The Medieval Review 14.06.01


Mullins, Juliet, Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh, and Richard Hawtree. Envisioning Christ on the Cross: Ireland and the Early Medieval West . Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2013. Pp. 370. €49.50. ISBN: 978-1-84682-387-9.



Reviewed by:


Colum Hourihane
Princeton University
cph@princeton.edu

This volume is derived from a conference which was called "Croch Saithir: Envisioning Christ on the Cross in the Early Medieval West" which was held in March of 2010. The volume has Ireland at its core, but it goes way beyond what the title would lead the reader to expect. There are seventeen essays in this finely produced volume divided under two headings. The first of these is "God Hanging from a Cross" and the second "Contemplate the Wounds of the Crucified," and the essays appear to be arranged in roughly chronological order. The collection of essays explores two central aspects of the crucifixion, which are reflected in the two divisions. The first section looks at God's revelation of His divinity on the cross, and the second examines His suffering and humanity with a focus on affective devotion. Both divisions follow on chronologically from each other and attempt to look at continuities in a sea of change. The title of the volume was specifically chosen to highlight the aim of the editors and authors of evoking the concept of vision--be that of the viewer as "a participating spiritual subject, as well as the object as a specific artist's vision of Christ."

The period under study extends from the fifth to the twelfth centuries--the end date certainly stretches the definition of "early medieval" in the title. The essays look at material from Early Christian Rome to Romanesque Italy. The collection brings together some start-of-career scholars with some more established names, nearly all of whom deal with the crucifixion or cross in one way or another. The Introduction prepares us for the core of the book dealing with the cross and the crucifixion in thought and in art. The essays are cleverly placed in the volume and may be linked through their focus on text over image, or else thematically related with one following logically from the preceding.

The first essay by Felicity Harley McGowan looks at the crucifixion panel in the Maskell ivories and analyses the iconography of the scene against Graeco-Roman precedents. It is a fine detailed analysis of the compositions, motifs, posture, and details that make up this small carving. For the author, it is the earliest example of the crucifixion from a narrative perspective and is studied against the three other panels that make up the series. For her, these ivories are underpinned by a strong theological statement which looks at Christ's triumph and his divinity on the cross. The second essay moves the reader into the textual realm with an analysis of the feasts of the cross and, more specifically, on the veneration of the cross in the liturgies of Good Friday. It is a feast that started in Jerusalem and moved to Rome around 700 and from there into other liturgies. She examines rubric and ritual in the Roman, Gallician and Hispanic liturgies and highlights the focus of each, ranging from redemption to veneration. The format of the volume changes here from each author providing an introduction, and conclusion, to a more free structured approach. Jennifer O' Reilly's essay looks at the Crucifixion in Insular manuscripts and harks back to Felicity Harley McGowan's belief that the Maskell ivory and the doors at Santa Sabena are amongst the earliest representations of the Crucifixion in the West. Both fail to deal with the images of the crucifixion on works such as ampullae or gems, and their relationship to these later works. Similarly, the Late Antique glyptic, now in the British Museum (OA 9717) and also dating to the late fourth-early fifth century, is not referred to. Her wish is to look at Christ's identity as is represented on the cross and, in particular, his humanity and divinity. This she does in an encyclopedic survey of images on the theology of the cross as found in six manuscripts ranging from the Durham Gospels to the Wurzburg Epistles. This is a benchmark study not only for crucifixion iconography but also for Insular art history, and my only regret is that the subject was not broadened to include the many representations on the contemporary high crosses and metalwork. Carol Neuman de Vegvar's essay continues the sequence by looking at the symbolic representation of the crucifixion on the Blythburgh Table-possibly part of an Anglo-Saxon whalebone writing tablet dating to the eighth century and now in the British Museum. This is an image of the crucifixion without a cross, without a body but with the five wounds shown. After an analysis of purpose and form, the author inclines towards the belief that this was not only a writing tablet but part of a liturgical diptych comparing more than favorably to ivories of the same period. This forms a fine introduction to the next essay, which also looks at the symbolic representation of the crucifixion in the kingdom of Aturias from the eighth to the tenth centuries-a land where no corpus is ever shown. César Garcia de Castro Valdés analyses the various types of crosses found in different media against the historical and liturgical background. There is no emphasis on death in this iconography and instead it focuses on salvation. The first appearance of the crucifixion as distinct from the cross in Iberia happens c. 975, and he argues for a "conscious estrangement in the iconographic tradition away from crucifixion iconography." It is a pity that the author was not better served with a clearer translation or proof reading as this is one of the most interesting articles in the volume. The sixth essay in the collection brings us back to a textual source when one of the three editors, Richard Hawtree, looks at early medieval Irish attitudes to Christ's crucified body in the writings of John Scottus Eriugena. Looking at the Periphyseon and the Court of Charles the Bald, the author points out how Christ's cross is a means through which Eriugena looks at the relationship of earthly and divine power. His interest is the audience for such writings, and he points out the lack of one specific group but the international appeal to all--neither Carolingian nor Irish but to all. Beatrice Kitzinger's insightful study of a ninth-tenth century gospel manuscript made in northwestern France (Angers, Bib. Municipale, Ms. 24) looks at the Passion iconography--from crucifixion to entombment from a compositional and theological perspective. The essay focuses on the absent and the present, and looks at how the gospel book embodies and stands in for Christ in the liturgy and how the sign of the cross- -the signum cruces--is central to this. In turn, she extends this to the mass, which she sees as the main vehicle for uniting the cross, the body and the word. The last essay in this section of the collection is by Celia Chazelle and is a fine survey of the mass and various Eucharists used from the present to the early Christian period, with a particular focus on the Carolingians. She briefly examines the way the liturgies developed from practical needs to the words and deeds used, and shows how the variations reflected the stratification of society which the Carolingians attempted to unite. This encyclopedic view provides a fine conclusion to the first division in the collection.

The first essay in the second division is by Elizabeth Boyle and is a study that looks at a treatise on the Real Presence of the Eucharist written, possibly c. 1050-c. 1150, by Echtgus Ua Cuanáin of Roscrea in Co. Tipperary. It is an essay that resonates of earlier studies in the volume, including those of Beatrice Kitzinger and Celia Chazelle. It is a text that needs to clarify the theology of the Eucharist and the wish to have uniformity in belief amongst the clergy as well as the laity. The text is clearly both personal as well as applying to the Church itself and looks at salvation and sacrifice. The same combination of the general and local is highlighted in the next essay in the volume, which is on the Leabhar Breac by Juliet Mullins. This manuscript collection dates to the early fifteenth century (c. 1408- 1411) and is a mixture of material, but the focus here is on the Passion texts and the crucifixion in particular. The focus is on suffering, salvation and sacrament, which are all unified at the crucifixion. The author highlights the generalized traditions--both doctrinal and theological--which are underpinned by more localized needs, with a focus on imitation Christi. Michele Bacci, in the next study, looks at the Volto Sancto from a cultic perspective. This examines the role of images in religious experience and the way they worked collectively and individually in liturgy, devotion and private experiences. His analysis of the Volto Sancto and the current statue's predecessor is particularly interesting. Naturally, his focus is on Christ's long tunic, but he also points out the cross itself and its origins in the Eastern world but its dispersal throughout the West. The Volto Santo also figures prominently in the next essay, which deals with wooden carvings of Christ in Majesty in the north eastern part of Catalonia, and is by Jordi Camps I Soria. One of the interesting aspects to this entire collection is the balanced approach to some well-known images but also to the lesser known material such as Asturias or Catalonia. Even though he states his aim in this study is not to deal with a typology of these crosses, he does just that using a few case studies. He looks at the choice of crucifixion over other possible types and then their production and relationship to Christ in Majesty at this period. He concludes by looking at the church reform of the eleventh century in relation to their production in the succeeding century. Katharina Christa Schüpel's essay is a review of the historiography of the Italian painted crosses from Evelyn Sandberg-Vavalà's pioneering study of 1929 to Edward Garrison's work after the Second World War and more recent scholarship. Her clearly written essay highlights the over emphasis of Tuscan material (which she now sees as lessening) the stress on developing typologies, the relationship of these works to metalwork examples, and the many regional groupings that have been created, but she also highlights the need to look closer at the iconography, their function and their locations within buildings. She ends by stressing the need to look at their relationship with icons.

Even though many of the studies have dealt with Irish material up to now, the real core of the book for the art historian in search of the more familiar Irish material is found towards the end. That starts with Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh's own essay on twelfth century Irish high crosses. It is a shame that there are no singular studies on the earlier Irish high crosses, even though this essay attempts to place the later ones in the broader context of the tenth century material. It's a study that sets out to look at the expressive qualities of the later crosses and to consider the audience in her analysis of emotional or affective imagery. I remain unconvinced of her seeing the later crosses as reflecting a conscious shift in focus, and she does not evaluate the natural changes in time and taste that they might also embody. It is an essay that is underpinned by conjecture but highlights this corpus which is relatively unknown outside of Ireland. The following essay continues with the more familiar material, and that is the small cast bronze crucifixion plaques first studied by Peter Harbison many years ago. This new study by Griffin Murray proposes a new schema, and a new outline of the workshops responsible for them. It is one of the longest essays in the volume and includes an extensive catalogue of the plaques. As clear as the essay is, I remain a little skeptical that they were attached to large metal altar crosses such as the Tully Lough Cross-but in the absence of other arguments the author's case appears reasonable. I also believe that the plaque from the Tully Lough Cross represents The Temptation and, as such, is similar in size and technique only to the crucifixion plaques.

John Munn's essay brings the reader back to eleventh or twelfth century England and the wall painting of the Holy Trinity in the form of the Gnadenstuhl, or Throne of Grace at the Last Judgment, in St. Mary's Church at Houghton-on-the-Hill in Norfolk. This case study details the history of the theme against the uncertainties of date of the church and origins of the subject. It concludes that this may be the first earliest extant example of the subject. It is an essay that could have benefited from the editor's interventions. Nowhere is a definition of the subject itself given, and the author varies between calling the Last Judgment as such but also referring to it as the Doom. I expect the inclusion of the last essay in the volume, by Elizabeth Parker, could be justified by virtue of Christ's left hand still being attached to the cross-but the subject is really the Deposition made by Benedetto Antelami and now in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Parma. The author proposes a new liturgical reading of the work in a well-structured and interesting essay that centers on Holy Week and its relationship to the work. It's a work that invites the viewer into it as the liturgy unfolds and centers on the act of witnessing, even though we are still unsure of where it was originally located within the building.

No work such as this can hope to deal with everything, but there are some omissions in the collection such as the crucifixion in Pictish or Anglo-Saxon art that deserve to be included. What we do have here though is a fine collection that does way more than the title leads one to believe. It is the first modern, large scale study of the crucifixion from an Insular perspective.



Copyright (c) 2014 Colum Hourihane



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