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A nun praying, in 'The Desert of Religion'

A nun praying, in 'The Desert of Religion'

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 1425

Shelfmark: Cotton MS Faustina B VI, vol. II

Item number: f.20v

Length: 25

Width: 19.5

Scale: Centimetres

Genre: Illuminated manuscript

Allegory, or extensive use of symbolism in a moralising story, has a long tradition in Christian literature. 'The Desert of Religion', a poem in a northern English dialect, uses the symbol of a forest to expound the daily spiritual battle of virtue and vice. This copy has tinted half-page drawings of devotional figures with verses inscribed around them. Facing them, diagrams in the shape of trees bear the names of virtues and vices on their trunks and leaves, giving visual form to the poem's allegory. The book was made for a religious community, the location of which is now unknown. To the left, the verses of 'The Desert of Religion' tell of a 'a tree of twelve virtues' growing in the desert. To the right, a nun kneels, a large red heart hovering over her folded hands. Scroll with words above. Nine birds flutter overhead, each with a scroll in its beak naming a type of sinful thought. The soft colours and delicate shading of the figure and the birds create a startling contrast with the solid black of her clothing and the intense, mat red of the heart, giving the picture a vivid impact.

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