Behind the Impression

MS 240 Fol. 24v, impression

MS 240 Fol. 24v, impression

The impression found in Smith College’s MS 240 is a mystery unto itself. So far the object that made the impression is still unidentified, but as I mentioned in my previous blog post, I believe it was made by a wax seal. The vesica shape was often used for ecclesiastical seals during our relative time frame. This connection to the church helps my two theories : one is that this depicts the assassination of Thomas Becket, the second the death of Saint Stephen. Both are considered saints and martyrs; Thomas Becket brutally murdered by the sword, and Stephen stoned to death. I find myself more inclined to lean towards this scene being that of Saint Stephen’s death. Considered the first martyr of Christianity, his story is written in the book of Acts, the strongest verse lending itself to our image being Acts 7:20 “And falling on his knees…” It is easy to believe that such a prominent figure in Christianity would be depicted on an ecclesiastical seal.

The only seal I have been able to locate for comparison purposes serves to strengthen this argument.  To the right you will see a side by side picture comparing our seal to one of Saint Stephen. Not only are these two remarkably similar, but their measurements are incredibly close (left: 36x 22mm; right: 40x25mm). Curious to see if I might find more similarities between the two, I began to try and clear up the image using Photoshop. I have yet to make any of the letters distinguishable, but quite by accident I discovered something else that I found quite fascinating.


(Click image to zoom)

By tracing the outline of what I determined most likely to be the  main impression, I then fit it to the other visible impression lines. Overlapping, this shape can be repeated four times in order to fit each line of impressions, the edges aligning nearly perfectly. From this I gather that over the course of time, the seal shifted at least four different times.


(Click image to zoom)

I then realized that this might have affected the image we now see, as different parts of the impression may be overlapped. On a hunch, I measured from the bottom point of the main vesica to the head of the standing figure. Using this same measurement from the bottom of the other two most prominent shapes, I realized that some marks corresponded perfectly, those which are circled in green. Previously we had wondered if one of those marks had been an object held by the figure, but I believe this can now be ruled out. Being able to rule  out these two marks helps clear up the image a bit, but leaves a similar mark still unaccounted for, here circled by the pink. If my Saint Stephen theory is correct, this mark may be the stone being hurled by the standing figure.

Of course, I can not prove anything, only throw out my own theories. If anyone has more information or suggestions, please let me know!  In the meantime, I hope to continue trying to decipher this small medieval mystery.

seal-measturmentsThis impression is also featured in Lisa Fagin Davis’ blog ‘Manuscript Road Trip’ :


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