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22.12.06 Freeman, The Ashburnham Pentateuch and its Contexts

22.12.06 Freeman, The Ashburnham Pentateuch and its Contexts

This informative and thoroughly researched book is concerned with the Creation miniature, the first surviving miniature in the late-sixth- or early-seventh-century Ashburnham Pentateuch (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS NAL 2334, fol. 1v), its Trinitarian significance, and the possible reasons for its alteration at some point in the eighth century in a monastic center associated with the court of Charlemagne. Before its alteration, the miniature presented three anthropomorphic images of the Trinity, all of which have had figures removed and overpainted. Freeman examines the miniature’s iconography in the context of both its original creation and its erasure against the background of the theological debates and iconographic practices that were current in the intellectual world of the Carolingians. The brief introduction surveys some of the key arguments about the date, provenance, and iconography of the manuscript as well as the iconographic analyses that have been put forward by previous scholars. The introduction also lays out the key points of her argument and her methodology. While date and origin are not Freeman’s main concerns, she supports David H. Wright’s argument for a late-sixth century date based on the style of the miniatures, and an origin in the Mediterranean world, most likely in Italy.

Chapter 1 examines whether before its alteration the Creation miniature may have been an Anti-Arian statement, considering the production of the manuscript specifically within the context of the Arian controversy, the Filioque debate, and the “Three Chapters” controversy. Freeman argues that given the theological debates surrounding the Trinity in the sixth century it is entirely possible the image was indeed an anti-Arian statement. If that is accepted then the most likely area for its production would have been in either Ravenna or Rome, both of which were under Byzantine rather than Lombard control. In such a milieu, the anthropomorphic Trinity of the Creation page would have made a strong theological statement of the absolute equality of the Father and Son.

In chapter 2 the focus shifts to art and the iconography of Trinitarian images beginning with the paired Father and Son and the single representation of the Holy Spirit on the Creation page and then moves to an analysis of the other images used to represent divine presence in the Ashburnham Pentateuch, both figural and non-figural. As none of the other representations of the divine in the manuscript has been damaged, it is reasonable to conclude that it was solely the figural Trinity that the Carolingian editor found offensive. Freeman then considers other representations of the Trinity in early Christian art demonstrating that, at least as far as we can tell from the images that survive from the sixth century Mediterranean world, the imagery of the manuscript’s Creation page was a marked departure from established tradition.

The final three chapters move to the Carolingian era. Chapter 3 turns to depictions of the Trinity in Carolingian art, especially those of Turonian manuscripts, exploring some of the visual background against which the Ashburnham Pentateuch’s Creation would have been found offensive. Again, its difference from contemporary traditions stands out both in terms of its representation of the Trinity and in its depiction of Creation as a whole. The preference in Carolingian art was for a single Logos figure at Creation; however, Carolingian art and texts maintained the absolute unity of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, so images of both the Father and the Son were acceptable even if anti-adoptionism brought them under increased scrutiny. The forms and compositions of the Carolingian imagery may have differed from those of the Ashburnham Pentateuch, but there is nothing within the art (or texts) as a whole that would have made the Creation page of the manuscript unacceptable to a Carolingian audience.

Chapter 4 turns to the Opus Caroli Regis contra Synodum and what it reveals about the theology of image theory at the Carolingian court and how that might bear on the erasures of the Pentateuch’s Creation page; for example, in its prioritizing of word over image and understanding of images as things that conveyed only fixed meanings while words were more open to nuanced and changing interpretations. The chapter looks closely at works of art associated with the Opus Caroli Regis’s author, Theodulf of Orléans, and ends with a consideration of whether he might have been responsible for the Ashburnham Pentateuch’s alterations. Freeman concludes that while Theodulf might not have been personally responsible for the changes made to the manuscript, “the singularity of the Ashburnham Pentateuch’s anthropomorphic Trinity, in contrast to Carolingian depictions of the lone Logos at Creation, along with the emphasis on an incorporeal and unified Trinity at Creation in Carolingian texts, may very well have contributed to the motivations behind the erasures” (146).

The reception of the Ashburnham Pentateuch once it arrived in Tours is examined in chapter 5. The chapter also expands on the ways in which the manuscript’s words and images would have been understood differently, which clearly they were as the captions to the images on the Creation page were left unaltered. Freeman argues convincingly that the captions actually work with the erasures by giving the words new meaning. For example, the replacement of the Holy Spirit as a winged man by a cloud of color changes the meaning of the accompanying caption “Here is the Spirit of the Lord” allowing it to be read as the Spirit of the Lord is nowhere yet everywhere rather than pinning it to a fixed figural image (157). The concluding chapter then considers possible responses to theological, political, and artistic forces that may have influenced the erasures: Adoptionism, Manichaeism, Judaism, Islam, contemporary ideas about kingship and power, iconographic expectations. None of these seems completely relevant on its own, and Freeman concludes that image theory was at least as likely to have been an explanation for the erasures as “the desire to present a particular Trinitarian doctrine” (178), with the caveat that it would be dangerous to attribute the erasures to a single motivating cause and perhaps they should rather be attributed to the “complex milieu of theological and political change and strife of their time” (180). A final Coda looks at the afterlives of the Ashburnham Pentateuch from its arrival in Tours on.

The book does not present any startling new revelations about either the Ashburnham Pentateuch or the erasures on its Creation page; rather, it goes carefully over existing explanations for both. There is a lot of repetition of ideas but this is perhaps necessary given the complexity of some of the theological arguments and iconographic traditions explored. Freeman’s own argument is well-constructed and she offers excellent close readings of her texts and images. That said, she is done no favours by the production quality of the volume. The age of the Ashburnham Pentateuch and the damage it has incurred make it hard to see details of the images at the best of times and the reproduction quality of both the black and white images in Freeman’s book make it difficult to see much of the visual evidence she cites, especially with regard to some of the finer points of the analysis. This is particularly frustrating given the complexity and detail of many of her visual analyses. Images of the manuscript are, of course, available online but having to turn to online sources hardly justifies the price of this relatively short volume. Finally, it may just have been my review copy, but the tightness of the book’s binding has caused the paper to buckle in places meaning that it has to be stretched open a bit at times to read comfortably. This has left my copy looking as if it has been thumbed through on a daily basis for a couple of years.

It would be wrong to give the last words of this review over to issues that were beyond the author’s control. Freeman has brought together an impressive array of sources in a careful study of the many questions that still surround the production and reception of the Ashburnham Pentateuch. Her careful and cautious reading of both primary and secondary, visual and textual sources may leave many questions unanswered, but it has opened up a series of pathways for others to pick up and follow.