XPI autem generatio: The Book of Kells and the Chi-Rho Page

Thanks to the lovely film The Secret of Kells, large numbers of people who have never taken an art history class or studied paleography now know about The Book Of Kells. For those who haven’t seen the film, go now and watch it.

Chi-Rho page of The Book of KellsThe Book of Kells is a medieval manuscript created by monastics in the ninth century, and presently resides in Trinity College Library, in Dublin. It’s a beautifully illuminated version of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) with the customary additions like the canon tables.

The real point of the Book of Kells is not so much the text, as it is the art work, and the embellishments applied to the calligraphic text. The most famous of the pages in Kells is the one at the top of this post; F. 34R (click it for a larger version). The page in the Book of Kells known as F.34R is based on the verse from Matthew 1:18 that in English in the 1611 version begins “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” This passage is often referred to as the second beginning of Matthew. The Latin text, the one used most often in medieval manuscripts, begins “XPI autem generatio . . .”

F. 34R is referred to as the Chi Rho page because it features the Greek letters Chi, Rho and Iota. The letters that look like XPI that form the primary page elements are respectively, the Chi, the Rho, and the Iota. These three letters are used as the abbreviated form of Christ’s name in Greek, and open that passage from Matthew in Latin. If you look closely at the image, you’ll see some of the “hidden” images that Kells is so famous for. There’s a cat with rats that seems to be playing with (or eating) a mass wafer. There are moths (symbols of rebirth and rejuvenation) and several winged figures. My favorite is the otter holding a fish (the otter is lying on his back; look for the fish he holds). If you look at the image of F. 34R, you can see the generatio at the bottom right.

 

Here’s another example of a Chi-Rho page, to the right. This one is from the Book of Lindisfarne, produced in England sometime between c. 715  and 720. The Book of Lindisfarne is in the British library now. It’s the beginning of the same verse in Matthew as the Kells Chi-Rho page. You can still see the Chi and the Rho, very clearly. You can click the image for a larger view, or see the entire incredible manuscript in a digital facsimile here; it uses the Silverlight plugin form Microsoft. There’s a collection of high quality images here.

The Cherry-Tree Carol

O then bespoke Mary,
so meek and so mild:
“Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
for I am with child.”

O then bespoke Joseph,
with words most unkind:
“Let him pluck thee a cherry
that brought thee with child.”

manuscript image of The Flight Into Egypt


Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Miniature of Virgin and Child [Flight into Egypt?], large initial on gold, linefiller, full border design. 1440–1460. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-e494-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

This carol appears to have first been collected in Britain in the seventeenth century. Francis James Child printed three versions, calling the song The Cherry-Tree Carol, and publishing it as Child Ballad 54. It was collected previously, and subsequently, in versions from all over the British isles, and from America’s Appalachia region, where Jean Ritchie popularized The Cherry Tree Carol, in a version memorialized by Joan Baez and others.

In 1992 the editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols (after James Child) described the carol as one of several “doubting Joseph” carols, including The Cherry Tree Carols, Joseph Being An Aged Man, Joseph Being An Old Man Truly, and Joseph Was An Old Man (Keyte and Parrott, eds. The New Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Carol #129, pp. 446-8).

The basic motifs include the context of the “flight into Egypt,” when Joseph and Mary fleeing Herod’s “massacre of the innocents” after an angel warns Joseph via a dream that Herod intends to kill all first born male children (Matthew 2:13), fruit miraculously appearing and offering itself to Mary, and Joseph’s repentance for casting doubt on Mary’s chastity (Joseph’s jealousy is referenced in Matthew 1:18 1:25).

The story is an old one, appearing in Chapter 20 of the Apocryphal Pseudo Matthew, written sometime in the ninth century, wherein the fleeing Joseph and Mary are in the Egyptian dessert, and Mary, hungry and thirsty, wishes she might consume some of the unreachable dates on the date palm.

And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast.

And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her: I wonder that thou sayest this, when thou seest how high the palm tree is; and that thou thinkest of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle.

Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who bad commanded it to stoop.

Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God.

Sometime in the fifteenth century in slightly revised form of the story appears in the anonymous cycle drama known as either Ludus Coventriae, or the N-Town Plays, depending on the edition and editor. Here, in Play 15, the Nativity, the Egyptian date has been transformed to the much more English fruit, the cherry, unseasonably bearing fruit in Winter. The cherry tree, at Mary’s request, bows down that she might pick and eat of its fruit.

MARIA A, my swete husbond, wolde ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle?
JOSEPH Forsothe, Mary, it is clepyd a chery tre.
In tyme of yere, ye myght fede yow theron youre fylle.
MARIA Turne ageyn, husbond, and beholde yon tre,
How that it blomyght now so swetly!
JOSEPH Cum on, Mary, that we worn at yon cyte,
Or ellys we may be blamyd, I telle yow lythly.
MARIA Now, my spowse, I pray yow to behold
How the cheryes growyn upon yon tre,
For to have therof ryght fayn I wold!
And it plesyd yow to labore so mech for me.
JOSEPH Youre desyre to fulfylle I shal assay, sekyrly.
Ow! To plucke yow of these cheries—it is a werk wylde
For the tre is so hygh, it wol not be lyghtly!
Therfore, lete hym pluk yow cheryes begatt yow with childe.
MARIA Now, good Lord I pray thee, graunt me this boun,
To have of these cheries and it be youre wylle.
Now I thank it, God—this tre bowyth to me down!
I may now gaderyn anowe and etyn my fylle.
JOSEPH Ow! I know weyl I have offendyd my God in Trinyte,
Spekyng to my spowse these unkynde wurdys,
For now I beleve wel it may non other be
But that my spowse beryght the Kyngys Son of Blys!
He help us now at oure nede.
Of the kynrede of Jesse, worthely were ye bore:
Kyngys and patryarkys gow beffore.
All these wurthy of youre kynred wore,
As clerkys in story rede.

There’s a strong association of miraculous cherries and the nativity in medieval English drama. In another of the cycle dramas, the Secunda Pastorum or Second Shepherd’s Play of the Wakefield master, the poor shepherds each provide a gift to the infant Christ. Coll, the eldest of the shepherds, brings the miraculously unseasonable fruit as his gift.

Hayll, yong child!
Hayll, maker, as I meyne,
Of a madyn so mylde!
Thou has waryd, I weyne
The warlo so wylde:
1030 The fals gyler of teyn,
Now goys he begylde.
Lo, he merys,
Lo, he laghys, my swetyng!
A wel fare metyng!
1035 I haue holden my hetyng;
Haue a bob of cherys.

Other shepherds offer the babe holly and a ball, instead of the myrrh, frankincense and gold of the Bible.

Last of all, we see the story transformed to the bare motifs of the miraculous fruit in the Middle English romance of Sir Cleges, seen here from Oxford MS Bodleian 6922 (Ashmole 61). Fols. 67b-73a, a northeast midland dialect ms. from the fifteenth century that also contains one of the versions of Sir Orfeo. This late Arthurian romance has nothing to do with Chretien de Troye’s Cliges, at all; it is rather the story of a knight whose generosity and lavish public feasts, especially at Christmas, have paupered him. Cleges is presented with a miraculous cherry tree, bearing fruit out of season in his garden, when he kneels and prays. His wife suggests that Cleges and his son take the cherries as a Christmastide gift to King Uther in Cardiff.

As he knelyd onne hys kne
Underneth a chery tre
Makyng hys praere,
He rawght a bowghe in hys hond
To ryse therby and upstond;
No lenger knelyd he ther.
When the bowghe was in hys hond,
Gren levys theron he fond
And ronde beryes in fere.
He seyd, “Dere God in Trinyte!
What maner beryes may this be
That grow this tyme of yere?
“I have not se this tyme of yere
That treys any fruyt schuld bere,
Als ferre as I have sought.”
He thought to tayst it yff he couthe:
One of them he put in hys mouthe;
Spare wold he nought.
After a chery it relesyd clene,
The best that ever he had sene
Seth he was man wrought.
A lytell bow he gan of slyfe,
And thought he wold schew it hys wyfe;
In hys hond he it brought.
“Lo, dame, here is a newylte:
In our garthyn upon a tre
I found it, sykerly.
I ame aferd it is tokenyng,
Because of our grete plenyng,
That more grevans is ny.”
His wyfe seyd, “It is tokenyng
Of more godnes that is comyng:
We schall have more plente.
Have we les or have we more,
Allwey thanke we God therfore;
It is the best, treulye.”
The lady seyd with gode cher,
“Late us fyll a panyer
Of the frute that God hath sente.
Tomorow when the dey do spryng
Ye schall to Cardyff to the Kyng,
Full feyre hym to presente.
Sych a gyft ye may hafe ther
That we schall the beter fare,
I tell you, verament.”
Syre Clegys grantyd sone therto:
“Tomorow to Cardyff I wyll go,
After your entent.”

Uther, having recognized Cleges as a knight he thought long dead, rewards Cleges and the knight’s son, thus ending their poverty.

You can, if you wish, find numerous versions of The Cherry-Tree Carol online, Jean Ritchie, Joan Baez, Sting, and the Anonymous 4. Here’s one of the many versions in full:

Joseph and Mary walked
through an orchard green,
Where was berries and cherries,
as thick as might be seen.

O then bespoke Mary,
so meek and so mild:
‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
for I am with child.’

O then bespoke Joseph,
with words most unkind:
‘Let him pluck thee a cherry
that brought thee with child.’

O then bespoke the babe,
within his mother’s womb:
‘Bow down then the tallest tree,
for my mother to have some.’

Then bowed down the highest tree
unto his mother’s hand;
Then she cried, See, Joseph,
I have cherries at command.

O then bespake Joseph:
‘I have done Mary wrong;
But cheer up, my dearest,
and be not cast down.’

The Wexford Carol / Carúl Loch Garman

Image of Fra Filippo Lippi's Nativity scene showing Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child in a stable with a donkey and an ox

Fra Filippo Lippi, Nativity, Spoleto Cathedral, 1467-9

Carúl Loch Garman

O tagaigí is adhraigí
An leanbh cneasta sa chró ‘na luí
Is cuimhnigí ar ghrá an Rí
A thug dar saoradh anocht an naí
A Mhuire Mháthair i bParas Dé
Ar chlann bhocht Eabha
Guí anois go séimh
Is doras an chró ná dún go deo
G n-adhraím feasta Mac Rí na hÓighe

I mBeithil thoir i lár na hoíche
Ba chlos an dea-scéal d’aoirí
Go follas don tsaol san spéir go binn
Bhí aingil ag canadh ó rinn go rinn

Gluaisigí go beo, duirt aingil Dé
Go Beithil sall is gheobhaith sibh é
‘Na luí go ciúin i mainséar tuí
Siúd é an Prionsa, Mac Óg an Rí.

This is better known, I suspect, in its English version as The Wexford Carol. I’m not sure I buy the assertion that the carol is medieval in origin. Various online sources claim that it’s from the 12th century. The Irish is absolutely not that old, at all. The Oxford Book of Carols doesn’t make any such claim. County Wexford, Ireland, more specifically, Enniscorthy (or Inis Coirthe), is the Wexford referred to in the title. In the late nineteenth century, the carol was incorporated into The Oxford Book of Carols, still probably the most common, and best known, carol compilation in the world. The Irish is very much late nineteenth century Irish; note, by the way, it has end-rhymes, not a traditional feature of medieval Irish poetry.

I grew up hearing it in English, on an ancient Julie Andrews Christmas album; you can find it sung in English and Irish both now, though probably Nanci Griffith with the Chieftains, and Mary Mc Laughlin’s rendition are better known than that late 1960s version I grew up hearing. I note that I can’t find either printed lyrics, or a cover in Irish that has all the verses of the English carol.

The English goes like this:

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born

The night before that happy tide
The noble Virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town
But mark right well what came to pass
From every door repelled, alas
As was foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble ox’s stall

Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep
To whom God’s angel did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear
Arise and go, the angels said
To Bethlehem, be not afraid
For there you’ll find, this happy morn
A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born

With thankful heart and joyful mind
The shepherds went the babe to find
And as God’s angel had foretold
They did our Savior Christ behold
Within a manger he was laid
And by his side a virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife

There were three wise men from afar
Directed by a glorious star
And on they wandered night and day
Until they came where Jesus lay
And when they came unto that place
Where our beloved Messiah lay
They humbly cast them at his feet
With gifts of gold and incense sweet