Celia Chazelle

title.none: Diebold, Word and Image (Chazelle)

identifier.other: baj9928.0101.012 01.01.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Celia Chazelle, Princeton University, cmc@CS.Princeton.EDU

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Diebold, William. Word and Image: An Introduction to Early Medieval Art, 600-1050. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000. Pp. vii, 154. $40.00. ISBN: 0-813-33577-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.01.12

Diebold, William. Word and Image: An Introduction to Early Medieval Art, 600-1050. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000. Pp. vii, 154. $40.00. ISBN: 0-813-33577-9.

Reviewed by:

Celia Chazelle
Princeton University

It is rare to encounter a book that makes a significant contribution to scholarship in its field yet is deliberately written to be accessible to a general readership. In its subject, expected audience, and length, Word and Image is reminiscent of Ernst Kitzinger's classic monograph, Early Medieval Art , first published in 1940, but the chronological boundaries and approach are markedly different. Whereas Kitzinger traced western European art from late antiquity to the twelfth-century Romanesque, William Diebold concentrates on northwestern Europe in the seventh to eleventh centuries. Rather than attempt a comprehensive overview of the period's artistic production or focus on the evolution of style, as does much older historiography, he has controlled his material with a cross-disciplinary theme, one clearly critical to understanding artistic activity during the first significant diffusion of Christianity north of the Alps: the interaction of art and the word, written or spoken though with an emphasis on the former. This approach facilitates his departure from older tendencies, still encountered in some recent scholarship, to assess early medieval culture primarily as the supposed revival or rejection of norms associated with classical antiquity. (5)

Fundamental to the book's exploration of its theme of word and image are the letters of Pope Gregory I to Serenus of Marseilles comparing images to books. Although ideas about the relation between writing and art varied in the early medieval west, as Diebold notes (4), his analysis of Gregory's teachings and their possible influence provides a useful organizing device for his study as a whole. In terms of the visual material, a premium is thus placed on manuscript decoration, above all books of scripture (see p. 5). Approximately half of the sixty-three black-and-white illustrations and two of the four color plates are of covers and pages from medieval codices, mainly biblical (plate II from the Lindisfarne Gospels is reproduced upside down). Yet the range of artistic sources examined is wider than this suggests; in addition to manuscripts, the reader is led to think about the function and significance of pagan Germanic grave goods (Sutton Hoo), reliquaries, and the role of church architecture, decoration, and implements in the celebration of the liturgy, the central means by which the Christian word was communicated to the faithful.

Each chapter investigates a particular context or issue that is elucidated by considering the relation of image to word in early medieval culture. Although the book has a basically chronological organization, the discussion of each topic moves fluidly among works of art and texts of different centuries and regions, deftly juxtaposing sometimes quite disparate visual and written sources. The first chapter opens with Gregory's doctrine of art, as attested by both Bede's account of Augustine's mission to England and the letters to Serenus. From there it turns to more general comments on the theological problems that Christian artistic imagery and particularly icons raised for the medieval church, and then to the artistic and intellectual consequences of the confrontation of the Mediterranean culture brought by Gregory's missionaries with the contemporary culture of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic England. Chapter 2 examines how early medieval artists demonstrated their respect for the sanctity of the word as it was expressed through the liturgy: its prayers, music, and lections, and the eucharist in which the body and blood of Christ the word were consumed (some discussion of baptism here, the significance of which was so closely intertwined with that of the mass, would have been useful). The importance that early medieval Christians ascribed to the books and other objects used in church ritual is evident from the dazzling gold, gems, and skilled imagery decorating the finest such productions. The interiors in which the ceremonies were conducted, too, could be richly adorned with furnishings, frescoes, and mosaics. Diebold refers to a selection of churches from St. Peter's (Rome) to St. Michael's (Hildesheim); the comments on Charlemagne's chapel at Aachen, which receives the longest discussion, segue into interesting observations on the function of spolia in early medieval art.

Chapter 3 considers the diverse ways that early medieval art conveys meaning, especially the roles played by typology (this part of the discussion is particularly well done), copying, and pattern. The sophistication with which such techniques were employed, Diebold contends, seems to belie Gregory's parallel between imagery and the written word. Chapter 4 analyzes the evidence for a crisis in the Carolingian church concerning the proper function of images; in Diebold's view, this was prompted by a perceived conflict between Gregory's comparison of pictures to the written word and the powerful impact that art potentially had on viewers. Chapter 5 discusses the roles of artist and patron in the early Middle Ages and how inscriptions may shed light on the relative position of each. The conclusion offers a thoughtful study of the statue of Sainte Foi at Conques and the reaction to it of the eleventh-century cleric, Bernard of Angers. Bernard's account of Sainte Foi, Diebold rightly stresses, is one of the most remarkable texts to survive from the early medieval west on the function of images, an issue raised for Bernard by the ambiguous nature of reliquary statues.

In accord with the general audience for which this book is intended, the discussion of early medieval art and texts is unfailingly lively and clear, kept at a level easily grasped by readers new to the field. Potentially unfamiliar terms used by specialists are explained (e.g. spolia, iconography, sella curulus ), as are the reasons for the names by which some more famous early medieval works of art are known: the Book of Durrow, the Codex Amiatinus , the Lindisfarne Gospels, Codex aureus , the San Paolo Bible. No doubt because he is writing for the non-specialist, Diebold notes many more questions about these objects, their function and meaning than he tries to answer; intriguing puzzles are regularly dangled before the reader with no solutions offered. There is definitely a positive side to this, since the room still existing for new scholarship in the field is made apparent, and one can hope some students will be inspired to investigate these problems further on their own.

At other points, however, the effort to keep things simple leads Diebold to imply that issues have been resolved where this is not necessarily the case. It is not certain, for example, that the Codex Amiatinus failed to reach Rome. (33) While Ceolfrith died on the expedition to take the manuscript to the pope, after his death members of his party continued the journey and evidently reached their destination. [1] The dating of the Utrecht Psalter to c. 820 (p. 107) strikes me as probably too early; the majority of scholars prefer to assign the manuscript more loosely to the archiepiscopacy of Ebo of Reims (816-835, 840-841), while I have suggested the possibility of a date of 845 or a bit later (Speculum , 1997). Perhaps more important, the argument that the insular populations saw written texts as magical, developed in Chapter 1, seems to me to rely too heavily on older ideas about the dichotomy between literacy and orality in the British Isles and on Jack Goody's studies of African cultures' encounters with the written word. The function of runic writing needs more consideration in this context. Furthermore, recent anthropological research has presented significant challenges both to Goody's contention that non-literate societies are prone to ascribe magical qualities to written language, and to Walter Ong's related efforts to define clear distinctions between the mentalities of orality and literacy. Such theories, it has been argued, derive from a European process of myth-making about primitive societies. It should be recognized that a similar process may be at work in scholarship that interprets the difficult, ambiguous evidence for early Germanic groups' reactions to Latin writing as indicative of belief in the written word's magical properties. [2]

The original appearance of the ceiling mosaic in the Aachen chapel is also unclear. Diebold maintains that it represented the lamb adored by the twenty-four elders; this allows him to draw some interesting connections with the miniatures of the same theme in the Soissons Gospels and the Codex aureus of Charles the Bald, nicely building on his discussion of copying. But in its present condition, albeit the result of an extensive nineteenth-century restoration, the mosaic portrays the enthroned Christ with the elders. Various scholars have argued that the lamb was the original subject, but there is no definite proof, and the discrepancy between the imagery in its current state and the presumed original is not discussed here. This may cause some confusion, since in asserting that the ceiling initially depicted the lamb, Diebold directs the reader to his reproduction of the mosaic (fig. 33) which shows the restored form representing Christ, with the comment that it "is a reliable copy of the Carolingian original". (91)

Finally, the analysis of the "crisis of word and image", in Chapter 4, focuses on the most seemingly iconophobic Carolingian texts: the Libri Carolini , surviving verses from a poem by Hrabanus Maurus, and the surviving fragments of a letter-treatise by Claudius of Turin. Diebold offers an illuminating comparison of these works with the different attitudes suggested by several post- Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon sources; the latter are particularly striking and are rarely brought into discussions of early medieval attitudes towards art. But I would suggest that the Carolingian material is also more differentiated than he implies, and that other writings from this region which present more positive teachings about the role of images than, for example, the Libri Carolini do, also deserved to be noted. These include ones from both north of the Alps and Carolingian Italy. The possibility of Italian influence on northern thought on this topic by the second quarter of the ninth century, as contacts between the two regions strengthened in the reign of Louis the Pious, is also not addressed.

It is quite possible that the lack of attention to the issues and uncertainties I have indicated stems from the desire to keep the narrative flowing--as it should in a book of this kind. Overall, this is a very valuable work, both for its ability to reach the general audience and for the new scholarly insights that Diebold provides concerning a number of the artistic productions and texts he examines. An important reason for its success, indeed, is his command of the written sources. His facility with both artistic and intellectual developments--as recorded primarily in writings--sets a standard that other scholars interested in the works of art studied here should try to emulate.


[1] Ian Wood, The Most Holy Abbot Ceolfrid , Jarrow Lecture 1995, p. 18 and n. 239.

[2] See Ajay Skaria, "Writing, Orality and Power in the Dangs, Western India, 1800s-1920s," in Shahid Amin and Dipesh Chakrabarty, eds., Subaltern Studies IX: Writings on South Asian History and Society (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), 13-58, at 15-16, 30-31.