A Flowering Cross in the Robert de Lindesey Psalter c. 1220-1222 – 1

A Flowering Cross in the Robert de Lindesey Psalter c. 1220-1222 – 1 – Critical Essay

Ursula Rowlatt

A most unusual illuminated miniature of a cross which flowered at the moment of Christ’s death appeared as part of a crucifixion scene in the prefatory circle of a psalter made for Robert de Lindesey, Abbot of Peterborough from 1214-22 (Morgan 1982, 95). That Christ is dead is shown by the wound in his side and by his bowed head. This note is concerned with the possible origin of such a profound image in the early-thirteenth century.

In the crucifixion scene on f35v (Figure 1), the figure of Christ on the cross is shown in the traditional position between Our Lady on his right and St John on his left side. Emblems of the sun and moon, both with faces angled towards the cross, are shown above the horizontal limb of the cross. A three-layered frame, surrounded by a narrow green line, supports a medallion at each corner containing, clockwise from left to right, an image of Ecclesia (holding a chalice and upright banner, with her head held erect), Synagogue (with the Mosaic tablets of the Law and a broken pennant, with a bowed head), Moses (with horns, holding a book) and St Peter (with a book and the Keys of the Kingdom). Semicircular medallions on both sides contain unidentified persons, possibly disciples.


Sun, moon and human figures are placed against an incised gold background of great delicacy of design. Neither Our Lady nor St John are standing on a ground; both figures lean towards the cross but occupy mainly the outer half of the space allotted to them suggesting a certain reticence in drawing too close to the figure of Christ. Their stance is graceful, their expressions sad but apprehensive. Christ’s figure, which is pitifully thin, is supple and full of pathos with blood flowing from wounds in his hands, feet and side. His head is bowed in death.(2)

Much of this iconography had been well-established in manuscript illumination, at least since the late-tenth century.(3) However, in other surviving manuscripts, the cross had been illustrated as being made of felled tree trunks but without giving the impression of growth. In the de Lindesey image the usual wooden cross is replaced in toto by horizontal and vertical green stems giving rise to two rows of alternate red and white, stylised, trilobed flowers. The cross is planted in three swirls of light brown earth. This colour arrangement, set against a vivid blue background, gives a three-dimensional impression of immediacy.

Usually, crosses in illuminated manuscripts were depicted as being made of bare planks, though some were formed of two tree trunks with lopped branches or were decorated along the free edges by small sprouts or were painted green.(4) Sometimes, the flat surface was engraved with a floral design; in the Berthold and slightly later Hainricus-Sacrista Sacramentaries, illuminated in Weingarten c. 1217, progression from an overall inert design to one of approximate foliage, restricted to the cross, can be seen (Figures 2 & 3). Hanns Swarzenski thought that these crosses and the Robert de Lindesey cross may have been derived from niello work but this assessment overlooks the dynamic quality of the Lindesey image which is lacking in the essentially two-dimensional treatment of the other works (Swarzenski 1943, 52).


It is possible that the imaginative move towards a living plant may have been part of a general interest at that time in portraying indigenous flowers rather than the acanthus leaves of antiquity. Joan Evans has suggested that hedgerow flowers or herbs and other plants that were grown for use in a monastery garden may have been the inspiration for such a change (Evans 1931, 41). No attempt has been made here, nor in another extant work by this artist,(5) to depict actual flowers, but the choice of two colours for the tri-lobed component of the plant against a green background, is a good indication that blossoming was intended. Among other attributes, red may represent martyrdom and white chastity in medieval illustration.

A Tree of Life is a very old image of immortality, having existed already in the myths of Sumeria and Babylonia (Strayer 1989, 12:182). In the Middle Ages, the cross was believed to have been formed from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. One legend, in particular, gave elaborate details of its history from Paradise to Golgotha, including the observation that it blossomed (Napier 1894, XXIX). H. Child and D. Colles refer to a legend which said that the cross flowered while Christ was on it, and that the flowers died with its Creator (Child and Colles 1971, 203). Richard Cavendish, in describing corn that sprouted from the dead Osiris, compared this event with depiction of Christ shown crucified on a flowering or fruit-laden tree (Cavendish 1987, 48).

Behind the idea that the Tree flowered at the time of Christ’s death is the account of the crucifixion in the Gospel of St John: “When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said `It is finished’; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30. Revised standard version). The Incarnation had run its course. John Marsh, in his commentary on the Gospel of St John wrote: “It cannot be too strongly emphasised that for John the cross is the instrument and point of victory, not the point of defeat, which has to be reversed on Easter morning. Here, as the Lord dies, he conquers. Here, submitting to death, he vanquishes it” (Marsh 1968, 618). By inference, the Tree of Life, having formed the cross, may return to its former condition in Paradise.

Carolly Erickson has pointed out that medieval theological speculation and folklore may often influence each other (Erickson 1976, 10). In the present instance, the idea for the miniature may have come from a combination of reverent meditation on the part of the patron and reception of a popular tale by the illuminator, who may himself have been a person of religious strength as judged by his sensitive portrayal of all aspects of the scene.

Paddock Cottage, Hampton Court, Surrey


(1) London, Society of Antiquaries MS 59 Internet address:

(2) A view has been expressed that Christ chose the moment of his death by bowing his head thus obstructing his air passage at a time when breathing was already compromised. The gesture is also one of submission.

(3) London, BL. MS Harley 2904 f3v. “The psalter, one of the most important manuscripts in the history of Anglo Saxon illumination, introduces a number of features which are a break with the earlier English tradition in book painting. f3v shows an imposing figure of Christ, dead on the cross with … the Virgin and St John on either side” (Temple 1976, 64).

(4) In manuscript illumination, a cross made of lopped branches appears often, especially in England, for instance: Pierpont Morgan Library MS 709, f1v, c.1025-50; London, BL Cotton Tiberius C VI f13, c.1050; London, BL Arundel 60, fl2v, c.1060. Buds line the edges of the cross in Amiens, Bibl. Munc. Lescalopier MS 2 filter and the cross is painted green in the Eadwine Psalter leaf, London, Victoria and Albert Museum. MS 661, recto, c.1160. Representation of the cross in other media such as ivory, wood, stone, marble, enamel and metal provide many other examples.

(5) Fitzwilliam Psalter. Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum. MS 12, shortly before 1220.

References Cited

Cavendish, Richard. A History of Magic. London: Arkana, 1987.

Child, H and Colles, D. Christian Symbols. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1971.

Erickson, Carolly. The Medieval Vision: Essays in History and Perception. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Evans, Joan. Pattern: A Study of Ornament in Western Europe from 1180-1900. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931.

Marsh, John. The Gospel of St John. London: The Pelican New Testament Commentaries. Penguin Books, 1968.

Morgan, Nigel. Early Gothic Manuscripts 1190-1250: A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles. Vol. 4 (1). London: Harvey Miller, 1982.

Napier, Arthur Sampson. History of the Holy Rood-Tree: A Twelfth Century Version of the Cross-Legend. London: Early English Text Society, original series, 103, 1894.

Strayer, J.R. ed. Dictionary of the Middle Ages. 13 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989.

Swarzenski, Hanns. The Berthold Missal, Pierpoint Morgan M710 and The scriptorium of Weingarten Abbey. New York: Pierpoint Morgan Library, 1943.

Temple, E. Anglo Saxon Manuscripts 900-1066: A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles. Vol. 2. London: Harvey Miller, 1976.

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