Comics outside of Books: Victoria and Albert Museum


Photo from V&A website. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Have you seen the medieval comics at the Victoria and Albert Museum?

The V&A explains how one could ‘read’ images in the medieval period (specifically, from 800 to 1200):

Story-telling images could be found throughout the church, both on the building itself and on the various utensils that were used during the services. These narratives were functional and operated at different levels. Some were meant to educate the illiterate, to inform the congregation or to encourage good Christian behaviour. Others were aimed at the more literate elite. They reminded the clergy of the Christian message or contained interpretations of theological doctrine.

None of the ‘comics’ in this post are in books or manuscripts. Many of them concern the medieval Europe’s most popular superhero – Christ.

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Plaque with scenes from the life of Christ. Unknown origin, c. 850. Ivory. Reading from the top  the scenes are the Flight into Egypt, the Massacre of the Innocents, Christ in the Temple, and the miracle of the Marriage at Cana (when water was turned to wine). (Medieval and Renaissance, room 8)

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Diptych with scenes from the Passion of Christ. France or Germany, c. 1350. Elephant ivory. There are 12 scenes, which are (left to right, top to bottom): the Entry into Jerusalem; the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet; the Last Supper; the Agony in the Garden, the Betrayal; the Flagellation; Christ carrying his cross; the Crucifixion; the Entombment; the Resurrection; Christ meeting St. Mary Magdalene in the Garden; and the Incredulity of St. Thomas. (Sculpture, room 111)

The St Margaret Altarpiece (Medieval and Renaissance, room 50b) is too late to be described as ‘medieval’, but I’m including it anyway because I love St Margaret. According to legend, Margaret was swallowed by Satan in dragon form and made the sign of the cross to split the dragon open and escape. She then had a face-off with a demon before ultimately being martyred for her faith. Here’s one version of the episode in Middle English:

Þet milde meiden Margarete grap ϸet grisliche ϸing, ϸet hire ne agras nawiht, ant heteueste toc him bi ϸet eateliche top ant hef him up ant duste him dunriht to ϸer eorðe, ant sette hire riht fot on his ruhe swire… (Katherine Group Seinte Margarete)

The gentle (!) maiden Margaret seized that frightful creature, who frightened her not at all, and grasped him firmly by his hideous hair and swung him upwards and threw him down again straight to the ground, and set her right foot on his rough neck… (trans. Bella Millett)

The altarpiece is from Germany (Hamburg or Lüneburg), c. 1520. Several artists would have worked together on a large piece like this.

One of my favourite objects in the V&A is this triptych with scenes from the Apocalypse, made by Master Bertram von Minden c. 1380 in Hamburg, Germany (Medieval and Renaissance, room 10). It contains 45 scenes from the Revelation of St John, or the Apocalypse, along with inscriptions interpreting the events.

Medieval comics can appear on a bone casket…

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Casket with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. The Netherlands, 1400-1500. Bone and steel. (Sculpture, room 111)

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Panels from an ivory casket. Lower Rhineland, possibly Werden (Germany), c. 800. The V&A says, ‘The narrative takes place as an integrated sequence, rather than separating events out. Thus the wise men following the star, the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi are shown in one.’ (Medieval and Renaissance, room 8)

…or even a comb.

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Liturgical comb. England (St Albans, Hertfordshire), c. 1130. Ivory. V&A: ‘The images give an abbreviated account of Christ’s birth and death. The Nativity and the Flight into Egypt are at the top and bottom left, with the Crucifixion and the Entombment at the top and bottom right. In between are events prior to his trial, focusing on the Last Supper.’ (Medieval and Renaissance, room 8)

Don’t you wish you could read Watchmen on a comb?

Unless indicated otherwise, the photos used in this post are my own. The Middle English and translation of ‘Seinte Margarete’ are from ‘Medieval English Prose for Women: From the Katherine Group and “Ancrene Wisse”‘, ed. Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 44-85.

Dr Hana Videen (@beoshewulf) teaches medieval literature at King’s College London. She was awarded funding by the Cultural Institute at King’s to lead the Medieval Comics project, collaborating with comic artist Karrie Fransman. She reimagines medieval animals with artist James Merry through her Deorhord project (@deorhord), and she tweets the Old English Word of the Day (@OEWordhord).


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