Our Christmas card this year:
It’s a six-winged seraph from MS 66, a late twelfth-century manuscript with an ownership inscription from Sawley Abbey, a Cistercian house on the border of Lancashire and Yorkshire, but R.A.B. Mynors and other have suggested that it was probably made at Durham during the time of Bishop Hugh de Puiset, and it may even have belonged to him.
The illustration is the frontispiece to a text called De sex alis cherubim attributed in this manuscript to Clement of Lanthony, a popular text which uses the six wings of the seraph as a scaffolding device for a treatise about various virtues. The first two wings folded across the body represent confession (right) and satisfaction (left), that is, making amends for one’s sins. The blue titles of the third and fourth wings have faded but are munditia carnis and puritas mentis, the cleanliness of body and mind, and the final pair of wings above the angel’s head represent dilectio proximi and dilectio dei, love for one’s neighbour and for God. Each wing consists of five feathers subdividing the virtue. For example, cleanliness of the body consists in propriety of sight, chastity of hearing, modesty of smell, temperance of taste or appetite, and sanctity of touch.
Diagrams like this were very popular in the middle ages as mnemonic devices. As Mary Carruthers states in The Book of Memory, they perform two functions: ‘The one function is pedagogical, in which the diagram serves as an informational schematic; the other is meditational and compositional.’
Here’s another seraph from a slightly later British Library manuscript, Harley 3244;