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15.09.13, Wander, The Joshua Roll

The Medieval Review

15.09.13, Wander, The Joshua Roll

Steven H. Wander's monograph is the latest of several major studies to focus on the well-known but enigmatic middle Byzantine manuscript known as the Joshua Roll (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Pal. gr. 431). In the preface, Wander boldly states the need for this new work because "what has been written about it [the Roll] over the course of the past century is for the most part wrong" (15). He argues that because little sustained attention has been paid to the inscriptions throughout the manuscript, earlier scholars have misunderstood both the identity of certain scenes and the purpose of the roll itself. By contrast, Wander's method foregrounds the close relationship between text and image, arguing that they were conceived together and executed in the same campaign. Building from recent research by Otto Kresten that links one of the two scribal hands evident in the Joshua Roll to other works by the tenth-century monk and calligrapher Basil, Wander dates the manuscript to 961 and connects it to the patronage of the powerful middle Byzantine eunuch, courtier, and illegitimate son of Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944), Basil the parakoimomenos (chamberlain) (c. 925-c. 985). In what is perhaps the most controversial aspect of his interpretation, Wander proposes that the Joshua Roll was the study for a small-scale triumphal column that would have commemorated Basil's military success in the East during the reign of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennitos (r. 945-959).

In chapter one, Wander summarizes the existing literature, paying particular attention to earlier monographic studies of the manuscript and their approaches to the relationship between text and image. He notes that even scholars who studied the inscriptions judged them to be inaccurate and incomplete, as well as disconnected from the images in various ways. Following the recent trend in scholarship on the Joshua Roll and related middle Byzantine manuscripts--especially that of John Lowden--Wander argues instead that text and image were carefully coordinated in both content and composition, and that the inscribed text from the Book of Joshua was altered in some instances to align more closely with the depicted scenes. As a result, the inscriptions direct the viewer in the interpretation of the images.

In chapter two, Wander provides a comprehensive analysis of the inscriptions and iconography, synthesizing and in some instances revising existing interpretations found in the copious literature on the Joshua Roll. Wander demonstrates how earlier scholars' perceptions of mistakes on the part of the illuminator and scribes are in error and emphasizes instead the accuracy of the relationship between text and image. One might quibble with Wander over some of his conclusions. For instance, his proposal that the windows in the walls of Jericho (fols. IV and VI) are unusually large so as to emphasize a connection with the now-lost depiction of Rahab aiding the spies, a scene which he speculates appeared at the beginning of the Roll (28-29), was not entirely persuasive. In addition, his reading of the figures depicted on the front of the Ark (fols. II and V) as two cherubim (34) did not convince this reader. Overall, however, Wander offers a thorough reconsideration of the earlier tendency to see imprecision and confusion in the illustrations and inscriptions of the manuscript and provides numerous credible corrections of earlier interpretations. This revisionist position is in keeping with a broader scholarly move to appreciate the internal logic of middle Byzantine works of art rather than assume that artists and scribes were muddled or impaired. Wander's meticulous documentation of an argument in favor of seeing scribes and illuminator--and text and image--working in coordination and with purpose is a substantial contribution to scholarship on the Roll. In chapter three, Wander turns to questions of function, patronage, and socio-historical context. Introducing a novel explanation for the purpose of the Roll, Wander posits that it was a drawing for a small-scale triumphal column. He supports this proposal with analysis of internal features of the composition, including the consistent upward angle of the ground line toward the right, the use of hieratic and progressively increasing scale of figures (which would have increased their legibility), and the vertical alignment of key scenes between the registers of the reconstructed spiral. Building from Kersten's recent identification of the Joshua Roll's scribe, Wander names as patron the prominent imperial administrator and military leader Basil the parakoimomenos, who is known to have commissioned other works from the monk and calligrapher Basil. Wander further proposes that the Roll (and the column for which he hypothesizes it was a model) commemorated Basil's conquest of Samosata on the Euphrates River, for which he was granted a triumph at Constantinople in 958. Backed by close analysis of the style and composition of the painting, Wander sides with previous scholars who posit that the manuscript copies an earlier roll dating to the era of the Byzantine emperor Herakleios (r. 610-641), who was celebrated in his own time as a liberator of the Holy Land.

While Wander's analysis of text and image in chapter two is based on meticulous scrutiny of the manuscript, it must be noted that the evidence for his argument regarding function in chapter three is almost entirely circumstantial. Factors arguing against Wander's speculation that the scroll was a drawing for a small-scale triumphal column include the fact that no such works of art are attested in Byzantium. Furthermore, the known Roman-Byzantine triumphal columns are all monumental and, when historiated, depict actual imperial conquests rather than biblical narratives (as Wander notes [89-90]). The only small-scale medieval historiated column that Wander is able to present was produced in the early eleventh century and in the West, under the patronage of Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim (993-1022). It depicts scenes from the ministry of Christ (90). Wander is careful to compare Bernward's column and the Joshua Roll in terms of dimensions, not iconography, function, or style. Still he hypothesizes that Bernward--a noted collector of Byzantine art--could have been inspired by a Byzantine model for the design of his own column. Wander offers an intriguing, if tenuous, connection between the German and Byzantine courts by way of the Ottonian ambassador Liutprand of Cremona (d. 972), who met Basil the parakoimomenos when he traveled to Constantinople in 968 to negotiate a marriage alliance with Byzantium for Otto II (r. 973-983). While suggestive, this Byzantine-Ottonian network does not substantiate the existence of a small-scale triumphal column depicting the story of Joshua at the court in Constantinople.

Surprisingly absent from Wander's discussion is extended consideration of the possibility that the Roll was a study for a wall painting (80-83). This is especially striking given the survival of a tenth-century fresco depicting Joshua and the archangel Michael at the church of Hosios Loukas in Phocis, Greece, which has been dated to the same period as the Joshua Roll, the second quarter of the tenth century. [1] Scholarship of the mid-twentieth century paid particular attention to the strong similarities in style and technique between the Joshua Roll and the fresco cycle of the church of S. Maria foris portas at Castelseprio, north of Milan, which was discovered in 1944 and depicts a Marian cycle. [2] In the 1980s the monument was dated by means of Carbon-14 samples from the original roof beams of the east apse, placing its construction between 778 and 952. [3] The wall paintings at Castelseprio are currently thought to date to the early ninth century. [4] Still the region of Lombardy maintained connections with Byzantium throughout the ninth and tenth centuries, raising the possibility that Byzantine artists were involved in the decoration of Castelseprio, and that this monument and the Joshua Roll were products of a common artistic tradition. Aspects of the Joshua Roll that recommend a connection with painting rather than a triumphal column include the importance of color composition and the careful modeling of figures, both of which indicate an artistic logic more akin to fresco or illumination than metal or marble, the materials used for the historiated columns cited by Wander. Even if, as Wander suggests, the colored wash was applied after (perhaps even significantly after) the line drawings were completed (82-83), the noteworthy role played by inscriptions in the composition of the Roll finds closer parallels in Byzantine painting--or, indeed, ivory--than metalwork or marble carving. On the other hand, one might question more rigorously the assumption that the Joshua Roll is a study for a monumental work of art; the possibility of its having been a finished work may deserve more serious consideration.

The association of the manuscript with Basil the parakoimomenos is more plausible. As Wander rightly points out, Basil was one of the few men of tenth-century Byzantium who not only possessed the resources to commission a work of art on par with the Joshua Roll, but also could claim the military achievements that the manuscript celebrates. Furthermore, Basil was among the most prominent patrons of art in medieval Byzantium. Indeed, even if Wander's argument for seeing the Roll as the drawing for a historiated column is not endorsed, his proposition that Basil was its patron can still stand. Among the implications of Wander's argument is the diversification of patronage for works of art depicting typological themes of military triumph--like Joshua's conquest of the Holy Land--which are more commonly seen as the prerogative of the emperor.

In its treatment of the Joshua Roll's status as a classicizing work of middle Byzantine art, Wander's study may disappoint some specialists in the field. The Joshua Roll was crucial to early twentieth-century efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of Byzantine art by staking a claim for it as a worthy inheritor and perpetuator, rather than an ignorant destroyer and distorter, of classical heritage and art. In addition, the Roll was a key object in mid-twentieth-century debates surrounding the nature of the so-called Macedonian Renaissance of the tenth century. Wander affirms the importance of the Joshua Roll within these earlier debates (93, 138), but fails to note that the notion of a Macedonian Renaissance is no longer roundly endorsed. [5] Instead, Wander presents the Macedonian Renaissance as an enduring concept. This is unfortunate given that his study might have provided the opportunity to devise alternative explanations for the classicizing aspects of middle Byzantine art.

While few specialists are likely to agree with all of Wander's assertions, scholars of Byzantine art and history will find much of interest in his arguments. His discussion may, however, prove difficult to digest for readers who do not already possess a firm grasp of the historiography of Byzantine manuscript studies or the history of the middle Byzantine court. Wander's analysis is often dense, and sometimes digresses to a degree that risks losing sight of the forest for the trees, as in the extended discussion of the life and artistic patronage of Basil the parakoimomenos (96-132). Nonetheless, Wander's case for the strong relationship between texts and images throughout the manuscript as well as his explanation of the manuscript's place in Constantinopolitan artistic circles of the 960s is persuasive. More specifically, the affiliation with Basil the parakoimomenos is plausible, and Wander's affirmation of close connections between seventh- and tenth-century Byzantine artistic classicism carries merit. Less compelling are his speculations regarding the purpose of the Joshua Roll (and its purported seventh-century model) as studies for small-scale triumphal columns, a proposition for which there is, quite simply, no hard evidence in extant Byzantine texts or monuments.

The main text is followed by two appendices. The first documents the known provenance of the manuscript. The second charts the relationship of iconography in the Joshua Roll to the illustration of the same narrative in a set of well-known middle Byzantine illuminated Octateuchs, which have featured prominently in earlier scholarship on the Roll. A full bibliography follows, but not an index. The latter omission is unfortunate. Given the Joshua Roll's important intersections with major themes in twentieth-century scholarship on middle Byzantine art, readers might have found it useful to be guided to the junctures in Wander's analysis where these longstanding debates and related works of art are considered. For instance, he posits that the Joshua Roll and a set of three well-known ivory plaques (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) depicting similar scenes from the story of Joshua drew from a common model, but did not use one another as sources and show some key differences in iconographic details (23-24, 57). In the absence of an index, however, it is challenging to zero in on these important comments. This is especially regrettable given that some of these discussions develop over the course of the book and, therefore, will be difficult to track in full.

The volume is generously illustrated with twenty-nine photos of comparanda, fifteen full-page plates documenting the entire length of the Roll, and seven in-text diagrams that visualize Wander's arguments for reconstructions, intra-manuscript relationships of significant motifs, and aspects of the illuminations that support his proposal that the Roll served as a study for a historiated column. These illustrations are of consistently high quality, and the ample use of color in the comparative figures makes the connections Wander draws more vivid and compelling. It is regrettable, however, that only the first plate and none of the diagrams documenting the Roll itself are rendered in color. The black-and-white reproductions cannot capture the subtle effects of the original drawing and wash. They appear drab and, in some areas, murky, greatly undermining Wander's and other scholars' observations about color composition and the expert handling of the wash (82-83).

In sum, Wander makes important and novel contributions to our understanding of the Joshua Roll, challenging longstanding assumptions about the internal relationship of text and image as well as the accuracy of the inscriptions themselves. Regardless of whether his association of the manuscript with the patronage of Basil the parakoimomenos receives broad acceptance, he has made a strong case for situating the Roll at the vanguard of Byzantine artistic production during the third quarter of the tenth century. While he may fall short of convincing all readers that the Joshua Roll is a study for a historiated triumphal column, his speculations are not entirely unfounded, and invite similarly bold and informed engagements with middle Byzantine courtly art that will continue to enliven study of this remarkable period of cultural production.



1. Regarding the possible connection between the Joshua Roll and the fresco at Hosios Loukas, see Carolyn L. Connor, "Hosios Loukas as a Victory Church," Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 33, no. 3 (1992): 293-308, esp. 304-305.

2. See esp. Kurt Weitzmann, The Fresco Cycle of S. Maria di Castelseprio (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951); Charles R. Morey, "Castelseprio and the Byzantine 'Renaissance,'" The Art Bulletin 34, no. 3 (1952): 173-201.

3. Paula Leveto-Jabr, "Carbon-14 Dating of Wood from the East Apse of Santa Maria at Castel Seprio," Gesta 26, no. 1 (1987): 17-18.

4. Paula D. Leveto, "The Marian Theme of the Frescoes in S. Maria at Castelseprio," The Art Bulletin 72, no. 3 (1990): 393-413.

5. For critique of the concept of the Macedonian Renaissance, see John Hanson, "The Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Renaissance," in Liz James, ed., A Companion to Byzantium (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 338-350.