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Review by Boyda Johnstone, Fordham University

The J. Paul Getty Museum’s current exhibition, “Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister” (until February 2) brings together two of the greatest examples of English art after the Norman Conquest: the St Albans Psalter (ca. 1130), and a section of the Canterbury Cathedral windows (ca. 1178-80). While the pairing of these two works from different times and spaces is unusual, and, in a way, the result of a happy accident,[1]the exhibition does a wonderful job highlighting their artistic correspondences. The Getty Center’s exhibition is a marvelous opportunity to access two stunning twelfth-century objects which are normally either closed to viewers (in the case of the Psalter), or simply out of sight (in the case of the windows).

from http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/getty-voices-designing-canterbury-and-st-albans/
   Digital rendering of the exhibition

The Canterbury Cathedral windows in this exhibition were originally installed after the fire of 1174, but were moved in the eighteenth century to the Great South Window, where they normally hang sixty feet above the ground. Here at the Getty Center they hang easily within viewing distance, providing a rare chance for close scrutiny. They depict the Old Testament ancestors of Christ, linking the genealogy of the Cathedral with the genealogy of God, and the figures don fashionable twelfth-century apparel rather than biblical attire. Visitors have the opportunity to sit on one of the inviting benches and lose themselves in the moving impact of light and glass, or wander down the rows of pages of the Psalter and compare the two striking examples of Romanesque art.[2]

The Psalter is here displayed in “exploded book” format, as each individual bifolio is mounted on lecterns specifically designed for this exhibition.[3] Manuscript evidence such as calendar obits indicates that Geoffrey de Gorham, Abbot of St Albans (1119-1146) most likely presented the book to Christina of Markyate, an anchoress who established a community of women on the border of St. Albans. One of the many highlights of the exhibition is the inserted initial ‘C’ in Psalm 105 that seems to depict Christina of Markyate intervening with Christ, her hand penetrating the visible divide between mundane and divine; similarly, we as viewers penetrate spaces and objects we wouldn’t normally in this exhibit. Also related to Christina is the Alexis Quire, a discrete booklet in the otherwise Latin Psalter that contains the Anglo-Norman Vie de St Alexis. In this Vie, a son leaves his bridal chamber to spend seventeen years as a beggar abroad, and then spends another seventeen years living unknown underneath his parents’ staircase. In this exhibit we encounter the quire’s opening image of Alexis fleeing from his wife in their bridal chamber onto a boat, an act of abandonment which resonates with Christina’s own disavowal of her wedding vows.

The Christina Initial, in Psalm 105

In the course of their inspections, the Getty curators discovered faces of demons in the Passion sequence smudged by distressed viewers, and tiny needle pricks in the eyes of Christ’s tormenters. In medieval culture, seeing enacted the direct contact of touching or ingesting, and these details register the perceived danger that viewers and readers felt in the presence of evil or devilish figures. In the pages of the Psalms themselves we find a number of creative illustrative responses by the Alexis master, including a typological image of the nativity, and weeping figures surrounding a large initial ‘S’ which has become Psalm 137’s river of Babylon.  The exhibition is enhanced with interactive audiovisual materials and an assortment of other timely objects and books—such as the Eadwine Psalter, which contains thirty-three pictures in common with the St Albans Psalter; a codex depicting the Life, Passion & Miracles of Saint Edmund that is illustrated by the Alexis Master; and reliquaries associated with the cult of Thomas à Becket. A digital facsimile of the Psalter on a nearby computer screen translates the Vulgate into modern English with the touch of a finger, and the final room of the exhibit supplies visitors with background materials for the making of stained glass and illuminated manuscripts.

Overall, “Canterbury and St. Albans” dazzles its viewers with the beauty and power of these twelfth-century treasures, and the descriptions, audio guide, and other interactive materials give visitors valuable information about twelfth-century medieval spirituality and ecclesiastical power. This is a must-see for scholars of high-medieval England, and a should-see for everyone else.

For more on the windows, see The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral by Jeffrey Weaver and Madeline H. Caviness. For more on the Psalter, see The St. Albans Psalter: Painting and Prayer in Medieval England by Kristen Collins, Peter Kidd, and Nancy Turner. You can also take a multimedia tour of the exhibition on your smartphone here


[1] The windows are on loan from Canterbury Cathedral due to construction, and the book, normally housed in Hildesheim Cathedral, has been sent to the Getty for rebinding and conservation.

[2] Curator Robert Checchi describes his vision for the arrangement of lecterns in front of glass: “the visitor can look down at a page, then up at the glass, and make the comparisons that—until this exhibition—have never been possible.” Read more here.

[3] Curator Kristen Collins explains the meaning of an “exploded book show” in her blog on the topic, found here.

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