The Manuscript Illustrations of Pearl

The four illustrations of Cotton Nero A.x. that preface Pearl provide visual evidence in support of the idea that the Dreamer and the Pearl-Maiden relate to one another as a man and a woman in a courtly love relationship. [1] These pictures provide the only known contemporary medieval commentary on Pearl. [2] As such, they act as “glosses” pertinent to interpretation of the poem. They do not depict the Pearl-Maiden as an infant or child, but as a young woman, and they position the bodies of the Dreamer and Maiden in relation to one another in a way that evokes the tension of male desire and female resistance typical of courtly love romances.

getimage-3.exe - Version 2In the first illustration, viewers can see a garden setting with the Dreamer dressed in a red, loose-fitting robe with large sleeves; he has a blond beard and wavy hair. Foliage surrounds him. He is asleep in the garden beside a darkened patch that looks like a human body lying on its side, back to the Dreamer, and that the Dreamer’s hands are reaching out toward the lower back of this body (almost as if the two of them were in a spooning position). The pearlescent, white flowers growing out of the dark patch also draw the attention of our eyes. The blue hood, with liripipe floating upward through the trees toward the sky as if on the wind, may be the illustrator’s way of envisioning line: “my spirit sprang into space.” [3] Certainly there is tension between the hands reaching downward toward the mound and the thin liripipe disappearing upward while the thicker part, the medieval hood with face opening turned up and five digging settles flying out, is pulled sideways. Between the Dreamer’s hands is what appears to be a large, white pearl falling toward the ground.

getimage-4.exeThe second illustration, which depicts the dreamer standing beside a stream and pointing directly over a dark bush (the same color as the dark mound in the previous illustration) at a fish within it, may make viewers wonder about whether the image should be interpreted naturalistically, allegorically or psychologically. In nature, it wouldn’t be unusual for a man to see fish in a stream. However, the poem itself makes no mention of any fish, but rather emphasizes the bejeweled bed of the river when the dreamer reaches it. [4] Interpreted allegorically, medieval Christian iconography has a long tradition of representing the fish as a symbol for Christ. Yet we know that the dreamer feels estranged from Christ until the end of the poem—and the fish in this stream does not look like the traditional ichthus[5] From a psychological perspective, is this a phallic or fertility symbol? [6] Perhaps viewers are meant to think of Peter, whom Jesus promised to make a “fisher of men,” [7] or of medieval astrology, and the twelfth sign of the zodiac, Pisces, associated with water and the beginning of spring (February and March). [8] Whatever the case may be, the fact that the picture shows the Dreamer pointing at this fish so dramatically suggests that the illustrator wanted to provoke viewers to ask questions and seeking meaning.

The third illustration represents the Dreamer on one side of the stream and the golden-crowned Pearl-Maiden on the other. The dark color associated with the mound in the first illustration and the bush in the second has entirely disappeared. Instead there is a five-pointed, star-shaped flower at the Dreamer’s feet with a pearlescent, white center. The Dreamer and the Pearl-Maiden contrast with one another: he in his red robe and she in a high-necked white one, gathered at the waist. As Kimberly Jack has explained, this dress is a “sideless surcoat”:

“a specific form of aristocratic dress … which was worn to distinguish royalty during ceremonial occasions, was portrayed by artists as a costume for brides, and was featured in funeral effigies from the mid-fourteenth-century through the fifteenth century. The symbolic and semantic content of this garment style would have been clear to the poem’s late-fourteenth century readers, allowing the poet to visually underscore the Pearl-Maiden’s existence as a departed soul, and her newly elevated status as a Queen of Heaven and Bride of Christ, prior to the dialogue that explicates the details to the grief stricken and oblivious Dreamer.” [9]

In this illustration, unlike in the poet’s description, her blond hair is braided. [10] The two figures seem to be having a conversation with their hands. The Dreamer reaches out to the Pearl-Maiden, pointing at her, while she holds up the palms of both of her hands as if to ask him to halt or stop. Is this a pose that courtly lovers might take, the entreating lover and the sovereign beloved? Viewers may notice that while the Pearl-Maiden is crowned, the Dreamer is not, a symbol that implies her higher rank and authority.

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Then we notice that three fish are depicted in the stream, one swimming in the opposite direction of the other two. What do these fish represent? Is this Trinitarian symbolism? Or might the three fish correspond to the three characters of the poem, the Dreamer, the Pearl-Maiden, and the Lamb? The Pearl-Maiden and her lord, the Lamb, may very well be “swimming in the same direction,” but the Dreamer’s conversation with the Pearl-Maiden in the poem suggests he is “swimming against the current.” This interpretation may be reinforced by the fact that the gazes of the Dreamer and Pearl-Maiden do not meet; each is looking away from the other. But the Dreamer’s pointing finger is just over the nose of the fish in the middle, between the other two fish, and if we follow the arc of his finger pointing across the stream to the body of the Pearl-Maiden, we find that its trajectory ends, not at the Pearl-Maiden’s face or heart, but at the mons Veneris, which is modestly concealed by the Pearl-Maiden’s white robes.

The fourth illustration shows the Dreamer and the golden-crowned Pearl-Maiden still on opposite sides of the stream, only now the Pearl-Maiden is removed behind a crenellated castle-wall decorated with eight crosses, a tower beside her and a small fortress behind her. The conversation of the speaking hands continues, with the Dreamer reaching up to her and turning his face in a painfully awkward angle to look up at her. She, meanwhile, is holding one hand to her heart while the other one is extended downward toward the Dreamer in the position a lady might for a suitor to take it and kiss it. The stream now has only two fish in it, much enlarged and looking somewhat ominous, again facing each other so that at least one of them is working against the current. Meanwhile, the dark color associated with the mound and the bush in the first and second illustrations, absent in the third, has reappeared in a low, dark bush near the Dreamer’s feet. Is this representative of the threat of death?


Scholarship on these illustrations has primarily been concerned with evaluating their quality, whether crude or sophisticated, [11] but visual interpretation of their meaning is called for in relation to the settings, characters, and themes of the poem. While definitive decisions about what these illustrations are meant to convey may not be possible, it seems unlikely that the illustrations represent a relationship between a father and his two-year-old daughter. [12] If the only contemporary commentator on the poem, the illustrator, did not apparently think that this was the nature of the relationship between the Pearl-Maiden and the Dreamer, should we?

A medieval reader glancing at these illustrations would not suppose the Dreamer is speaking as a father to his daughter. Instead, the man’s lower position in relation to the woman’s elevated one might suggest a submissive lover conversing with his lady. The iconography of the Pearl-Maiden’s crowned head and castle home, the Dreamer’s out-stretched hands, and the garden setting all suggest amour courtois[13] This is not the only possible interpretation of the poem, and modern critics might well disagree with the illustrator’s understanding of it. Yet it seems, to borrow a phrase from Gross’s essay on courtly language, that the illustrations evoke “the invariable triad of the courtly love-lyric: a lady identified with ideal perfection, a lover who aspires to and is ennobled by that perfection, and the inviolable distance separating the two.” [14]

This effect parallels that of the love language in the poem. The language of love in Pearl, as I have already suggested, is contextualized by the Song of Song’s influence on both Marian hymns and courtly love lyrics. An investigation of the larger literary context of Pearl’s love language will lend further support to the idea that the poem depicts a lover-beloved relationship between the Dreamer and the Pearl-Maiden.

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[1] The illustrations are now available online, in full color, at the Cotton Nero A.x project; they have been reproduced as black and white plates in Robert Blanch and Julian Wasserman, From Pearl to Gawain: Forme to Fynisment (University of Florida Press, 1995), 95-96 as well.

[2] See Jennifer Lee, “The Illuminating Critic: The Illustrator of Cotton Nero A.x,” Studies in Iconography 3 (1977): 17-46. The manuscript illustrations are also reproduced in this article.

[3] Pearl, line 61. Here is an illustration of a medieval hood (turned right wise up), with the face opening to the left, liripipe stretched out, and dagging settles that would rest on the shoulders:


My thanks go to Dr. Kimberly Jack for her insights on the hood.

[4] The illustrator himself emphasizes the stream for it appears in three of the four pictures prefacing Pearl.

[5] “Ichthus” is the Greek word for fish. It is also an acrostic: “ησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ”, (Iēsous Christos Theou Hyios Sōtēr), meaning, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. The source of this interpretation of the acrostic is Augustine, De Civitate Dei, XVIII.23.

[6] On the sexual implications of the Dreamer’s impasse at the stream, see Bullon-Fernandez, “Beyond the Water,” 47-48.

[7] Matt. 4:18-19.

[8] The symbol for pisces is, however, two fish connected to one another and pulling in different directions, which the Pearl manuscript illustrator does not depict.

[9] Kimberly Jack, “What is the Pearl-Maiden Wearing, and Why?” Medieval Clothing and Textiles, vol. 7, ed. Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2011), 65-86.

[10] Note that the Pearl-poet describes the Pearl-Maiden’s hair as free-flowing, not braided (ll. 213-14). The fact that she is depicted with braided hair in the illustrations contrasts with Jennifer Lee’s claim that the illustrator is consistently faithful to the text of the poems he illustrates. For a discussion of the possible significance of the Pearl-Maiden’s hair-style, see Peter J. Lucas, “The Pearl-Maiden’s Free-Flowing Hair,” English Language Notes 15 (1977-78): 94-95.

[11] See Paul F. Reichardt, “‘Several Illuminations, Coarsely Executed’: The Illustrations of the Pearl Manuscript.” Studies in Iconography 18 (1997): 119-42.

[12] It can be interesting to contrast the fourteenth-century illustrations from the manuscript with the modern illustration on the front cover of the CD for the Chaucer Studio’s recording of the Pearl poem. The latter is of a very childlike, young girl with a round face and blonde hair who could easily be two years old.

[13] For the image of a lover’s outstretched hand in a garden setting, compare the illustrations from the Pearl manuscript with an image of two lovers playing a game in the Luttrell Psalter (folio 76v), reproduced in Janet Backhouse, Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter (University of Toronto Press, 1989), 47.

[14] Gross, “Courtly Language,” 83.



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