03.07.17, Chazelle, Crucified God in the Carolingian Era

Main Article Content

David Appleby

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.017


Chazelle, Celia. The Crucified God in the Carolingian Era: Theology and Art of Christ's Passion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xiv, 338. ISBN: 0-521-80103-6.

Reviewed by:
David Appleby
United States Naval Academy

Specialists who have profited from the author's many shorter writings on artistic, verbal, and sacramental representation in the early medieval West have anticipated the publication of this monograph for more than a decade. Chazelle's study of the theology and art of the passion in Carolingian culture amply rewards their patience. But this is not an easy book. Its focus, method, and purpose are interdisciplinary. Its sources include poetry and verse inscriptions, saints' lives, theological and doctrinal treatises, liturgical texts, as well as several dozen manuscript illuminations, carmina figurata, carvings, and other images. The author makes effective and judicious use of dual training in the history of medieval church doctrine and the history of medieval art and iconography. The result is without doubt the most thorough study of the passion in the Carolingian period to date.

As varied and numerous as its sources are, the study is narrowly focused in time and space. By concentrating on Francia in the later eighth and ninth century, Chazelle is able to arrive at a more nuanced view of the material than others who have considered much longer periods of time. Gustaf Aulen's famous essay on the history of atonement theory reflects the main outlines of this chronologically more comprehensive approach. He identified the decades around 1100 as the moment of transition from early medieval depictions of the Lord alive and triumphant on the cross, to high and late medieval depictions of the fragility and suffering of the human Christ. Chazelle is not the first to point out that the pre-twelfth-century evidence is more rich and complex than Aulen and others had suggested. In recent decades the research of early medievalists has caused us to re-examine and often abandon one after another old generalization about the twelfth century as a social and cultural watershed. In this respect the book conforms to the revisionist pattern of thought that Wallace K. Ferguson once termed the "revolt of the medievalists." The central feature of this revolt is the assertion that the attributes previously believed to epitomize the thought and culture of one renaissance, whether that of the fourteenth century or, in this case, that of the twelfth, were in fact present in an earlier medieval century.

Whatever its century, renaissance is not Chazelle's concern. Indeed, ideas, models and criteria that are not of the Carolingian period itself provide no adequate guide to the eighth- and ninth-century evidence. This methodological observation is true whether one looks ahead to the twelfth century or back to Christian antiquity. For this reason Chazelle avoids extensive Quellenforschung. While acknowledging that eighth- and ninth-century authors, artists, and patrons had many debts to patristic sources and prototypes, the author refrains from measuring medieval accomplishments according to a single, inherited standard of orthodoxy. Within the broad contours of western Christology and soteriology there is ample room for re-combination, adaptation, and selective appropriation of traditional material. Chazelle is attentive to subtle variations in doctrinal emphasis and iconographic presentation. She carefully traces the range of anticipated viewer and listener response, that is, the characteristics of piety and spirituality. In this way she allows the evidence itself to disclose the diversity and variation in Carolingian reflection on the passion.

The overall aim here is not simply to indicate the complexity of the Carolingian material, but to make sense of it. Beneath the main doctrinal controversies and much of the major cultural and artistic production of the later eighth and ninth century Chazelle identifies a preoccupation with Christology and soteriology. In broad terms the thesis is that authors of Charlemagne's reign who discussed the problem of religious art and wrote against Adoptionism "mainly look[ed] to the crucifixion as proof of Christological truth, as an episode that helps explain the relationship between divinity and humanity in a God who dies" (5). While Christology was a persistent concern over the next two generations, the evidence from the debates over predestination and the eucharist reflects a growing interest in the saving efficacy of the passion and its sacramental reiteration in the mass.

In the Introduction the author summarizes the range of doctrinal issues surrounding the passion, paying special attention to the ones that mattered most to Carolingian authors, artists, and patrons. In its Christological aspect the passion elicited reflection on the mysterious union of divine and human natures in a single person. While any satisfactory treatment of the passion had to acknowledge the reality of both his natures, it was possible to emphasize one or the other, depending on context and purpose.

Even the most humble aspects of Christ's life and death disclosed features of a divine plan for salvation that was cosmic in scale. Along these lines, one could think of the passion as one episode in the series of events in Christ's earthly life, from nativity to ascension, which attest the truth of the incarnation. This was a saving mystery because it showed how human mortality could share in impassible divinity. Again, because it reveals Christ's divinity, the crucifixion is connected with theories and imagery of the atonement. By suffering and dying on the cross Christ battled and vanquished a treacherous foe, whether the enemy was thought of as sin, death, or Satan. In this stream of the tradition, there was only a weak "idea of sin as an individualized burden within a single human soul" (9). Instead, sin, death, and Satan were all by-names of a force that beset humanity from outside and as a collective. In this regard the passion often figured alongside the descent to hell, resurrection, ascension, and second coming as moments in God's unfolding cosmic triumph.

Carolingian authors, artists, and patrons also pondered the redemptive value of Christ's crucified human nature. In this light they tended to emphasize the asymmetry of Son and Father rather than the equality of all three persons of the Trinity. The blood poured out is that of the innocent sacrificial victim provided by the Father and, paradoxically, sacrificed to the Father. As to what makes this suffering humanity redemptive, there was no consensus. One account was subjective, in that it maintained that the contrition and inner purification experienced by one who meditated on Christ's suffering were themselves redemptive. Others understood Christ's blood as the ransom or the price paid to God, to death, or to Satan for sinful mankind. Still another approach emphasized Christ's suffering as moral archetype and object of imitation for the faithful. In conjunction with penance and the other sacraments, imitation enables human beings to restore the effaced image of God in themselves and thus to acquire a share of divinity.

In Chapter 2 the author concentrates on Christological inquiry at the court of Charlemagne, especially in relation to the doctrinal controversies over religious images and Adoptionism. A wide range of textual evidence attests the interest in the crucifixion as Christ's triumph over sin, death, and Satan. The blood spilled at Calvary empowers Christ's followers, especially saints and pious rulers, to continue this triumph over evil in history. Alongside this celebration of divine victory Chazelle identifies an undercurrent of interest in Christ's suffering. This is evident in some poetry, especially that of Alcuin, and hymns from the later eighth and early ninth century, where the objective appears to be to inspire sorrow, contrition, and moral emulation. In the penitential literature of this period the imagery of a triumphant warrior-king is intertwined with references to the Son's self-abasement and obedience. The seasonal liturgy as well as the rite of the mass also reflect a greater range of images and themes than simply that of triumph.

Against this background Chazelle presents the discussions of religious images and Adoptionism. In each case Charlemagne's theologians and advisers responded to what they perceived to be misunderstandings of the union of divinity and humanity in Christ. In the Opus Caroli regis (the so-called Libri Carolini) Theodulf and his collaborators in Charlemagne's court expressed disapproval of the iconodule doctrine presented in the acta of the recent Second Council of Nicaea (787). Chazelle seeks the Frankish document's "Christocentric foundation, and the function it assigns to the crucifixion" (41). According to Theodulf's relentlessly materialistic understanding of images, the iconodule position reflects a fundamentally flawed Christology. As he understood it, to venerate an image of Christ is at best to privilege the Lord's human over his divine nature, and at worst amounts to a form of idolatry. In other words, the relationship between the two natures in Christ shaped the approach that Theodulf and his circle took to the relationship between matter and spirit as this pertained to images. A faulty Greek doctrine of images, they felt, pointed to an underlying, erroneous Greek Christology. For Theodulf veneration is properly directed only toward the res sacratae mentioned in Scripture and the relics of saints, not to other material objects, not even manufactured images of the cross. The verbal description of Christ in the Gospels offers the true image of God because it directs attention beyond the temporal, material sphere to the transcendent realm of eternity and the divine. For this reason Theodulf focused on the divine in Christ. The incarnation he presented as key to an anagogy from matter to spirit; the Passion he depicted as the triumph of the divine over death.

The main anti-Adoptionist writers, Alcuin and Paulinus of Aquileia, were also concerned with the incarnation, but their intention was to show that in Christ "a complete, though sinless, human nature" was taken up, assumed, or exalted "into union with the Trinity's second person" (55-56). Once again it is now apparent that the Carolingians responded to a position they understood only imperfectly. That is, the Spanish Adoptionists based their doctrine on the kenosis language of Philippians 2.6-11, which they interpreted to mean that the Son emptied himself of divinity in order to descend and adopt humanity, even while he remained consubstantial with the Father. By adopting human nature in himself, the sinless Man-God made it possible for all human beings to become adoptive children of God. Alcuin and Paulinus mistook this position for a revival of the ancient subordinationist error and in direct conflict with key elements of the fifth-century councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Because in their view only an already existing person (who can only have been conceived in sin) could be the object of adoption, the Spanish Adoptionists had fallen into the error of representing the Son as subordinate in substance to the Father. Alcuin and Paulinus instead pictured the incarnation as God's assumption of human nature, not the adoption of an existing human person. From the very moment of his sinless conception in Mary's womb, human nature was exalted in Christ, for only thus could sinful human beings be adopted through him. As for their presentation of the passion, Alcuin and Paulinus emphasized the Lord's suffering and death. Although his divine nature itself could not suffer or die, it could also not be separated from the human nature of Christ, and so "the agony of the cross, like the resurrection, happened on some level to God" (62).

Chapter 3 focuses on images of the cross and crucifixion in the Gellone Sacramentary and the In honorem sanctae crucis of Hrabanus Maurus. There is no pretense to an exhaustive analysis of either work. Instead Chazelle offers "suggestions as to how these miniatures should be interpreted" (80) which are meant to inspire further, more nearly comprehensive studies of the two works. The modesty of this statement should not be allowed to conceal the true importance of her project in the chapters (3 and 7) that analyze the iconography of particular images. Chazelle's meticulous account of the Carolingian literature on the passion allows her to approach these images with remarkable acuity. For this reason these sondages in iconography really will make it possible for others to approach entire manuscripts and image programs in productive new ways. In a sense, the studies of textual evidence in Chapters 2 and 4-6 delineate and explore the theories of the passion in light of which the artistic practice of a particular generation may be understood. But it is worth adding that a knowledge of practice may alter one's understanding of theory, or, as Chazelle puts it, "the images provide us another perspective from which to assess the ideas about the crucified Christ expressed in writing" (6).

A brief survey at the first of Chapter 3 makes it clear that, one way or another, Christ the triumphant war leader was as central in the art of the late-eighth and early ninth century as it was in the textual evidence. Once again, however, a closer examination of particular works reveals a more complex reality. It is likely that the Gellone Sacramentary originated in the period 790^×c. 804 in a scriptorium associated with the bishop of Meaux. Chazelle speculates that it was taken to the monastery at Gellone in Aquitaine soon after its founding in 804 by Benedict of Aniane, who had a role in the struggle against Adoptionism. The argument is that a number of the concerns about Christological orthodoxy that shaped the Opus Caroli regis and the anti- Adoptionist literature also influenced the iconography of four of the sacramentary's illuminations, including the crucifixion of the famous Te igitur initial. This crucifixion is highly unusual in its position in the sacramentary text (between the Sanctus and the Te igitur prayers) and in its iconography (the bleeding, crucified Christ surrounded by two angels, but with no earthly attendants other than the personification of the church). The author tries to show that the image concentrates on the union of divine and human, heaven and earth established by the incarnation and passion, and then continued sacramentally in the eucharist. She draws attention to specific parallels between the iconography of the Gellone Sacramentary images and the Christologies articulated in the Opus Caroli regis and the anti-Adoptionist literature. The connection of the work to Benedict of Aniane makes is possible to imagine that the manuscript was produced under the direction of someone with specific knowledge of the quarrel over Adoptionism.

In the case of Hrabanus' series of image-poems and prose explanations, called In honorem sanctae crucis, there is no trace of a polemic or apologetic concern. Based on the work's content and the fact of its production in 813/814 when Hrabanus was head of the school at Fulda, Chazelle speculates that the work was primarily didactic in its intention. One of the valuable features of this section is the way it reveals Hrabanus not simply as a clever versifier who happened to have encyclopedic learning, but as a true heir of the theological interests and spirituality of his teacher, Alcuin. The monk of Fulda attended closely to the passion as the key to Christ's mediation. Human and passible though it was, the body that died on the cross was also divine, and so consecrated "the form of the cross by the position of its crucified limbs" (117). Chazelle also elucidates the importance of this work as evidence of the changing status of images. Hrabanus himself distinguished between image and figura. As a manufactured, material object, an image distracts human attention from sacred truth. A carmen figuratum, by contrast, joins visual forms with words in a way that leads the mind upward toward the divine. Although this materialist approach to images resembles Theodulf's, Hrabanus made an important exception, which Theodulf had not, namely images of the cross. Both regarded the cross itself as a sacral object, made holy by Christ's death on it. But Hrabanus, and not Theodulf, went on to say this sacral character inheres also in manufactured images of the cross. In this respect, Chazelle argues, In honorem reflects the emergence of cross adoration or worship as a devotional practice in the Frankish realms in the early ninth century. During the second quarter of that century, the subject received a good deal of attention, as some authors, such as Claudius of Turin, sought to curb cross worship on grounds of idolatry, while others, such as Einhard, Dungal, and Jonas of Orleans, endorsed the practice. Among other things, the literature defending cross-adoration reflects "the new interest...in the role of corporeal sign in the exercise of faith" (127).

In Chapter 4 Chazelle describes the transition between the crucifixion in early and later Carolingian literature. Although the passion and the cross continued to be presented in timeless, cosmic perspective as the saving achievement of the warrior-king who died, after the mid-ninth century other concerns became more prominent than they had been previously. The author observes two main tendencies: "the strengthening of interest, first, in mapping out the historical details of the crucifixion -^× the circumstances in which Jesus was nailed to the cross, who was there, what was done to him, when he died, etc. -- and, second, in explaining the purpose of the crucified humanity and its death in the accomplishment of redemption" (142). The general cause of these developments was the maturation of Carolingian scholarship and church reform in the decades after Charlemagne's death. In Alcuin's generation, the main concern had been to establish accurate liturgical and Bible texts. Once progress on that front had been achieved, ecclesiastics moved on to exegesis of Scripture itself, including the passion narratives of the Gospels, and the important passages on Christ's innocent blood sacrifice in the epistle to the Hebrews. Exegetes focused on the liturgy and sacraments as well as Scripture, again with the result that they became more keenly aware of the historical reality and redemptive significance of Jesus' death. Thus, alongside the older imagery of the Lord's cosmic triumph over sin/death/Satan, which were pictured as a force threatening all humanity from outside, there is a new emphasis on the individual believer's personal burden of sin; likewise a new emphasis on the redemption attainable through participation in the sacraments and through moral conformity to the suffering Jesus.

This ninth-century transition in approaches to the passion provides the background for detailed considerations of the passion as it figured in the controversies over predestination (Chapter 5) and the eucharist (Chapter 6). In the late 840s Gottschalk of Orbais asserted that Christ's blood redeems only those whom God eternally willed to save, not the reprobate. As Gottschalk saw it, a proper understanding of divine omnipotence and immutability made such a conclusion inescapable. To suppose that the passion accomplished anything less than what God wills would be, he thought, as wrong- headed as suggesting that God changes his mind about whom to save. "What God wills is necessarily by that same act foreknown, predestined, and 'foredone' (praefinita), or he would be subject to time" (176). According to Gottschalk, post-lapsarian human nature is so corrupt that all deserve damnation. Divine mercy restores in the elect the ability to will the good, but this is not a grace they can merit or reject. While baptism remits the sin of all those who undergo it, whether the elect or not, the benefit is purely temporal for the reprobate. The elect receive a special grace in baptism, and only they enjoy the saving redemption of Christ's blood.

Strife dogged Gottschalk here no less than in the other parts of his life. His rivals, Hrabanus Maurus, Hincmar of Rheims, and John Scottus Eriugena drew very different conclusions from his own when they considered the crucifixion in light of the eschaton. Hrabanus and Hincmar understood Gottschalk to teach that God predestines the reprobate not only to damnation but to sin, and thereby in effect punishes them for wrongs they did not freely commit. Instead they emphasized scriptural passages, such as I Timothy 2.4, that enunciate God's desire that all human beings be saved. The offer for salvation is universal, though in practice God knows in advance that the reprobate will in the end deserve punishment. Grace restores fallen man's ability to will the good but does not force the human subject to accept salvation. If this were not the case, Hrabanus and Hincmar thought, moral effort and participation in the sacraments would have no meaning as instruments of sanctification. Hincmar maintained that Christ's sacrifice was for all humanity. Just as all died in Adam, all will rise again in Christ. After the general resurrection, the righteous will be glorified thanks to the sanctifying power of Christ's blood, but the wicked will go to punishment.

John Scottus approached the matter in a way that was more philosophical and less pastoral than those of Hrabanus and Hincmar. As John Scottus saw it, Gottschalk's doctrine of double predestination violates both the principle of God's absolute simplicity and that of his absolute goodness. The language of predestination and foreknowledge cannot apply to God, because it implies, among other things, that divine operation occurs within time, that there is a difference in God between knowledge and action, and that God has something to do with wickedness (both sin and its punishment). Like Hrabanus and Hincmar, John Scottus emphasized the importance of human free will. After Adam's fall, the will lost its strength to cling to the good, even though it still had a natural desire for beatitude. Sanctifying grace is a free gift "freely accepted" (199) by those whom God knew in eternity would desire the good and persevere in doing it once they were given the strength of grace. Although the passion conveyed sufficient grace for the salvation of all human beings, only those who choose grace instead of sin will be saved in the end. Christ's death on the cross is for John Scottus the pivotal moment in a cosmic process of illumination. The light brought to the sinful world by the incarnate Logos achieves its full radiance only at the end of time, when the elect, now "deified," will contemplate the Logos.

Chazelle speculates that the controversy over predestination may have sparked dispute over the Eucharist, which is the subject of Chapter 6. At any rate Gottschalk and Hincmar were aware that the two topics were correlative, in the sense that whatever one affirmed about predestination was bound to influence one's eucharistic doctrine, and vice versa. One source of disagreement was the apparent tension between the status of the crucifixion as a one-time sacrifice and the mass as a daily sacrifice. Once again, their pastoral concerns seem to have led Pascasius Radbertus and Hincmar to affirm that the consecrated elements become the flesh and blood of the incarnate, crucified, and historical Jesus. They thought that the eucharist must contain the historical body and blood in order to be redemptive. Because the risen Christ cannot die again, the mass can only be an oblation of the same flesh and blood that were sacrificed on the cross. This identity is normally not apparent to the senses. But the bread and wine of the eucharist are the "figure and character" (221) of the true incarnate flesh and blood; that is, the consecrated elements possess the same truth and power as their source. Hincmar held that the eucharist's "ability to redeem everyone who receives it in faith, because God willed the salvation of all humanity, depends on its identity with the crucified body and blood" (224). As St. Ambrose had said, the risen and glorified body of Christ can be in two places at once, by virtue of its spiritualization and assimilation in the divine nature in heaven. The Holy Spirit mysteriously changes the bread and wine into the Lord's body just as he once mysteriously created the Lord's flesh in Mary's womb. These and other miracles point to a markedly voluntarist conception of divinity. But after all, the very laws of nature that God suspends in these miracles exist only insofar as he wills.

The main critics of the doctrine of the eucharist advanced by Pascasius Radbertus and Hincmar were Ratramnus and Gottschalk. While affirming that Jesus' words of institution themselves meant that the bread and wine become his body and blood, Ratramus and Gottschalk emphasized the uniqueness of the crucifixion, and as a consequence denied the identify of the Lord's historical body and blood and the sacramental body and blood. In keeping with his doctrine of predestination, Gottschalk insisted that just as Christ died only for the elect, only they receive saving power in the eucharist. Neither baptism nor the eucharist can give the reprobate access to the sacrifice made on the cross. Even for the elect, however, the true presence of Christ in the bread and wine is not the presence of his historical body. This is because, as both omnipotent and immutable, God accomplished his aim through one sacrifice only, and He cannot be said to change his mind. In contrast to St. Ambrose's spiritualizing view, St. Augustine had held that even in its resurrected, glorified condition, the body of Jesus retains its physical properties. On the basis of this continuity of physical properties, Ratramnus and Gottschalk inferred that the historical body sacrificed once and for all on the cross could not be the same body present in the mass.

Gottschalk employed dialectic in his explanation of the true presence of Jesus' body in the sacrament. He maintained that Christ, church, and eucharist are three different species of body which share a common nature. As Chazelle puts it: "Flesh (Christ) gives his flesh (the eucharist) to his flesh (the church), all three specially distinct but naturally one" (231). In this way the eucharist received by the elect is essentially linked to the historical body of Christ, but is not identical with that body. For his part, Ratramnus used grammar and dialect to argue that the meanings of the terms veritas and figura themselves entail that the historical, individually determined body of Christ is not "in truth" present in the sacrament. The true presence in the eucharist is that of a spiritual body and blood; in relation to the historical body of Christ, the eucharist is the figure, image, or symbol of ecclesial unity.

In Chapter 7 Chazelle concentrates on three later Carolingian crucifixion images, giving them detailed interpretation in light of the findings of Chapters 5 and 6. Of greatest interest is the crucifixion ivory of the Pericopes of Henry II. This was produced sometime between 840 and 870 in the realm of Charles the Bald, probably Rheims or Metz, and then in the early eleventh century was used as the cover of the Pericopes which Henry II presented to Bamberg Cathedral. In its complex theological program this crucifixion image is unrivaled in the Carolingian period. Although none of its parts is new, as a collection and composition the work is unique. Chazelle tries to show that the image makes best sense when understood against the background of the doctrine of the passion articulated by Hincmar of Rheims. Further, she argues that Hincmar commissioned the work as a gift for Charles the Bald, with the hope of edifying and admonishing its recipient on the subject of good Christian rulership.

Clear and distinct proof of these assertions seems out of reach, but Chazelle makes a strong case for their plausibility. Discussions of the crucifixion images of the illustration of Psalm 115 of the Utrecht Psalter and of the Palm Sunday initial in the Drogo Sacramentary suggest that their designers were familiar with some of the main issues of the quarrels over predestination and the eucharist. The ivory seems to be directly or indirectly indebted to both these earlier works. Furthermore, the ivory mirrors themes that were prominent in the writings of John Scottus and Hincmar, for example their emphasis on the "crucifixion's relation to the eternal, heavenly vision"(279) and on the cosmic impact of the crucifixion. The strongest evidence linking the ivory to Hincmar in particular, however, is its presentation of the allegorical figure of Ecclesia both as recipient of the blood flowing from Christ's side, and as donor of earthly sovereignty. Chazelle argues that Ecclesia here replaces the ancient pagan goddess Tellus as disposer of the disk symbolizing rule on earth, and that the figure holding the disk is meant to remind the monarch that his royal dominion comes to him from Christ through Ecclesia. Several passages in Hincmar's admonitory writings addressed to Charles the Bald support such an interpretation. The chapter closes (292-299) with a valuable synoptic review of the main images studied in both Chapter 7 and 3. These pages also mark the transition to the book's short Conclusion.

However art historians appraise Chazelle's treatment of images and iconography, the book is exceptionally successful at showing the quality and texture of the religious culture and discourse in which these images of the passion were produced. This will certainly open up new paths of inquiry for early medievalists, whether specialists in art history or not. As a guide to the evolution of thought about the passion in the Carolingian period, the book is first rate. In addition to this, Chazelle shows how the careful examination of a particular theme or motif, as it appeared in several different doctrinal and theological controversies over a period of three generations, can provide a clear sense of the character and complexion of the culture at large. Chazelle deserves credit for breaking away from the confines of a monograph on a single author, manuscript, or controversy. Let us hope that others will follow this lead.

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Author Biography

David Appleby

United States Naval Academy