The Curtain Sack and the Exegetical Tradition of Psalm 29, Verse 12
: “God the Father borrowed a sack from the Virgin Mary.” *
Keywords: curtain sack, saccus, exegesis, Bouts, Getty Annunciation,
Limbourg Brothers, Boucicaut Master, Master of the View of Saint Gudule,
Psalm 29, Christ as Sack
In my 1986 study "The Curtain-Sack: A Newly Discovered Incarnation
Motif in Rogier van der Weyden's 'Columba Annunciation' " I argued
that the motif of the curtain sack (a curtain furled into a rounded
mass), as represented in Annunciations in northern-European art of
the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, signified the Incarnation.1
In this article I examine an exegetical tradition--hitherto unremarked--that
amplifies this idea, and I use this tradition to explicate the significance
of sacks represented in scenes other than the Annunciation, with one
exception: in the excursus, Dieric Bouts's Annunciation is considered.
The textual tradition centers on the exegesis of a scriptural passage,
verse 12 of Psalm 29, Psalmus Cantici pro Dedicatione Domus David (“A
Psalm and a Song at the dedication of the house of David”).
Convertisti planctum meum in gaudium mihi
Conscidisti saccum meum et circumdedisti me laetitia
Vulgate, Psalm 29, verse 12
Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing, thou hast put off
my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness.
King James, Psalm 30, verse 11 (2)
The key word in this verse is "sack." Of
Phoenician origin, the word was assimilated to Hebrew (saq), then to
Greek (sakkos, from whence it entered Latin as saccus. (3) In these
languages, the word had three meanings: it referred to a type of coarse
cloth woven either of camel's or goat's hair, it signified mourning
apparel manufactured from this coarse cloth (sackcloth), and it meant
a receptacle fashioned from coarse cloth. Verse 12 employs it in the second sense. This is not exceptional; there
are forty-eight passages in Scripture that have the same meaning. It
is used in the third sense twenty-three times. (4) Despite the frequency
of the word only in Psalm 29 did it excite interpretative interest.
Because of the centrality of the psalms to worship--they constituted
the Offices, the cycle of daily prayer recited by the devout--their
meanings were elucidated with special attention. The word saccus occurs
in two other psalms, 35:13 and 69:11 (King James), but probably because
Psalm 29 is antecedent, exegesis focused on it. These occur in sermons
and homilies, and psalm commentaries.
The history of Christian psalm commentary began in the third century
with Origen (d.254). (5) In the following century, many of the
eastern Father continued this effort—Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius,
Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa. In the West,
in the fourth century, commentaries were written by Hilarius of Poitiers
and by Ambrose, but the Latin tradition truly commences with Augustine,
whose expositions were the starting point for later exegetes.
Augustine wrote two discourses on Psalm 29. (6) The first was an especially
rich source for later commentators who drew many ideas from it. At
the outset, Augustine designated the psalm as "a joyful song of
the Resurrection." (7) Then, at verse 12, he wrote, "Thou
hast ripped away the covering of my sins, the sadness of my mortal
existence." That the covering Augustine referred to is mortality
is amplified and stated explicitly in the second discourse whose underlying
theme is the Incarnation. The explication of Verse 12 begins "Now
listen to His resurrection: 'Thou hast turned for me my mourning into
joy. Thou hast cut my sackcloth and hast girded me with gladness.' " Augustine
continued, "What sackcloth? His mortality. Sackcloth is woven
from the hair of goats and kids, and both goats and kids are ranked
among sinners. The Lord as one of our race donned the sackcloth, but
not for which it is the penalty. Sackcloth is the legacy of sin, while
the sackcloth itself is mortality. He who did nothing to deserve death
clothed Himself in a mortal body for your sake. One who sins deserves
death, whereas he who was innocent of sin did not deserve the sackcloth.
Our Lord's is the voice which cries out in another Psalm: 'But as for
me, when they were troublesome to me, I put on haircloth.' What does
'I put on haircloth' mean? I confronted my persecutors disguised in
haircloth. In order that His persecutors would think Him a mere man,
He hid Himself from their eyes, they were unworthy of seeing Him who
was clothed in haircloth. Therefore, 'Thou hast cut my sackcloth and
hast girded me with' gladness.' " (8)
Whereas in Augustine's discourses saccus signifies a garment of mourning,
in his sermons the word means a receptacle. In sermon 226, “On
the Birthday of Martyrs,” he wrote: “Would that . . . the
sack of penitence be broken in us, and . . . the reward of pardon be
poured out." (9) In Sermon 296, "On the Birthday of Apostles
Peter and Paul," Augustine asserts that Peter "exceedingly
dreaded human death and was unwilling that it touch the Lord. Being
ignorant he wanted to close the sack whence our reward was about to
flow." (10) Sermon 336, "On the Dedication of the Church" is
particularly important for its specific allusion to the Crucifixion. "For
they [the Jews] do not know what good they have worked for us to their
own evil. The sack was hung and the unholy man as it were rejoiced.
The persecutor tore his sack with a lance and the Redeemer poured our
Augustine's twofold interpretation of saccus as clothing and as a
container allowed for considerable exegetical richness. Further, his
association of the Incarnation with saccus was as influential as his
claim that Psalm 29 was about the Resurrection.
In the sixth century, Cassiodorus (d. 863) echoed Augustine's association
of the psalm with the Resurrection when he expounded on verse 12: "Lament
pertains to death, joy, to resurrection." (12) Likewise,
when interpreting conscidisti saccum meum, he recalled Augustine's
allusion to the Crucifixion. " 'The sack has been torn,' that
is, the body of him himself, when he himself deigned to die for us." Of
the "sack" he wrote that, because it is made of the coarsest
material, it is like human flesh. Cassiodorus ignored Augustine's use
of "sack" to signify a receptacle.
Similarly, when Haymo of Halberstadt (d. 853), in the first half of
the ninth century, commented on the verse in question he did not give
saccus the significance of a container but he did reiterate Augustine's
connection of the psalm with the Resurrection, with penitential dress,
and with Christ's flesh. (13) Haymo wrote "For the pain of death
was changed into joy through the glory of the Resurrection . . . .
for the advantage of me and my [people] you tore my sack, that is,
my flesh. Therefore he calls the flesh of Christ a sack[cloth], because
just as a sack[cloth] is penitential clothing, so the flesh of Christ
is penitential clothing, not because he carries his own sins, but [because
he carries the sins] of others . . . from this verse he
begins to explain the Resurrection clearly.”
The commentary by Remigius of Auxerre (d. 908) differs in one important
respect from other post-Augustinians exegetes. Rather than merely alluding
to the cross, it is explicitly mentioned. "You tore my sack, that
is, my flesh . . . as a punishment you permitted [yourself] to be pierced
with a lance, to be fixed to the cross." (14)
The eleventh-century psalm commentaries written by Bruno of Wurzburg
(d. 1043) (15) and Bruno the Carthusian (d. 1101) (16) did not contribute
anything noteworthy to the Augustinian tradition, but in the following
century, consequential new ideas were advanced in the psalm expositions
of Bruno of Asti, Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter the Lombard, Gerhoh von
Reichersberg and Richard of St. Victor. For the first time commentators
took up Augustine's use of the word saccus as a receptacle and developed
the concept. Another novelty was the discovery of eucharistic meaning
in the text.
Bruno of Asti's brief commentary is suggestive and important. "What
should we understand by the sack, unless the mortal and corruptible
body, in which, as it were, in a very cheap sack the soul is enclosed
and contained? Moreover, unless this [body] is torn and the soul flies
away free from it, the saints of God cannot have full joy. (17) Bruno
identified the sack with mortality and considered it as a receptacle
rather than as a garment since he spoke of it as holding the soul rather
than as clothing the soul.
An explicit eucharistic interpretation was given by Peter the Lombard
(d. 1160) in his extensive treatment of verse 12. (18) After declaring
the sack was the human flesh assumed by Christ and was torn when Christ
died, the Lombard commented that "grain came forth, that is the
gift of the glorious Resurrection." Later in his explication grain
is given a different significance. "In this sack of mortality,
divinity as if grain was hidden." Subsequently the meaning of
sack shifts back and forth between receptacle and garment. "Whence
elsewhere: 'as long as they were troublesome to me, I was dressed in
a coarse cloth (Psalm. XXXIV),' that is, in the sack of mortality,
as what was within is not seen . . . And after this [the sack] was
tom, divinity was brought forth, that is made manifest, which sack
that is not torn hides what is within."
Gerhoh of Reichersberg's (d. 1169) treatment of verse 12 was unprecedented.
(19); he assumes the voice of Christ. This dramatic device is in keeping
with the humanization of doctrine taking place at this time. (Bernard
of Clairvaux's writings best exemplify this trend.) Like Peter the
Lombard, Gerhoh gave eucharistic meaning to the verse when 'he equated
Christ with grain: "You made the apostles [who were] sorrowing
for me rejoice . . . because you tore my sack. They had seen me as
a teacher and their own Lord in the sack of mortality as it were, a
chosen grain, and on account of the grain chosen for themselves they
would have wished that the sack had remained untorn, so that to be
sure I might not die, but that I might live in a body never going to
die. I, however, said to them: Unless a grain of wheat falling to the
earth is dead, it itself remains alone, if however, it is dead, it
bears much fruit (John XII, 24)." In an additional commentary,
Gerhoh repeats almost verbatim Peter the Lombard's analogy of Christ
Psalm 90 is the only one known to have been explicated in full by
Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153). Yet he did refer to psalm texts in
his writings. For this study Bernard’s reference to verse 1 is
critical; for the first time the infant Christ is mentioned in connection
with the sack, a sack that is certainly a receptacle and not an article
of clothing. In the first Epiphany sermon, "On the Lord's Epiphany, "20,
he wrote: "Behold peace, not promised but sent, not delayed but
given, not prophesied but present. Behold, so to speak, the sack full
of his mercy which God the Father sent to earth. Yes, a sack that will
be ripped apart in the passion, so that it may spill forth what lies
hid [den] in it, our price [reward]; a true sack, however small, but
a full sack. It is a little child that is given to us, but in him dwells
the fullness of the godhead." Like Gerhoh, Bernard humanized the
text, but he transcended even Gerhoh's reading by invoking what was
then a novel image--Christ as a babe. Bernard's shift of emphasis from
the adulthood of Christ to his infancy was prophetic and decisive.
Increasingly, it was the newborn infant who claimed the attention of
the devout. Christ's helplessness and frailty in this condition excited
tender passions and made the Incarnation an event comprehensible in
altogether human terms.
Bernard's interpretation was not lost sight of by later commentators.
Indeed, Bonaventure (d. 1274) quoted it in his Psalter in the same
context as Bernard, namely a Nativity sermon (the seventh). (21) The
introductory sentence, from Luke 2: 11, Invenietis infantem pannis
involutum ("you shall find an infant wrapped in rags"), set
the theme for the sermon--the significance of the savior's concealment
in wrappings. Bonaventure wrote: "Christ . . . is wrapped
in a fourfold manner . . . in bodily nature, in his sacramental appearance,
in a spiritual enigma and in a literal sense." Then he explained
each of the concealments. It is in this context that Bernard's text
is introduced, but amended. "Bernard: 'God the father sent a sack
to earth: certainly a sack, although small, nevertheless full: the
sack, I say, must be torn in pieces in suffering, so that there may
be poured out the prize of redemption and grace which lies hidden in
it." Bonaventure omitted explicit reference to the infant Christ,
but followed Bernard's reading of the word saccus as a receptacle containing
a precious substance.
Finally, we consider the commentary of Albert the Great (d. 1280)
which is as important for the development of the sack motif as those
by Augustine and Bernard. (22) Albert wrote that sack was "a word
common to all languages, as the redemption prefigured by it extended
to all nations." (23) In Albert's exposition, numerous Old and
New Testament passages are cited, some treating saccus as a garment
others as a receptacle. These are assembled sequentially with only
a minimal amount of commentary linking them. From this string of quotations
Albert constructed a eucharistic reading. Repeatedly, he cited texts
in which Christ was likened to grain. For example, "Genesis 1:26.
Let us make man in our image and likeness. And also for carrying grain.
Thus his flesh was full of the grain of divinity: whence he himself
said, John 12:24: Unless a grain of wheat, etc. This is the grain with
which we will be filled in our homeland. Genesis 44: 1: Fill their
sacks with as much grain as they can take for working." However,
the importance of Albert's exegesis for understanding the curtain-sack
motif does not reside solely in its emphasis on a sacramental reading.
Rather, it is his citing of texts that imply a scientific explanation
to account for the Incarnation that makes Albert's commentary so consequential.
To explain how Christ came into being Albert twice resorted to sack
metaphors. The first is familiar from the textual tradition elaborated
above. He wrote: "And note that the flesh of Christ is called
a sack. First because a sack is capable of being put on." Albert
next quoted Job 10:11: “You clothed me in skin and flesh (italics
mine)." In my earlier article on the curtain-sack motif, I cited
the preceding verse in Job 10:10: "Hast thou not poured me out
as milk and curdled me like cheese?" to demonstrate that the Aristotelian
analogy of the curdling of milk to the process of fetal formation was
widely known in antiquity. (24) By choosing verse 11, Albert evidently
intended to refer to the embryological process as presented in that
text. That he was concerned with the science if how the Word took on
humanity is apparent from a further sentence. "God the Father
borrowed a sack from the Virgin Mary, and put grain in it." In
this case, the sack is not a garment, but a receptacle --specifically
Mary's womb. The event referred to is none other than the Incarnation.
Spoken of only allusively in prior accounts, it is now addressed explicitly.
The exegesis of verse 12 of Psalm 29 over the centuries developed
several themes; we have been concerned with those centered on saccus
. Until the twelfth century, Augustine's explanations dominated psalm
commentaries. Following Origen, Augustine viewed Psalm 29 as affirming
the Resurrection. Saccus in Augustine's explications was an analogy
for Christ and his mission. He identified the sack as Christ's penitential
garment and used saccus as a metaphor for Christ's flesh (mortality),
an association that led to linking the sack with the Crucifixion. Augustine
discovered a second metaphor--Christ as receptacle--in the common meaning
of saccus as bag and related it as well to the Crucifixion. Although
Augustine's ideas still reverberate in the expositions of the high
Middle Ages, the concerns of that period, incarnational and eucharistic,
overshadow earlier interpretations. "Sack" as garment receives
less attention than does "sack" as receptacle. Initially "sack" is
an analogy for Christ's mortality, then for the redeeming contents
of the sack, and finally for Mary's womb.
Knowledge of the exegetical tradition was not confined to the erudite
realm of theologians versed in Latin; by the fourteenth century the
influence of the exegetical tradition can be clearly discerned in vernacular
literature. For example, Jan Boendale of Antwerp (also known as Jan
de Clerc) three times used sack in the poem The Mirror of the Laity
(Der Leken Spieghel, 1330), twice in connection with the Incarnation.
God, he wrote: "sent [Christ] down here in this foul, stinking
sack" and Christ "put on the sack of humanity in the form
of a man." (25) Another Dutch writer also referred to the Incarnation
in terms of a sack: "How I [Christ] put on the miserable sack
according to your will." (26) Describing the human body, Boendale
wrote, "When the soul, which was hidden inside leaves, only the
sack remains, that is, the stinking body." (27) These texts reflect
the common usage in fourteenth--and fifteenth century Dutch of sack
(sac, zak) as a synonym for the body. (28) When employed in this sense,
sack expresses the body's corruptible nature, as in "the body
is nothing other than a sack full of stinking dung" or "the
body is food for worms and the body in which one lives is nothing other
than a dirty sack full of dung." In German, sack had the same
meaning. Luther referred to it as "our own flesh, the old, rotten
In light of the arguments in my earlier article concerning the curtain
sack, it is interesting to note that sack in both Dutch and German
is a synonym for the stomach. (30) It was also used as a derogatory
term for a woman and could even mean a prostitute. (31) In Lydgate's
Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, published in 1426 (32), sack and womb
are synonymous. "Ther Sak, ther wombe (I undertake) Off hem ther
goddys they do make." (33) And "to be bagged," meant
to be pregnant. (36) The Germanic languages are not alone in linking
sack and sexuality. In French, "avoir Ie sac plein" (34)
means to be pregnant and, in the fourteenth century, "faire Ie
sac" signified intercourse. (35)
These quotations not only show the influence of the exegetical tradition
on vernacular literature but also suggest that these ideas were widespread
in the very regions where the curtain-sack motif was depicted.
By the second half of the fourteenth century it was fashionable to
suspend a canopy over a bed or throne and to hang movable curtains
from the rods framing the canopy. (37) These curtains could be drawn
for privacy or opened to disclose the furnishing and its occupant.
Often one of the curtains was furled and folded up to form a sack-like
swag at the canopy's corner. The depiction of furled curtains seems
to have arisen concurrently with the emergence of canopied and curtained
beds. It would be incorrect, however, to explain the curtain sack’s
appearance in art as an instance of art merely mirroring reality. Because
the sacks are especially prominent in these early works, and because
they appear in scenes supplied with only the most minimal of props--those
deemed essential for the narrative--the sack motif was clearly intended
to evoke spiritual associations in certain circumstances. I suggest
that these associations are the same ones articulated in the exegetical
tradition for Psalm 29, verse 12. Interest in the verse at this time
did not arise from new theological probing of the text; fourteenth
century commentators' merely reiterated what had been said previously.
(38) The emergence of the curtain-sack motif was not prompted by the
exegetical tradition nor was it the result of theological debate in
the fourteenth century concerning the significance of saccus. Rather,
it was probably generated by painters and patrons familiar with the
exegetical tradition who recognized the iconographic potential inherent
in the new fashion. (39) In the early years of its representation the
curtain sack was depicted in diverse contexts, but, by the second
half of the fifteenth century, the motif was most frequently associated
with the Annunciation, but that did not preclude its depiction in other
Early examples of the curtain—sack motif appear in Parisian
manuscripts dating to the last decades of the fourteenth century: an
historiated Bible decorated by a French illuminator (41) and the Pseudo-Jacquemart’s
Latin and French Psalter made for Jean, duke of Berry. (42) The
former is believed to date circa 1380--1385, the latter, was completed
by about 1386. In each instance, the illuminator, with considerable
insight, exploited the rich set of exegetical associations triggered
by the word saccus. In the historiated Bible, the curtain sack is represented
in a miniature depicting four scenes, each representing an example
of Solomon's inspired wisdom (Figs. 1, 1a). The curtain sack appears
in the second picture where it is suspended from the canopy of the
king’s throne. This scene illustrates a legend recounted in the
Gesta Romanorum and in a fabliau but it lacks a Scriptural basis. Solomon,
according to the legend, had to determine which of three claimants
was the legitimate heir of a deceased emperor. (43) He instructed the
youths to shoot arrows at their father’s heart; the arrow that
penetrated most deeply declared Solomon, would be acknowledged as the
emperor’s successor. Two sons eagerly followed the order, but
the third refused, exclaiming: "May god forbede sir, that I shuld
do swiche a dispite to him that me gate! "(44) Solomon, recognizing
in this outburst of filial piety the voice of the legitimate son, acknowledged
him the emperor's heir.
In earlier depictions of this narrative, the emperor's shrouded corpse
was bound to a tree. (45) The illuminator of the historiated Bible
significantly altered this tradition by portraying the dead man tied
to a column, an unmistakable allusion to the flagellation of Christ.
The change was evidently made in order to underscore the tale’s
Christological import, an aim in keeping with the text, which treats
the legend allegorically, identifying the deceased emperor with Christ
and the true son with "the good Christian man." Apparently,
to further elucidate the tale's Christological ramifications, the illuminator
added a curtain sack to Solomon's throne. Unlike the column, however,
the sack has no precedent in the traditional depiction of this subject.
Examples of the story painted in the thirteenth and early fourteenth
centuries do not even depict Solomon. When he does appear in a miniature
of 1357, the throne is obscured by Solomon's body, and it is not overhung
by a canopy. (46) A key question then is why the illuminator added
the throne fixtures in this scene and not in the other Solomon scenes
(“Solomon Instructing a Young Boy,” “Solomon Determining
the True Parentage of an Infant,” and “Solomon and the
Queen of Sheba”). This scene in particular, I suggest, was loaded
with Christological significance. In fact a second sack is present,
namely the emperor's burial shroud. According to fourteenth--century
funerary practices, the deceased was laid out on a cloth that was then
wrapped around the corpse and sewn closed, in effect forming a sack.
Given that the emperor is an analogue for Christ, the viewer is reminded
that Christ's flesh is likened to a sack (or sackcloth) that conceals
his identity. The impious sons (the text designates them as Jews, Saracens
and false Christians) abuse the emperor because the cloth hides his
identity, and, moreover, they are not his true scions.
If the burial sack mainly alludes to Christ's
physical suffering for the salvation of mankind, the curtain sack adds
a messianic message. Jesus was said to be the descendant of Solomon's
father David. Indeed, he is so designated in Matthew 1: 1, where he
is called "the son of David." Paul repeats this lineage in
Romans 1 :3: "Jesus Christ . . . was made of the seed of David." As
such, Jesus is entitled to inherit his progenitor's kingdom. Of the
royal lineage of anointed rulers, he is the Messiah foretold by the
prophets. This interpretation of the sack seems consonant with the
story illustrated in the miniature and with the concepts that refer
to generation and concealment in the exegetic tradition of Psalm 29.
It is likely that the same significance was accorded the curtain sack
in the miniature, attributed to the Pseudo-Jacquemart painter (Fig.
2), introducing Psalm 26. It portrays King David enthroned, a curtain
sack suspended above his head. (47) As he addresses God, David points
to his eye. This gesture is a literal portrayal of the first
part of the psalm's introductory line, "Dominus illuminatio mea
et salus mea" ("The Lord is my light and my salvation"),
and is conventional. The sack's presence, however, is unprecedented.
Not only does it endow David's throne with messianic significance (this
is fitting since the throne of David is the throne of the Messiah (48)),
but possibly it may illustrate the second part of the verse, "salus
mea," the sack literally being an embodiment of salvation.
In the late fourteenth--and early fifteenth centuries, the curtain
sack is depicted in various miniatures, where it appears on thrones
and beds. (49) On at least three occasions, dating as late as circa
1410, the Pseudo-Jacquemart painter depicted sacks, in addition to
the one in the Psalter illumination discussed earlier. (50)
Brothers often used the motif in the historiated Bible they painted
for the duke of Burgundy in 1403. (51) No less than nine examples,
all attached to bed canopies, appear in the manuscript’s Old
Testament scenes and in the allegories accompanying them. Since these
subjects represent typological foreshadowings of Christ and his mission
or indicate the triumph of the Church over the Synagogue, the sacks
probably signify the incarnate Christ, his conception, and his crucifixion.
The association of the sack with the Crucifixion of Jesus is especially
pointed in the representation of the Drunkenness of Moses (Figs. 3,
3a). Moses, a type for Christ, is mocked by his son Cham. The accompanying
text explains that Cham is analogous to Christ's tormentors at the
Crucifixion who ridiculed the Saviour's nakedness. To emphasize the
likeness, Cham is placed beside a furled curtain. The brothers employed
the motif once in the Belles Heures. (52)
In addition to the Annunciation miniature by the Boucicaut Master
discussed in my earlier study (53), at least six further instances
can be cited in his oeuvre. (54) The contexts in which they appear
are considerably more varied than those illustrated by the Limbourg
Brothers; two are of particular interest. They appear in border quatrefoils
decorating a Book of Hours. (55) One shows a messenger delivering
a letter informing the Magus Caspar that the Savior has been born (Fig.
4, 4a). The sack located between the two figures in this rarely represented
scene may well reflect the Boucicaut Master's awareness of St. Bernard
of Clairvaux's incarnational exposition of saccus in his first Epiphany
sermon. In that sermon, Bernard explained that the saccus was
a “receptacle” and identified the receptacle with the Christ
child. Since Epiphany is traditionally illustrated by the visit of
the three Kings, this association seems warranted. In the other noteworthy
quatrefoil, no specific text can be cited. Yet, because of the unusual
subject, The Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin (Fig. 5), the
sack merits attention. (56) Mary is shown in two manifestations --
as the young Virgin who conceived Christ and as the mature mother,
now nimbed, who witnessed her son's death. (57) The sack beside the
girl evokes the imagery of the Annunciation. The Boucicaut Master's
imaginative and insightful use of the curtain sack here suggests his
familiarity with the exegetical traditions of saccus and its centrality
to the motif’s development. His inventiveness was equaled by
a follower who depicted the Evangelists. Only the throne of St Luke
(Figs. 6, 6a) is endowed with a curtain sack; it is suspended above
a chalice-like vessel. (58) This choice is appropriate because St.
Luke alone among the Evangelists gives an account of the Annunciation.
Let us now turn from manuscript illumination to three devotional paintings
dating from the second half of the fifteenth century; these reflect
aspects of the exegetical tradition of Psalm 29, verse 12.
Two pictures by the Master of Saint Gudule offer unique applications
of this exegetical tradition. In Christ Before Pilate (Figs. 7, 7a),
a panel from a dispersed altarpiece, Christ meekly stands before the
enthroned Pilate. (59) One of the procurator's guards (Longinus?) holds
a staff upright, its tip overlapping a furled curtain sack. Projecting
at regular intervals along the staff’s length are stems of clipped
branches. This object may well be the reed given to Christ in place
of a scepter when he was derided by the Romans and that was also used
to beat him. (60) But because the staff is juxtaposed with the sack,
associations derived from the exegetical tradition are evoked, in particular
Augustine's exposition of saccus. Augustine, it will be recalled, likened
the "tearing of the sack" to the Crucifixion. "The persecutor
tore his sack with a lance and the Redeemer poured [out] our reward." Augustine
was referring, of course, to the wound inflicted in Christ's side by
Longinus. The blood and water reported to have gushed forth from the
wound were said to represent the founding of the Church and to symbolize
the sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism--the "reward" of
Augustine's interpretation. Functioning as a visual comment addressed
directly to the viewer, much as an aside is to a theater audience,
the sack in this picture alludes to the forthcoming event but does
not illustrate it. Other motifs--the mirror on the throne and the column
set between Christ and Pilate--also annotate the principal action.
The use of pictorial annotation by the Saint Gudule Master communicates
on two levels, the narrative and the expository. In the former, the
viewer is engaged emotionally and is imagined as a participant in the
narrative action. The latter places the beholder outside the event,
and, by granting him foreknowledge, encourages meditation on spiritual
meanings. When considered from this perspective, the sack evokes thoughts
about concealment and revelation and directs the viewer to contemplate
how humanity mantled Christ's divinity and hid his redemptory mission.
At the heart of the annotation is an analogy--just as the sack shrouds
its contents, so the flesh worn by Christ, his sack [sackcloth], veils
In the Master of Saint Gudule's St. Catherine of Alexandria Disputing
with the Pagan Philosophers in the Presence of the Emperor Maxentius (fig. 8) (61), the sack is central to the narrative, indeed, it is
the subject of discussion; the Emperor Maxentius points to it and Catherine
studies it. The unexpected prominence of the motif can be explained
by consulting the life of Saint Catherine as recounted in The Golden
Legend, the most popular hagiographical work of this period. (62) According
to the text, Maxentius, confounded by the maiden's defense of the Incarnation,
summoned fifty philosophers to disprove her arguments. "After
the orators had argued that it was impossible that God had made himself
man and suffered, the virgin showed that the gentiles had already predicted
this . . . . For the Sibyl had said, 'Fortunate is the God who has
been suspended from above on wood.' '' To illustrate both the Incarnation
and the Sibyl's prophecy--her very words recall Augustine's and Remigius's
crucifixional exposition of saccus--the Master of Saint Gudule depicts
a curtain sack. Because The Golden Legend does not specify where the
disputation took place, artists were at liberty to invent the setting.
The Gudule Master may appear to have transgressed norms by staging
the meeting in Catherine's bed chamber, but in fact this room is fitting
on several counts. First, it signals Catherine's high birth, since
royalty customarily received delegations seated on a bed. (63) Second,
the bed points to another aspect of Catherine's legend, her marriage
to Christ. Maxentius, as will be recalled, had made advances to Catherine,
but had been rejected by the maiden who declared she was already married.
In effect, Catherine's spouse, Christ, is present in the guise of the
furled curtain and their union is signified by the bed. As pointed
out previously, a bed furnished with a curtain sack was a nuptial symbol.
(64) An additional example gives telling proof of this. Emblem 100
(Patientia vincit omnia) in Montanea's Monumenta emblematum christianorum
virtutum addresses the sorrows of a troubled marriage, likening such
a union to a bed strewn with thorns. (65) The emblem's pictura portrays
a bed styled in a Renaissance manner but supplied with an atavism,
a curtain sack (Fig. 9). The sack is the sign the illustrator used
to identify the furnishing as a nuptial bed. Thus, even as late as
1571, the emblem book's publication date, the motif’s meaning
was still understood.
The simple charm of the Master of Saint Gudule's Saint Catherine Debating belies the picture's iconographic sophistication. The sack alludes
to the saint's special relationship to Christ, her royal birth, and
to illustrate the subject and even the very words of her incarnational
speech as reported in The Golden Legend. The master's educated use
of the motif points to his familiarity with the exegetical tradition,
a tradition brought specifically to mind in this context by the Sibyl's
prophecy quoted by St. Catherine.
The identification of the curtain sack with the Incarnation in my
earlier paper has been amplified by the textual evidence presented
here and in particular Albert the Great's explanation of verse 12.
I am not claiming that Albert's text originated the curtain-sack motif
even though it alludes to Christ's origin in Mary's womb and makes
reference by implication to embryologicall processes. (66) Rather,
his ideas, were accessible to knowledgeable persons of the later Middle
Ages. But one amendment must be made to my earlier discussion. The
genesis of the curtain-sack motif is intimately connected to the word
saccus—a word made significant by virtue of its exegesis of Psalm
29, verse 12. Exegesis conferred on it a potential for visual elaboration.
This potential, however, could not be exploited until a number of conditions
were fulfilled. First, the pictorial arts had to be mimetic. Second,
a religious mentality had to exist that perceived objects and phenomena
as points of departure for devotional meditation. Finally, there had
to be everyday objects to evoke these associations. The last requirement
was met when hung beds and canopies supplied with curtains became fashionable
in fourteenth-century northern Europe.
In my previous article, Dieric Bouts's Annunciation (Fig. 10) was
cited, but discussion was confined to the observation that Bouts, like
many Flemish contemporaries, employed the curtain sack to signify the
Incarnation. (68) Now I would like to add another point concerning
this most intriguing work. Psalm 29, the locus of the word saccus,
played a role in the Easter liturgy where it was interpreted as referring
to the Resurrection. (69) As noted above, by the third century Origen
had given it this interpretation; Augustine, accepted this notion and
popularized it in the West.
In the Holy Office, the Psalm is recited at Matins on Holy Saturday
in anticipation of the Resurrection. It is also recited at Matins on
Ascension Day. On Ash Wednesday, Psalm 29 is a constituent of the offertory
chant of the Mass. That the Psalm had this connection with the Easter
liturgy and specifically with the Resurrection can be viewed as evidence
that the Ressurrection (Fig. 11) in the Norton Simon collection was
associated with the Getty Annunciation along with the Adoration of
the Magi, the Crucifixion and the Entombment in a triptych depicting
an Easter cycle. (69). In a recent reconstruction of the triptych,
the Resurrection is incorrectly placed on the bottom of the right wing,
where it is "weighed down" by the Entombment. (70) In fact,
it must have been situated at the top of the right wing, above the
Entombment, to demonstrate Christ's triumph over mortality (Fig. 12).
To position a panel in accordance with spiritual content was
common practice in Netherlandish altarpiece design. (71) A programmatic
connection between the two canvases is further underscored by corresponding
iconographic elements in the Annunciation and the Resurrection; these
indicate the fulfillment of prophecies at the time of th'e Incarnation.
Gahriel grasps (72) the curtain in his left hand in a manner closely
resembling Christ's hold on the cruciform staff of victory (the sign
of his triumph over death) in the Resurrection (73), and equally telling,
the curtain and Christ's mantle are fashioned from the same fabric.
(74) The curtain itself is identified with Christ according to Hebrews
10: 19--20. "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter
into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which
he hath consecrated for us, through the veil [curtain], that is to
say, his flesh.” (75)
These verses were interpreted by exegetes as referring to the Incarnation
as well as to the sacrifice on the cross. (76) Given these associations,
the curtains, considered as an ensemble, can best be understood as
signifying two aspects of Christ's mission. The curtain sack represents
the Incarnation, the mortality of Jesus, and the Crucifixion, whereas
the curtain held by Gabriel signals Christ's royalty merited by his
triumph over death. It will be recalled that Ludoph the Carthusian
mentioned "the royal robe of immortality" (stola immortalitis),
to be donned by Christ at the Resurrection, in his commentary on verse
12 of Psalm 29. (77) Powerful as are these meanings, they are not exclusive.
The sack equally symbolizes Mary's womb, "borrowed" by God
Colin Eisler pointed out that the throne (which he described as a "canopied
bench") in the Getty Annunciation is not anomalous, as had been
claimed, but has iconographic parallels and symbolic justification.
(78) Eisler argued that it "combines the aspects . . . of parturition
and coronation, suggesting both divine birth and eternal reign;" he
cited Luke 1:31-33 to support this claim. To Eisler's persuasive interpretation,
I would like to add an addendum. The bench is an allusion, too, to
the "throne of David." (79) This throne was encountered on
two previous occasions--the Pseudo-Jacquemart's David (Fig. 2) and
Solomon Rendering Judgment (Fig. 1)—and in both images a curtain
sack hangs from the canopy . The throne of David is mentioned by Gabriel
in the messianic message he delivers after his momentous revelation
that Mary will bear a son. Gabriel announces: "He shall be great,
and shall be called the son of the Highest; and the Lord god shall
give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over
the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end
(Luke, 1:32-33)." According to Isaiah 1:7, the throne, signfying
an eternal dynasty promised by God to David, was to be occupied by
a king descended from him and honored with the title "son of David" but
who would be greater than his forebear and who would establish God's
kingdom forever. Jesus’s identity as the Messiah is established
by the four Evangelists on just these grounds. Matthew even begins
his Gospel with a sentence concerning lineage: "The book of the
generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David." Further, Christ
is said by John to be "of the seed of David." The messianic
prediction proclaimed at the Annunciation is fulfilled at the Resurrection.
I am deeply grateful to Roger Dunkle for the Latin translations quoted
in this article and to Robert Baldwin for bringing St. Bernard's
commentary to my attention. Thanks, too, to Elizabeth Brown. Alfred
Soman, and Louise Lippincott for their timely aid. Finally I wish
to acknowledge my profound debt to Leo Steinberg's wise council and
encouragement to pursue the issues in this study and to Egbert Haverkamp--Begemann
for his interest In my initial study of the curtain sack.
1. S. Koslow, "The Curtain-Sack: A Newly Discovered Incarnation
Motif in Rogier van der Weyden's 'Columba Annunciation' ," artibus
et historiae, 13, 1986, pp. 9-33. Although the arguments put forward
in this study and in the 1986 Jrticle account for many instances of
the curtain sack, they do not explain every example. Some sacks may
simply be embellishments, others may convey allusions to customs or
concepts that have not yet been identified.
2. The Hebrew Psalter has one hundred and fifty psalms whereas the
Vulgate has one hundred and follows the latter numeration, fifty-one
psalms. Roman Catholicism Protestantism the former. Thus Psalm 29 in
the Vulgate is Psalm 30 in the King James (In addition, verse 12 in
the Vulgate is verse 11 in the King James.)
3. E. Verwijs and J. Verdam, Middelnederlandsch Woordenboek, The Hague,
191.2, VII, col. 62 .. F. Vigoroux, Dictionnaire de la Bible, Paris,
1912, cols. 759-760.
4. Nelson's Complete Concordance of the Revised Standard Version Bible,
2nd ed., Camden, 1957, pp. 1634-35.
5. Psalm commentaries are reviewed and summarized in J. M. Neale,
A Commentary on the Psalms from Primitive and Medieval Writers and
from Various Office Books and Hymns of the Roman, Mozarabic, Ambrosian,
Gallican, Greek, Coptic, Armenian, and Syriac Rites. 2nd ed., London,
1860, and V. Thalhofer, Erklarung der Psalmen, Regensburg, 1904.
6. J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae cursus completus . . . series latina (hereafter PL), Paris, 1844 ff., XXXVI, col. 215, Enarratio in Psalmum
XXIX, and col. 225: Enarratio in Psalmum XXIX.
7. St. Augustine on the Psalms, trans. Dame Scholastica Hegbin and
Dame Felicitas Corrigan, London, 1960, I, pp. 289,1291. Origen was
the first Christian interpreter to associate Psalm 29 with the Resurrection.
So important did he think this connection that his title for the Psalm
was based on the idea: "Because he turned the lamentation itself
of the Church to eternal joys of rising." See P. Salmon, Les "Tituli
Psalmorum" des Manuscrits Latins, Rome, 1959, p. 140. Cassiodorus's
psalm title likewise expresses this sentiment: "The voice
of Christ giving thanks to his Father after his most glorious resurrection." Ibid,
p. 159. For the other titles published by Salmon, see p. 59 (St. Columba),
p. 83 (St. Augustine of Canterbury), p. 102 (St. Jerome), and p.123
(Eusebius of Caesarea).
8. St. Augustine on the Psalms, op. cit., p. 311.
9. PL, XXXVIII, co1.1449.
10. PL, XXXVIII, co1.1353.
11. PL, XXXVIII, co1.1473.
12. PL, XXXVIII, co1.206.
13. PL,. CXVI, co1.294.
14. PL, CXXXI, co1.289.
15. PL. CXXXXII, co1.132.
16. PL. CLII, co1.751.
17. PL, CLXIV, co1.793.
18. PL, CLXCI, co1.297.
19. PL, CLXCIII, co1.1276.
20. PL. CLXXXIII, coI.42-43. See, too, PL, CLXXXIII, co1.309, fourth
sermon on the Ascension of Christ.
21. St. Bonaventurae, Opera Omnia, ed. A. C. Peltier, Paris, 1867,
XIII, p. 52.
22. St. Albertus Magnus, Opera Omnia, Paris, 1892, XV, p. 423.
23. Neale, op. cit., p. 411, for the translation. Neale comments that
Albert the Great gives the greatest number of readings of sack.
24. Koslow, op. cit., pp. 23-4.
25. Der leken spieghel. leerdicht van den jare 1330 door Jan Boendale
gezegd Jan de Clerc, ed. M. De Vries, Leyden, 1844-48, I, pp. 146,
26. Verwijs and Verdam, op. cit., VII, col. 67. "Hoe ic
[Christus] aendede den armen sacd dor dinen wille."
27. Der leken spieghel, I, p.62.
28. For further citations, see Verwijs and Verdam, op.cit., VII, col.
29. J. and W. Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, Leipzig, 1893, vol.
VIII, col. 1613.
30. See Koslow, op. cit. , p. 13 f., for an explanation of analogical
associations between the stomach and the curtain sack. Verwijs and
Verdam, op. cit., VII, col. 66 and Grimm, op. cit, VIII, col. 1613.
31. Verwijs and Verdam, op. cit, I VII, col. 67; Grimm, op. cit.,
VIII, col. 1616.
32. Lydgate's text is a translation of Guillaume de Deguilleville’s
Le Pèlerinage de vie humaine.
33. John Lydgate, The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, ed. F.J. Furnivall,
notes, K.B. Locock, London, 1905, p. 347, line 12791. Since the line
refers to the followers of Gluttony, sack in this context, signifies
stomach. The marginal note states: "Their god is their belly." Gluttony
says in line 12817, "My sak, I ffelle up to the brynke."
34. W. v. Wartburg, Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch,
Basel, 1964, XI, p. 22.
35. Du Cange, Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis, Graz, 1954,
VI, p. 252. The text cited refers to a 1375 letter of remission: "Icellui
Fenin ala au lit de laditte fille, et de l'un des draps dudit lit y
fist Ie Sac, dont grans paroles furent par laditte ville . . . Girart
dit audit Fenin, laisse-moi en paix, mieulx te vausist depporter de
moi plus dire villenie, et aussi de frequenter avec la fille de Guibert
mon compere contre sa volente, à laquelle fille tu as fait Ie
sac en son lit et la deshonores, dont tu fais mal et pechie." The
commentary states that the girl was actually wrapped up in the sheet
as if in a sack and adds that this was a "free and shameless joke.” The
explanation is repeated in volume VIII, p. 345.
36. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. 1971, I,
p. 156, 621. Like colloquialisms, folklore traditions express popular
attitudes. S. Thompson, Motif Index of Folk Literature, rev. ed., Copenhagen,
1956, records two "motifs" which may relate to the sack tradition. "Miracle
attests fact that man does not need to confess. He hangs his sack on
a sunbeam," v. 29.3 (voI.5, p. 435), of Spanish origin, and "Soul
in sack." E 711.5 (vol. II, p. 494), from the Danish.
37. Koslow, op. cit., p.11.
38. Ludolph the Carthusian (also known as Ludolph of Saxony), following
the Augustinian tradition, associates verse 12 with the Resurrection
and adds that "the stola [royal robe] of immortality" will
be put on by the speaker of the verse, i. e. David--Christ. Ludolphus
de Saxonia, In Psal. David, diligentiss. simul. & doctissima enarratio, n.p., 1542, p. 81. See below, for the possible impact of Ludolph's
text on Bouts's Annunciation. A second fourteenth-century psalm commentary,
Radulph of Rivo's Tractatus de psalterio observando, c. 1397-1400,
is published in P. C. Mohlberg, Radulph de Rivo, Der Letzte Vertreter
der Altrömischen Liturgie, Munster, 1915, II. Except for Radulph's
quotation of Origen's psalm title for Psalm 29, Exaltabo: quod ipse
planctum Eclessiae resurgendo in gaudia aeterna vertat (p. 209), Radulph
does not refer to Psalm 29. The psalter commentary of the Carmelite
General, Michele Agriani (d.1416, also known as Ayguan), was not available
to me. See Neale, op. cit., pp. 81-2, 411.
39. See V. Leroquais, Les Psautiers manuscrits latins des bibliothèques
publiques de France, Maçon, 1940-41, I, LXXXVI ff., and K. Gould,
The Psalter and Hours of Yolande de Soissons, Cambridge, Mass.,1978,
pp. 65 ff. for a discussion of the correspondences between the liturgical
divisions of psalters and psalter illustrations. Psalm 29, which did
not initiate the beginning of a such a division, was occasionally illustrated,
but the saccus of verse 12 was not portrayed. For mainly early medieval
examples see, A. Springer, Die Psalter-illustrationem im frühen
mittelalters mit besonderer rucksicht auf den Utrechtpsalter, Leipzig,
1880, pp.240-41; J.J. Tikkanen, Die Psalterillustrationen im Mittelalter, Helsingfors, 1903, p. 53; C. Eggenberger, Psalterium Aureum Sancti
Galli. Mittelalterliche Psalterillustration im Kloster St. Gallen,
Sigmaringen, 1987, pp.84 --98; O. Pacht, C.R. Dodwell, F. Wormald,
The St. Albans Psalter, London, 1960, pp. 12, 216. S. Dufrenne, L'Ilustration
des Psautiers grecs du môyen age, Paris,1966, p.29. In Byzantine psalters
the resurrection of Lazarus illustrated Psalm 29. Eggenberger, p. 89.
40. In addition to the birth and death-bed scenes cited in the 1986
article, sacks are represented in many other contexts. There are ten
examples in miniatures illustrating mainly Old Testament subjects in
the historiated Bible of Evert van Soudenbalch dated ca.1460 and
believed to be of Utrecht origin. See O. Pächt and U. Jenni, Die
ilIuminierten Handschriften und Inkunabeln der Osterreichischen Nationalbibliothek.
Holländische Schüle, Vienna, 1975, III, figs. 87, 101, 102,
114, 124, 133, 149, 151, 154, 167. An especially interesting example
of a curtain sack is Patron Praying at Bedside, probably painted in
Bruges in the 1480s by the Master of the Prayer Book of ca. 1500. See
R. Wieck, Time Sanctified. The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life,
New York, 1988, fig. 84. Six Old and New Testament scenes portrayed
in the windows of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, are furnished with
curtain sacks. According to Wayment, these were designed by 1515 by "the Fairford designer," whom
the author identified as Adrian van den Houte of Malines. H. G. Wayment,
King's College Chapel Cambridge: The Great Windows, Introduction and
Guide, Cambridge, 1982, pp.1O--11. The scenes are The Birth of the
Virgin, The Annunciation, the Circumcision of Isaac, Christ before
Herod, Death of Tobit, Death of the Virgin. For the windows, see H.
G. Wayment, The Windows of King's College Chapel. Cambridge, Corpus
Vitrearum Medii Aevi, Great Britian, Supplementary Vol. I, London,
1972, pp. 46, 52, 55, 77, 107, pis. 51, 59, 61, 91, 147, 149
41. M. Meiss, French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry. The Late
Fourteenth Century and the Patronage of the Duke, New York, 1967, I,
42. Meiss, Late Fourteenth Century, I, pp. 331-32.
43. For the legend, see G. F. Warner and J. P. Gilson, Catalogue
of Western Manuscripts in the Old Royal and Kings Collections in the
British Museums, London, 1921, II, p.261.
44. The Early English Versions of the Gesta Romanorum, Intro. S. J.
H. Herrtage, Early English Text Society, London, 1962, p. 167.
45. See L. M. C. Randall, Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts,
Berkeley, 1966, p. 215, where five examples between the late thirteenth
and early fourteenth centuries are identified and two illustrated, figs. 646 and 647.
To these can be added an illumination in an Historiated Bible in Paris
by the Master of 1402. E. Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting. Its
Origin and Character, Cambridge, Mass., 1953, I., p. 53, II. fig. 58.
Solomon sits on an X-throne judging two women claiming the child as
their own offspring.
46. Warner and Gilson, op. cit., II, p. 261; Meiss, Late Fourteenth
Century, II, fig. 384.
47. Meiss, Late Fourteenth Century, pp.15l--2. Psalm 26 is illustrated
because it marks the commencement of the second group of psalms in
French Psalters. Gould, Hours of Yolande of Soissions, pp.67--8.
48. J. L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, New York, 1965, p. 888.
49. In addition to the illuminators mentioned in the text, the Luçon
Master also depicted sacked curtain sacks . Pontifical of Etienne
Loypeau. Paris, Bibl. nat., lat. 8886, fol. 413, Birth of John the
Baptist, (M. Meiss, French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry. The
Limbourgs and Their Contemporaries, New York, 1974, pp. 351-52, dates
it 1405-1407.) (2) Boccaccio, Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes.
Geneva, Bibl. publique et universitaire, fr. 190, II, fol. 102v, Bocaccio's
Vision of Petrarch. ( Meiss, French Painting in the Time of Jean de
Berry: The Boucicaut Master, New York, 1968, p. 47, dates the illumination before
50. (1) Paris, Bibl. nat. lat. 18014, fol. 143. Petites Heures, The
Virgin Nursing the Christ Child; Meiss, Late Fourteenth Century, pp.
334 ff., dates the manuscript before 1388. (2) Bourges, Bibl. mun.,
ms. 48, fol. 181, Evangeliary, The Duke Before St. Andrew. See Meiss,
Late Fourteenth Century, pp. 320--21, who dated the illumination ca.
1405-1410. (3) ColI. Jean Durrieu, Book of Prayers. Meiss, Late Fourteenth
Century, p. 341, dates it ca. 1410.
51. Paris, Bibl. nat., fr. 166. Meiss, The Limbourgs, pp. 81--101,
342--43. Following, is a list of scenes in which sacks appear:
( I ) fol. 3v. Cain and Abel. The text states that Adam, who prefers
Abel, is like the good artisan who prefers the good over the bad, that
is, the Jews. (2) fol. 5. Noah mocked by Cham. Cham, according to the
text, is like those who permit Christ to be mocked, naked on the cross,
(3) fol. 8v., Births of Jacob and Esau. (4) Birth of Benjamin and Death
of Rachel. his Mother. fol. 12v. Benjamin a "type" for
Christ is named by his father "son of the right side" and
his mother calls him "the son of sorrow."(5) Potiphar's Wife
Pursues Joseph. Joseph is compared to Adam, since both were deceived.
(6) fol. 12v. Potiphar's Wife Denounces Joseph to her Husband. The
text compares Potiphar's wife to the Synagogue. (7) fol. 18v. Birth
of Moses. This event signifies the birth of Christ. (8) fol. 22. The
moralization of The Mocking of Moses and Aaron Before the Pharoah depicts a priest comforting an ailing man who, when healed, consorts
with a woman. The text says that ill persons promise to mend their
ways when priests minister to them, but once healed they behave even
worse than before. (9) fol. 22. Moses before the Pharoah and the Plague
of Stinging Flies. The text reads: " This signifies the pricks
of conscience and remorse that God visits' on princes and ordinary
folk to make them mend their ways." The sacks designed by the
Limbourg Brothers resemble swaddling, as if to indicate Christ is enveloped
52. The Cloisters Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The
Belles Heures. fol. 96, The Vision of Bishop Hugh.
53. Book of Hours, Oxford, Bodl. Lib., Canon Liturg. 75, fol. 25.
Koslow, op. cit., p. 32, fig. 14.
54. (1) Pierre Salmon, Les demandes faites par Ie roi Charles VI touchant
son etat et Ie gouvernment de son royaume. avec les responses de Salmon.
(second version). Geneva, Bibl. publique et universitaire, ms. fr.
165, fol. 4. Charles VI in Conference with Salmon in his Bedchamber.
According to Meiss's arguments, Boucicaut Master, pp. 87-88, the manuscript
dates to 1412. (2) Book of Hours, London, Victoria and Albert Museum,
ms. A. L. 1646-1902, fol. 172. Choir Singing Before the Madonna, Meiss,
Boucicaut Master p. 99, dates it ca. 1412-1415. (3) Bocaccio, Des cas
de nobles hommes et femmes, trans. Laurent de Premierfait. New York,
Coll. Francis Kettaneh, VIII, I. Boccaccio's Vision of Petrarch. Meiss,
Boucicaut Master, p. 102, dated ca. 1415. (4) Grandes Chroniques de
France. London, Brit. Mus., Cotton Nero E ll, II, fol. 29. St Valery
Appearing in a Vision to Hugh Capet. Meiss, Boucicaut Master, pp. 92--3,
dates it ca. 1415.
55. Book of Hours. Paris, Bibl. Mazarine, ms. 469, fols. 61v,
77v. Meiss, Boucicaut Master, pp. 113—14, dates it ca. 1415.
56. C. Eisler, "What Takes Place in the Getty Annunciation?",
Gazette des Beaux-Arts. CXI, 1988, p. 200, illustrates this miniature
, but does not identify the girl. Jean Fouquet pictured a prominent
curtain sack above and behind Mary in his portrayal of the Annunciation
to Mary of her Approaching Death in the famous Hours of Etienne Chevalier (1453). The illumination is illustrated in The Hours of Etienne Chevalier.
Jean Fouquet. Preface, C. Sterling, Introduction C. Shaefer, New York,
1971, no. 9.
57. Admittedly, the identification of the girl as Mary is highly speculative,
and I recognize that strong objections to it can be raised. The most
powerful criticism is that the girl is not nimbed. A second objection
is that Renaissance artists as a rule did not represent a character at different
stages of his life in one scene. Although I do not deny the power of these arguments, the presence
of the girl is nonetheless best explained by recognizing her as an
identifying attribute of the mature Mary. Since Mary was alone when
visited by the angel, according to The Golden Legend, the textual source
for the encounter, the girl cannot be a companion witnessing this extraordinary
event. Given the rarity of the theme of the Annunciation of the Death
of the Virgin and the Boucicaut Master's penchant for uncommon iconography,
it is not unexpected that he created a unique image for this subject.
Perhaps he derived inspiration from a close reading of the Legend where
an appositional relationship between the young and elderly Mary is
indicated. Directly antecedent to relating the angel’s
appearance to Mary, Jacobus de Voragine, the author of The Golden Legend,
calculated the number of years that had elapsed since the Ascension
of Christ and Mary's age (72), and then reported that Mary was fourteen--years
old when she conceived, and fifteen when she gave birth. The fact that
Voragine recalled the young Mary in the context of the Annunciation
of her Death establishes that such a connection existed, if not in
the pictorial tradition, at least in the theme's primary text. See
Jacques de Voragine, La Légénde dorée, trad. J. –B.
M . Roze, Paris, 1967, II, p. 86.
58. Wieck, op. cit., cat. no.28.
59. M. J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting. IV, Hugo van
der Goes, Leyden/ Brussels, 1967, p. 86, Supp. 122. The panel was further
damaged when it was cut in two. In a second depiction of the subject
(Friedländer, op. cit. pl. 108, Supp. 119), Christ Before Pilate by
the Master of Saint Gudule, a sack is attached to the canopy above
60. G. Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, trans. J. Seligman,
London, 1972, II, pp. 69, 72, fig. 245. A. Stange, Malerei der Donauschüle,
Munich, 1964, fig, 71, Jorg Breu, Coronation with Thorns.
61. Primitifs Flamands Anonymes. Maîtres aux noms d'emprunt
des pays-bas meridionaux du XVe et du début du XVle siècle.
Bruges, Groeningemuseum, 14 June- 21 September, 1969, pp. 123--4, 255.
62. La Légende dorée, II, p. 389. In the thirteenth-century
Middle English Life of St Katherine, ed. E. Einenkel, Early English
Text Society, Original series, 80, MilIwood, New York, 1978 (reprint),
pp. 42-57, Christ’s Incarnation is presented with greater specificity
than in The Golden Legend. The English author wrote that "he [Christ]
. . . crept into ours [nature] . . . and took blood and bone
of a maiden's body. Thus did he shroud and hide himeself with our fleshly
63. Koslow, op. cit., fn. 30.
64. Koslow, op. cit, p. 32.
65. A. Henkel and A. Schöne, Emblemata. Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst
des XVI, und XVII Jahrhunderts. Stuttgart, 1976, col. 353.
66. These processes were of interest during the period under
discussion. In two of the most popular devotional treatises of the
later Middle Ages, The Golden Legend and The Meditations Qn the Life
of Christ, Jesus’ conception is recounted. In the former text (op.
cit., I, p. 68), the author, following the Aristotelian account of
conception, wrote: "Le Saint-Esprit prit ce qu'il avait de plus
pur et plus chaste dans Ie sang de la vierge ['un souffle mystique']
et en forma ce corps." The Pseudo-Bonaventure, drawing his explanation
from preformationist doctrine, wrote, "At that very point the
spirit was created and placed into the sanctified womb as a human being
complete in all parts of His body, though very small and childlike.
He was then to grow naturally in the womb like other children, but
the infusion of the soul and the separation of the limbs were not delayed
as in others." (Meditations on the Life of Christ, trans. I. Ragusa
and R. B. Green, Princeton, 1961, p. 14 f.). The process whereby Christ
assumed his human nature was still a matter for discussion in the sixteenth
century. As indicated in my earlier paper (Koslow, op.cit., fn. 21),
Calvin addressed this issue in the Institutes of the Christian Religion.
He wrote, "Christ himself is not said to have been made by woman,
but from woman [Gal. 4:4]. Some of their tribe [the new Marcionites],
however, casting shame aside, too wantonly ask whether we mean that
Christ was engendered by the Virgin's menstrual seed. In return I shall
ask whether he did not unite with his mother's blood." Just as
Christ's conception was an issue for theologians and artists, so, too,
was Mary's impregnation by the Holy Ghost. See L. Steinberg, " 'How
Shall This Be?' Reflections on Filippo Lippi's ‘Annunciation'
in London. Part I" and S. Y. Edgerton, Jr., " 'How Shall
This Be?' Part II," artibus et historiae, 16, 1988, pp. 25--53.
67. Koslow, op.cit., p. 32. For the Getty Annunciation, see
Eisler, op. cit,; R. Koch, "The Getty 'Annunciation' by Dieric
Bouts," The Burlington Magazine, CXXX, 1988, no. 1024, pp. 509-16;
M. Leonard et al, "Dieric Bouts's 'Annunciation,' Materials and
Techniques: A Summary," ibid, pp. 517-22.
68. For the liturgical applications of Psalm 29, see Thalhofer, op. cit.,
pp. 195--96. Cf. Neale, op. cit." p. 399. Eggenberger, Psalterium
Aureum, p. 89 f., points to the use of Psalm 29 in the liturgy of Holy
Saturday and the psalm's impact on the Anastasis in Byzantine churches.
69. Bouts's choice of an austere mode for the triptych is in keeping
with its Easter theme. In the six-week Lenten period preceding Easter
Sunday, the Church is in mourning. (The Annunciation, celebrated on
March 25, falls within this period.) To express its sorrow in the later
Middle Ages, the Church required that images with muted color be substituted
for the usual festive representations. Red and white also figured prominently
in the color rules for this phase of the church calendar. Does the
prominent use of red and white in the altarpiece, particularly in the
Getty Annunciation and the Norton Simon Resurrection reflect this practice?
See M. T. Smith, "The Use of Grisaille as a Lenten Observance," Marysas,
VIII, 1959, pp. 43-54.
70. Koch, op. cit., p. 514, fn. 21. fig. 8.
71. Panofsky, op. cit., I, p. 261
72. The identification of the archangel's gesture in the Getty Annunciation has been incorrectly characterized in the most recent studies of this
picture. Eisler, op.cit., p. 196 and Koch, op. cit., p. 512, assert
that the angel is drawing the curtain, but the examples they cite portray
gestures unlike the ones in the Getty picture. In their examples, the
hand is exposed, not concealed. Moreover the comparisons are not apt
insofar as motivation is concerned. Both authors interpret the action
as undertaken to reveal Mary at her devotions. Koch writes, "The
angel's action in drawing back a drape of a canopy surprising Mary
at her devotions, seems to be an innovation by Bouts." This claim
is based on a fundamental misperception. Rather than pulling the curtain
away from Mary, Gabriel pushes the cloth forward as he instructs
the Virgin. Koch contradicts his ownl claim when he writes (p. 516)
that "the hidden or covered hand appears as a Leitmotiv [in the
wing compositions]. This is most striking in the enigmatic disappearance
of Gabriel's left arm behind the curtain in the Getty Annunciation.” Whereas
Koch first "explained" the gesture, he then characterized
it as "enigmatic."
73. Koch, op. cit., p. 516, does note a connection between the
angels’ gesture and Christ's, but weakens the observation by
characterizing the likeness as the veiling of the angel's hand
rather than by the act (or intimated act) of holding an object with
74. Koch, op. cit, p. 516, notes correspondences between the two
compositions, interpreting these as signs of promise and fulfillment.
75. The veil referred to in Hebrews 10:20 is the curtain separating "the
Holy Place" and "the Most Holy Place" of the Tabernacle.
Only Aaron, the High Priest, could pass through the veil to enter the
sanctuary's most sacred area which housed the Ark, and then only on
the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). According to Christian allegorizers,
Mary's womb was likened to the Ark and the chamber in which she received
the Word to the Sanctuary of the Tabernacle. (Y. Hirn, The Sacred Shrine,
Boston, 1957, p. 454). Hence the identification of the curtain in Bouts's
painting with the "veil" of the tabernacle is apt. The fact
that two curtains are portrayed may well refer to the belief that at
the moment of Christ's death, the veil of the tabernacle was said to
have been torn asunder exposing the inner sanctuary to view (See Meiss,
The Limbourgs, II, fig. 587, Crucifixion of Christ with roundel in
the border depicting the Sundering of the Veil). Since Christ was identified
as the High Priest of the new Covenant who atoned for transgressions
not through the ritual sacrifice of beasts of the Old Covenant, but
by sacrificing himself on the cross, the identification of the two
curtains with the Tabernacle's veil is likely. Christ's entrance into
the womb is thus an analogue for the High Priest's entry into the Holy
of Holies. Garbed in the white alb of an attendant priest, the Annunciate
angel serves as assistant to the High Priest, Christ, present but shrouded
in his sacked, veiled humanity. Incidentally, it should be noted that "tabernacle" simply
anglicizes tabernaculum (tent). When tents, therefore, are depicted
shielding Mary in scenes of the Annunciation (e.g. Martin Schongauer's
Annunciation [L 1] ) the artist explicitly refers to the Christological
notions expressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews. For the importance
of the Epistle to the Hebrews in Eyckian art, see L. B. Philip, The
Ghent Altarpiece and the Art of Jan van Eyck, Princeton, New Jersey,
1971, p. 64.
76. O. Hofius, Der Vorhang vor dem Thron Gottes. Eine exegetisch--religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung, Tubingen, 1972, p. 82 believes that the meaning' of the
verse is incarnational and that this was its import in the early Christian
Church. See too, R. A. Greer, The Captain of Our Salvation, A Study
in the Patristic Exegesis of Hebrews, Tubingen, 1973, and A. Cody,
Heavenly Sanctuary and Liturgy in the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Meinrad,
Indiana, 1960, for early Christian interpretations of the Epistle to
the Hebrews. Medieval commentators, among them, Haymo of Halberstadt
(PL , CXVII, cols. 892-93) and Atto of Vercelli, (PL, CXXXIV, col.
789) explained the text, "the veil, that is to say, his flesh," as
referring to the divine concealed in Christ's humanity. This explication
was in agreement with early Christian exegesis. In the sixteenth century,
Calvin continued to interpret the text in the same vein. J. Calvin,
Commentaries On the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, trans.
J. Owen, Edinburgh, 1853, p. 235. Peter the Lombard (PL, CXCII, col,
483) added a specific eucharistic reading to the notion of Christ's
divinity concealed by his flesh. Also it should be recalled that Hebrews
emphasizes the shift from the Old Law to the New Law; it is, therefore,
particularly apt in the context of the Annunciation.
77. For Ludolph the Carthusian, see above, fn. 39.
78. Eisler, op. cit., p. 196.
79. Unlike the Throne of Solomon whose iconography is established
in Netherlandish art (see Panofsky, op. cit., 143), the Throne of David
has been largely ignored. E. Guldan refers to David's throne in connection
with the Annunciation panel of a Cistercian Passion Altar from Mariental
in Netze (1370s). See E. Guldan, " 'Et verbum caro factum est.'
Die Darstellung der Inkarnation Christi im Verkündigungsbild," Römische
Quartalsschrift für christliche Altertumskunde und Kirchengeschichte," 63,