12.09.36, Hourihane, ed., Insular and Anglo-Saxon Art and Thought in the Early Medieval Period

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Asa Simon Mittman

The Medieval Review 12.09.36

Hourihane, Colum. Insular and Anglo-Saxon Art and Thought in the Early Medieval Period. The Index of Christian Art Occasional Papers 13. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011. Pp. xxi, 324. ISBN: 978-0-9837537-0-4.

Reviewed by:
Asa Simon Mittman
California State University, Chico

This recent volume from the Index of Christian Art results from a conference in 2010 on historiography and new trends in iconography. It aims to bring together discussions of Irish, "Insular" (a somewhat fraught term), and Anglo-Saxon art, and to reappraise previous assumptions about these fields, individually, as well as their interconnections. It is a beautifully produced volume, right down to the laid paper flyleaves, and while the images are printed on matt paper, they are for the most part quite good, particularly those reproduced in color. It is worth noting, given the current trends in academic publishing, that this large paperback volume is only $35, putting it well within reach of most scholars and students.

There are seventeen essays, plus a clear introduction, and they range quite widely in approach. Some are traditional attempts at achieving more precision in the dating, provenance and sources of works, and others are more interpretive. While some make good and strategic use of recent theoretical approaches, none rely on theoretical jargon, which should render the volume widely accessible.

The first three essays all ask the reader to think more broadly about time, place, and styles, seeing the latter as stretching more extensively than is often acknowledged, with simultaneously produced works running the gambit from intentionally archaic to daringly fresh. Nancy Netzer examines several recent archeological finds that put into question neat sequences of chronological stylistic development that scholars have generated, and suggests that, instead, we "attempt to decipher what meanings such [stylistic] choices may have had and how they were understood by those who made, commissioned, and viewed these works," as many art historians have been doing for the last few decades (13). Michelle Brown provides a solid reassessment of Southumbrian manuscripts, seeking to open up the porous border between "Insular" and "Anglo-Saxon" culture. Lawrence Nees' essay, though, is more radical, as it works to undermine the commonly accepted dates for most of the signal works of Insular art, including the Sutton Hoo Treasure, Book of Durrow, Lindisfarne Gospels, Codex Amiatinus, and Ruthwell Cross. This is all the more significant, since most other works from the period are dated in relation to the accepted dates of these works. He argues that "[w]e should try to resist giving dates that are at least implicitly more definite than we know, and prefer ranges of good probability, as when radiocarbon dates are properly reported" (26). As an example, he suggests dating the Book of Durrow to "probably 650-725," a wide but honest range. More than mere deconstruction, this essay is a gentle and polite indictment (and a welcome one) of a large portion of the field; a few essays in this collection might have productively considered Nees' insights.

The strongest essays in the collection are those that--consciously or otherwise--seek to follow Nees' injunction not to focus on determining precise dates or places for production of works, but to explore the significances and meanings of their visual and textual programs. These essays are scattered throughout the volume, and include contributions by Heather Pulliam on color in the Book of Kells, Benjamin C. Tilghman on mixed scripts in Insular art, Éamonn Ó Carragáin on high crosses, Carol Newman De Vegvar on the motif of a woman holding a drinking horn, Jennifer O'Reilly on images of St. John, Carol Farr on performance and Insular art, Jane E. Rosenthal on Christ in the Arenberg Gospels, Benjamin C. Withers on Satan's mandorla in the Hexateuch, and Martin Werner on the cover of the Stonyhurst Gospel of St. John. I do not have the space to discuss all seventeen essays, nor even all of these most interesting contributions, but will devote the remainder of this review to a selection of them.

Tilghman's piece is among the more creative in the volume, essentially viewing Insular manuscripts through the lens of the Franks Casket. He makes use of insights contained in Nees' essay regarding the need to nuance or reject style as a marker of date and place, and instead finds rich meaning in the willful blending of styles, scripts and letters from several alphabets. As he writes, "Ascribing artistic decisions to a particular 'influence' undervalues the agency of the makers of a work of art, who are presented as powerless to escape the authority of particularly important or well-known works, which is to say that the dominant tradition acts upon newly made works, as opposed to makers consciously responding to, and making selective use of, existing works" (107). Tilghman concludes that Insular calligraphers-- believing that mixing traditions produced better results than aesthetic purity--often used non-Latin letters to generate meaning, emphasize sanctity, and "assert the single truth spoken by the Church, and conveyed through the books, no matter the language through which that truth manifested" (104).

Ó Carragáin's essay on the impact of the motion of the sun on high crosses provides an elegant, deeply situated evocation of the experience of watching the sun move across their surfaces, and their shadows lengthen and shift. The essay is not only a call to pay attention to an often-overlooked design element, but also a detailed and complex analysis of four major crosses, showing the vitally of the approach. In essence, he argues that we should see these solid stone works "as being dynamic rather than static," activated as they are by the movement of the sun (149). Ó Carragáin also reminds us that we should consider "how their iconographical programs were experienced in the course of the day and of the year" (173). In 2008, I had the pleasure of listening to Professor Ó Carragáin's eloquent lecture at the ICM in Leeds, where he spoke on these crosses. He began by saying that he had been studying these works for forty years and, he said (roughy): "I think I've finally got them figured out." His point was not merely that we need to give such complex works significant investments of our time and intellect to understand them, but also that we need to see them throughout the day and throughout the year, over the course of seasons and in varying weather. As works largely designed for monastic communities, they do not yield all their secrets in the span of a day trip to Monasterboice or Bewcastle. I am left wondering if similar studies would be fruitful in relation to other media, as well.

O'Reilly provides another sophisticated piece, discussing earlier works such as Lindisfarne and Kells, but also later Anglo-Saxon manuscripts (less commonly represented in this volume). She elucidates a web of scriptural and exegetical readings in dialogue with close readings of differences among images of John and between images of John and the other evangelists, suggesting that John was seen as "one of the greater souls...who are illuminated by divine Wisdom and transmit to others whatever they are capable of receiving" (217). His importance was therefore greater than that of the other three evangelists. Images of John push the viewer "to see through John's eyes the divinity of the Crucified, inseparable from his humanity." (218) In each image, she finds echoes of this larger understanding, as well as individual nuances of meaning.

Withers's essay on the nearly unique image of Satan in a mandorla found in the frontispiece to the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch is a subtle and carefully articulated argument. This essay builds on Withers' considerable work on the Hexateuch, most particularly on his Art Bulletin article from 1999 but also his edited collection (with Rebecca Barnhouse) from 2001 and his monograph from 2007. Here, he sets this unusual iconographical element into an Anglo-Saxon understanding of the acts of translation (rooted in the Old English awendan, "to turn" or "change," rather than the Latin translatio, "to carry over") and interpretation, eschewing simple, formulaic readings of symbols in favor of ambiguity and process. (267) The mandorla, Withers argues, "marks the results of [Lucifer/Satan's] overreaching, and for that reason demands that the viewer look at and then through the corporal sign for spiritual truth" (269). The peculiar use of the mandorla, generally reserved for Christ, here draws the viewer's attention, and invites careful rumination on the import of this image of the Origin of Satan.

Werner's essay, the last in the volume, is perhaps the most impressive, since it takes as its central focus the seemingly least promising of the volume's objects. In comparison with the stunning illumination, stonework and metalwork discussed through the volume, the tooled leather book cover of the Stonyhurst Gospel of St. John-- found in the tomb of St. Cuthbert--seems quite humble. Werner's argument is conveniently bolstered by O'Reilly's essay, which offers further discussion of the prominence of the Gospel of John in the Insular world. Along the way to his expansive series of potential significances for the tree and cross designs, Werner also tentatively locates the manuscript in time and place, and sets it in scriptural, exegetical and artistic contexts. The essay is a tour de force, finding myriad rich meanings within the deceptively simple designs.

While some of the other essays are less compelling and less convincing, they flesh out the range of approaches taken toward such works of art. The volume contains more than enough good essays to justify its small price and, in those noted here and others, provides great riches.

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Author Biography

Asa Simon Mittman

California State University, Chico