Mildred Budny

title.none: Raw, Trinity and Incarnation in Anglo-Saxon Art (Budny)

identifier.other: baj9928.9905.013 99.05.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mildred Budny, Princeton University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Raw, Barbara Catherine. Trinity and Incarnation in Anglo-Saxon Art and Thought. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, 21. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. x, 221. $59.95. ISBN: 0-521-55371-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.05.13

Raw, Barbara Catherine. Trinity and Incarnation in Anglo-Saxon Art and Thought. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, 21. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. x, 221. $59.95. ISBN: 0-521-55371-7.

Reviewed by:

Mildred Budny
Princeton University

Th is book is the second of Emeritus Professor Raw's contributions to the series Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, whose volume 1 was her survey of Anglo-Saxon Crucifixion Iconography and the Art of the Monastic Revival (published in 1990). Here she "examines the meaning of the representations of the Trinity" in manuscripts of the tenth and eleventh centuries and considers "their relationship to Anglo-Saxon theology and . . . earlier debates about the legitimacy of representations of the divine," in an attempt to relate visual images of the Trinity and Christ in Glory to the literature and other texts of the late Anglo-Saxon period.

The book will indeed "be of interest to art historians, theologians and literary scholars," as proclaims its dust-jacket, but its claims to offer "a study of the theology of the Trinity as expressed in the literature and art of the late Anglo-Saxon period," do not wholly fix on, let alone cover, that target. In certain significant ways, the claims amount to misrepresentation. Given its contents, the book might more accurately be entitled "Trinity and Incarnation in Late Anglo-Saxon Thought, with Reference to Some Manuscript Art of the Period," as a principal strength lies in long quotations from a wide range of Latin and Old English authors.

The six-page "Introduction," although oblique and diffuse, nevertheless gives an account of some twentieth-century scholarship on Anglo-Saxon images and doctrine regarding the Trinity. It concludes that "the theme of this book" is "the interplay of art and literature in the pursuit of these ends" -- namely how "this theme of the divine image" of the Trinity "links art to theology," as, "through material images of Christ, who is himself the true image of God, man, created in God's image, learns to know God rather than merely knowing about him" (pp. 6-7). At the center of the endeavor appears to be the conviction that "contemplation of the Trinity" in word and image can prepare the way for "the contemplation which would be enjoyed in heaven" and "could be anticipated in prayer."

The titles of the eight chapters are equally arcane. Chapters 1 and 2 are quotations: "At this time, which is the ending of the world" (from Aelfric, as noted only on p. 20), and "If anyone wishes to be saved" (presumably derived from the opening of the Athanasian Creed, as cited on p. 320). Their contents reveal an exhortatory agenda. Opening with a brief survey of the establishment of orthodoxy on the Trinity amid Christological heresies in the early history of the Christian Church, Chapter 1 considers "the urgency" of seeking salvation and the attendant need to "understand the nature of the Trinity" (pp. 27-28), as perceived by the prolific author Aelfric and some others. Chapter 2 is devoted to doctrine regarding both the Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ, mainly as recounted by Aelfric in various writings, buttressed or paralleled especially by that Creed and St. Augustine of Hippo.

The remaining chapters are entitled: "God made visible," "Signs and images," "God in history," "Christ the icon of God," "Symbols of the divine," and "Art, prayer and the vision of God." There is no "Conclusion." The last chapter ends on a point of detail, so that the work as a whole seems to run out of steam, or requires an especially knowledgable reader to weave together the various strands.

The "art and thought" of the title focuses largely on the late Anglo-Saxon period, with extensive use of Aelfric's works, although some mention is made of earlier Anglo-Saxon material, notably Bede's writings and the ninth-century Book of Cerne (Cambridge, University Library, MS Ll.1.10). Within the text almost all of the quotations not in modern English have translations, usually in the footnotes. Biblical quotations are in the modern (if often loose) translation of the New Jerusalem Bible. This helpful provision of translations enables a wider appeal for the book than solely to specialists adept in both Old English and Latin. As characteristic of the series, there is a lengthy "Bibliography" (twenty-four pages) as well as an "Index" (nine pages) densely laid-out with subdivisions run-together in paragraphs and therefore rather awkward to consult. The Index covers names, subjects, and "Manuscripts," with the latter grouped together as one heading under the letter-group for M.

Against this weighty scholarship on sources and citations, the visual arts receive short shrift. The art is regarded principally as represented by manuscripts rather than other media, and it is considered mostly in the last chapter. The plates reproduce the expected images, which thus stand commendably at hand for comparison with the text. Placed in a section midway through the book (between pp. 150-51), they begin with the scene of Creation in the Junius Manuscript of Old English Poetry (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius MS 11) and end with scenes of the Crucifixion and of St. Peter approached by "Aelfwine" in Aelfwine's Prayerbook (London, British Library, Cotton MSS Titus D.xxvi-xxvii). All the plates derive from manuscripts and usually from full-page images therein, albeit usually reproduced here with cropped margins. Nine folios are reproduced full-page, one to a page in the section, while the rest share their pages in pairs. Some choices exemplify the central message of personal encounter with aspects of divinity and the hope of salvation.

Sadly, the accounts of manuscripts or images largely neglect to mention their dates, places of origin, or provenance. By ignoring their specific contexts, the role of the each individual manuscript as a witness to the dual themes of Trinity and Incarnation is distorted. This strategy also obscures the varied and complex course of transmission which such themes underwent in Anglo-Saxon England in both verbal and visual forms.

The choice of illustrations reflects the arguments presented in the book, but it is unreasonable to assume, as is attempted, that the surviving images, or at least those selected for survey, accurately represent the original whole. Such an account does not recognize the huge gaps in evidence, given the loss over centuries of very many manuscripts and other sources. For example, Raw observes that "this belief [as expressed by Aelfric] in the presence of Christ, everywhere and to all, is reflected in the preference shown in Anglo-Saxon gospelbooks for pictures of the risen and ascended Christ rather than representations of gospel events in which his presence was limited by time and space" (p. 5). Yet such supposedly "limited" representations of Christ in gospel episodes, apart from Resurrection and Ascension, do appear even in numerous survivors, including gospelbooks as well as Gospel lectionaries and other liturgical manuscripts, let alone other media.

In this volume, Raw's superficial grasp of the complexity of the testimony offered by works of art stands at variance with her sensitive awareness of such complexities in literature, exhibited notably in her description of Aelfric's innovations. The analysis of art history and iconography relies mostly on the publications of such outstanding scholars as Andre' Grabar and Jane Rosenthal. In this regard, the book has great value to students by identifying these major sources, to whom readers would do well to turn for deeper analyses of the artistic themes introduced by this book, especially in cases where these other interpretations are summarily dismissed, without making a good case for a replacement, or allowing for the multiple valencies tenable -- or even essential -- in works of art.

The overall tenor of the book appears to reside in presenting the faith of the Anglo-Saxons (and perhaps right-thinking modern Christians?) in unitary or dogmatic terms, frequently reporting as "reality" or "fact" (as on p. 45) such debatable matters as Christ's resurrection and human salvation. In short, large portions of the text seem to approve certain Anglo-Saxon doctrines as blueprints for modern devotion.

If so, or as such, the book might have more value as a manual for some current Christian aspirations, explored through Anglo-Saxon antecedants, than as a textbook on those Anglo-Saxons' thought and art. Such motives governed, in large measure, the very origins of Anglo-Saxon studies in the sixteenth-century, when the upheavals of religious Reformation impelled such ecclesiastics, scholars, and antiquaries as Archbishop Matthew Parker and his circle to re-examine manuscripts and other materials from the early history of the English Church, in order to justify their approach to religious dogma. Some of their extensive and fruitful work was done at or for Cambridge, where Anglo-Saxon studies continue apace, including a devotion to investigating its own origins.

Raw's book thus stands within a long tradition of study of the Anglo-Saxon age for contemporary religious aims. It may be significant that, in this present age, likewise fraught with anxiety and disquiet, so major a series as Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England should see fit to include so religiously polemical an account of Anglo-Saxon art, thought, and aspirations.