Albani Letters and Visual Mediation

Page 58, in the Chanson de St Alexis: tant aprist letres que bien en fut guarnit (‘he so learned letters that he was of them well-girded’). Page 68, in the Letter of Pope Gregory: An icele lisent icels ki letres ne sevent · ampur laquele cóse maismement la peinture est pur leceun as genz (‘in that [in the picture, that is] they read that know not letters, on account of which likewise the picture is for a lesson unto the people’; cf.: In ipsa legunt qui litteras nesciunt · Unde & precipue gentibus pro lectione pictura est).

In the Chanson, divinity is mediated to the people of Rome through St Alexis, much as the Word of God, outside of liturgy, is mediated visually either by letter or by picture.

It bears mention that whereas the Latin version of Gregory’s letter says quod legentibus scriptura hoc ignotis prestat pictura for the ignorant to see what they ought to follow, the place in which the Word is most centrally exhibited, in the body and the blood, is the eucharistic sacrament with its narrative. This sacrament is the very event referred to by two Life of Christ displacements: the first is the flashback to the Last Supper that follows the scene of Christ and the sleeping apostles in Gethsemane (41), and the second is the Emmaus sequence that immediately follows the two versions of Gregory’s letter (69–71). The Eucharist, then, is the liturgical centre from which are formed the images that mediate the Word of God in culture outside of the liturgy.

As if to cement the connexion between image and sacrament, Thomas Aquinas, writing in the century after the St Albans Psalter, uses the verb praestare, ‘surpass’, in the hymn Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium: praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui (‘let faith surpass [or fulfil], as supplement, the defect of the senses’). If we imagine the subjects of Gregory and Aquinas as parallel, pictura corresponds to fides as an impression in the mind, and quod legentibus scriptura (i.e. letters) to sensuum defectui.

The St Albans Psalter, despite its formal similarity to such a liturgical text as the Book of Common Prayer used centuries later, primarily serves not as a book for use during liturgy but for use outside it. Bridging the gap between liturgy and so-called secular life, it uses images to project the holy things of liturgy into life outside of liturgy, perhaps promoting by extension such cultural developments as vernacular mystery plays and innovative church art (including sculpture).

Related: Peter Leithart, ‘Visible Words’.

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