Love in the Margins

The Walters Art Museum W.170 Book of Hours, ca. 1430-1440 333. fol. 165v

Love in the Margins
by MaryPat Campbell

This wintry day I set to work. My skill with inking the great capitals and minor letters improves each season. Two decades ago, my father brought me to this monastery. Our long journey made me sick for home, while he talked mile after mile about the honour of being schooled in the art of the scribe.

As a monk I have taken vows of chastity and obedience. I have graduated from apprenticeship duties such as preparing the vellum, mixing the inks, pricking the quire, to those of a skilled illuminator.

As each task becomes habitual, an attentive reverie overtakes me. I imagine Mary, not virgin, but Magdalen, outcast and sinner. I have studied likenesses of her laying her basket of rosy eggs on stony ground at the entrance to the tomb on Easter day. These eggs, although brittle and delicate, blush red with passion. His tomb and her eggs hold within them the spark of new and sacred life. Denigrated by my brothers in Christ over centuries, I redeem her with my quill and brush as my body and soul colour with longing for this other Mary.

I sketch her exquisite face in the margins. The rendering of her hair will darken on the vellum to a deep and lasting black from my brush. Her nose is made elegant with the tip of my quill, while her cheeks are warmly tinted with a full brush of rose madder.

My quills and brushes are sharp and full, my inks vibrant and lustrous. Scarlet and indigo, crimson and ultramarine, the blue-black night skies I gild with stars. Magdalen is glorious; like the texts I faithfully transcribe. Her elegant face hides in the capitals, in the generous and welcoming ‘O’, the serpent’s tail curl of the Celtic ‘d’ and the ‘g’.

In the margins, she is both shrouded and visible. She sways before me as I transcribe and illuminate. I press the quill’s inked hairlines into soft vellum where they will sink and stain these holy pages forever. Reaching inside me like a spoon, she scoops out the forbidden territories of my mind. The lamp burns low and will soon snuff out, I must light another.

MaryPat Campbell lives and works in London. While her interest in short-form writing is recent, her interest in early manuscripts and illumination is not. These two bring together her love of early design, calligraphy, the craft and creative work of writing. Although working on short fiction for a couple of years, she has not published before.

Audio recording read by Colin Campbell.

Image of Mary Magdalene courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, Digital Walters project.  W.170 Book of Hours, ca. 1430-1440; 333. fol. 165v. (CC0 1.0)