Ic aenbede dijn hilighe onnosel mont daer du dat cussen mede ontfenste van dinen verrader. Ic aenbede dijn alre hilichste woerde der ewigher wijsheit ende verduldicheit godliker mijnnen die uut dinen monde ghenghen. Ic aenbede dijn rode rose verwinghe lippen die in dijnre doet bleec waren, dijn tande die wijt waren ghelijc den elpenbeen die beweecht worden doe du voer dinen sueten monde ghesleghen wordes. Ic anebede dijn honich uloeijende tonghe die dorstich was doe di an den cruce hengheste ende die mit edic ende mit gallen uerbittert was.
I worship your holy, innocent mouth with which you received that kiss from your betrayer. I worship your most holy words of eternal wisdom and endurance of divine love that came out of your mouth. I worship your rose-coloured lips that were pale in your death, your teeth white like ivory that were shaken when you were hit on your sweet mouth. I worship your honey flowing tongue that was thirsty when you hang on the cross and that was embittered with vinegar and gall.
This description of Christ’s mouth can be found in a prayer book belonging to the so-called Sarijs manuscripts, made for a woman. Christ’s body is presented as beautiful but as ugly in his suffering at the same time, as made explicit when his beauty is said to be “naer ghelike als een melaetschen menschen” (“in the likeness of a leprous man”).
This apparent contradiction regarding the physical appearance of Christ can be understood better when considering the different traditions that come together in this prayer.
The Secular descriptio pulchritudinis
In the classical and medieval rhetorical tradition, description of beautiful persons were meant to convey praise, implying a connection between inner and outer beauty. The French author Matthew of Vendôme, for example, praised the beautiful Helen of Troy in his Ars versificatoria (c. 1175), saying that “[t]he charm of her rose-coloured mouth longs for kisses”.
The prayer to Christ’s body parts evokes this secular tradition by speaking of ‘rose-coloured lips’ and ‘teeth white as ivory’.
Confusion in Scripture
In the Bible, contrasting statements can be found about Christ’s appearance. An important source for his beauty is the Song of Songs. This Old Testament book is a dialogue between a bride and bridegroom, who praise each other’s body parts in ascending and descending order. The bride says about her lover, for example:
His cheeks are like beds of spices,
His lips are lilies,
distilling liquid myrrh.
In the medieval Christian exegetical tradition, the bridegroom was identified with Christ or God, while the bride could stand for the human soul, longing for divine union. Thus, the praise of the bridegroom’s beauty could also be applied to the body of Christ.
In other places Christ is described as unattractive, such as in Isaiah 53:2-3:
[H]e had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Transcending Human Categories
The confusion about Christ’s appearance can be understand as an indication that God transcends human categories of thought such as ugly and beautiful. Thus, the contradiction is part of the message. This notion can help us understand the many oppositions in the prayer that we started with. Kisses are often given by a lover, but also by a betrayer; the ivory teeth evoke the praise by a secular lover but they are mutilated; and the honey flowing tongue is given a bitter taste. Only Christ is able to be beautiful, ugly, suffering and loving at the same time.
The Visual Image
I will conclude with one last contradiction, which can be found in an image occurring twice in this prayer book (see the image above). We see a depiction of the five wounds of Christ and some of the arma Christi: the three nails with which he was crucified and the spear that pierced his side. Christ’s face is also depicted, black. This type is called the vera icon (true image): according to legend, the veil of the woman Veronica was imprinted with Christ’s face. The black colour points to its ‘visible invisibility’.
An edition of the prayer can be found in: D.A. Stracke, Een leeder van VIII trappen (Antwerpen 1929), pp. 68-73.
Lydia Wierda, De Sarijs–handschriften: Laat-middeleeuwse handschriften uit de IJsselstreek (Zwolle: Waanders 1995).
Michele Bacci, The Many Faces of Christ: Portraying the Holy in the East and West, 300 to 1300 (Chicago 2014).
Michael Camille, ‘Mimetic Identification and Passion Devotion in the Later Middle Ages: A Double-Sided Panel by Meister Francke’, in: A.A. MacDonald, H.N.B. Ridderbos and R.M. Schlusemann (eds.), The Broken Body: Passion Devotion in Late-Medieval Culture (Groningen 1998), pp. 183-210.