Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Bloody Relic Book

The British Library's online exhibit, "Treasures Known and Unknown" collected and annotated by John Lowden, calls attention to a remarkable 15th century manuscript, MS Egerton 1821. This devotional book contain two rosaries and a litany, Lowden tells us,

begins with three pages, each painted black, on which large drops of blood trickle down. The third page has been thoroughly worn. I am not absolutely certain this is the result of kissing, and part of it has been rubbed and smudged rather than merely kissed, but I think it very well could have been partially erased by kissing.

[A few pages later] the pages turn blood red, and thick gouts of blood pour down them from innumerable wounds. This disturbing decoration continues for ten consecutive pages (the last folio was cut out at some date, leaving only a stub). I count approximately 540 wounds on the bloodiest page, so perhaps taken together they were intended to represent the 5400 or more wounds received by Christ according to texts of late medieval devotion.

There are two openings like this before one reaches a third with two further woodcuts pasted in. The first represents a Man of Sorrows surrounded by twenty small compartments with instruments of the passion. Facing it is a larger woodcut of the five wounds of Christ with a heart at the centre over a cross. The left image (think back to the miniature in Harley 2985) carries an indulgence (later defaced): ‘To all them that devoutly say five Pater nosters, five Aves, and a Creed afore such a figure are granted 32,755 years of pardon.’

Lowden notes that "The book that follows this extraordinary prefatory matter is mostly written not in black ink but in the brilliant red pigment used for the blood." Obviously, an extreme and vivid example of a relic text that fully justifies our comparing the uses of such texts with icons.

(h/t Seren Gates Amador)

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