An open book

There has always been somewhat of a mystery about the signficance of the book, presumably a Bible, held by the figure (claimed to be St Vincent) in the Panel of the Prince, one of six sections that make up what is known as the St Vincent Panels.

The medieval Latin writing has been identified as two separate texts; the left page as part of a verse from John’s gospel (14:30-31), while the facing page is thought to refer to the Preface from the liturgy of the Mass of the Holy Spirit.

The text from John’s gospel, the final two verses, is a pointer to the discourse given by Jesus to the apostles after the Last Supper when he spoke about his relationship with the Father and promised to ask the Father to send another Advocate to be with them for ever, “that Spirit of truth” (14:16-17). This promise manifested at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles and others in the Upper Room.

The discourse ends when Jesus said, “I shall not talk with you any longer, because the prince of this world is on his way. He has no power over me, but the world must be brought to know that I love the Father and that I am doing exactly as the Father told me. Come now, let us go” (14:30-31).

In ecclesiastical terms the Preface is described as “an introduction to the canon of the Mass”. In an ordinary sense the word stems from Latin praefationem, “fore-speaking, to say beforehand”. When Jesus gave his farewell discourse he was speaking “beforehand”, that is before his arrest, passion and crucifixion. Hence the prominence of the left hand and four fingers of the Saint bearing the book. He is proclaiming a message beforehand, before the “prince of the world” impacts on the life of the kneeling prince who is “prefaced” directly with the “Spirit of truth”.

The Holy Spirit is often portrayed as a dove, based on the witness of John the Baptist recorded in John’s gospel: “I saw the Spirit coming down on him (Jesus) from heaven like a dove and resting on him” (1:31).

Spirit can also mean breath or wind as revealed in John’s gospel account of Nicodemus visiting Jesus under the cover of darkness: “The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear it’s sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. That is how it is with all who are born of the Spirit” (3:8).

The cover of darkness is represented by the black cloth covering the holy book; the conversation is the word of God; the wind of the Spirit is reflected in the two turning pages; the Spirit as a dove is the shape of the Saint’s left hand, the thumb being the bird’s head nestling under the feathers of one of its wings represented by the three fingers that symbolise the Holy Trinity.

• The Father and Son reference is part of the father and son theme present elsewhere in the Panel of the Prince. The Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) also connects to a trinitarian theme in the panels, while the word “canon” is represented in several forms in the altarpiece and represents another major theme. More on this in a future post.