Is the devil – or vampire – in the detail? Close-up of the mysterious, sinister-looking entity lurking in the upper margin of folio 28v from the Sankt Florian Psalter (public domain)
Just in case you're wondering, the illuminated vampire under consideration here is definitely not one of the sparkling, shimmering, but invariably angst-ridden teenage variety that frequent a certain series of romance-driven novels (and accompanying films) for young adults. No indeed, this one is none other than Nosferatu himself, the dreaded Count Orlok of the long incisors and even longer ears, and this present ShukerNature blog article of mine records my unexpected discovery of him, or someone very much like him, in an exceedingly unlikely locality – a medieval illuminated manuscript!
ShukerNature readers may well recall that some time ago I documented an astonishingly Yoda-like entity existing far far away from his usual galactic Star Wars abode as a Jedi Knight – residing instead inside an early illuminated manuscript known as the Smithfield Decretals (click here to read my article), dating from c.1300-1340. Apparently, however, he wasn't the only fictitious figure to lurk undetected until recent times within the rarified illustrative realm of medieval marginalia, as now revealed.
Comparison of my official Yoda model with the Yoda-like entity hidden away in the Smithfield Decretals (© Dr Karl Shuker/public domain)
As I noted when blogging previously about the presence of snail-cat illustrations in illuminated manuscripts (click here), psalters were volumes of predominantly medieval age that normally contained the 150 psalms of the Old Testament and a liturgical calendar. They were also beautifully illustrated in illuminated form by monks.
One of the most ornate examples is the Sankt Florian Psalter, also known as the Saint Florian Psalter or the Psalterium Trilingue. It was written between the late 14th and early 15th Centuries, and its text is presented in three different languages – Latin, Polish, and German (the Polish version contains the earliest presentation of the psalms in Polish). It was first discovered in 1827, by local librarian Father Josef Chmel, at the St Florian monastery of Sankt Florian – the Austrian town after which this psalter is named – and is currently held as a priceless religious and iconographical treasure at the National Library of Poland, in Warsaw.
The beginning of Psalm 1, gorgeously illuminated in the margins with assorted plants, animals, human figures, and other adornments, from the Sankt Florian Psalter - click to enlarge (public domain)
Yet despite its beauty and historical significance, the Sankt Florian Psalter is a notably mysterious work, inasmuch as its creator(s), original owners, and provenance are all currently unknown (although certain localities in Poland are variously favoured as the identity of the latter). But these are not the only mysteries or anomalies associated with this famous literary – and artistic – masterpiece.
The Sankt Florian Psalter consists of 297 + IV folios, and can be viewed online in its entirety here. Reiterating from my snail-cats article, manuscripts from the Middle Ages were bound without page numbers. In relation to such manuscripts, the term 'folio' (commonly abbreviated to 'fol' or simply 'f') is used in place of 'page', and the front or top side of each folio is referred to as the recto ('r'), with the back or under side of each folio being the verso ('v'). Consequently, as examples of how folios are designated in such manuscripts, the front side of a manuscript's fifth folio would be referred to as f 5r, and the back of the manuscript's 17th folio as f 17v. Bearing in mind that some consist of as many as 300 folios or even more, illuminated manuscripts housed in libraries sometimes have the respective number of each constituent folio lightly pencilled upon its recto side's top-right corner, for ease of access to specific folios.
A snail-cat, as delightfully depicted in the Maastricht Hours, an illuminated religious manuscript dating from the early 1300s and originating in the Netherlands (public domain)
During my earlier researches into snail-cats and other exotic zoological marginalia portrayed in illuminated manuscripts (click here), I viewed a varied assortment of these latter works online, including the Sankt Florian Psalter. I didn't locate any snail-cats in it, but what I did find was far more startling, and is as follows. In the margin directly above the upper edge of text on the Sankt Florian Psalter's f 28v (click here to view this folio online within the psalter itself) is a very elaborate, colourful decoration consisting of swirling feathers and leaves, clusters of bright golden berries, a bird, a lion, a large human face portrayed in profile…and, partially encircled by a feather and a leaf, a very unusual humanoid figure. He may be cloaked and shown only from the waist up, but just one look at his face is more than enough to reveal just how strange and sinister he is.
To begin with, this eerie, scowling entity's skin is a very pale, unhealthy-looking grey shade, his highly domed head is entirely hairless, his arched jet-black eyebrows have a decidedly satanic appearance, and his eyes below them are large and staring. But what sets him well apart from what may otherwise be conceivably identified as some form of stern religious figure wearing a pinkish-red cloak are his extraordinarily long, donkey-like ears, and his noticeably conspicuous teeth, which not only are very large, ghostly-white, and fully exposed, bared in a highly disturbing, snarling grimace, but also are unmistakeably pointed.
The mysterious neo-Nosferatuan figure depicted on f 28v of the Sankt Florian Psalter (public domain)
Not so long ago, as mentioned in a recent ShukerNature post (click here), I watched the 1979 art-house remake (starring Klaus Kinski) of the classic silent German Expressionist horror movie from 1922, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, directed by F.W. Murnau – in which Max Schreck played Count Orlock the vampire, or Nosferatu. And to my amazement, when looking at the weird, grotesque figure standing aloof among the illuminated margin adornments of f 28v from the Sankt Florian Psalter, I realised that he bore an uncanny resemblance to Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu, and even more so to Max Schreck's original version!
The cloak itself (albeit pink rather than black), the extra-long asinine ears, the pale and grim countenance, the domed hairless head, the large staring eyes, and, above all, the white pointed teeth – a veritable vampire of Nosferatuan nature but portrayed in illuminated splendour was gazing back at me from one of the world's most celebrated medieval psalters, a psalter that had been created at least 600 years ago!
Comparing the cloaked figure from the Sankt Florian Psalter with Max Schreck's portrayal of Nosferatu, the vampirish Count Orlok (public domain)
Never having encountered any mention of this truly bizarre coincidence before, I searched online to discover if anyone else had drawn the same comparison, but could only find a few very scant mentions of the psalter-depicted entity in question on some Polish websites. Like all the best vampires, therefore, the sharp-toothed stranger from the Sankt Florian Psalter had for the most part entirely eluded detection. Only one notable exception came to light, a lengthier, more detailed Polish article that had been written and posted online to advertise the one-day-only public display of this invaluable psalter, on 23 April 2016, at the Palace of the Republic of Poland, in Warsaw.
The article had been uploaded onto the Polona/Blog website on 14 April 2016 (click here to access it), and by an extraordinary coincidence it had been written by none other than Łukasz Kozak, the expert in relation to medieval times and editor at the National Digital Library of Poland whose earlier, equally informative online article regarding the anomalous 'Locust of Kalisz' had been instrumental in guiding my own researches concerning this latter hitherto-obscure cryptid (click here to read my recent ShukerNature blog article documenting it).
The bizarre 'Locust of Kalisz' drawing, depicting one of many such insects allegedly encountered near this Polish city in 1749 (public domain)
What was particularly interesting about Łukasz's article, however, was not only his own comparison of the psalter's mystery figure with Nosferatu, but a second, alternative comparison of it made by him as well. Providing a stark contrast to the darkness epitomised by the fictional Nosferatu, Łukasz noted how the figure also resembled a notable fictitious entity embodying the light side – none other than the Star Wars movie franchise's big-eared, cloak-garbed Yoda!
And indeed, as shown below, there is certainly a resemblance, but less marked, at least in my opinion, than either the similarity between the figure and Nosferatu or the similarity between the earlier-mentioned Smithfield Decretals figure and Yoda. Nevertheless, how can we explain any such resemblances between modern-day fictitious beings and enigmatic, decidedly odd-looking entities depicted in illuminated manuscripts many centuries earlier, and by cloistered monks with little if any first-hand knowledge of the outside world anyway?
Three-way comparison featuring the cloaked figure from the Sankt Florian Psalter, Max Schreck's portrayal of Nosferatu, and my official model of Yoda (public domain/public domain/© Dr Karl Shuker)
As noted in my ShukerNature article dealing with it (here), one popular explanation of this Yoda-like entity as depicted in the Smithfield Decretals is that in reality it may represent the devil attired as a demonic doctor of canon law, signifying that some clerics charged to uphold the law were actually corrupt and exploitative of their flock. Alternatively, it might simply represent a devil or demon in human form that is hoping to lure and tempt the unwary away from the paths of righteousness, and I consider it most likely that this or something similar is what the Sankt Florian Psalter's Nosferatu-like figure is intended to represent too. In religious imagery and classical western mythology, the donkey or ass is sometimes seen as an evil beast, so the addition of ass-like ears to a figure is a deft, easily-executed way of conveying visually the inherently malign nature of the figure, irrespective of his religious garb and other outward suggestions of piety and propriety.
Nevertheless, it is nothing if not intriguing to discover just how very like such purposefully ambiguous representations are to analogous versions created entirely independently and several centuries later in time. Then again, when dealing with entities as wily and astute as vampires and Jedi Knights, I suppose that we shouldn't really be surprised at anything!
View of the entire f 28v folio from the Sankt Florian Psalter, showing the Nosferatu-like mystery figure in situ (public domain)