Christ: Beauty or the Beast?

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.

LTK 322 f. 2v
Leiden, University Library, LTK 322, f. 2v – photo LS

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,

yielding fragrance.

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.

Leiden, LTK 322 f. 36v
Leiden, University Library, LTK 322, f.36v – photo LS

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’.


Further reading:

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 Sarijshandschriften: 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.



Medieval Dating Advice

Practical advice on love and dating can nowadays be found in magazines and self-help books, but in medieval times one could consult an ars amandi (art of loving), such as Dirc Potter’s (c.1370-1428) Der minnen loep (The Course of Love). What did he teach his readers about topics such as flirting, sex, and consent?

Binding LTK 205
Binding of Leiden, University Library, LTK 205, one of the two surviving manuscripts of Der minnen loepsource

From the Field to the Bedroom

Potter lists four stages of love, a common trope that originated in Latin literature. The stages were not a fixed set, but usually consisted of five steps: seeing, speaking, kissing, touching and the deed. However, many variants with a smaller or larger number of stages can be found.

At Potter’s first stage, the (male) lover likes to see his beloved and starts ‘flirting’ by looking at her, speaking to her in a friendly manner and touching her hand. This first approach takes place in the public space: on the street or in the field (opter straten of op dat velt). Also, the man walks passed the house of his beloved to catch a glimpse of her. The second stage is set in the garden (inden gairde). The lovers greet each other friendly, hold hands, speak sweet words, give each other flowers and eventually kiss goodbye. At the third stages they go inside and up into a room, where after falling down on the bed (up een koetskijn) they kiss and embrace, exchanging sweet words again, and the man is allowed to touch the woman’s neck, cheeks and breasts. The fourth and final stage, coitus, is only preserved for marriage and takes place on the bed (opten bedde).

Potter is not very traditional in his use of the stages of love. He does not primarily structure them around sensual acts, as was customary, but by the locations in which the acts take place. The lovers go from the public outside world to the intimate bedchamber. The stages seem to have some fluidity: the bed occurs in the third and fourth step, and several acts and gestures, such as kissing, are part of more than one stage.

LTK 205 f. 155v-156r
Leiden, University Library, LTK 205, ff. 155v-156r: Tristan and Iseult – source

Leiden, University Library


Death and Deceit
One of the two surviving manuscripts of Der minnen loep is kept in Leiden: Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden, LTK 205. It was made in 1486 in Holland and contains many illustrations. The images often include both an exterior and interior space, which can, in some instances, be connected to specific stages of love.

An example of this is the illustration of the famous Ovidian story of Pyramus and Thisbe. In the version of the story told by Potter, they were lover who only had seen each other through a small latticed window. When they arranged to meet each other at a well outside of town tragedy struck: Thisbe, who arrived first, encountered a lioness drinking at the well. Thisbe fled, but left her cloak, which the lioness tore apart with her blooded teeth. After finding the ripped and blooded cloak, Pyramus assumed that his beloved had died and stabbed himself with his sword. When Thisbe came back and found the dead body, she followed him in his death.

LTK 205 f. 102v-103r
Leiden, University Library, LTK 205, ff. 102v-103r: The deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe — source

Potter uses this story as an example of love that never came past the first stage. He warns lovers not to rush but patiently await the second stage. The illustration shows the two dead lovers in a hilly field. In the front we can see the houses of the town, with the latticed windows.

An example of the fourth step of love is the story of Achilles and Deidamia. Achilles, disguised as a woman, sleeps in Deidamia’s bed and goes, against her will, to the fourth stage. Deidamia is angry with him and only when Achilles leaves she realizes that she actually loves him. The moral of this story about love is of course horrible according to our standards and not something we would find now in modern self-help books about love: although violence is not permitted, sometimes a man has to ‘help’ a woman to overcome fear by using a list.

LTK 205 f. 126r
Leiden, University Library, LTK 205, f. 126r: Achilles and Deidamia in bed – source

In the illustration we see the two ‘lovers’ in bed. They are inside, separated from the public life that is going on outside: some things belong to the privacy of the bedchamber.


Further reading:

Dirc Potter, Der minnen loep, ed. Pieter Leendertz (Leiden 1846).

A.M.J. van Buuren, Der minnen loep van Dirc Potter: Studie over een Middelnederlandse Ars amandi (Utrecht 1979).

Lionel J. Friedman, ” Gradus amoris.” Romance Philology 19 (1965/66), 167-177.



Images of LTK 205 are reproduced with kind permission of Leiden University Libaries.

A slightly different version of this blog post can be read on the Leiden Arts in Society Blog.