Manko and manuscript.jpg

Virtue vs Vice

in the Battle for the Soul

Faith first takes the field, her rough dress disordered, her shoulders bare, her hair untrimmed, her arms exposed; for in the sudden glow of ambition, she takes no thought to gird on arms or armour.
— Prudentius (translated by HJ Thompson)

From the geometric to the gestural, Anglo-Saxon manuscripts reveal a wealth of experimental design. Celebrating the page, their creators bring together word, decoration and illustration to illuminate stories of glorious leaders, Christian heroes, brave adventurers and fantastical beasts. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, the British Library’s blockbuster exhibition, revealed some of the finest manuscripts of the period, including an early version of The Psychomachia, one of the most influential stories of the Middle Ages.

The Psychomachia is an epic battle of Virtue versus Vice as they compete for the human soul. Composed in by the fourth-century Roman poet Prudentius, it had a profound influence on Anglo-Saxon writers and artists. Richly allegorical, each Virtue and Vice is personified as a female figure in the Classical tradition, but it is a fiercely Christian message, with the gruesome victories of the Virtues often accompanied by lengthy sermons on morality.

Drawings by Keren Worsley inspired by The Guthlac Roll

Today, the uncompromising position of the Virtues and the ruthless victimisation of the Vices makes the reader question where the true morality lies. Alongside this, we can take the spirited designs of early manuscripts and draw parallels with contemporary comic books and graphic design. This makes the story ripe for reinterpretation.

On 16 & 17 February 2019, Figuration invited 16 artists to reinterpret The Psychomachia in life-drawing masterclass as part of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxons programme. In collaboration with Art Model Collective, we staged four of the book’s seven battles featuring models Carla Tofano, Manko Sebastian and Roy Joseph Butler with props and contemporary battle gear by Rob Goodwin. The tutor was Leo Crane and the event was hosted with Roy Joseph Butler and Jason Atomic. Photos by Toby Deveson.

Click on the images below to read the description of each battle. Extracts are adapted from the English translation by H.J. Thomson available on The Internet Archive.


Featured Artists

Anne De’Ath | Clifford Gabb | Emma Garrett Anderson | Geoffrey Mitchell | Ismail Ucci | Jiahe Liu | Wendy Farley | Vivienne Edwards | Mary Down | Veronika Aurens | Keren Worsley | Pei-Chao Liao | Julian Blyth | Zarina Kawaja | Peter Gladwin | Mary Barry King | Jason Atomic | Leo Crane | and artists who wish to remain anonymous

Creative Team

With many thanks to Katy Jackson and Charlotte Wardley from the British Library Learning team, as well as Alison Hudson, Project Curator of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, who helped identify The Psychomachia as rich inspiration for our masterclass.