April 30, 2015

No dice required: A medieval prayer wheel surfaces, but how it was used is anyone’s guess

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Liesborn Gospel - Prayer Wheel - Latin to English translation. For use with RNS-PRAYER-WHEEL, transmitted on April 30, 2015, Photo courtesy of Les Enluminures Ltd.

Liesborn Gospel - Prayer Wheel - Latin to English translation. For use with RNS-PRAYER-WHEEL, transmitted on April 30, 2015, Photo courtesy of Les Enluminures Ltd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NEW YORK (RNS) The directions, if a little stilted, look familiar: “The Order Of The Diagram Written Here Teaches The Return Home.”

Think Parcheesi or Sorry.

But then think again. The board is not cardboard or plastic; it’s 1,035-year-old vellum. And there are no dice — just prayers.

Care to play?

In April, Manhattan’s Les Enluminures Gallery, a dealer in medieval manuscripts, put a book on sale with a first page so rare that only five of its kind are known to exist. In fact, the book itself is rare, with a massive ancient carved-oak cover and sturdy clasps of worked copper. Dating back to the year 980, it contains just the Gospels, the four accounts of Jesus’ life.

The volume’s commissioning was unusual. It appears to have been ordered up by a woman for women: An abbess in Liesborn, Germany, named Berthildis, had it made for the highborn ladies who had traded the medieval court for her convent.

But its true mystery dates more than a century later, when someone opened the Gospels, which would have been used primarily for display and oath-taking, to its blank first page, set a compass needle in the center and began drawing concentric circles.

Call it the Liesborn Prayer Wheel.

The wheel’s outermost circle consists of the instructions we’ve read, but in medieval Latin. The next is labeled “Seven Petitions” and contains seven quotations from the Lord’s Prayer (“Daily Bread,” “Will Be Done,” “Kingdom Come.”) In the third circle, seven “Gifts Of The Holy Spirit” (“Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel … ”) run clockwise in red, interspersed with seven events in Christ’s life (Incarnation, Baptism, Passion Day of Judgment) in black. The fourth segment contains seven groups blessed in Jesus’ Beatitudes (“Meek, Poor in Spirit, Mourn”) and — opposite each — their rewards (“Inherit the Earth,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Be Comforted”). Finally, at the center, surrounding the pinhole of the compass, is the word “DEUS,” or God.

If much of life in the High Middle Ages seems foreign to us, the detailed workings of the wheel — along with four others like it that have survived to the present — are a real riddle.

Schematic prayer guides were more common in later centuries, said Lauren Mancia, a medievalist at Brooklyn College who has examined the Liesborn Wheel.

“Monks and nuns in the Central Middle Ages often get a bad rap for unsystematic thinking — doing all this prayer by rote, mumbling and not caring about the sense,” said Mancia. “This diagram suggests that they’re not just mumbling, they’re using a mnemonic device to remember and internalize, or even to make an inner journey.”

However, the path of that journey is not obvious.

Clearly the nun was supposed to find her way from the Lord’s Prayer to God; but how? Did she read her way around one wheel and move in to the next? Or did she drill downward along each of the wheel’s “spokes,” and then start again on the next spoke? Or were the seven events in Christ’s life the key to the diagram, connecting its prayers to the Gospels that make up the rest of the book?

Was it more of an instruction, or a meditative aid? Was it a one-shot exercise or meant to be repeated again and again? And what to make of the black and red stipples that show up seemingly randomly on the diagram, making it look a bit like the Marauder’s Map in the Harry Potter books?

Perhaps some directions got lost. The Gospels is missing its flyleaf, the protective page before the first page. Maybe the full instructions for prayer were inked there. Or maybe they were intentionally omitted. Medieval labyrinths included dead ends to make the experience less boring and more memorable, and to stimulate further creative entry into the meditation.

That would mean the nuns reading that book would be almost as clueless and curious as we are.

Les Enluminures’ asking price on the Gospels is a hefty $6.5 million, but speculation on how to use the prayer wheel is free.

How do you think the prayer wheel is meant to be used?

  • Using this image of the translated prayer wheel, send us your idea of how it might have worked or an explanation of how it works best for you. You don’t have to be a nun or even religious to try to put yourself into the medieval mindset. We'll share the most compelling responses next week.

YS/MG END VAN BIEMA

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  • Duke T

    Here’s a take on this – as a person meditates on God,

    1) the outermost prayer circle or meditation helps focus on physical needs — daily bread, following God’s will, staying away from temptation and forgiving.

    2) the middle layer of meditation helps focus on a persons intellectual needs — gaining wisdom, understanding from God.

    3) the innermost prayer circle is a test on the persons spirituality and/or closeness to God — is for someone who has become so close to God that they willingly surrender to the blessedness situation.

    Probably the blessed ones in (3) above are those that are closest to God and have fulfilled all the meditative layers of knowing who God really is?

  • John Mancia

    Conceptually, the prayer wheel appears to fall somewhere between the function of prayer beads – to count prayers – and the soul’s journey toward God. The prayer beads adopted by the early Christian Church found its full structure in the evolution of the Catholic rosary sometime after the 12th century. And the journey of the soul was, of course, a theme of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the 14th century.

  • Scott Drager

    Why is this written in modern English?

  • Theophilus

    Looks like an artist’s translated recreation. The article states “The wheel’s outermost circle consists of the instructions we’ve read, but in medieval Latin.”
    So they translated the picture, but did not specify this in caption.

  • Greg

    I’m not sure if it is a prayer wheel, but rather the Christian way of Life. You center all on God, and work your way out by seeing God in your fellow humans (Matt 25:40), by practicing the eight beatitudes (Matthew 5), from which flows the Seven gifts of the holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:2-3), leading us into a deeper love for the God who became man, was baptized, preached the Gospel, suffered, died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and will return to judge the living and the dead. We then take to heart the prayer our Lord gave us (Matt 6:9, the Our Father), with seven petitions in that prayer, and when we reach the outside, it is time to go back to the center (return home) and start all over again. So, it is most likely a prayer, but properly speaking, a way of life, a prayer filled life, of good deeds, and Christian practices.

  • Nick Brodie

    Clockwise (per instruction), then from terminus, down a layer, then anticlockwise (per Our Father), similarly following natural sequences down or shifting colours for each prayer/sequence with the terminus becoming a new starting point (eg wisdom terminates spiritual gifts then salvation history maps the reverse direction from there, etc etc). Like a path through a maze. Knowing the sequence teaches the path & vice versa.

  • Rob

    The prayer wheel consists of circular layers. The outermost layer containing the Seven Petitions. Then the second layer with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. The third layer (think Trinity) is the beatitudes. Finally, in the middle is God. This diagram is a two-way street, so to speak. God radiates out through the Beatitudes, Gifts, Petitons. Likewise, we draw close to God progressively through the Petitions, Gifts, and Beatitudes. The Gospel Events highlight where these things took place in the life of Christ. The “spokes” allow us to connect a certain Petition, Gift, and Beatitude. I assume it could be used wholly as a prayer/ meditation or in smaller parts with the circular layers or spokes.

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  • I sent my response will await your reply be Blessed brother butch

  • I believe “GREG” has the solution pretty much correct. However, I believe the mix of Red and Black lettering is Significant and speak to the Blood of the Lamb of Jesus Christ. This way the prayer disciple would ever be conscious at every station of what it took for us to get to where we are now and where we will be eternally Acts 4:12.

  • Luci Tomlin

    Absolutely awesome! The devotion, discipline, and dedication it took to even put this on paper is a miracle! “How precious and meaningful are your works OH, GOD”! “That you would intrust such a special gift, written to the entire world through a mere mortals hands”! Amen! Beautiful weather in the Western NC mountains, but I got goosebumps just looking at this, reading it, and knowing in my heart it was God-Inspired! Whatever/where ever the reason or reasoning’s take us, in the CENTER, as ALWAYS, is where God should ALWAYS be! In the CENTER of our lives, our heart and soul! I thank God for a Christian family, a legacy left by wonderful parents who loved the Lord Jesus Christ! His great sacrifice for our sins, and the messages, however delivered, he left for us! How we SHOULD appreciate Gods divine LOVE, compassion, forgiveness and Grace! THANK YOU! Lucitee

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  • Mat

    I really appreciate your consideration of this; I wonder, too, if perhaps it is a labyrinthine prayer form–used to develop a mind to transcend earthly things into a fully meditative state (somewhat like Eastern meditation), only to return to the land of daily living, in which the person then can share knowledge with others. All hypothetical, of course!

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  • Perhaps it’s simply a mindmap, reminding the user of various aspects of prayer. There doesn’t seem to be any logical link between the various elements and their exact position in the concentric circles, but I like DukeT and Greg’s ideas. I am particularly interested in such a diagram since I have tried to link our human faculties to spiritual gifts etc. on a circular diagram (actually an octagon) where the position does correspond to the faculty. If any readers are interested, you explore that idea on my Octaikon.co.uk website. I’ll keep on thinking!

  • JoeMars

    The Liesborn Gospels: Gospel Book
    Actions, Blessings and through Faith and Works return to God through Christ’s example.
    The Seven Petitions for to return Home to God from the outer wheel with Daily Prayer, the Belief in Jesus Christ and all he has done and the Seven Beatitudes which through Faith originate from GOD the OMEGA of Life Eternal.

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  • Brent B

    Nick Brodie. Exactly what I was thinking. Also notice as you follow biblical sequence you have to go “through Jesus” to get to the Father. You receive the blessing through “God” to be blessed in the beatitude section. I notice its missing the last persecution beatitude, or Matthew 5:10-12. I wonder if it was intentionally left out to prompt the individual participating into giving their life to Christ in order to gain heaven?? There are many biblical parallels in here. Very cool teaching tool!
    The New Testament in a nutshell, or cross-section of one. The game teaches the theology, and the theology teaches the game. Awesome!

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  • J Lines

    Great point. This should be in Gothic typeset if even 400 years old.

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