Jane Toswell

title.none: O'Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood (Jane Toswell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.019 08.04.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jane Toswell, University of Western Ontario,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: O'Carragáin, Éamonn. Ritual annd the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition. Series: The British Library Studies in Medieval Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2005. Pp. iil, 427. 88.00 0-8020-9008-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.19

O'Carragáin, Éamonn. Ritual annd the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition. Series: The British Library Studies in Medieval Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2005. Pp. iil, 427. 88.00 0-8020-9008-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Jane Toswell
University of Western Ontario

A new article by Éamonn O'Carragáin is a joy to be savoured, ruminated upon, revisited for further information and for finding a way into how to think about Anglo-Saxon England and the religious concerns of its inhabitants. An entire book is riches indeed. And this is a massive and thoughtful book, the product of a life's work on the Ruthwell cross, architectural monuments associated with it, and liturgies connected to it, especially in Rome and in Anglo-Saxon England. Moreover, the publishers (the British Library and the University of Toronto Press) have done full justice to this accomplishment with an elegant design, sixty black and white illustrations interspersed where they need to be in the text, notes at the end of each chapter, a full index to the text and another to its biblical citations, sixteen colour plates before the introduction (rather like the introductory series of illuminations before a high medieval psalter or book of hours), expensive paper and even superb binding and covers in a sober black with a dust-jacket showing the Ruthwell Cross, the manuscript of the Dream of the Rood, and the Brussels Cross. Riches indeed.

The book proper includes eight chapters and an epilogue which shifts forward to examine O'Carragáin's arguments in connection with a later biblical exegete, John Donne. Before the exposition begins, the Ruthwell cross inscriptions are very carefully and elegantly presented in a series of figures, and O'Carragáin makes a preliminary analysis of Dream of the Rood, comparing it to the passion narratives of Sedulius and Venantius Fortunatus, but noting that it is the only text which "imagines the dramatic situation of a humanized Cross"(7), something which must have been a disturbing new construction of the crucifixion in Anglo-Saxon England. The first six chapters of the book address the Ruthwell Cross and its liturgical, historical and devotional context; in the last two O'Carragáin applies the analysis developed previously to the Old English poem and to the Brussels Cross.

The first chapter carefully rehearses the antiquarian and modern historiography and iconography of the Ruthwell Cross, its analogues the Bewcastle cross and the Hoddom pillar-crosses and cross-slabs, and notes that "[n]o other insular monument combines English narrative poetry, scriptural narratives chanted liturgically, and iconic images in the way the Ruthwell Cross does" (48). The chapter picks its way judiciously through the various minefields of Ruthwell scholarship, holding firm to the sensible notion that the cross was carved, albeit in two stages or by two perhaps overlapping groups of masons (for the upper and lower stones of the monument). The cross is a coherent whole with all its elements--the design with so many straight edges for carvings, the iconographic sequences, the vine-scroll motifs, the runic and Latin tituli--contributing to its local but inclusive and communal liturgical purposes in the early eighth century.

O'Carragáin in the next chapters makes a series of subtle theological and historical arguments concerning the intellectual and liturgical context of the Ruthwell Cross. For example, in chapter 2 he argues that the only appropriate context for the emphasis on Christ's will as he ascends the Cross is the fortitudo Dei of Christ's life as a single saving act, begun with the royal adventus newly celebrated at the Vatican as the Annunciation on 25 March and completed at the Crucifixion and Resurrection. This new liturgy with its interest in Christ's entire life as of God and of man, and in Mary's role, resulted from the condemnation of the heresy of Monotheletism at the Lateran Council and was perhaps brought to Northumbria in the late seventh century, perhaps by its possible author, John the Archcantor. The resulting poem was therefore a retelling of the Crucifixion as a tragic variant of the Annunciation: where Mary had borne Christ into life, the Cross bore him into death. O'Carragáin proposes that "The earliest oral version of the English poem was probably composed by an educated monastic cantor who understood that Christ's virgin birth was the necessary precondition for his incorruptible courage" and the English poet would have composed his new narrative about this material "before or soon after AD 700" (93). For these reasons, the Annunciation and the Visitation are features of the cross; for the latter O'Carragáin carefully proposes that the very damaged titulus involved a juxtaposition of Martha, presumably the Martha of Bethany referred to in the Gospel lection for the Dormition of the Virgin on 15 August, and the Virgin Mary. Below the Visitation panel is a depiction of another woman, the Woman who was a Sinner, Mary Magdalene. This sequence focused on Mary and on Christ's soteriological life flows into the next two sequences on the cross, which are explicable in terms of the preparation of catachumens for initiation and babies for baptism, interpreted by way of the Lenten liturgy leading into the triduum of Good Friday, Holy Saturday (on which the initiations and baptisms take place), and Easter Sunday. Also perhaps relevant is the Roman ceremony for the reconciliation of penitents on Holy Thursday. O'Carragáin is at his strongest in this work, in analyzing the details of the liturgy and linking them to the brilliant iconographic plan of the Ruthwell artist. The linkages of the iconography and lections with conversion and repentance are particularly striking, as is the imagery of new birth and penitence in the panels, tied with the gospels (two of the symbols of which survive on the cross-piece) and their roles in the lenten and paschal liturgy. The sequence then shifts into the sacrament of the eucharist, with the monastic scene of Paul and Anthony sharing in the desert, with the pilgrimage of humility and kenosis (self-giving) required of every Christian in imitation of Christ, who is given birth every time a Christian acknowledges him. Given the dates of composition of the various liturgical feasts which are reflected in the iconography, O'Carragáin suggests a date of 730- 60 for the cross, later proposing 730-735 as the most appropriate years of creation.

Chapter 4 turns to the crucifixion narrative in the "English poem" and the Ruthwell iconography as reflecting the Good Friday liturgy at Ruthwell. Here the focus is the poet's innovation in the second titulus of having the cross bow (hnag ic, with the words occurring on the cross just below the eye level of someone standing on the ground) to present Christ's body to his followers, the church that is called together in his name. O'Carragáin sees this as unprecedented and original, a new interpretation of the deposition that is quite remarkable in its integration of the crucifixion with the eucharist. The communal symbolism derives from the way in which the Roman church gradually linked veneration of the cross with communion on Good Friday, in which a congregation could kiss the cross and immediately receive previously sanctified bread and wine according to the Old Gelasian presbyteral rites. The cross itself might have served as a station on Good Friday and for other processions, and perhaps even more so a generation or two later when the Crucifixion scene was carved onto the lowest panel. On the cross, reflecting the liturgy that developed in the eighth century for Good Friday (by the ninth century the adoration of the cross was much more exuberant, dramatic, and emotional), Christ was both crucified and exalted, acclaimed by two somewhat amorphous beasts.

Chapter 5 turns away from the detailed study of the iconography of the Ruthwell cross, and revisits the historical and ecclesiastical background of its composition, rehearsing the monothelete heresy and then examining how various devotional practices were adapted and adopted in Rome. New devotional practices were as a matter of course changed to conform with local concerns, and the development of the Ruthwell cross fit entirely in this tradition; more particularly, it reflected specific concerns of the early eighth century such as the promulgation by Sergius I of the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on 14 September, reflecting an ancient Roman cult, and the development by Sergius and John VII of the cult of Mary with its four feasts and church dedications to her worship. The prominent role of the Agnus Dei, both as a chant added to the mass and as an icon habitually used for church apses in Roman, opposes the canons of the Trullan Council and is also to be found in the juxtaposition of human and symbolic images of Christ on the Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses in Northumbria. The exclusivity about images proposed by the iconoclasts found its opposite pole in the reverence of images as more valid than ever as "ways of expressing the physical and historical reality of the Incarnation" (259). On the other hand, the Ruthwell designer used the three themes accepted by the iconoclasts: the cross, the church and the eucharist.

Chapter 6 completes and summarizes the analysis of the Ruthwell Cross, reviewing the daily monastic offices and the movement of the sun on the cross, returning to the vine-scrolls and their vernacular runic tituli. These are "the symbolic core of a great sculptural monument" (284). Moreover, the vine-scrolls emphasize that the cross is essentially a tree, the arbor vitae making a multivalent reference to the crucifixion and the resurrection, the Tree of Life and the eucharist, Christ's kenotic gift of himself and the mystical reception of that gift by the Church. Finally, the references to Anthony, Paul the Hermit, Mary Magdalene, and John the Baptist reflect monastic ideals, as does the program of initiation, of spiritual birth and growth, on the cross. Communal worship by clerics and more specifically by monastics was the purpose of the Ruthwell Cross.

The Dream of the Rood arrives for a short, disjointed appearance in chapter 7, as O'Carragáin continues his technique of discussing specific liturgical issues suggested by the text. Thus the comparison between the Cross and Mary in lines 78-94 models itself on the Magnificat, the linkage of the cross and a green tree at lines 28- 34 depends on the liturgy of Wednesday of Holy Week as influenced by the Mass-station at Sancta Maria ad Praesepe in Rome, the actions of Christ throughout the poem demonstrate a remodelled heroic narrative using liturgical formulae and imagery of light from the Good Friday services, and the poem plays with the idea of a threefold royal adventus and especially with the solar imagery and word-play from the Advent and credal liturgy. Finally, O'Carragáin considers the cross itself, and the dreamer who faces the cross, understands its meaning, and then "plunges into prayer" (330). Chapter 8 considers the eleventh-century Brussels cross, a processional cross-reliquary separated in 2000 from its baroque ostensorium and now readily studied. The front of the cross had massed diamonds and rubies, and the beaten silver back still retains its images of the Agnus Dei surrounded by the four evangelist-beasts, so that the two faces of the cross together reflect the passion and the parousia. O'Carragáin carefully describes and decodes the inscription strips around the edges of the cross, analysing the three distychs of the verse- titulus as a "new and original epitome of the Old English crucifixion narrative: the second epigraphic poem to survive from the tradition"(349).

There are many strengths to this book. O'Carragáin's understanding of liturgy as a living performance of worship and his comprehensive knowledge of how Roman liturgy functioned and was being changed in the eighth century may be the most prominent. The assumption from the beginning that the designer of the Ruthwell cross was fully cognizant of the liturgical and physical design of the iconography is a very great strength because it brings alive both the cross and the almost- lost community of Ruthwell in the eighth century, the community that devised and established its single stone cross within sight of the Solway Firth. O'Carragáin can firmly refer to moving around the cross sunwise and to the way in which the sun would strike the archer as it set--and draw conclusions for the worshippers who would have been using the cross. Although exegesis is not his focus, O'Carragáin amply explicates Bede. He similarly explicates with enormous learning and care the architecture, art, and liturgy of Rome in the late seventh and particularly the eighth century. His awareness of the details of the history and archaeology of the Northumbrian, Irish and other English churches in the seventh and eighth centuries is profound, as is his knowledge of epigraphy and palaeography. O'Carragáin pays close attention to punctuation, both in the manuscript and on the cross, and derives several illuminating points from noticing exactly how the written or incised message is presented. Another strength is O'Carragáin's assumption that the Northumbrian church was well aware of liturgical developments at Rome, and more than prepared to rework and adopt them; early in the book the so-called "split" between Roman and Celtic usage is dismissed as a chimera in favour of a recognition that elements of Irish, Scottish, English and Roman spirituality all had their place in Ruthwell and on its cross. The arguments for the unity of conception and execution of the cross are similarly convincing--inordinately so, in that they make one inclined to wonder why there was ever any disputation of the matter.

There are also some weaknesses in the book. Because of its length, there can be annoying repetition of small details, such as that the vine-scroll motif implies salvation, or that the capital of the Ruthwell cross was reversed when the cross was reconstructed by the Reverend Henry Duncan in the early nineteenth century. Not always does the link between the liturgical or ecclesiastical analysis and the Ruthwell Cross come entirely clear, as for example when O'Carragáin reviews Bede's diatribes about the problems of post-baptismal anointing or confirmation in a large bishopric (292-4). The least convincing arguments are those concerning Christ as a vernacular epic hero, which seem to be mashed onto and into a subtle and complex argument in O'Carragáin's construction of the texts. Moreover, O'Carragáin so resolutely refuses to think about the relationship between the Ruthwell Cross and the Dream of the Rood that the issue becomes a massive question-mark in the reader's mind; at page 331 the poem is described as partaking of ancient traditions and of having been excerpted by the Ruthwell designer, which may be late for the first clear statement of this view. And, along the same lines, O'Carragáin never summarizes the state of play of discussion of the Ruthwell Cross and the Dream of the Rood in current scholarship. His endnotes provide very clear information as to where he stands, and the early historiography of the cross in particular is reviewed and judiciously presented, but there is no detailed introduction to modern approaches. O'Carragáin has provided such analyses in his previous articles, but the book does in some ways demand that the readers who are his intended primary audience--Anglo- Saxonists wanting to know his measured conclusions about the Ruthwell Cross (and the Dream of the Rood--though they are largely doomed to disappointment on this front)--have to recall the arguments and issues of previous scholars for themselves, or reconstruct them from the comments made in the notes. The structure of the book means that the major points of argument are in the three central chapters, and the final application of the interpretation to the Ruthwell Cross, the Vercelli poem, and the Brussels Cross have a touch of perfunctory didacticism about them; the tension of leading the reader to absolute agreement with the author about the fundamental linkages between Northumbria and Rome dissipates itself. Finally, I am inclined to think that O'Carragáin at times goes too far in his interpretation of the evidence in this book; he seems to be subsumed in the mind of the Ruthwell designer and poet. Where he is very able to see gaps in the evidentiary chain committed by other scholars, he perhaps fails to see the somewhat contingent way in which his argument also depends on somewhat too fine a reading of theological moments and their repercussions in the early Anglo-Saxon church.

Nonetheless, there is a wealth of information and a richness of learning here, and O'Carragáin's lifelong love affair with the Ruthwell Cross makes him the scholar most capable of engaging in the kind of informed and genuinely interdisciplinary speculation that he provides in this book.