Pictures from the Rylands Library 48. Sleep Mode: Resistance Isn’t Futile Stella Halkyard
Bound in wood and backed in leather an eleventh century Gospel book sits before me closed and unread, stubbornly box-like. Once opened, its vellum pages belie its forbidding exterior to reveal ethereal visions, which picture episodes from the Christian story. Shimmering in alchemical gold, verdigris and orpiment, the scene set before us is the first Easter Sunday. In the dark of night before dawn, three women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome/Joanna) arrive to anoint Christ’s crucified body after the Sabbath. Dismayed to find his tomb deserted and grave clothes discarded, they are greeted by an angel who announces the resurrection, his face ‘shines like lightening; his garments white as snow’ (Matthew).
In contrast to M.R. James, who dismissed this drawing as ‘rough and feeble’ I find much within it to delight; the compulsive brickwork of the tomb, the angel’s fluttering oscillation, the exuberant knotty forest thicket, and the soaring Lombardy poplar slender height of the women, as if borrowed from the nuns in Muriel Spark’s Abbess of Crewe. But the detail I like best within the overall composition is the depiction of the figures of the three soldiers on the lower righthand side (shown in detail here).
Charged with the responsibility of guarding Christ’s tomb they are pictured, derelict in their duty with spears at rest, cradled in shields of an orange so vivid as to anticipate the palettes of interior designers of the 1970s. Two of the soldiers have woken and watch the theological drama as it unfolds above them from the comfort of their nook.
Perhaps the angel’s effulgence has taken on the hue of a morning blue sky and so suppressed their light-sensitive melatonin levels to disrupt their circadian rhythms? In any case, their companion slumbers on with eyes tight shut, lost in sleep, ‘the most impenetrable of privacies’ (Siobhan Phillips), a pre-Industrial creaturely subject, obedient to the power of the dark.
Although sound and restorative sleep has throughout history ‘been prized as an essential support of life’ (Sasha Handley) it has also been misunderstood as ‘a simple suspension of activity, a passive state of unconsciousness’ (Lockley and Foster). Deemed as dispensable in our fast-paced 24/7 culture, sleep is speedily being eroded with adults on average sleeping around six and a half hours a night and five per cent sleeping fewer than five hours in a ‘culture of long hours, shift work [and] long commutes’ (Lockley and Foster).
And yet, the sleeper here, caught in the actual act of somnolence, reminds us that as a practice of everyday life and a technique of the body, sleep itself has the ability to challenge and unsettle attempts at discipline or governance (Simon J. Williams). So it might follow that the taking of forty winks so central to the ‘rhythmic and periodic textures of human life’ (Jonathan Crary) can function as a corporeal protest and a riposte to our society’s increasing hostility to sleep.
images Rylands Latin Manuscript 7, Gospel Book, eleventh century, folio 75v-76r. © University of Manchester, 2020