I have another conference on which to report, but in case those are not your favourite posts, I thought that this week I’d first jump to the very end of 2017 in my backlog, when in a flurry of reading at the end of my first ever study leave, all intended to finish the article which became my “Nuns’ Signatures”, I was moving at speed through Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia, by Felice Lifshitz.1 It is an excellent and provocative book, but it also contains a reference to this image, which I then went and looked up, and then I became quite confused.2
I take comfort in the fact that it is apparently not just me whom this image has confused. The manuscript cataloguer for the Bibliothèque nationale de France, when needing to tag this image, has opted for ‘probablement le Christ’, probably Christ, so they apparently weren’t certain either. I mean, there is the nimbus around the figure’s head and there is the Cross, and the robes of the ancients, so I see how they got there, but this identification still leaves things unexplained. The first of these is what this portrait is doing in this manuscript, which is a text of the Chronicle attributed to ‘Fredegar’ from the late seventh century.3 The image, a full-page drawing, falls within the account of failing diplomacy between King Alaric II of the Visigoths and King Clovis of the Franks, failing because it didn’t stop Clovis invading Visigothic territory and killing Alaric a very short time later, nearly provoking a war between every power in the Continental West.4 It’s interesting history, but it doesn’t mention Christ or explain this portrait at all. And then the second and arguably more important question is, why is He wearing cricket pads?
Now as it happens, I think I can explain the cricket pads, but I’m not completely happy with my explanation. There is a particular depiction of Christ that is very common and has Him enthroned, with drapery over His knees which might, if you had only a poor version or a sketch of a sketch or something, be rendered in this fashion. Here’s a good manuscript example of the kind of image I mean.
And here’s an Arab-Byzantine coin, where the same drapery technique for Emperor Justin II and Empress Sophia have been rendered into something very like our cricket pads here.5
However, this only gets us so far. Firstly, I can’t quickly find any parallel for Christ enthroned so early which has Him carrying the Gospels; the usual pictures of Him with the Gospels don’t have the throne. That by itself doesn’t mean much: I’m not an art historian and someone with a better internal mental library could probably find an example (and hey, maybe that person is reading…). But I don’t think even they will find Him also carrying the Cross, or wearing a crown, both of which we have here. So I wonder if this is really what we see here, and as it happened, Professor Lifshitz didn’t believe it either.
Instead, as part of a larger argument that Carolingian nuns often sought out and either wrote about or had stories copied for them about great religious women, by way of gender-appropriate role models and inspirations, Lifshitz identifies this image as Saint Helena, Emperor Constantine I’s mother who is famous in Christian sacred history for relocating the True Cross on which Christ was crucified.6 She gives no justification or explanation for this, and it does fit her argument very snugly, but one can more or less reconstruct the argument that perhaps she would make: it is obviously a holy figure, because of the nimbus, but apparently also a royal or imperial one given the crown; it is distinguished by the Cross, which as an attribute belongs to Helena more than to anyone else; and it is pretty plausible, what with the unusually long hair and what one can read of the body shape, as well as the fact that any source depiction of Christ being used here would have been bearded, which has also been changed, that this is meant to be a woman. And if that’s the case, there is perhaps no other Christian candidate. But the book and the throne remain unexplained—I suppose except in so far as Helena was an empress, and in so far as she is supposed to have found the Cross by painstaking contemplation of the Gospels and prayer?7
So I can construct a road that gets me to the same reading of this image as has Professor Lifshitz, but I’m not sure if I can construct it far enough backwards from the image. For a start, I am struggling a bit to imagine the source. It seems likely to me that it was not another manuscript, because I think the cricket pads can only be the result of stylisation or simplification, and so I, perhaps inevitably, suspect that the source is coin imagery, not least because we can see one die-engraver doing something very similar with knee drapery on the Arab-Byzantine coin above. But the empress in such portraits is always accompanied and always crowned, plus which the Arab-Byzantine derivation can’t be the manuscript source because it’s too late, and one might expect the image to be rightly understood if the source was an original coin of Justin and Sophia. So actually I wonder if the archetype is Christian at all, rather than Christianized, because there’s also another possibility.
The pagan deity Victoria, even if Christianized by association with the Cross—and thanks to Constantine Victory was the other female figure who regularly appeared with a cross—would perhaps explain the body shape in our manuscript, and perhaps the knee drapery. But, she’s only ever depicted in this half-stance, with only one metaphorical pad facing the metaphorical bowler, and she also always has one hand up on the long staff. And she doesn’t in any way explain the book. But I can see a path in which someone started with this as a prototype of an enthroned female figure with a cross and then altered it to more closely convey what they knew of Helena’s story. Unfortunately this still leaves us the question of why.
For Professor Lifshitz, the answer is obvious: a female scribe or artist, looking for a female holy figure for more relatable inspiration of devotion. And I can see how that might work, but is it what was happening here? My stumbling block is the text: with the best will in the world I cannot imagine anyone using the Chronicle of Fredegar for devotional inspiration, especially this bit. But some kind of illustration was always meant to go into this gap, because the text is continuous either side of it; the space was left clear at the time of writing. And the text doesn’t mention Helena, or Christ, or any saint or religious motif at all. (It is not the only image of a saint dropped into this text, I should say, but it is the only one which looks to be a woman.) So what were these nuns doing? And at that point, it is hard not to ask, how do we know they were nuns anyway? The manuscript’s provenance is not clear; it could have been made in a nunnery, but it could not’ve.8
The answer for Professor Lifshitz is simple: they were drawing a woman, so they were interested in women, so they were probably women. And this is not her only example.9 But this risks becoming circularity, where we use women’s drawing habits as evidence for women making manuscripts that we then analyse to deduce those drawing habits. It may be consciousness of difficulties like this that led Professor Lifshitz to say earlier in the book, “In the final analysis, a scholar’s own lens may be the determining factor in how the ambiguous evidence is interpreted,” and as long as that’s conscious, as here it evidently was, fair enough.10 But my lens may be differently focused, because while I am able to accept that whatever this picture is it is a female figure, and I can even probably explain the cricket pads, I don’t really think I understand why someone put this drawing there in the first place.
1. Felice Lifshitz, Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia: a study of manuscript transmission and monastic culture (New York City NY 2014), p. 205 (with note p. 282 n. 86). My article to which I refer is of course Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures, and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia” in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), pp. 125–152.
2. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Lat. 10910 fo. 75v (not 75r as per Lifshitz’s cite), online here.
3. The Chronicle is printed in its original Latin in Bruno Krusch (ed.), Fredegarii et aliorum chronica; Vitae Sanctorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) 2 (Hannover 1888), pp. 1-193, with the relevant bit here being p. 83. There is no translation of this early part of the text, I’m afraid. The text is not fully understood, but a serious attempt is made by Roger Collins, Die Fredegar-Chroniken, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Studien und Texte) 44 (Hanover 2007).
4. For context for this I went first of all to Ian Wood, The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751 (London, 1994), but his discussion pp. 46-48 doesn’t use Fredegar’s evidence, and I actually can’t quickly find someone who does. I am probably missing something here.
5. There’s a much better example in Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), Plate 34, no. 612, which is apparently (p. 364) a British Museum coin, but I can’t make it fall out of the British Museum’s online catalogue with the available search tools, so can’t give you a picture.
6. See n. 1 above.
7. I should admit at this point that most of my grip on Helena’s career comes either from numismatic works or Cynewulf, Elene, transl. Charles W. Kennedy (Cambridge Ont. 2000), online here, which is not exactly historiography; I should probably read something like Andriani Georgiou, “Helena: The Subversive Persona of an Ideal Christian Empress in Early Byzantium” in Journal of Early Christian Studies Vol. 21 (Baltimore MD 2013), pp. 597–624, the better to understand what sources there are for Helena’s life.
8. There is a good argument that we have a lot more manuscripts copied by women, but not named, than people tend to consider: see Janet L. Nelson, “Women and the Word in the Earlier Middle Ages” in W. J. Sheils and Diana Wood (edd.), Women in the Church, Studies in Church History 27 (Oxford 1990), pp 53–78, and Rosamond McKitterick, “Nuns’ Scriptoria in England and Francia in the Eighth Century” in Francia Vol. 19 (Sigmaringen 1992), pp. 1–35, repr. in Rosamond McKitterick, Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6th to 9th Centuries (Aldershot 1994), chapter VII.
9. Lifshitz, Religious Women, pp. 196-206.