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"Prosper Thou Our Handyworks": Prints and Protestant Devotion at Little Gidding, 1625–1642

Michael Gaudio, University of Minnesota
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, June 18–August 15, 2012

During the summer of 1633, King Charles I passed near the estate of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire, England, the home since 1625 of Nicholas Ferrar (1592–1637) and his extended family. Ferrar’s nieces, Mary and Anna Collet, had recently become known for a handmade Gospel concordance they had created by pasting text cut from the King James Bible and images clipped from religious prints into a large folio album. Having heard of this unusual book, Charles requested to borrow it for a brief period. Although the Collet sisters humbly protested the unworthiness of their handiwork for the eyes of a king, the request was granted, and indeed Charles held on to the concordance for some months, reading it on a daily basis and even putting his own annotations in the margins. After returning the book, Charles ordered a new one from the Collets for his own use, and in a year’s time this album was presented to the king, much to his approval. When he received the concordance, he is reported to have said, “How happy a King were I if I had many more such workmen and women in my Kingdom! God’s blessing on their hearts and painful hands!”

During my two-month residency at CASVA, I worked on my book “‘Prosper Thou Our Handyworks’: Prints and Protestant Devotion at Little Gidding,” which examines the labor of those “painful hands” that between 1625 and the outbreak of civil war in 1642 produced thirteen surviving concordances, some used in the daily order of worship in Ferrar’s household and others presented as gifts. While Ferrar was responsible for the conceptual organization of the text in these albums, the actual handiwork was that of the Collet sisters. They carried out their work in a room specially designed for the purpose, known as the Concordance Chamber, where prayers written on the walls—such as “Prosper Thou, O Lord, the work of our hands. / O prosper Thou our handyworks”—reminded the sisters of the devotional value of their labors. In this room the Collets sifted through and selected works from the collection of Catholic religious prints amassed by their uncle during his travels on the European continent. Then, in the manner of collage, they cut and pasted whole prints or individual portions of prints, along with verses excised from the Bible, and composed them in artful arrangements on the page. Those who had the good fortune to peruse these volumes directed their praise not at the beauty of the books as aesthetic objects, but at the miraculous labor that went into their production. According to one account, the poet George Herbert (1593 – 1633), a recipient of one of the albums, felt blessed that he had lived “to see women’s scissors brought to so rare a use as to serve at God’s altar.”

As Herbert’s remark suggests, the feminine labor of needlework and embroidery—household arts for which the Collet sisters were also known—provides a lens through which their bookmaking can be understood and appreciated. The Collets made a reputation for themselves with their “scissorwork,” and through this model of female handiwork they created a legitimate space for the religious image within the sometimes violently antivisual climate of the 1630s and 1640s. Yet their practice remained a conflicted one, and, indeed, an iconoclastic impulse informs their tactile approach to the visual image. At Little Gidding, they cut Catholic prints apart and often defaced or censored them before pasting them into the album. Like the actions of iconoclasts during the same period, such as the Puritan William Dowsing, who led a campaign of image breaking through the churches of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire in 1643 and 1644, the Collets’ display their own “painful” struggle with the religious image and thus exhibit the self-policing against idolatry that was central to being Protestant.

“‘Prosper Thou Our Handyworks’” will be the first book-length study of the Little Gidding Bible concordances, which over the past century have received occasional attention from literary scholars for their textual content but have virtually no presence within the discipline of art history. This lack of attention is surely due to art history’s traditional privileging of the male artist’s workshop, a tendency that has relegated the many domestic uses of prints to a secondary status within the discipline. But the use of scissors and paste at Little Gidding was a sophisticated form of pictorial thought: the traces of the compilers’ labor are signs of the Collets’ “painful hands” and therefore a crucial and considered aspect of how these albums signified for their audiences. By foregrounding this labor, my book extends early modern print history beyond the printmaker’s studio while exploring the ways in which an early modern Protestant community could productively engage with religious images, including those produced for a Catholic audience.

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