Christina of Markyate (c1096–1155, and probably on the right, closest to Christ), first called Theodora and born in Huntingdon, was clearly a stunner, as it is recorded that various men were attracted to her. The story is that she fled from Burhred, her husband, on their wedding night, having, after a visit to St Albans in her teens, promised to remain a virgin and devote her life to God. It is unlikely, and records suggest, that Christina didn’t actually leave the night of her wedding, though. When she did finally go, she was sheltered by various hermits on the way until she reached Roger, who was a hermit at Markyate, which is close to St Albans. She stayed with Roger until he died, and then took over his cell. Christina attracted other women to her, including her sister Margaret, and eventually the land around Markyate was given to the foundation by Canterbury Cathedral, the previous owners.
Christina was protected by and became friendly with Abbot Geoffrey (1119–1146) of St Albans, who was French and originally from the abbey at near Le Mans. Geoffrey made great changes at the abbey when he took office, commissioning various items for the church including jewelled copes, a silver candlestick, three ampullas, and he also had the shrine of St Albans rebuilt. In addition, Geoffrey commissioned a vita (life) of Christina which has now sadly been lost, but there is a fourteenth century version now in the British Library.
The relationship between Christina and Geoffery is an interesting one. Christina called Geoffery ‘my beloved’ and Geoffery called her ‘my girl and beloved maiden’. Christina had visions and she advised Geoffery as a result of these; it was said that she was ‘sensibly reproving him when his actions were not quite right’. However, Geoffrey’s regular visits to Christina did set the tongues of the gossips wagging and it was written ‘the abbot was slandered as a seducer and the maiden as a loose woman’. Perhaps her making him some underwear for his trip to Rome ‘not for pleasure but to mitigate the discomfort of the journey’ didn’t help either of their reputations!
It is likely that the St Alban’s Psalter was made especially for Christina at the instigation of Abbott Geoffrey. The illuminations are simply stunning, particularly those painted by the Alexis Master. The Psalter (Book of Psalms) was made at St Albans Abbey and no doubt kept at the priory at Markyate. Dates in the calendar relate to Christina with the dedication of her priory, and the deaths of her, and family members, are also recorded. In addition there are dates for female saints and virgins in the calendar which does suggest a female owner.
The Psalter has been being re-bound at the Getty Museum, and there has also been an exhibition of all the unbound pages alongside beautiful stained glass from Canterbury Cathedral.
Whilst at the Getty, there have been major studies on the manuscript and, as part of this, they have been able to identify the face of the devil scratched out and tiny pin pricks in the eyes of demons. A knowledge of the mind-set of the mediaeval has explained these. People believed that to see, rays of light left the eyes, ‘saw’ and then returned. The pin pricks were only in the eyes of the demons. These then ‘prevented’ a potentially dangerous event of the demons’ eyes being able to ‘look’.
It is a wonderful manuscript, and ideal for copying to learn manuscript painting techniques.