of Seal Dies, no 862.

11The visit of Mary to Elizabeth appears, appropriately, on the seal of Axholm Priory in Lincolnshire, a Carthusian house dedicated to the Visitation, while the Nativity is depiected on the late fourteenth-century seal of John Coleman, a cleric from Wiltshire16. Coleman’s seal is accompanied by the legend ih[es]v fili dei miserere mei (“Jesus Son of God have mercy on me”), and this combination of design and legend suggest a particular devotion to the Christ Child, Coleman perhaps using Nativity imagery rather than the Virgin and Child in case that was misinterpreted as a Marian image17. The Nativity also appears on the seals of the Carthusian Priory of Sheen in Middlesex18. The priory was dedicated to Jesus, and once again this imagery may have been chosen to avoid confusion, both with houses dedicated to Mary that used the Virgin and Child as a design, and those dedicated to the Holy Cross which depict the Crucifixion.

  • 19 J. Cherry, in R. Marks and P. Williamson (eds), Gothic: Art for England, 1400-1547, London, Victor (...)

12The Adoration of the Magi is found on the fifteenth-century matrix of the Shearmen and Fullers Guild of the Nativity of Our Lord of Coventry, an apparently unique image on English seals explained by the fact that the Guild presented the story of the Three Kings as part of the Coventry Corpus Christi pageants19. This is also a very rare and fascinating example of a connection between drama and sigillographic imagery.

13The Virgin and Child was an immensely popular sigillographic image, having so far been identified on almost 300 personal and a considerable number of official seals. The basic image is drawn from scripture and the design could incorporate other biblical imagery, but the popularity of this image was almost certainly related to Marian devotion. This does not preclude the possibility of biblical interpretations of the image, but it is significant that nearly all religious houses which use the Virgin and Child as a design on their seal were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, while the majority of Virgin and Child personal seals are seals of devotion, many accompanied by the legend Ave Maria (“Hail Mary”) or Mater Dei miserere mei (“Mother of God, have mercy on me”).

  • 20 Blair, “Durham Seals”, n° 1002, 1130; Ellis, Monastic Seals, M072.
  • 21 See, for example, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 164, fol. 5r (Biblia pauperum, c. 1400); a (...)

14Two personal seals show the Flight into Egypt, a scene also depicted on the official seal of John de Chartres, prior of the Cluniac monastery of the Holy Savior at Bermondsey, Surrey20. The Flight appears in a variety of media and retained its popularity throughout the Middle Ages, appearing in Biblia pauperum and Books of Hours21. It is therefore somewhat surprising that the scene is not found more frequently on seals, although this is probably because of the small space available.

  • 22 Birch, Catalogue, n° 3139. A.G. Little and R.C. Easterling, The Franciscans and Dominicans of Exet (...)

15One further seal has a design associated with the childhood of Jesus. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Lk 2:22-35) appears on the seal of the Franciscans in Exeter, Devon, and may be related to their patron, Anthony of Padua, who is frequently shown with the Christ Child22. It is possible that the Exeter Franciscans wished to allude to their patron St Anthony, but took the opportunity to draw attention to a passage from the Bible that combines both the humanity – an infant cared for by His parents – and the divinity of Christ, as recognized by Simeon. Furthermore, the prophesying nature of Simeon’s prayer may have alluded to the mendicants role in preaching and teaching the faith.

  • 23 Birch, Catalogue, nos. 3418, 3772.
  • 24 New, “Christocentric Seals”, p. 49-50.

16Only two sigillographic examples of the Baptism of Christ have so far been identified, on the twelfth-century seal of Lavenden Abbey, a Premonstratensian house in Buckinghamshire, and the thirteenth-century seal of the Dominican house in Norwich23. Both houses were dedicated to John the Baptist and the iconography is in effect a patronal image, although with more obvious Scriptural significance than a depiction just of the saint. The Premonstratensians and Dominicans were concerned with true conversion and the salvation of souls, so the ‘new life’ symbolized by baptism would have had a special resonance. The Lamb of God occurs both in the Gospel of John (Jn 1: 30) and the Book of Revelation (Rv 5:6), but in isolation is fundamentally a Christological image or one associated with John the Baptist; these associations, and not its biblical origins, can be suggested as the main reason for its popularity on seals24.

  • 25 The Evangelists are usually represented by their symbols, although John occasionally appears as a (...)

17The evangelists and apostles appear on numerous seals, both personal and official, although almost always as name-patrons25. The lives of these saints were known through an array of visual media, plays, preaching, and literature in addition to the Bible, and it is probable that their intercessory value as saints was of greatest significance in their appearance on seals.

  • 26 Williams, Catalogue of Seals in the national Museum of Wales, E300.
  • 27 In this context it is interesting to note that Peter walking on the water is the subject of the Na (...)

18Despite the rich source-material, only one of Christ’s miracles or parables has so far been identified on English and Welsh seals. The fifteenth-century common seal of the vicars-choral of Exeter Cathedral depicts Jesus walking on the water, rescuing Peter after he had begun to sink beneath the waves (Mt l4:25-33)26. A scroll bearing the legend quare dubitasti (“Why did you doubt?”) appears between the two figures, and this text may be the key for understanding the choice of biblical imagery. Exeter Cathedral is dedicated to St Peter so it is in one sense a patronal image, but the decision to highlight this scene may have been prompted by the use of Quare dubitasti in a Response which forms part of Matins (Second Nocturne) on the Feast of SS Peter and Paul. The chief responsibility of the Vicars Choral was to sing the liturgy, and using this phrase would have emphasized both their familiarity with the liturgy and with the Bible in addition to honouring their patron27.

  • 28 Birch, Catalogue, n° 3000; Ellis, Monastic Seals, M244. The reverse of the seal is dated M: C: XXX; (...)
  • 29 For example, Blair, “Durham Seals”, n° 236. In her examination of the reception of Mary Magdalene (...)
  • 30 Birch, Catalogue, no. 2634; Ellis, Monastic Seals, M071.

19The small size and self-contained nature of seals must have played a part in the paucity of miracles and absence of parables as sigillographic images. Indeed apart from Christ and Peter on the water, the only episodes between the Baptism and Passion so far identified are the washing of Christ’s feet and the Transfiguration. The former is depicted on the obverse of the early thirteenth-century seal of Combwell Augustinian Priory in Kent28 (ill. 2). The detailed design demonstrates the medieval conflation of two passages from the Bible, depicting Mary anointing Christ’s feet while the demons cast out of her scurry away; a band across the table inserts maria before the scriptural fides tva (te salvam fecit) (“Your faith has saved you”). (Lk 7:50). Mary Magdalene is depicted on her own on a number of seals, but the iconography and legends make it clear that, in these instances, she is portrayed as an intercessory saint or the patron of the seal-owner29. The Transfiguration has also been identified only on official seals, including two seals of the Cluniac Abbey of Bermondsey, Surrey30 (ill. 3).

  • 31 Blair, “Durham Seals”, n° 1628.
  • 32 New, “Christocentric seals”, p. 52.

20When we turn to the Passion narrative we encounter a number of seals, both corporate and personal. The Last Supper is found one seal, that of John of London, a thirteenth-century prebendary of the church of St Peter at Howden, a college of secular canons in the East Riding of Yorkshire31. This remarkable seal depicts Christ at a table, raising His hand in blessing-apparently the moment of the institution of the Eucharist – while John rests his head on Christ’s lap. The image combined with the fragmentary legend may reflect the owner’s devotion to the new feast of Corpus Christi32. If so, then it is a notable example of emphasis on the Scriptural authority for the Feast rather than the vision of St Gregory or other Eucharistic miracles.

  • 33 For example, R. Rolle, English Writings of Richard Rolle, Hermit of Hampole, R S. Allen (ed.), Oxf (...)

21The Crucifixion, usually flanked by Mary and John, occurs on numerous official and personal seals. It is one of the most frequently depicted sigillographic examples of biblical imagery, although its central place in the liturgy, its representation on a wide variety of visual media, and inclusion in all the play cycles may have been as influential as any direct knowledge of Scripture. It is notable that the majority of personal seals showing the crucifixion are seals of devotion, incorporating a suppliant image of the owner within the design. Devotional literature of fourteenth-and fifteenth-century England emphasized the Crucifixion as a central part of the spiritual life, and meditation on this event was recommended by several of the English mystics, perhaps further encouraging the use of this image33.

  • 34 Birch, Catalogue, no. 2860.
  • 35 Nelson, “Some British Medieval Seal-Matrices”, n° 48. In addition to numerous manuscript illuminat (...)

22No seals are known to depict the Deposition, although one, that of the Convent of the Holy Sepulchre in Canterbury (Kent), shows the Tomb with an angel seated upon it34. The apocryphal but popular Harrowing of Hell appears on a couple of personal seals, but it is surprising that the Resurrection, central to the Christian faith and widespread in most visual media in medieval England and Wales, has been identified only on one seal35. Even though the imagery of Christ rising from the tomb holding the banner of the Resurrection with sleeping soldiers below is the standard iconographical representation of this scene, the legend, surrexit d[omi] n[v]s de sepulcro (“The Lord is risen from the tomb”), provides further clarification.

  • 36 Birch, Catalogue, n° 3000; Ellis, Monastic Seals, M244.
  • 37 Birch, Catalogue, n° 2721; Blair, Catalogue, n° 572; New, “Christocentric seals”, p. 54, fig. 4.
  • 38 Birch, Catalogue, n° 3485, 2826.

23The Noli me Tangere scene (Jn 20:14-18) is found on the personal seal of William Wainflete, bishop of Winchester (†1468) and on several monastic seals, including the reverse of that of Combwell Priory36 (ill. 4). Although biblical, the meeting of Christ and Mary Magdalene seems to have been used primarily in relation to the saint. Bishop Wainflete had a devotion to Mary Magdalene and founded an Oxford college in her honour, for example. The Incredulity of Thomas is featured on two seals, one a seal of office and the other personal37, while the Ascension is depicted on two fourteenth-century official seals, those of the Augustinian Friars in London and of God’s House (later Christ’s College), Cambridge38.

  • 39 The connection between the Assumption and the Coronation is examined in P. Verdier, Le couronnemen (...)
  • 40 Birch, Catalogue, n° 2452.

24The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin are not actually in the Bible39 but were frequently employed as part of the programme of illumination in Bibles and Psalters. It is therefore probable that, as with many other images discussed in this paper, these images had biblical resonance even if not overtly “biblical”. This idea is supported by the fact that the Coronation was favoured by religious houses, and was therefore employed by those most able to interpret the multi-layered meaning of this image. The Coronation was also used on seals of office, such as that of Anthony Bek, bishop of Durham (1284-1311)40, and on seven personal seals. It should however be noted that the Assumption and Coronation were frequently employed primarily as Marian images.

  • 41 Gothic: Art for England, no 315. For further discussion of these Bristol seals see E. A. New, “Sign (...)

25If one discounts images of the apostles in isolation (that is represented as a patron saint), the martyrdom of Stephen is the only other episode from the Epistles and Acts found on a seal from medieval England and Wales. Stephen appears on two seals owned by a parish church in Bristol dedicated to the saint41. One of the matrices depicts him standing holding three stones, the usual iconography for the proto-martyr, and is a standard patron image. The other matrix is however more overtly biblical than hagiographical, depicting the actual stoning of Stephen with the saint kneeling before his executioners; the accompanying legend, ecce video cellos apertos (“Behold, I see the heavens opened”) are the martyr’s words of witness taken directly from the Vulgate (Acts 7: 55).

  • 42 Christ in Majesty and Judgement are often conflated; Is 6: 1-3; Ez 1: 1, 1:26-28 and 10: 1-19; Dn (...)
  • 43 For a discussion of English ‘Doom’ wall paintings, see R. Rosewell, Medieval Wall Paintings, Woodb (...)
  • 44 New, “Christological seals”, p. 55-56.
  • 45 Birch, Catalogue, no 1457. This design was later adopted as the standard image for the episcopal s (...)
  • 46 Birch, Catalogue, no 3319-20.
  • 47 N. Morgan, Early Gothic Manuscripts 1190-1250, 2 vols., London and Oxford, Harvey Miller and Oxfor (...)

26The remaining examples of biblical imagery are drawn from Book of Revelation. The main apocalyptical imagery is that of Christ in Majesty or Judgment42, an image familiar through its numerous depictions in glass, stone, and manuscripts, and from the Doom paintings found in most English and Welsh churches43. Christ in Judgment was used as an image on a number of official and at least twelve personal seals44. The personal seal of Richard de La Wich, bishop of Chichester (1245-1253), is somewhat different, showing Christ flanked by two candlesticks45. This image is also found on the thirteenth-century seal of the Augustinian Priory in Ipswich, on which the engraver has managed to fit seven candlesticks as a direct representation of Revelation 1:13: “I saw seven standing lamps of gold”46. The use of this particular form of apocalyptical imagery may have become an especially sigillographic phenomenon for, except in the great thirteenth-century English Apocalypses, Christ flanked by candlesticks is not prevalent in other media in Britain, being described as generally ‘rare’ even in manuscript illumination47.

  • 48 Birch, Catalogue, no 1473.
  • 49 Birch, Catalogue, no 2635.

27Another seal from Chichester Cathedral uses apocalyptical imagery, perhaps influenced by the unusual iconography of de La Wich’s seal. Indeed the design of the thirteenth-century seal ad causas of the Dean and Chapter completes John’s vision of Christ, depicting as it does Christ with the two-edged sword in His mouth, flanked by A and w (Rv L16-17)48 (ill. 5). Also from the Book of Revelation, the woman arrayed with the sun and stars and the moon beneath her feet (Rv 12: 1-2), a figure usually identified in the Middle Ages with the Virgin Mary, appears on the reverse of the fifteenth-century seal of Bermondsey Abbey49.

  • 50 Birch, Catalogue, no 3601.

28A final design inspired by the Book of Revelation is the twelfth-century counterseal of Malvern Priory, a Benedictine house dedicated to the Virgin Mary50. This depicts the archangel Michael, clearly identified by the legend sigillvm s[an]c[t]i michael[is] (“Seal of St Michael”), casting a crown into water, an image which Birch suggested was a reference to Revelation 4: 6 and 10, and which actually appears to be a conflation of these verses and Revelation 5: 2. This image also alludes to the prophesy of Daniel (Dn 12: 1-4) when Michael appears as the protector of Israel. This would explain the iconography more satisfactorily than just the verses from Revelation. It is also important to note that the passage from Daniel is followed by God’s instruction to “keep the words secret and seal the book until the end of time” (Dn 12: 4). This emphasizes the connection between the scriptural passages; it also provides a connection between the design and function of the object upon which it was engraved.

Seal Imagery from the Bible: Observations and Interpretations

29This overview of the main biblical imagery found on medieval seals from England and Wales leads to some general observations. The first is also true of other media, from illuminated manuscripts to devotional writings – that there were many layers of meaning, some very obscure, to be found in medieval imagery of a biblical nature. The other observations are more specific to seals. Unlike some other media (illuminated manuscripts, for example), New Testament imagery far exceeds that from the Old Testament in both quantity and variety. There are also a limited number of examples of many biblical images, while the generally modest number of biblical seals is notable. Finally, it is clear that biblical imagery is most prevalent on the seals of religious institutions.

  • 51 For a discussion of biblical imagery in twelfth and thirteenth century windows, see M.H. Caviness,(...)

30Without a quantative study chronological patterns remain impressionistic, but even the examples cited in this paper provide an indication that more biblically-related seals survive from the thirteenth century than any other period. This is the century which witnessed the production of French Bibles Moralisées and English illuminated Apocalypses, the installation of a number of notable window-cycles with biblical imagery, and which saw the late flowering of scholastic theology51. In this context it therefore is not surprising to find often complex biblical imagery on seals as well.

  • 52 For Old Testament imagery in glass see Corpus vitrearum medii aevi: medieval stained glass in Grea (...)
  • 53 Rosewell, Wall Paintings, p. 34-35.

31The paucity of Old Testament imagery may seem somewhat surprising considering the rich material and the popularity of typological images. While Old Testament scenes and figures such as David and the patriarchs are found in glass, wall-painting and manuscript illumination from medieval England and Wales, however, they are always less popular than New Testament imagery or the saints52. The fact that seals were a self-contained medium is also significant. With a few exceptions, Old Testament figures are rather more difficult to identify than most saints, and scenes often required large-scale or multi-scene representations for a correct interpretation53. In addition, typology on seals could usually only be inferred, and it was then dependent on the viewer to make a connection between an Old and New Testament scene or person, the seals showing the Ark being rare exceptions.

  • 54 See for example, E.M. Ross, The Grief of God: Images of the Suffering Jesus in Late Medieval Engla (...)

32Alongside the constraints of the small, isolated canvas, devotional considerations must have biased owners towards the New Testament. While the Old Testament was of crucial importance for a complete understanding of God’s work it was in the New Testament that Christ was incarnate and His grace most clearly expressed. On a more practical level, all medieval people would have been familiar with the events of Christ’s life and Passion because of the liturgy, liturgical feasts, processions and drama that gave structure to the year. This, coupled with an increased emphasis on Christocentric devotion throughout the later Middle Ages, would have made images drawn from the Gospels a far more popular choice as a design on a seal than an image from the Old Testament54.

  • 55 For example, see J. Cherry, “Medieval and Post-medieval seals”, in D. Collon (ed.), 7000 Years of (...)
  • 56 New, “Christcentric Seals”, p. 61.
  • 57 Henderson, Studies in English Bible Illustration, vol. 2, p. 2.
  • 58 B. Bedos-rezak, “Replica: Images of identity and the Identity of Images in Prescholastic France”, (...)

33Another factor in explaining the pre-eminence of New Testament imagery is perhaps related to the form and function of seals. The quasi-amuletic properties of seals have long been noted55; the depiction of Christ may therefore have been seen as a particularly effective apotropaic sigillographic image, and by extension most biblical imagery would have had potential for such a talismanic interpretation56. A clear example of this is an early thirteenth-century matrix found in Walbrook in London, which has an ancient jasper engraved with the head of Minerva, set in a silver mount engraved with the legend qvi timet devm faciet bona (“Who fears God will do well”), the opening line of Sirach 15, a combination of a stone with medicinal properties and efficacious biblical wording57. The act of sealing was also deeply symbolic and itself probably imbued with a talismanic value, something discussed at length by both Brigitte Bedos-Rezak and Michael Clanchy58; the use of religious imagery must surely have made the process of sealing even more significant, with the impression repeating an invocation in the legend or a devotional image. The fact that the Elect were sealed with ‘signs of the living God’ as a witness to their status (Rv 7: 3), just as documents were sealed by witnesses to attest to their authenticity, must further have resonated with seal-owners familiar with Scripture, and have added yet another layer of meaning to the use of a matrix with biblical imagery.

  • 59 ellis, Monastic Seals, M066, M067.
  • 60 ellis, Monastic Seals, M070, M071.

34It is clear that some biblical images were more frequently employed by institutions than by individuals. Official seals were in general considerably larger than personal ones, and could therefore depict more complex scenes with greater ease. There may however be other, less utilitarian, reasons for this phenomenon, especially since some of the most complex and obscure biblical imagery comes from monasteries. Clerics, repeating scripture in the daily liturgy, would have become familiar with the Bible, while the more educated among them would have been imbued with the nuances of exegetical and theological debate. This may have led to a conscious decision to opt for a more complex design, such as the use of the Presentation in the Temple by the Exeter Franciscans, or even to an interrelated scheme based on different passages from the Bible. Examples of this can be seen on the counterseal of Malvern Priory, which combined Old Testament prophesy and apocalyptical imagery, or the seals of the Cluniac house at Bermondsey, dedicated to the Holy Saviour. Bermondsey’s earliest seals depict Christ seated in majesty, while the later seals switch to the more unusual Transfiguration discussed above, perhaps both to make their seal more noticeable and to emphasize the nature of Christ as completely man and completely God59. The images used on the reverse of two later Bermondsey seals are particularly interesting in terms of their biblical and Christocentric allusions. Their fourteenth-century counterseal depicts Christ half-length, holding an orb and making the gesture of blessing, and is accompanied by the legend Ego sum via veritas et vita (“I am the way, the truth and the life”), taken directly from John 14: 6. The reverse of the sixteenth-century seal depicts Christ of the Apocalypse, seated on a rainbow with the sun, moon, and stars in the field, accompanied by the legend [p]er virtutem sancte crucis salva nos xpe (“Through tbe power of the holy cross, save us O Christ”)60. These designs could be understood by anyone who saw them, but the more detailed the knowledge of the Bible, the deeper the layers of meaning.

35There are also examples of corporate owners placing themselves within a biblical scene. In addition to numerous seals of devotion, the seals of God’s House, Cambridge, the Augustinian Friars of London, and the Exeter vicars-choral are particularly significant. The Cambridge scholars placed buildings representing the college and the Augustinians four friars at the base of their respective images of the Ascension, while the Exeter vicars-choral show six clerks on their seal. In this way these institutions transformed the corporate body into witnesses of the Ascension and Peter attempting to follow Christ onto the water; by doing so they were not merely reproducing the biblical events but participating in them in a visual context.

36If biblical imagery had so many attractions, then the question remains as to why there are such a modest number of examples of scriptural designs or wording on seals from England and Wales. Seals which depicted saints were undoubtedly more popular than those with biblical imagery because of the intercessory value of these items. Therefore the depiction of a saint, rather than a scene from the Bible, would be a more obvious choice for religious sigillographic imagery, particularly for an individual. In practical terms saints, with their familiar emblems, were more easily identified on a small, discrete object.

CONCLUSIONS

37Seals with biblical images and wording certainly demonstrate the complexity of these objects, both in terms of the thought-processes behind the design and the execution of often highly accomplished works of art. The correlation between the style and composition of biblical seals with other visual media, particularly illuminated manuscripts, is a topic which deserves much closer attention, but it is already clear that seals were not the ‘poor relations’ either in terms of artistic merit or innovation.

38Biblical imagery was on occasion clearly related to the patron of an individual or institution, such as Mary Magdalene on the Combwell seal. Theological and exegetical debate or a desire to demonstrate learning must also have been an influence in some cases. Learned clerics or monasteries with a reputation for scholarship would perhaps have been inclined to use imagery or wording whose full significance would only be understood by others of a similar mindset. It may however be suggested that, in some instances, the choice of biblical imagery might have been influenced by a genuine desire to encourage reflection on the Bible or to provide the opportunity to teach.

  • 61 B. Bedos-Rezak, “Medieval Identity: A Sign and a Concept”, The American Historical Review, 105 (De (...)

39Brigitte Bedos-Rezak has suggested that “seals semiotic codes were dependent on a theology and an ontology that fostered their diffusion and interpretation”61. This reinforces the notion that the imagery used on seals, even if individualistic, had to be capable of interpretation by the majority of contemporaries; while some seal-owners would deliberately have chosen obscure designs or those with coded meaning, in essence a seal was meant to be ‘read’ by others. In this case there was little point using biblical imagery if witnesses were unable to identify and, at some level, understand what was depicted. Many sigillographic images would have been instantly recognizable to men and women familiar with biblical stories and figures painted on walls, glass and manuscripts, or witnessed in plays and processions, and seeing them on seals would have acted as a mnemonic device. More obscure or unusual imagery could have given seal-owners the opportunity to expound upon the images, or even the theological significance of seals and sealing. In this way, seals used to witness documents became witness to faith, just as the seals on the foreheads of the Elect signified their faithful witness to God. Nothing could be more appropriate for seals with biblical imagery.

Légendes

40Credits: 1. Photograph: The National Archives Crown copyright – 2, 4 and 5. By permission of the Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of London – 3: Drawing by the author.

Ill. 1 - The Ark /Navis Ecclesia
Prior’s seal of the Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew in Smithfield, London Original, London, TNA, E40/13688

Ill. 2 - Mary Magdalene, with demons cast out, washing Christ’s feet
Cast of the obverse of the common seal of Combwell Augustinian Priory in Kent London, PRO (ELLIS, Monastic Seals, M244)

Ill. 3 - The Transfiguration
Drawing of the obverse of the third common seal of Bermondsey Priory, Surrey London, PRO (ELLIS, Monastic Seals, M071)

Ill. 4 - Noli me Tangere
Cast of the reverse of the common seal of Combwell Augustinian Priory in Kent London, PRO (ELLIS, Monastic Seals, M244)

Ill. 5 - Christ of the Apocalypse
Cast of the seal ad causas of the Dean and Chapter of Chichester Cathedral (BIRCH, n° 1473)

Notes

1 The Vulgate is of course the principal source, but some apocryphal material is also included. Biblical paraphrases would undoubtedly have been a significant source of inspiration, but an exploration of the precise origin of the images found on seals is beyond the scope of this paper. For discussion of the influence of the Apocrypha and biblical paraphrases on visual media see, for example, N. Morgan, “Old Testament Illustration in Thirteenth-Century England”, in B. S. Levy (ed.), The Bible in the Middle Ages: Its Influence on Literature and Art, Binghampton, Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992, p. 149-198, p. 151-153, 165, 169. I am grateful to Professor C.M. Barron, Dr C. Daunton and Professor P.D.A. Harvey for their helpful comments on drafts of this paper.

2 The data for this study is drawn only from existing catalogues of British seals, and further seals with biblical designs or legends undoubtedly await identification. The published catalogues are C.H. Blair, “Durham Seals”, Archaeologia Aeliana, 3rd series, vols. 7-9 (1911-1913), 11-16 (1914-1919). Catalogue numbers run in a continuous sequence through this and all other multi-volume catalogues; these numbers will be given in place of page and volume references. C.H. Blair, “Seals of Northumberland and Durham”, Archaeologia Aeliana,3rd series, vols. 20-21 (1923-1924). W. de G. Birch, Catalogue of Seals in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 6 vols., London, British Museum, 1887-1900. O.M. Dalton, Franks Bequest: Catalogue of the Finger Rings, Early Christian, Byzantine, Teutonic, Medieval and Later, bequeathed by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, London, British Museum, 1912. R.H. Ellis, Catalogue of Seals in the Public Record Office: Personal Seals, 2 vols., London: Public Record Office, 1978-1981. R.H. Ellis, Catalogue of Seals in the Public Record Office: Monastic Seals, London, Public Record Office, 1986. P. Nelson, “Some British Medieval Seal-Matrices”, The Archaeological Journal, 93 (1936), p. 13-44. C.C. Oman, Victoria and Albert Museum, Department of Metalwork: Catalogue of Rings, London, 1930. A.B. Tonnochy, Catalogue of British Seal-Dies in the British Museum, London, British Museum, 1952. D.H. Williams, Catalogue of Seals in the National Museum of Wales, vol. 2, Cardiff, 1998. The unpublished catalogues are P.D.A. Harvey, Public Record Office, Duchy of Lancaster Ancient Deeds (DL25 and DL26): Catalogue of Seals, unpublished: available on-line at The National Archives, London, Ε.Α. NEW, London, Corporation of London Record Office, Bridge House Deeds series: Catalogue of seals, unpublished

3 One was owned by an Adam de Howtone while the other is anonymous, Tonnochy, Catalogue of Seal Dies, n° 930 and note.

4 It is interesting in this context to note that a number of twelfth and early-thirteenth century English Old Testament scenes in glass and wall-paintings were accompanied by leonine hexameters drawn from or influenced by biblical paraphrases; see Morgan, “Old Testament Illustration”, art. cit., p. 154-5.

5 Ellis, Monastic Seals, M250; Birch, Catalogue, no 1656.

6 Birch, Catalogue, n° 3489, 3492; Ellis, Monastic Seals, M529, M531.

7 Fine examples of Noah’s ark can be found on the west front of Lincoln Cathedral, and on misericords in Ely Cathedral and Ripon Minster, see E.S. Prior, An Account of Medieval Sculpture in England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1912, p. 48, 51, figs. 38, 42, 43a.

8 An important discussion of the Psalms in a sigillographic context is G. Henderson, Studies in English Bible Illustration, vol. 2, London, The Pindar Press, 1985, p. 1-38.

9 Henderson, Studies, p. 9; he cites Ps. 22, 35, 57 and 58 to support his argument.

10 Birch, Catalogue, no 3762.

11 Henderson, Studies, p. 26-28, figs. 169, 170

12 Birch, Catalogue, no 2705; ELLIS, Monastic Seals, Ml 10.

13 Both “dove with olive-branch” seals are accompanied by the legend Signvm Clemencie DEI (“Sign of the mercy of God”); Blair, “Durham Seals”, n° 568, and Μ. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, Second Edition, Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, p. 314. All four seals which depict the head of Moses were used by the same family, and the device was eventually incorporated into the family arms: Blair, “Seals of Northumbria”, n° 405, Blair, “Durham Seals”, n° 1349, 1350.

14 T.A. Heslop, “The Virgin Mary's Regalia and Twelfth-Century English Seals”, in A. Borg and A. Martindale (eds), The Vanishing Past: Studies in Medieval Art, Liturgy, and Metrology Presented to Christopher Holher, Oxford, British Archaeological Reports, 1981, p. 53-62.

15 The story of Anne is drawn from the Protoevangelion of James, a widely known but uncanonical text. For a discussion about the uncanonical status of the Protoevangelion see J.K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

16 Ellis, Monastic Seals, M028; Ellis, Personal Seals, P205.

17 Some of the main forms of Christocentric devotion in later medieval England are discussed in E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1992, p. 234-55. For a more detailed discussion of Christocentric personal seals, see E.A. New, “Christological seals and Christocentric devotion in later medieval England and Wales”, Antiquaries Journal, 82 (2002), p. 47-68.

18 Ellis, Monastic Seals, M770; Tonnochy, Catalogue of Seal Dies, no 862.

19 J. Cherry, in R. Marks and P. Williamson (eds), Gothic: Art for England, 1400-1547, London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2003, no 132, notes that the Shearmen and Fullers Guild presented the story of the Three Kings in the pageant in the presence of Edward IV in 1474.

20 Blair, “Durham Seals”, n° 1002, 1130; Ellis, Monastic Seals, M072.

21 See, for example, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 164, fol. 5r (Biblia pauperum, c. 1400); and Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 93, fol. 83 (Book of Hours, France, c. 1490-1510).

22 Birch, Catalogue, n° 3139. A.G. Little and R.C. Easterling, The Franciscans and Dominicans of Exeter, Exeter, A. Wheaton, 1927, p. 28, pl. 2.

23 Birch, Catalogue, nos. 3418, 3772.

24 New, “Christocentric Seals”, p. 49-50.

25 The Evangelists are usually represented by their symbols, although John occasionally appears as a man, for example on the Common Seal of Haugmond Abbey, Shropshire: Ellis, Monastic Seals, M368.

26 Williams, Catalogue of Seals in the national Museum of Wales, E300.

27 In this context it is interesting to note that Peter walking on the water is the subject of the Navicella mosaic in St Peters, Rome, an image copied by the cathedral in Strasbourg, also dedicated to St Peter; I am grateful to Prof. Julian Gardner for drawing these examples to my attention

28 Birch, Catalogue, n° 3000; Ellis, Monastic Seals, M244. The reverse of the seal is dated M: C: XXX; Birch suggests that a second ‘M’ was omitted and that the matrix dates from 1233, but Ellis notes that the style does not comfortably fit with a date of either 1133 or 1233.

29 For example, Blair, “Durham Seals”, n° 236. In her examination of the reception of Mary Magdalene in the Middle Ages, Katherine Jansen notes that the Magdalene was particularly revered for elements of her hagiographical rather than biblical life. Indeed, Jansen goes as far as to suggest that medieval people were more devoted to and inspired by Mary Magdalene as a legendary hermit-penitent than by her appearance in the Bible. See K.L. Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 3, 36-41, 284.

30 Birch, Catalogue, no. 2634; Ellis, Monastic Seals, M071.

31 Blair, “Durham Seals”, n° 1628.

32 New, “Christocentric seals”, p. 52.

33 For example, R. Rolle, English Writings of Richard Rolle, Hermit of Hampole, R S. Allen (ed.), Oxford, Clarendon, 1931, p. 19-36; the Crucifixion is considered in the context of Christocentric seals in New, “Christocentric Seals”, p. 54.

34 Birch, Catalogue, no. 2860.

35 Nelson, “Some British Medieval Seal-Matrices”, n° 48. In addition to numerous manuscript illuminations and glass and wall painting, there are a notable series of English alabaster panels that depict the Resurrection. See, for example, Age of Chivalry, n° 464-65.

36 Birch, Catalogue, n° 3000; Ellis, Monastic Seals, M244.

37 Birch, Catalogue, n° 2721; Blair, Catalogue, n° 572; New, “Christocentric seals”, p. 54, fig. 4.

38 Birch, Catalogue, n° 3485, 2826.

39 The connection between the Assumption and the Coronation is examined in P. Verdier, Le couronnement de la Vierge: Les origines et les premiers développements d’un thème iconographique, Paris-Montréal, Institut d’études médiévales Albert-le-Grand, 1980, p. 9-19; Verdier notes that some of the earliest Coronation imagery occurs in England.

40 Birch, Catalogue, n° 2452.

41 Gothic: Art for England, no 315. For further discussion of these Bristol seals see E. A. New, “Signs of Community or Marks of the Exclusive? Parish and Guild Seals in Later Medieval England”, in C. Burgess and E. Duffy (eds.), The Late Medieval Parish, Donnington, Shaun Tyas, 2006 (Harlaxton Medieval Studies XIV), p. 112-18, 125-126.

42 Christ in Majesty and Judgement are often conflated; Is 6: 1-3; Ez 1: 1, 1:26-28 and 10: 1-19; Dn 7: 9 and 13-14; Rv 4: 2-10.

43 For a discussion of English ‘Doom’ wall paintings, see R. Rosewell, Medieval Wall Paintings, Woodbridge, Boydell, 2008, p. 77-79, 345-346.

44 New, “Christological seals”, p. 55-56.

45 Birch, Catalogue, no 1457. This design was later adopted as the standard image for the episcopal subsidiary seal (counterseal).

46 Birch, Catalogue, no 3319-20.

47 N. Morgan, Early Gothic Manuscripts 1190-1250, 2 vols., London and Oxford, Harvey Miller and Oxford University Press, 1982-1988, 932.0 ol. 2 p. 82.

48 Birch, Catalogue, no 1473.

49 Birch, Catalogue, no 2635.

50 Birch, Catalogue, no 3601.

51 For a discussion of biblical imagery in twelfth and thirteenth century windows, see M.H. Caviness, “Biblical Stories in Windows: were they Bibles for the poor?’in Levy (ed.), Bible in the Middle Ages, p. 103-147. The influence of exegetical and theological developments on sigillographic imagery is something which deserves much closer study, and it is the author’s intention to undertake a more detailed investigation of this subject

52 For Old Testament imagery in glass see Corpus vitrearum medii aevi: medieval stained glass in Great Britain, http://www.cvma.ac.uk/index.html; in wall painting see Rosewell, Medieval Wall Painting, and in manuscripts, see for example Age of Chivalry, no 255 and 353.

53 Rosewell, Wall Paintings, p. 34-35.

54 See for example, E.M. Ross, The Grief of God: Images of the Suffering Jesus in Late Medieval England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997; Miri Rubin, “Corpus Christi Fraternities and Late Medieval Piety”, in W. J. Shiels and D. Wood (eds.), Voluntary Religion, Studies in Church History 23, Oxford, Blackwell, 1986, p. 97-110; New, “Christocentric Seals”.

55 For example, see J. Cherry, “Medieval and Post-medieval seals”, in D. Collon (ed.), 7000 Years of Seals, London: British Museum Press, 1997, p. 133-134 (all the essays in this collection contain a section on magic and jewellery); see also Clanchy, Memory to Written Record, p. 308-317.

56 New, “Christcentric Seals”, p. 61.

57 Henderson, Studies in English Bible Illustration, vol. 2, p. 2.

58 B. Bedos-rezak, “Replica: Images of identity and the Identity of Images in Prescholastic France”, in J. Hamburger and A-M. Bouché (eds), The Mind’s Eye. Art and Theological Argument in the Middle Ages, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2006, p. 46-64, p. 52; Clanchy, Memory to Written Record, p. 309, 313, 317.

59 ellis, Monastic Seals, M066, M067.

60 ellis, Monastic Seals, M070, M071.

61 B. Bedos-Rezak, “Medieval Identity: A Sign and a Concept”, The American Historical Review, 105 (December 2000), p. 1489-533, 1491.

Table des illustrations

Légende Ill. 1 - The Ark /Navis Ecclesia Prior’s seal of the Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew in Smithfield, London Original, London, TNA, E40/13688
URL http://books.openedition.org/irhis/docannexe/image/2917/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 19k
Légende Ill. 2 - Mary Magdalene, with demons cast out, washing Christ’s feet Cast of the obverse of the common seal of Combwell Augustinian Priory in Kent London, PRO (ELLIS, Monastic Seals, M244)
URL http://books.openedition.org/irhis/docannexe/image/2917/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 19k
Légende Ill. 3 - The Transfiguration Drawing of the obverse of the third common seal of Bermondsey Priory, Surrey London, PRO (ELLIS, Monastic Seals, M071)
URL http://books.openedition.org/irhis/docannexe/image/2917/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 22k
Légende Ill. 4 - Noli me Tangere Cast of the reverse of the common seal of Combwell Augustinian Priory in Kent London, PRO (ELLIS, Monastic Seals, M244)
URL http://books.openedition.org/irhis/docannexe/image/2917/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 18k
Légende Ill. 5 - Christ of the Apocalypse Cast of the seal ad causas of the Dean and Chapter of Chichester Cathedral (BIRCH, n° 1473)
URL http://books.openedition.org/irhis/docannexe/image/2917/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 153k

Auteur

Diplomée des Universités d’Exeter, York et Londres, est membre de la Society of Antiquaries of London et enseignant-chercheur à l’université d’Aberystwyth. Ses travaux portent sur l’histoire et la culture matérielle de l’Angleterre et du Pays de Galles, au bas Moyen Âge et, en particulier, sur l’iconographie et la fonction des sceaux anglais. Elle a publié, notamment, Seals and Sealing Practices (Archives & the User, 11) (London, 2010) ; « Symbols of Devotion and Identity in a Late Medieval Manuscript », dans J. Cherry & A. Payne (eds.), Signs and Symbols, Harlaxton Medieval Studies 18 (Stamford, 2009, 73-84) ; « Seals and status in medieval English towns », dans N. Adams, J. Cherry & J. Robinson (eds.), Good Impressions : Image and Authority in Medieval Seals (London, 2008, 31 - 37) ; « The Jesus Chapel in St Paul’s Cathedral, London : a reconstruction of its appearance before the Reformation », Antiquaries Journal 85 (2005, 103-124).

© Publications de l’Institut de recherches historiques du Septentrion, 2011

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540