Susan Yager

title.none: Hilmo, Medieval Images, Icons, and Illustrated English Literary Texts (Susan Yager)

identifier.other: baj9928.0502.007 05.02.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Susan Yager, Iowa State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Hilmo, Maidie. Medieval Images, Icons, and Illustrated Literary English Texts: from the Ruthwell Cross to the Ellesmere Chaucer. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004. Pp. xxv, 236. $79.95 (hb). ISBN: 0-7546-3178-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.02.07

Hilmo, Maidie. Medieval Images, Icons, and Illustrated Literary English Texts: from the Ruthwell Cross to the Ellesmere Chaucer. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004. Pp. xxv, 236. $79.95 (hb). ISBN: 0-7546-3178-8.

Reviewed by:

Susan Yager
Iowa State University

Maidie Hilmo's Medieval Images, Icons, and Illustrated English Literary Texts offers an interesting examination of illustrations from nearly two dozen medieval English manuscripts as well as of several Anglo-Saxon works of art. Although stronger in its individual parts than as an overall argument, Hilmo's book will prove useful for students of the relation of art to writing in the medieval period. In particular, aspects of the Ruthwell Cross section and the discussions of the Pearl-manuscript and the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales provide a valuable resource for studying the intersections of medieval English literature and culture.

After an introduction by Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Hilmo presents an overview of her arguments in the chapter "Reading Medieval Images," then details her views in two chapters relating to Anglo-Saxon literature and three concerning literature after the conquest. Hilmo's strongest and most compelling argument is that medieval images must be understood in their historical context, and that if seen in this light, they are meaningful and essential elements of the manuscripts in which they appear. She dismisses the common modern response to medieval images, which is to regard them as "crude" or simplistic and to treat the accompanying text as the only worthwhile object of study. As a corollary to this idea, Hilmo also argues that illuminators were among the first professional "readers" of their texts, and thus important sources for understanding the contemporary significance of a manuscript. Following the lead of Paul Reichardt and others, Hilmo points out that such images contribute substantially to the reading experience, even constituting a text unto themselves, as in the illuminations of the Pearl-poet.

Additionally, Hilmo argues that although the practice of medieval image-making was seen as justified by the Incarnation, artists were sensitive to cultural and religious controversies about images. Thus at certain times, such as the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, artists would avoid making images of the divine. This claim is the most difficult to support for a number of reasons; generalizing from relatively few manuscripts requires a high degree of speculation and makes it particularly difficult to argue from negative evidence. Given that Hilmo concentrates on only a few late-medieval manuscripts and relies heavily on what "may have" occurred in and to the manuscripts, some of her claims regarding the late-medieval disappearance of divine images are unconvincing.

The chapter on the Ruthwell Cross, however, is forcefully argued, and convincingly demonstrates that the Cross, and the lines of poetry which adorn it, depict both "the suffering human side and the triumphant divine aspect of the heroic Christ" (60). What seem to be rough or crude renderings on the cross, such as Mary's disproportionately large hands, are rather seen as poignant markers of Christ's humanity, while the depiction of Christ treading on the heads of animals displays his divine nature. Hilmo also explains how the text and images on the Ruthwell Cross "do not merely 'translate' each other; rather, they create a 'field of force'" (56) which draws viewers to dwell upon, and meditate on, the nature of Christ.

The creation of such a "field of force," in which text and illumination work in concert to draw the viewer toward a stance of prayerful meditation, is also described in the following chapters, on late Anglo-Saxon and post-Conquest manuscripts. Particularly interesting are the discussions of the Caedmon (Junius) manuscript and some of the images of the Auchinleck manuscript. One of these is the extended discussion of a miniature illuminating the King of Tars in Auchinleck. Hilmo closely analyzes the image in the historical context of the manuscript's creation, including the manuscript's treatment of Islam. In discussing this miniature, as in her examination of a historiated initial of the Trinity that appears in the Vernon manuscript, Hilmo persuasively demonstrates how both image and text reinforce the concept of Christ as the living "word."

Hilmo turns in her last two chapters to close readings of the illuminations in the Pearl-manuscript and in Ellesmere. Here the argument about incarnational art is largely abandoned, as Hilmo concentrates on what is present in the art rather than on what is absent. These are readable and substantive chapters, including discussions of many image details that can be discerned only in computerized enhancements. Of particular interest is Hilmo's augmentation of Reichardt's defense of the Pearl-manuscript's illustrations; she points out that visual elements such as fish recur throughout the manuscript, linking the four poems through a unified visual accompaniment. The section on Ellesmere presents the case that the Ellesmere illuminators sought to enrich the experience of reading the Canterbury Tales while demonstrating its conservative nature. Again, some aspects of the argument are unpersuasive--particularly, that the portrait of the Wife of Bath presents her as "a female counterpart to the Knight [...] suitable as his partner and as a model for an aristocratic reader" (189). Yet on balance, there is much thought-provoking material here that should coax scholars and students alike to pay more attention to border illuminations and other details of the manuscript.

The book includes more than 70 reproductions of manuscript illuminations; undoubtedly for reasons of economy, they are not reproduced in color. This detracts somewhat from Hilmo's discussion of them, as she often refers to the significance of their various colors. In addition, many other images are referred to in the text but not reproduced, a frustrating experience for readers unfamiliar with those illuminations.

Hilmo writes for an audience that is knowledgeable about art, icons and iconoclasm, and manuscript illumination, as she assumes knowledge of many technical terms. Even an expert audience, however, will occasionally have some difficulty following Hilmo's train of argument. In her chapter on "Reading Medieval Images," for example, Hilmo presents a history of image-making in the West in reverse chronology. The Caedmon manuscript is referred to several times before it is fully introduced and described, and artworks are referred to without an indication of their inclusion among the book's illustrations. There are a number of too-easy assumptions, such as that much of Middle English is not a "literary language of consequence" until the late fourteenth century (112). A number of passages contain run-on or unclear sentences, making the book less accessible than it might have been, particularly for non-expert readers. Overall, however, Medieval Images, Icons, and Illustrated English Literary Texts offers much to think about and a useful model for ways of linking art and text.