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22.03.18 Owen-Crocker/Hyer (eds.), Art and Worship in the Insular World

22.03.18 Owen-Crocker/Hyer (eds.), Art and Worship in the Insular World

This collection of essays by leading scholars in Insular art, archaeology, and material culture honors and celebrates the life and work of Elizabeth (Betty) Coatsworth, whose contributions to the study of dress and textiles, metalwork, and stone sculpture in early medieval England are mainstays of current work in these fields.

The introductory material includes a biographic essay by Gale Owen-Crocker, Coatsworth’s frequent co-author on a number of important volumes (most recently Clothing the Past: Surviving Garments from Early Medieval to Early Modern Western Europe (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2018). Evocatively situating Coatsworth’s origins in mid-twentieth-century northeastern England, Owen-Crocker also delineates her multifaceted career and provides a sketch of the range of subject matter in her scholarly work, which has appropriately guided the selection of the themes in this volume.

The volume is divided into two sections. Part 1, “Representation: Art and Worship through Text, Textile, and Tool,” focuses on textiles, dress, personal appearance, and daily life, as seen through manuscript illumination and text sources as well as surviving textile fragments and archaeological finds.

In “Figurative Art in the Book of Kells: Absurd Anatomies, See-through Tunics, and Diverse Hairstyles” Donncha MacGabhann ascribes all of the illumination of the Book of Kells to two artists, the Master Artist, to a degree redefining Françoise Henry’s Goldsmith, and the Scribe Artist, to whom MacGabhann attributes the remainder of the imagery, albeit in different phases of declining competence over time. In this view MacGabhann participates in what may have become a trend in Insular art studies, initiated by Michelle Brown’s attribution of both text and art in the Lindisfarne Gospels to one individual, Abbot Eadfrith, an approach that has much to recommend it in the discovery of specific creative identities but that leaves open such big-picture questions as the potential for style norming in scriptoria and the limits of assistants’ preparatory roles. Perhaps more problematic is MacGabhann’s description of the Scribe Artist as less successful than the Master Artist because the latter’s renditions of the human form are more naturalistic. Given that mimesis is not a universal priority in Insular art, where abstraction may also sometimes serve to convey meaning, perhaps the rhythmic concatenations of form in the Scribe-Artist’s figures may represent success by a different standard.

Christina Lee, in “The Art of Looking Good: Hair and Beauty Remedies in Early Medieval Texts and Contexts,” considers the meanings ascribed to the presence and absence of hair in Insular and Old Norse texts and visual culture; while the absence of hair might be construed as emasculation or a visualization of age and decrepitude, long unbound hair could be read as demonic or as a signifier of mental illness. Lee then takes readers through the material culture of early medieval personal care and display, from combs and other grooming implements and women’s use of veils to remedies for parasites and recipes for hair and skin care. Although some links of combs to holy men are explored here with the example from St. Cuthbert’s sarcophagus and recorded gifts among clergymen, the discussion might have been usefully expanded by consideration of liturgical combs, which are mentioned in sources from the tenth century onward.

In “Dress and Undress, Real and Unreal, in the Drawings of Harley Psalter Artist F,” Gale Owen-Crocker provides a valuable summary of current scholarship on British Library, MS Harley 603. She then considers the anomalous display of buttocks and penises in the work of one particular artist in the manuscript (“Artist F”). Whereas elsewhere in early medieval art in England, nudity in art is usually a signifier of sin, sexuality, or shame, in the imagery of Artist F it may be used to signify poverty or the physicality of vigorous labor, but also moral censure and perhaps at least one sexualized double entendre (the ploughman on fol. 66r). Owen-Crocker additionally considers which character types in Harley 603 wear loincloths or long johns, and notes the illuminators’ apparent awareness of recent changes in women’s clothing styles, although how monastic artists would have kept up with fashion trends is left open.

Maren Clegg Hyer, in “Adorning Medieval Life: Domestic and Dress Textiles as Expressions of Worship in Early Medieval England,” considers the embroidery of liturgical vestments as a form of “meditational spirituality” on the part of the makers, in the production of imagery intended to adduce the emotions of faith and awe, and to remind viewers, as did painted images in churches, of the stories they had previously learned aurally. In other contexts, richly embroidered garments could serve as indicators of elite social status by birthright, even for those such as St. Eangyth who had entered religious life; parallel richness in liturgical vestments transferred elite status to the divine in earthly contexts.

Penelope Walton Rogers’s “In Search of Hild: A Review of the Context of Abbess Hild’s Life, Her Religious Establishment, and the Relevance of Recent Archaeological Finds from Whitby Abbey” opens with an overview of Northumbrian political and ecclesiastical history, somewhat overgeneralized and sporadically dated in details, before turning more fruitfully to recent archaeological finds at Whitby and their implications for the early stages of the abbey’s history. In Walton Rogers’s perceptive reading, Hild embodies a not atypical background for abbesses of the period, with an earlier life history of managing landed estates before bringing these skills with them into second careers in the church, particularly as regards textile production. Links these life phases are expanded here by showing Hild as establishing the core of the Whitby settlement as a dynastic mausoleum for her personal family, the Deiran royal house.

In “Embroidery on Spin-Patterned Linen in the 6th to 9th Centuries,” Frances Pritchard takes an artisan-centered approach to pattern-woven medium- to fine-quality linen found in rich graves and reliquaries. The scale of some of the surviving fragments suggests to Pritchard that these specialty textiles were produced in workshop contexts rather than in domestic settings. Warp-faced examples with patterned surfaces survive, but balanced weaves were preferred for embroidery, as a flat surface was easier to embellish. Pritchard concludes that spin-patterned linen was linked to high status, even if not as durable in archaeological contexts as other types of prestige goods.

In “The Embroidered Fragments from the Tomb of Bishop William of St Calais, Durham: An Analysis and Biography,” Alexandra Lester-Malkin provides a meticulous technical analysis of these hitherto understudied fragments, now in the Durham University Conservation Studio. Stitched in silk thread on a silk samite ground, materials imported via Fustat, Sicily, or Spain, these fragments represent the extraordinary expertise of professional English embroiderers working for a Norman patron. Rejecting earlier comparisons to the Bayeux Tapestry, Lester-Malkin adduces other comparanda, including fragments of liturgical sandals; Embroidery 2 may be part of such a sandal. Given William of St. Calais’s time spent at the Norman royal court, Lester-Malkin associates these fragments with court embroiderers and sees similarities to Canterbury art of the same period.

The essays in Part 2 of the volume, “In Their Contexts: Art and Worship through Sculpture, Carving, and Manuscript” considers media beyond dress and textiles that Coatsworth’s work has engaged over her richly productive career. Her work on stone sculpture is reflected in the first three of these essays; the last two pieces closely examine lost or understudied Insular objects of religious as well as artistic importance.

Jane Hawkes, in “Framing Fragmentation: (Re)Constructing Anglo-Saxon Sculpture,” considers the fragmentary state of preservation of much of the corpus, and the occasionally problematic ways in which the remains of stone crosses and other ancient fragments are displayed. Besides often-substantial sections of the stone itself, the crosses are now also missing the paint, metalwork, and glass insets, as well as affixed oil lamps or candles, which would have rendered their impact far more vivid, bringing to mind not only processional and altar crosses but also the salvific crux gemmata, intended to evoke compunction in the viewer. Hawkes argues that the nonchronological sequencing of the stone crosses’ imagery would effectively prevent their use as preaching crosses, but their capacity for nonnarrative instruction, at least for the learned, is evident in their complex iconography, as discussed here for the Bakewell, Rothbury and Easby Crosses.

In “The Thread of Ornament,” Catherine Karkov starts with a discussion of meaning embedded in ornament in Insular metalwork, before turning to a close reading of the Bewcastle Cross, with particular emphasis on the visuality and potential content of the lateral faces. Karkov builds on earlier work by Éamonn Ó Carragáin on the changing illumination and visual inflections of the Ruthwell Cross during the course of the annual solar cycle to read the lateral faces at Bewcastle not solely as ornament or purely in terms of such basic concepts as the vinescroll as the Tree of Life, but instead as holistically integrated into the imagery of the whole cross as a visually varied and eloquently polysemous statement of victory.

David Hinton, in “A Newly Identified Anglo-Saxon Sculpture in Great Chalfield Church, Wiltshire,” identifies two fragments of sculpture forming part of the sill of the north window of the nave as parts of a framing arch, with parallels in eighth- and ninth-century sculpture, manuscripts, and metalwork, suggesting a local tradition of sculpture antedating the Colerne Cross. Hinton considers what is known of the early history of Great Chalfield Church and its proximity to the manor house to suggest that the church may have originated as a chapel for a small estate, albeit the manor house can be traced only to the ninth or tenth century, postdating the carving of the fragments. He examines the written sources on the site for the date of the fragments’ installation in their current location; the possibilities range from the late fifteenth century to the 1830s, but the absence of mention until 1924 suggests that the fragments may have been concealed by paneling during part of their sojourn on the sill.

In “The Company They Keep: Scholarly Discussion, 2005-2020 of the Original Settings for the Poems in the Dream of the Rood Tradition,” Éamonn Ó Carragáin continues his highly productive engagement with the Ruthwell Cross, its imagery, and its inscriptions. Adducing the concept of envelope patterns from Old English literature, he delineates the interactions of word, image and ornament that make the cross as a whole a “perfect example of unobtrusive yet effective catechesis” (284 and n. 67), partly directed toward the uneducated. However, the latter would have needed the guidance of oral instruction to make such an experience effective, given both the quantity and importance of the inscriptions (some of which Ó Carragáin [271] suggests were deliberately out of visual range, despite the probable application of color) and the multivalent density of allusions in the images--particularly as Ruthwell’s imagery does not include a Crucifixion to provide an accessible visualization of the runic poem.

In “Bishop Acca’s Portable Altar: Authentic Relic or Twelfth-Century Hexham Fiction?,” Richard Bailey examines the evidence to determine whether a portable altar, described in the twelfth-century Historia Regum as part of the contents of the tomb of Acca of Hexham, actually existed, or whether it was invented by Hexham historians to compete with one of Durham’s relics of St. Cuthbert. He considers both the information and the lacunae in the sources on Acca’s late-career exile from Hexham, as well as on his burial, cult, and translation. Hinton reads the Historia Regum’s description of the Acca altar’s physical structure and record of its inscription, with its emphasis on the cult of the Virgin, as convincing evidence of a real seventh- to eighth-century portable altar linked to the cult of Acca rather than a textual chimera invented as an echo of Durham’s portable altar of St. Cuthbert.

In “The Hereford Gospels Reappraised,” Michelle Brown and Peter Furniss offer two separate articles under one title. Brown, in “The Hereford Gospels--a Welsh Book Now in Hereford, or the Book of St Ethelbert the King’s Shrine Still at Hereford, Its Place of Origin?,” considers the multiple connections of text, design, and possibly place of origin between the Hereford Gospels and the Gospels of St. Chad at Lichfield, and casting a wider net to demonstrate connections of script and ornament to Irish influence in western Mercia and the Welsh borders. She suggests a ninth-century context for the production of the Hereford Gospels in the emergence of the cult and shrine of St. Ethelbert the King, and its later role as repository for eleventh-century documents as the “book of the high altar” at Hereford Cathedral. In “Appendix: Observations on the Codicology and Palaeography of the Hereford Gospels, a Scribe’s View,” Furniss sees the codex as made as a static book for lections, marked by marginal crosses and initials, and produced at a place with reasonable but not lavish funding, using mediocre vellum as an economy and, in one bifolium (fols. 93-96), reusing a leaf of an earlier Insular manuscript. However, Furniss’ close examination of excisions reveals the exciting news that the Hereford Gospels were once more lavishly decorated than they appear at present, with a complete set of up to five illuminated incipit pages, possibly including a Christogram or Chi-Rho page. An additional carpet page and a four-evangelists page may also have been included on the lost bifolia between Mark and Luke.

Sadly, the volume does not include a tabula gratularia. Those of us who work on Insular art, but who did not have work at hand that fit the volume’s announced themes at the time of its assembly, may nonetheless wish to congratulate Betty Coatsworth on her outstanding and broad-ranging scholarship and to thank her for her enduring generosity of spirit.