03.03.10, Tkacz, Key to the Brescia Casket

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Karen Blough

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.010


Tkacz, Catherine Brown. The Key to the Brescia Casket: Typology and the Early Christian Imagination. Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity Series. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002. Pp. 273. ISBN: 0-268-01231-8.

Reviewed by:
Karen Blough
Plattsburgh State University

The subject of Catherine Brown Tkacz's monograph is the carved ivory casket of Early Christian, probably north Italian origin now in S. Maria in Solario, Brescia. The faces of the box are decorated with thirty-three Old and New Testament scenes whose significance has long been a bone of contention among students of Early Christian art. Tkacz's most significant contribution to the scholarly literature on the casket is her demonstration of the Old Testament/New Testament typology underlying the iconographic program, which, as a whole, constitutes a visual argument for the unity of the Bible. To this end, Tkacz's analysis painstakingly ferrets out the minutiae of both the visual iconography and the related literary evidence. Given the intricacy of detail on which Tkacz's study depends, the book is sometimes rather heavy going and will be accessible exclusively to the academic community to which it is primarily addressed. For that audience, however, Tkacz's work will serve as an essential new tool in the exploration of Early Christian imagery, particularly with regard to the complex typologies that then informed the perception of soteriological history. The main text of The Key to the Brescia Casket is divided into several chapters, prefaced by an introduction and followed by a conclusion. In the former, Tkacz suggests that the role played by typology on Early Christian monuments has been significantly under appreciated by modern viewers; the fact that the imagery of the Brescia casket has been traditionally considered "enigmatic" and "a riddle" is due to this failing (18). Tkacz's conclusion points out that, indeed, the casket's iconography depends largely on "coherent and sophisticated" typological patterns that were "part of the language of ideas of the late fourth century" (188) that has long since fallen into disuse and therefore become unintelligible. In Tkacz's view, the casket visually reflects fourth-century concepts of New Testament primacy within Biblical unity found in the writings of, most notably, Ambrose and Augustine. Sandwiched between the introduction and conclusion are six chapters in which Tkacz methodically presents, analyzes, and interprets the evidence that leads to her conclusion.

Tkacz dedicates her first chapter to a brief discussion of the origins and history of the casket, followed by an identification of its various scenes. She immediately places the box in late fourth-century northern Italy, and the material she subsequently presents clearly indicates the solid evidence in which this date and provenance are grounded. Tkacz also reviews the known history of the casket, which seems to have been fairly uneventful. The casket may well have originated in Brescia; in any event, it seems likely that, by the eighth century, it was already in the convent of S. Salvatore e S. Giulia, to which the church of S. Maria in Solario belongs. Although at some unknown point, the casket was disassembled and reconstituted in the form of a cross, resulting in the loss of two portrait medallions from the sides, this corruption was remedied in 1928 and the box restored to its original form. The remainder of Tkacz's first chapter is dedicated to the identification of the thirty-three scenes that decorate the casket. These identifications are accompanied by illustrations of the faces of the box. In addition, a Table of Identifications at the back of the book provides images of the individual scenes, a diagram showing where each is located on the casket, and lists indicating how, where, and when other scholars identified each of the scenes. Tkacz concludes her chapter with a discussion of the fifteen surviving medallion portraits that line the lid of the casket. Tkacz's in-depth description of the casket does not aim to be innovative. Rather, it is the indispensable foundation on which she constructs the remainder of the book.

Tkacz's second chapter is also preparatory. Here she discusses the role of pictorial and textual typology in Early Christian thought. While she acknowledges that levels of awareness and comprehension must have varied according to the intellectual sophistication of the audience, Tkacz asserts that typology "played a vital role in the daily life of the Christian" (57). Not only did typological concepts elucidate Christ's life and work, but they also furnished exempla intended to instruct the faithful in their emulation of the Savior. In her third and central chapter, Tkacz then methodically analyzes the fourteen Old Testament and two New Testament types, each of which functions as a prefiguration of Christ in his Passion and Resurrection. Tkacz cites relevant literary examples to bolster her interpretation, devoting particular attention to Susanna, whose potential as a messianic type is rarely appreciated in spite of considerable patristic evidence. This analysis clarifies the highly ordered, all-encompassing nature of the iconographical program, which provides both positive and negative models of human behavior within the salvific context, whereby both the indebtedness and the superiority of the New Testament vis-a-vis the Old is revealed.

In her fourth chapter, Tkacz discusses the literary source she has identified for much of the imagery of the casket, the Libera petitions of the Commendatio Animae. In this funerary text, the supplicant prays for the liberation from Hell of the deceased's soul, just as several Old Testament figures were delivered from a variety of dangers. The date of the Libera petitions has been placed as late as the eighth century, but Tkacz notes that Augustine quoted from them in his Enarratio in Psalmum 21, and she is able to link the text to the Brescia casket. According to Tkacz's analysis, the casket's program is far more inclusive than that of other contemporary works that apparently relate to the petitions, such as the Doclea Cup in the Hermitage, containing as it does not only the Old Testament types and typological events mentioned in the petitions, but also pairing these types with Christ in the Passion context. Tkacz devotes an entire chapter to the scene in the upper register on the right side of the Brescia casket, which has heretofore been variously identified. Tkacz draws on visual and literary evidence to support her conclusion that it depicts two moments in the story of the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace. In her final chapter, she draws on the concept of "intelligent fire" in her discussion of the three Hebrews image in conjunction with the two scenes flanking it, Moses and the burning bush and Moses receiving the Law. Finally, she relates the entire upper right register to the front middle register, concluding that the former "recalls the revelations of God in medio ignis," while the latter images a God incarnate "not as a terrifying fire, but as healer, teacher, and guardian." Tkacz's book ends with the conclusion alluded to above and an appendix that serves essentially as a (negative) review of Elizabeth Struthers Malbon's The Iconography of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (Princeton, 1990).

The Key to the Brescia Casket is written, on the whole, in a straightforward style that is very welcome in light of the complexity of the subject. Sometimes the author's enthusiasm for her material leads her to employ rather overheated adjectives: the relative organization of the Old and New Testament material, for instance, is "stunning" (83), and so are the typological roles of Jonah, Susanna, and Daniel (132), while the program as a whole is "breathtaking" (83). Other infelicities might have been avoided by a more rigorous editorial process. Thus, "which Christ himself called attention to" is a poor conclusion to a sentence (98), and, on p. 104, Judas "hung himself." Most distressingly, in the biographical note on the back cover of the book, the author is identified as a member of the editorial board of Tradio, rather than Traditio.

These trivial objections aside, Catherine Brown Tkacz has contributed new, interesting, and important material to the scholarship on Early Christian iconography. In addition to its value as a study of the Brescia casket specifically, the book provides copious basic typological information on which other scholars will doubtless rely.

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Author Biography

Karen Blough

Plattsburgh State University