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The Iconography of the Ivory of the Saints

Ivory of the Saints
Ivory of the Saints

The ivory diptych from which the Montfort series book covers are taken

In Catholic tradition saints, and Jesus, can be identified by an object, an animal or a situation that is associated with their history. The central figure in the righthand panel of the medieval bone diptych that I’ve used for the cover of my Montfort books shows the figure of a man wrapped in a cloak, displaying bare feet and holding a palm frond. It would be the figure of Christ of Palm Sunday, but the palm is also the image of a pilgrim, one who had traveled to Palestine. The bare feet signify a penitent, not really appropriate for Jesus. Simon was known to follow the commitments of a penitent and at his death was found to be wearing a hair shirt. The surrounding images of saints with their symbolic attributes may provide further clues to the identity of the central figure.

During the last years of Simon de Montfort’s life, a folk belief became wide spread that he was the Angel of the Apocalypse, or perhaps even the Risen Christ. The millennial theology of Joachim del Flor had predicted that around the year 1260 (using a base 12 system of reconning) a new, thousand-year World Age would begin. The New Millennium would see the dissolution of monarchy, and even of nations, as a unified world took form governed by universal democracy.

This belief was preached by the Dominicans and Franciscans until it was banned, yet their teaching continued sub rosa with dedicated followers especially among the common people of England. Simon de Montfort’s creation of Parliament was perceived as the opening move of this coming age and Simon himself came to be looked upon – worshipped by some – as the Angel of the Apocalypse. The civil rebellion that arose in his support was seen as the chaos that was to mark democracy’s beginning. By many, Montfort was believed to be the Risen Christ.

Simon himself seems to have ignored this cult which, as a devout and conventional Catholic, he must have considered heresy. He witnessed the violent uprising of people and treated it as criminal, doing what he could in his position of political power to make all violence subject to the courts of law. 

But the Crown, and the lords who were jealous of his power, took the commoners’ beliefs very seriously. After Simon’s death at the battle of Evesham, King Henry III made it a hanging crime to even so much as speak well of Montfort, far less to worship him. But at the spot where Simon died, on Evesham’s Green Hill, a spring came up that was believed to have miraculous healing waters. The Rishanger Chronicle, of the period, is an entire book-length record of the miracles performed by Simon de Montfort after his death. Worship of Montfort continued, but secretly.

Could the central image of the ivory have a double meaning as both Christ and Simon de Montfort? Several of the saints in the surrounding cells of the ivory can be identified and pointedly show a relationship to Montfort. And the lefthand panel, clearly carved by another hand and probably at a somewhat later date, shows an even clearer association with Montfort.

Each panel of the diptych is 4½ inches tall by 2½ inches wide, set in a hinged wooden frame of more recent, though very old, make.

The righthand panel, with the large central figure, shows the following images from the top to the upper righthand corner, down the right side, across the bottom and up the lefthand side. I’ve number these 1 through 8.

1. A crowned and bearded figure flanked by angels. God the Father.

2 A knight slaying a dragon: Saint George, patron saint of England.

3. A woman holding a chalice: Mary Magdalen bringing balm to Jesus’s tomb (?)

4. Crowned figure in kingly robes holding a staff and a ring: England’s Saint Edward the Confessor

5. Man with Cross and book. (Possibly Saint Paul, author of the Epistles of the New Testament? Martyred at the same time as Saint Peter, but most scholars hold that he was beheaded, not crucified.)

6. Woman with sword and a (spindle or ciborium). (A martyr, St. Catherine of Alexandria or Saint Lucy?)

7. Bearded man holding a small dog. (Saint Francis whose order taught Joachim’s millennial predictions and supported Montfort?)

8. Saint Peter with the Key to Heaven.

The lefthand panel:

 Upper cell, from left to right:

A crowned King with a cloak with fleurs des lis: Saint Louis. Simon de Montfort’s friend. (Saint Louis was canonized August 11, 1297 so this may date the earliest date of the making of this ivory, or King Louis was included for his famed saintliness and association with Montfort, before he was canonized.)

A monk with a wolf or dog holding a torch in its mouth: Saint Dominic. Dominic was Simon’s father’s partner (Simon de Montfort V) in the Albigensian Crusade. Dominic’s mother, when she was pregnant, dreamt of a dog or wolf with a torch in his mouth. Her dream was interpreted to her to mean that the child she was carrying would set the world afire with his brilliant preaching. Some interpret the name of the preaching Order he founded as Domini canes, the dogs of God.

Middle cell from left to right:

A monk being struck with a sword: Saint Thomas Becket. Murdered for attempting to curb the royal powers of King Henry II. (Simon curbed the powers of King Henry III and was killed by swords by the royalist faction.)

A man holding a heart and a stylus and being threatened by a serpent: Saint John the Evangelist, threatened by poison. (Most of the lords who composed The Provisions of Oxford, the format for representative government and curbing of the king, were killed by poison. It was Montfort who rescued the Oxford meeting’s notes and, from them, formed the representative government called Parliament. It is John who wrote of the Apocalypse which Simon’s followers believed he was bringing to realization.)

Bottom cell:

A monk with a book from which he appears to be teaching, with a bell (?) at the left edge; a monk offering a chalice: The book and the chalice are images of the scholarly and mystical foundations of Christianity. The bell may represent summoning to the teaching and faith. The small figure apparently holding up the upper two sections might be intended to indicate that teaching and faith are the foundations that support the Church and the saints depicted above.