Tag Archives: art history

Standing figure facing with two long crosses

It seems to have been a while since we had anything here about coins, so here’s a little coincidence that I notice every time I teach with it on my late-antique survey module, Empire and Aftermath. Predictably, I use coinage as a source on this, because we have a good collection to play with and it gets students involved who might not react so well to purely textual sources, but each year I do I am struck by something I remember from much longer ago in my career, which is this coin:

Obverse of an early English penny, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007

Obverse of an early English penny of the so-called Series L, struck at London in the late-seventh or early-eighth century, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007

Reverse of an early English silver penny struck at London, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007

Reverse of the same coin

This is an early Anglo-Saxon penny, and it’s one of the very rare ones that actually carries some legible information about its place of issue: you may not believe me, but the letters around the presumably-royal bust decode as LVNDONIA, London. How many people could have read this, given that the actual coin is about the size of most people’s little fingernails, is another question, but it does, and a sibling of this coin in the same collection was even recovered from the River Thames, so that’s nicely coherent.1 However, today I’m more interested in the reverse imagery. Here it is bigger and clearer:

Reverse of a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection

So, what can we be sure that we have here? A figure, apparently in a tunic and body-armour, with long-hair or a head-dress of some kind, holding a long cross in each hand, seems reasonable. But he or she is also standing on some kind of crescent, perhaps? And the people who have tried to read this image have therefore wondered if she or he is on a boat, and thus even perhaps a missionary bringing the Christian faith to the English peoples as had indeed happened scarcely two generations before this coin was likely struck.2 It leaves the armoured-looking dress a little hard to explain, but as an iconographic reading it certainly fits its context nicely. But compare it to this one:

Copper-alloy Arab-Byzantine follis struck probably in Syria in the mid-seventh century, provenance and location unknown

Copper-alloy Arab-Byzantine follis struck probably in Syria in the mid-seventh century, provenance and location unknown, though I found it in Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 12 (Washington D.C. 2008), p. 32. It’s not actually part of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, however, so I don’t know where it now is

I’m sorry that I have no better image of this, but it is one of those enigmatic coins produced in Syria during the earliest decades of Islam that I love to talk about so much.3 And here, again, we appear to have a figure, apparently in a tunic and body-armour, with long hair or a head-dress of some kind, holding a long cross in each hand, standing on some kind of crescent. And the people who have tried to read this image have not usually got much further than that it is a development or degeneration of a standing figure of the Byzantine emperor such as is seen on the later coinage of Emperor Heraclius, where he stands in campaign attire with a long cross and cross on a globe, and indeed it doesn’t seem too far a stretch. It might seem weird that a putatively Islamic issuer changes a small cross for a bigger one on a figure that is, putatively, still the emperor who no longer ruled them, but again, we have reason—from the coins!—to suspect that this was a very fluid period and we can’t, for example, be sure that the issuer of this coin wasn’t Christian and didn’t think that the emperor was still in charge, despite the current local régime change, so it’s all far from impossible.4

Copper-alloy 4-<i>nummi</i> of the Emperor Heraclius, overstruck at Constantinople onto a cut portion of an older coin, probably of Anastasius I or Justinian I, in the early seventh century, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3732

Copper-alloy 4-nummi of the Emperor Heraclius, overstruck at Constantinople onto a cut portion of an older coin, probably of Anastasius I or Justinian I, in the early seventh century, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3732. The coins of this type usually carry Heraclius’s son standing behind him at his left, but many, like this one, were so carelessly made that he escapes the impression

The problem thus arises only when you know about both of these coins at once. If this is one design, as it appears, then it can’t easily be both a derivative Heraclius and Saint Augustine of Canterbury or whoever, not least because the Anglo-Saxon one also has a royal or imperial bust on it. It is possible, just about, that both engravers were deriving from the bronze coinage of Heraclius, but that is very hard to imagine being available as a model in Britain, since being copper-alloy it only had value inside the Empire; a few Byzantine bronzes are known from British contexts, but very few and to my knowledge from no later than the 580s.5 Also, we have to explain two unconnected engravers both deciding to do exactly the same things to the same design about half a century apart. It’s even less likely, to be honest, though still not impossible, that someone brought the Arab-Byzantine coin to Britain or the Britain-based engraver had met it in Syria.6 There are, admittedly, other versions of this design in both Britain and Syria that come closer to their supposed archetypes, and parallel evolution is maybe more plausible than I just made it sound, but there is, thankfully, a simpler answer. It looks like these:

Copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantine I struck at London in 310-312, private collection

Copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantine I struck at London in 310-312, private collection, image from Wildwinds under Constantine I, RIC VI 195

Silvered copper-alloy <i>antoninianus</i> of Empress Severina struck at Antioch in 274, CNG Coins

Silvered copper-alloy antoninianus of Empress Severina struck at Antioch in 274, CNG Coins, image from Wildwinds, Severina, under RIC 20 V

The shared reverse type between these two issues is a figure of Concordia with two military standards, personifying harmony among the soldiers, Concordia militum, sometimes such an important message for a Roman ruler to send… It’s an image that still turns up out of the ground every now and then in Britain even now, and I imagine it’s not unknown in the Middle East either, but anyone digging up Roman settlements in either place in the seventh century would have had a chance of coming across one. The design, of course, is not a bloke with two crosses, but a lady with two imperial standards, but three or four centuries later some adaptation to the times probably shouldn’t surprise us, and it’s less of an adaptation than is required to get there from Heraclius and his campaign shorts.

Now, of course, that both engravers had such an image before them explains some things, but it doesn’t tell us either what they thought their model showed or what they understood in what they turned it into. The people who think the English coin shows a saint on a boat may still be right; that may be what the engraver decided the border of the original design meant, or even what it could mean; there was all kinds of scope for invention here.7 Likewise, in Syria, the choice to super-Christianize what had been a secular and indeed pagan image could have a lot of possible meanings, but they could certainly have been deliberate. By suggesting a model I don’t mean to suggest that the engravers of the coins didn’t have anything of their own in mind. But I do think it’s kind of cute that to do that, they themselves were probably engaged in exactly the same game as that we’re playing here, trying to figure out what was shown on these coins from hundreds of years before their own time.


1. There’s an absolutely huge literature on early Anglo-Saxon pennies, or sceattas as they’re widely known, and no space here to try to list it all, but the introductory discussion to coins like these particular ones that I use for students is Rory Naismith, “Money of the Saints: Church and Coinage in Early Anglo-Saxon England” in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage, 3: Sifting the Evidence (London 2014), pp. 68–121.

2. E. g. Catherine Karkov, “The Boat and the Cross: Church and State in Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage”, in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 2: New Perspectives (Woodbridge 2011), pp. 63–71.

3. Citation is in the caption, obviously, but Foss is also a pretty good guide to the whole coinage, at least if you are prepared to be more relaxed about chronology than he wants to be.

4. Helpful here, or at least I find it so, is Marcus Phillips, “The Import of Byzantine Coins to Syria Revisited” in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (London 2012), pp. 39–72.

5. Known to me from gossip but also from Tony Abramson, Coinage in the Northumbrian landscape and economy, c. 575–c. 867, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 641 (Oxford 2018), p. 92, where his source is also gossip, but hey…

6. For a realistic assessment of pilgrimage from England to the Holy Land in this period, see Peter Darby and Daniel Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’: the case of Bede’s De locis sanctis” in Bulletin for the Council for British Research in the Levant Vol. 9 (London 2014), pp. 27-31, DOI: 10.1179/1752726014Z.00000000022.

7. On which see Anna Gannon, “Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery” in Barrie Cook and Gareth Williams (edd.), Coinage and History in the North Sea World, c. AD 500–1250, The Northern World 19 (Leiden 2006), pp. 193–208.

Gallery

Mysterious Knights at Claverley Church

This gallery contains 19 photos.

I promised you a couple of posts ago a set of surprising medievalist photographs, and now the post has come. You may remember that I was being shown hidden bits of the Middle Ages lying in the general area of … Continue reading

Another Gathering of Byzantinists in Birmingham

My reporting backlog now reaches 30th May 2015, which was a very full day in Birmingham occasioned by the 16th Annual Postgraduate Symposium of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, with the title Fragmentation: the Eastern Mediterranean in Conflict and Cohesion. I have dithered before about whether I report on what is essentially a postgraduate event, but it’s a postgraduate event with a keynote by an established scholar and people come to it from all over the world, so it’s really as high-level as such things get and the people participating in it are all working at their highest level. So, I shall blog it, but as the backlog is so long and time is so short I shall try to be brief and hope it still does the participants due credit. I should stress, though, that looking through my notes for this, the number of times I have said to myself, “Oh! I met so-and-so then?” or even, “Oh? I ran that? I have no memory of this at all” has been much higher than it really should be for anyone of even my advanced age. I was clearly just getting by at this point in my life on not enough sleep, and while things have come back to me as I write this, we are basically reliant on my notes for what I’m reporting, which may be wrong or inadequate. So if you were there, I invite corrections!

The caravanserai of Kesik Köprü

The caravanserai of Kesik Köprü, in the erstwhile Seljuk Sultanate of Konya

We began with the keynote address, which was by Professor Scott Redford and entitled “84 Mongols Walk into a Caravanserai…”. This promising start was occasioned by a document, signed indeed by eighty-four Mongols, mostly local officials of various grades, at the caravanserai of Yüksekligi, to witness the act of one Nur ad-Din ibn Tayā as he established a church. The document is dated to the Year of the Monkey and has a gloss in Mongol. With this example of how cultures were mixing in the thirteenth century in what is now Western Turkey, Professor Redford then picked out a number of other ways in which we can, if we choose, find links between Greek, Turkish and yes, even Mongol cultures of patronage and power in this area. For example, Nur ad-Din had also built a caravanserai at Kesik Köprü, which is still up as you can see above, on the route between Constantinople and the local Sultanate of Konya, and stands near a bridge which went up at about the same time and only fell down in 1990, but contained an inscription set up by the Sultan of Konya when he was actually in rebellion against his masters in Baghdad, and so closer to the Greeks than the Turks in some ways.

The bridge at Kesik Köprü

The bridge at Kesik Köprü, as it has been restored I think

I was personally less convinced by some of the art-historical links which Professor Redford drew, but the widespread use of a symbol called the ‘elibelinde’, seen below, in Constantinople (and indeed more once it became Istanbul), various locations in the Seljuk sultanates and indeed yet another local caravanserai, did speak loudly of a cultural identity that crossed and blurred political boundaries that were in any case more fluid below the top, state, level than we sometimes remember when doing history in outline. So this was good, and full of much better illustrations than I have been able to use here.

A modern piece of weaving featuring a central row of four elibelinde symbols

A modern piece of weaving featuring a central row of four elibelinde symbols

After this we were down into the postgraduate sessions. I had volunteered to chair one of these, so my choice about what to go to was made for me, but in fact this put me into my first ever contact with two future colleagues so unbeknownst to me it worked well. Also, the papers were interesting. They were these:

  • James Hill, “Missing the Opportune Moment: John V Palaiologos and the spectre of union”
  • Nafsika Vassilopolou, “Royal Marriages of the Palaeologi (1258-1453): appraising a political practice”
  • Maroula Perisanidi, “Should We Abstain? Marital Equality in Byzantine Canon Law”
  • All these papers were about one or other sort of union, really. James was looking at the agreement of Emperor John V to re-reunify the Eastern and Western Christian churches, an agreement that in the end collapsed not just because of its deep unpopularity in the eastern Empire (where it doesn’t even seem to have been made public as a plan) but also and perhaps mainly because the popes simply couldn’t deliver the troops that were John’s asking price, despite their best diplomatic efforts with Genoa and Venice. Ms Vassilopolou’s paper made it seem odder that the eastern emperors had such trouble enjoining union of the Churches on their people, because when it came to marrying off princesses there was pretty much no theological objection which they could not overrule: consanguinity, juvenility, differing religions or sects of Christianity… What is less clear is what most of the eighty-eight political marriages the Palaeologan emperors arranged actually got them: alliance, sometimes, especially with the Mongols who seem to have received the most consistently high-status brides, territory sometimes, but it usually cost a lot in terms of land, money and human capital as well, and Ms Vassilopolou thought that the main motivation was to remain on the international stage as a player, not an extra, which as we know in the UK is a strategy that can make you do some very stupid things. Lastly Maroula went looking for gender equality in Byzantine canon law, hoping to find it at the most fundamental point: who got to choose when to abstain from sex? The trouble here is that most of the law deals with churchmen, who by reason of needing to perform holy office weekly and being supposed to abstain before and after were much more often confronted by this question, so that kind of comes pre-gendered. It was quite surprising to me how much thought the Byzantine canonists had put into this question, but I suppose it did keep coming up (if you’ll forgive the phrase). The paper is now out in print, anyway, so you can read it yourself if you like!1

    Tailpiece of a chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, showing him and his wife Theodora, niece of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Constantinople

    Tailpiece of a chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, showing him and his wife Theodora, niece of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Constantinople, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

That took us to lunch, and then after that, the programme tells me, I was dashing back to the Barber Institute to give a coin handling session, “Coins of Byzantium and its Neighbours in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts”. I have literally no memory of this, although I remember correspondence about it, but it’s in the programme and I have a handout from it in my notes, so I guess it happened! I was apparently basically showcasing the Byzantine collection, from beginning to end, or at least, as close to the end as I thought we could get, a solidus of Constantine I to a half-stavraton of John VIII. (I later discovered two coins of Constantine XI in the collection which the Curator for whom I was standing in had acquired but never accessioned; they are there, if you want to see them.)

Silver half-hyperperon of Emperor John VIII struck at Constantinople in 1423-1448, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6492

Silver half-hyperperon of Emperor John VIII struck at Constantinople in 1423-1448, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6492

The route between the two took us via Justinian I’s reforms, Heraclius’s mighty beard, the strange mixture that is Arab-Byzantine money, Komnenian concavity and the various daughter coinages of Byzantium; I picked Trebizond, Venice and Hisn Kayfa, all of which tells you that I was finally beginning to get my head round what this collection had to offer and what, had circumstances been otherwise, I might have done with it. But with the alternative path laid out before me already, it was still really nice to be able to show off some of its shiny and curious components. Then, it was back up the road to where the papers were.

  • Yannis Stamos, “Kazantzakis’s Representations of the Greek Civil War: the divided vision of socio-political fragmentation”
  • Mike Saxby, “Arms in Exile: an analysis of military iconography on coins of the Byzantine successor states”
  • Carl Dixon, “From Armenia to Bulgaria? The Transmission of Heterodoxy in Peter of Sicily’s History of the Paulicians
  • The first of these was the only paper on the programme representing the Centre’s Modern Greek component, a study of two novels by the 1940s Cretan writer Niko Kazantzakis, Christ Recrucified and The Fratricides, arguing, I think, that Kazantzakis was trying to find an ethic that might heal his riven country in the form of a grass-roots socialism well infused with Christian charity, a community religious mutual help ethic; the paper overran and had to be cut short, so what the conclusion was to have been I have no idea. Mike, who was one of the vital sources of institutional memory when I took over at the Barber, went into the messy period after 1204 when Byzantine rulers-in-exile set up in Nicæa, Thessaloniki and Epiros, all of whom struck coin which generally diversified from the fairly standardised Constantinopolitan money of the previous period. Mike noted that although all tried out images of armed rulers and saints to different degrees, Thessaloniki had Saint Demetrius with a sword on more than half of its coin types, which as he said could be down to the six-hundred-year tradition there of the saint as the city’s military protector but could also just be down to the fact that Thessaloniki was most exposed to war, mostly with the Bulgarians who also by now claimed Saint Demetrius as a protecting saint. Several kinds of politics vie for expression in the coins, therefore. Lastly Mr Dixon took us into the history of a disputed text about the dualist Byzantine heretics known as Paulicians.2 The History in question purports to be from the 870s and to be a warning to the Byzantine administration that the group plans to mount a mission to convert, or subvert, the Bulgarians, but this cannot easily be; the situation it foresees had in part come about by the eleventh century, but the themes of the early tenth century, when the movement seems newly to have been observed, place it in Armenia, and it was only moved to the Balkans by Emperor John I in the late 970s. The text is thus very hard to date, and while Mr Dixon didn’t want to rule out that it was just a forgery given how little knowledge it seems to have about the settlement at Tephrike where it is set, he certainly felt that any evidence that it existed and was being used in the early tenth century, as has tended to be assumed from the text’s own claims, needed reexamination. Discussion suggested a few ways this might be done, but none of them were easy, so it’s quite the mission Mr Dixon had ahead of him.

    Anonymous copper stamenon struck in Thessaloniki around 1320, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6534

    Anonymous copper stamenon struck in Thessaloniki around 1320, showing St Demetrios with sceptre and shield, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6534

Then tea and then back into the sessions for the last round of papers, which took me back to the early Middle Ages where, really, my interests are.

  • Anna Kelley, “Rethinking Cotton Use and Cultivation in Late Antique Egypt”
  • Catherine Keane, “More than a Church: the archaeology of the economic reality of Christian structures in the late antique Mediterranean”
  • Maria Vrij, “The Anomaly’s Anomaly: the curious case of gold coin production at Syracuse under Justinian II”
  • Anna laid out for us a peculiar picture of cotton use and cultivation before the seventh century, in which it was far from unknown but for most people hard to get, and found only in certain areas; there was cotton growing on the Red Sea coast in the fourth century, for example, and in the Western Desert over the Nile, but not at points between. The current suggestion of a source seems to be Nubia but even there it’s hard to show cotton being grown for export, rather than just for local use. There’s a network here yet to be pieced together, which is roughly where Anna’s research comes in of course! Ms Keane was at a similarly early stage, and her basic question was about the relocation of economic production in Northern Africa, of oil, wine and so on, out of Roman rural industrialised complexes into cities and then, increasingly, localising out to the then-fairly-new churches. The focus of production seems therefore to be following the focus of public space, which is something that, like cotton, looks like there is more to be found out. although Ms Keane’s paper was full of citations indicating that the process has started.3 Lastly, Maria, my right hand at the Barber at this point and now my replacement there, was asking why, when Emperor Justinian II famously (to readers here at least) put a portrait of Christ on his gold coinage, the mint at Syracuse didn’t follow suit. Syracuse was rarely exactly on the Constantinopolitan model when it came to minting but this seems sufficiently outright a refusal of imperial authority as to need explanation, which might be offered in terms of a Western resistance to images of the divine, and one which was followed after Justinian’s death in all quarters, indeed. The discussion here circled somewhat around who this message might be for, the world of Islam or the coin-using public, and who they might be, all of which, sadly, the coins don’t really tell us.

    Ancient ruins at the modern city of Sidi Jdidi, Tunisia

    Ancient ruins at the modern city of Sidi Jdidi, Tunisia, one of the sites under discussion in Ms Keane’s paper

The final part of the symposium was a closing address by Professor Redford, who somewhat unconventionally started by asking the organisers why they’d picked this theme. With that answered he pointed out gaps and strengths in the programme and its adherence to the theme but reassured everyone that the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies was still showing a flag for the value of study clusters like it, and the day closed with pretty much everyone much satisfied by how things had gone.


1. M. Perisanidi, “Should we Abstain? Spousal Equality in Twelfth-century Byzantine Canon Law” in Gender and History Vol. 28 (Oxford 2016), pp. 422–443.

2. Again, memory failure; I own this text, at least in translation… You can find it in Janet Hamilton and Bernard Hamilton (edd./transl.), Christian Dualist Heresies in the Byzantine World, c. 650-c. 1450: selected sources (Manchester 1998), pp. 65-91.

3. For example, Anna Leone, Changing Townscapes in North Africa From Late Antiquity to the Arab Conquest (Bari 2007) and Aïcha Ben-Abed-Ben Khader, Michel Fixot, Michel Bonifay & Sylvestre Roucole, Sidi Jdidi I : La basilique sud, Collection de l’École française de Rome 339 (Rome 2004).

What do I think of the Bíblia de Danila?

There has been a very long hiatus here, for which I’m sorry. The factors in this have basically been:

  • first-marking a bunch of exams;
  • reading enough to kickstart a course I have inherited that starts two hundred years before I usually teach, which is itself five hundred years before what I actually work on
  • second-marking a bunch of exams;
  • the death in traffic of one of my cats, a truly excellent little critter whom I will not now see grow out of his kittenhood;
  • second-marking a bunch more exams and first-marking a bunch of assignments, and
  • the fact that this post needed me to read a sixty-page article in my fifth language which I could only access via a library in London.

But mainly it’s been marking. I did tell myself at one point that I would only blog when there wasn’t marking due but it’s now clear that there will be marking due until at least April, and I can be silent no longer etc., and so we swing now back into substantive blogging with a post that I should have written even longer ago than this delay suggests! It was in October 2012, you see, that our esteemed commentator Mouguias asked me if I had ever heard of a manuscript known as the Bíblia de Danila and if so what I thought of it. I hadn’t, and made an ill-judged promise to find out more and then write about it, and then didn’t do so. Mouguias popped up again in January 2015 and teased me about this in passing, and at that point I stubbed this post to remind me to do something about it. And at last I have.

Cava de' Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, fo. 69r

A particularly decorated page from the Bília de Danila, Codex Cavensis or Cava Bible, call it what you will as long as you cite it as Cava de’ Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, this here being fo. 69r, and “LaCavaBibleFolio69r“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

So, firstly, why is this bible a thing to investigate? The manuscript in question now resides in the Southern Italian monastery of la Cava de’ Terreni and this is the source of the manuscript’s other name, the Codex Cavensis. It seems to have come there in the twelfth century, however, from Spain, and probably actually dates to the early ninth century. Until recently it was held to have been nothing less than be a present of Charlemagne to King Alfonso II of Asturias, already, which would make it very early ninth-century indeed, but of late this has come under scrutiny and quite the reverse proposed, that it is fact a native Asturian product possibly even meant for display to the Carolingian Empire of Asturias’s newly-confident cultural self-expression. And for some reason in 2012 the web suddenly picked this up and ran with it. As Mouguias put it in his first comment: “Apparently this might be the ‘book’ that Alfonso II of Asturias mentions in his ‘Testament’, and some believe the bible was produced in order to preside over the Council that the king started in 812.” Well, it “might” be, of course, wherever Alfonso would then have got it from, and people can believe what they like about it but there’s no proving things like that from the manuscript itself and the manuscript is all we have here.

Cava de' Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, fo. 220v

Fo. 220v. is, as you can see, written in white and red on indigo-stained parchment. Someone did put a lot of work and wealth into this manuscript! “LaCavaBibleFolio220v“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Now, you can immediately see how this is what one might expect from an area with a proud and important history within the Iberian peninsula that has since been sidelined by national politics, but for Mouguias this was coming from web reports of work by a researcher by the name of Paolo Cherubini, who is no less than the Vice-Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archive and thus more like a neutral in the contest.1 His work is not easy to get at, however, and it perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me that the web was not reporting it totally accurately.2 Actually, to judge from the unusually scholarly Wikipedia article on the Bible, the germ of the idea of reattributing the Cava Bible to Asturias came from the late great John W. Williams.3 I’m not sure that he would have stood by all of this, however:

“The location of the scriptorium in which Danila worked is not known. However the hand, textual variations, and orthography indicate that the manuscript was produced in Spain, during the early 9th century. It is unlikely that such a luxury manuscript could have been produced in the Muslim-controlled areas of the Iberian Peninsula. This makes Asturias, which was the largest Christian kingdom of the time, the most probable source for codex. Additional evidence of an Asturian origin is provided by the decoration of the manuscript. The Cross which appears in four locations in the La Cava Bible, is the only explicitly Christian decoration in the manuscript. Although the form of the Crosses in the La Cava Bible do not appear in other surviving Asturian art, the Cross was emphasized in Asturian devotional art.”

Well, taking this piece by piece, I am pretty much happy that spelling and textual variants can be used to place this manuscript’s production, or at least its scribe’s training, in Spain, as can the script. After that, however, I back off rapidly, especially from this bit:

“It is unlikely that such a luxury manuscript could have been produced in the Muslim-controlled areas of the Iberian Peninsula. This makes Asturias, which was the largest Christian kingdom of the time, the most probable source for codex [sic].”

What, really, do we know about the size of Asturias under Alfonso II? Mostly, we know what people working for Alfonso III subsequently claimed it had been, in order to justify what were probably really new claims on that territory. Alfonso II’s kingdom was clearly a cultural centre, his rebuild of the royal palace and his attempts to link out to the Carolingians show that, but very big it may not have been, not least because those very links to the Carolingians may indicate a difficulty obtaining local support in some areas.4

Remains of the palace of Alfonso II in Oviedo adjacent to the cathedral of San Salvador

What there remains above ground of the palace of Alfonso II in Oviedo, which is to say, a few bits now sticking out of the cathedral of San Salvador

And in any case, why on earth is it “unlikely” that such a manuscript could have been produced in al-Andalus, the which polity contained Seville, Toledo and the as-yet-apparently-untaxed Christian community of Córdoba as well as many other cathedral communities? The Asturian cultural efflorescence used to be supposed, after all, to have been powered by super-cultured fugitive immigrants from the south who brought their skills and ideas for decoration with them, and indeed often their manuscripts.5 You can’t have that along with the assumption that all Christians living in Muslim-controlled areas had become culturally bankrupt. So we need some better basis for this identification.

The supposedly 'Mozarabic' church of San Miguel d'Escalada, Asturias

The supposedly ‘Mozarabic’ church of San Miguel d’Escalada, Asturias, which could of course have been built by anyone who’d ever seen such arches and had sufficient skill, wherever they’d been born, but hey. «SMdE exterior portico» por Desarrollo Local GradefesSan Miguel de Escalada 05. Disponible bajo la licencia CC BY-SA 2.0 vía Wikimedia Commons.

It does have to be admitted that the Bíblia’s decoration is not very Andalusi as we understand it, but then, decorated manuscripts from al-Andalus are rare, full stop. Furthermore, this decoration contains no human figures, although as you see it has some splendid fish, which might cause some to say that an Andalusi context is more, not less, plausible. Even our Wikipedian commentator, you’ll note, has to admit that in terms of manuscript art this decoration is unusual for Asturias, and hangs on the number of ornamented crosses that survive in metalwork from the area as a proxy. But while the Asturian ones are lovely, pretty much everywhere in the Latin West had ornamental processional crosses, you know? In whose Christian devotional art has the cross not been a focus? It’s really not enough by itself.

The Cruz de la Victoria, in San Salvador d'Oviedo

The superb Cruz de la Victoria, in San Salvador d’Oviedo, and yes, it is lovely and inescapably Asturian, but it is also from a century later than our Bible and also nothing like as geometric as the cross patterns therein. «Oviedo – Catedral, Camara Santa 02» por ZaratemanTrabajo propio. Disponible bajo la licencia CC0 vía Wikimedia Commons.

So, I went and got hold of Cherubini’s article, and slowly I read it. It may not surprise you that it is more careful than the Wikipedia article for the most part. In particular, he does nothing with the argument about the crosses at all; he mentions that others have made it, but then never comes back to it.6 Instead he is focused on the palæography, and this turns out to be not as simple a question as you might expect. The main text is by two scribes, and they have differing but high levels of Iberian Latin habits that, for Cherubini and I’m happy to go along with this, place this manuscript in a zone where Visigothic script and Iberian Latin were the common ways of writing texts, and he argues reasonably for a date in the ninth century and probably in the early part of it (no tighter than that, from palæography alone). The headings, rubrics and other sorts of display script, however, all look a lot older, in half-uncials or uncials which would fit equally well in the late fifth or sixth centuries, so that there was clearly an exemplar before the scribes of a much older date, which they were partly mimicking and partly updating; they wanted what they were making to look old but also usable. It then has annotations, cross-references and glosses which suggest that among several other purposes, it was being mined by people concerned especially with the nature of the Trinity and with issues of predestination, the latter of which probably suggests use in the later ninth century when Gottschalk of Orbais had freshly brought such issues to the fore.7

Page of the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS. Vit. 14.2, made 1047, fo. 43v

Human figures and God made flesh, yet, already, from the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS. Vit. 14.2, made 1047, fo. 43v, image from WIkimedia Commons

Cherubini also notes that there are no human figures depicted in the manuscript, but for him this suggests use rather than origin, an involvement in the controversy over images of God and the saints that convulsed Mediterranean theology in the late eighth century and early ninth.8 But this is where Cherubini starts to go further than I think he should, and it was evident from his title that despite his palæographical caution he would have to: the article, after all, proclaims this Bible to be “a triumphal monument to Alfonso II”.9 First of all, the image controversy is (as we have seen here before) often associated with Spanish theologians because they would have been in contact with Islam, which prohibits (or rather, again as we’ve seen, has at times prohibited) images of the human form. But actually the scholars we see worrying about such issues in the eighth and ninth centuries were based at the Carolingian court, in Italy, in the Byzantine Empire, but not the Iberian peninsula, where presumably Adoptionism was still giving them quite enough to debate. Beatus of Liébana’s famous Commentary on the Apocalypse is full of pictures of people, as you see above, and so are many other Asturian manuscripts of this and following centuries.10 So this doesn’t pin it to the Iberian Peninsula for me, still less to Asturias, though I’m happy to accept the Peninsular attribution on the basis of the palæography still.

The Cruz de las Angeles, Oviedo Cathedral

The Cruz de las Angeles, Oviedo Cathedral, another supposed parallel for the cross art in the Cava Bible but again, as you see here, not geometrical or shaped in the same way really. By Zarateman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 es], via Wikimedia Commons.

So Cherubini has a palæographical dating, which is roughly the early end of the ninth century but with scribes using a much older and probably Visigothic exemplar. He also has from that good reason to suppose an Iberian-peninsula production, but how do we get to Asturias? And sadly it turns out that the answer is twofold: by using an outdated historiographical context and by using a charter for proof it can’t provide. Signor Cherubini knows quite a lot about the glories of the court of Alfonso II, but this is because he has read quite a lot of 1940s and 1950s articles written by Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz and others who agreed with him about the heroic Christian recovery of Asturias against the Muslims and took quite literally the claims about Alfonso II’s conquests of ninth-century sources which aimed to use them as precedents for those of Alfonso III.11 But as said above, we are now somewhat more critical about how marvellous Alfonso II’s court and achievements were.12

Top of the Testament of King Alfonso II of Oviedo

Top of the Testament of King Alfonso II of Oviedo; note the apparent depiction of the above Cruz de las Angeles… Image by Denis Soria Fernández, whose blog linked through

But we do have his will, which is the charter that Cherubini abuses. The text of this has been much disputed, not least because the oldest version of it (and there are several) appears to be the one that is in verse, which already makes it quite odd, but importantly for us, and as Mouguias said, it mentions the gift of a Bible to the newly-established cathedral of Oviedo in 812.13 And if it’s ninth-century, there’s only 800-812 for it to fit before it has to be in the cathedral, right? Pretty tight dating!14 Unhappily, as Cherubini himself points out, in a tenth-century inventory of its good the cathedral had by then got two Bibles, and it describes them: “unam spalitanam, quam beatus Isidorus manu sua ferunt scripsisse manu quadra, et alia cordobense, quam nobis nefandus Alboaldi direxit”, “one from Seville, which the blessed Isidore wrote with his own hand in square script [i. e. capitals], and the other from Córdoba, which the infamous Alboald sent to us”, a story I’d personally love to know more about but, alas, we don’t.15 Now, for Cherubini at least, neither of these Bibles could easily be the gift of the king in 812, so that one must have already gone somewhere else by 908. I actually don’t see why the king couldn’t have given the cathedral the supposed Isidore Bible but obviously that isn’t the Codex Cavensis, though it might be the late antique exemplar from which Danila and companion copied the headings of that book. Or, of course, it might not be. But the simplest answer here is not to fit the one Bible we do have (though Cherubini thinks a fragment of the Córdoba one may have survived in the time of “Alfonso de Morales”, unspecified…16) into the words of a text that is plainly about something else. I’m afraid it is still to admit that we have no better reason to place this marvellous manuscript in Asturias than really anywhere else in ninth-century Spain with some proper old books in the library, and Oviedo is actually not really the most likely of those places.


1. P. Cherubini, “La Bibbia di Danila: un monumento ‘trionfale’ per Alfonso II di Asturie” in Scrittura e Civiltà Vol. 23 (Torino 1999), pp. 75-131; Luciano Pedicini (ed.), La Bíblia de Danila (Codex Biblicus Cavensis, MS 1 de la abadí de la Santísima Trinidad de Cava dei Tirreni): Edicón facsímil ([Oviedo] 2010) and Paolo Cherubini, José Antonio Valdés Gallego & Alfonso García Leal, La Biblia de Danila (Codex Biblicus Cavensis, MS. 1 de la Abadía de la Santísima Trinidad de Cava dei Tirreni) ([Oviedo] 2010).

2. It is also possible that he has changed his mind; the review of the newer facsimile volumes, which I can’t get hold of, in n. 2 above by Carlos Benjamín Pereira Mira in Territorio y Sociedad Vol. 7 (Oviedo 2012), pp. 259-264, online here, takes a noticeably more precise line than the 1999 article I’m using here.

3. The Wikipedia article’s only reference is J. W. Williams, Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination (New York City 1977).

4. This perspective is based on Roger Collins, “Spain: The Northern Kingdoms and the Basques, 711-910” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol. II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 272-289 and Julio Escalona, “Family Memories: inventing Alfonso I of Asturias” in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona, (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimacy in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and cultures 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 223-262.

5. Classically in Manuel Gómez Moreno, Iglesias mozárabes: arte español de los siglos IX a XI (Madrid 1919), online here.

6. Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 107.

7. Ibid., pp. 80-86 on the main text, 86-95 on the apparatus and 95-106 on the glosses. On the ninth-century predestination debate see David Ganz, “The debate on predestination” in Margaret T. Gibson and Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: Court and Kingdom, 2nd edn. (Aldershot 1990), pp. 283-302.

8. On which see Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009) and Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011); sadly, you still need both.

9. See his title in n. 1 above.

10. Of course, we don’t actually have Beatus’s manuscript, but the general similarity between the century-or-more-later copies we do have is such that it has been generally accepted that they probably reflect an original sequence of images: see Kenneth B. Steinhauser, “Narrative and Illumination in the Beatus Apocalypse” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 85 (Washington DC 1995), pp. 185-210.

11. Particularly influential seem to have been C. Sánchez-Albornoz, “¿Una crónica asturiana perdida?” in Revista de filología hispanica Vol. 7 (Madrid 1945), pp. 105-146, rev. in idem, Investigaciones sobre historiografía hispana medieval (siglos VIII al XII) (Buenos Aires 1979), pp. 111-160, idem, “Asturias resiste: Alfonso el Casto salva a la España cristiana” in Logos (La Serena 1946), pp. 5-29 and Gonzalo Menéndez Pidal, “Mozarabes y asturianos en la cultura de la Alta Edad Media” in Boletín de la Real Academia de Historia Vol. 134 (Madrid 1954), pp. 137-178, none of them what you would call modern references and all written from deep within the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Cherubini’s reprise of these works’ heroic picture is given in “Bibbia de Danila”, pp. 124-131.

12. See n. 4 above.

13. The verse version of the will is edited in Antonio C. Floriano, Diploma;tica Española del Periodo Astur. Estudio de las Fuentes Documentales del Reino de Asturias (718-910). I: Cartulario Crítico (Oviedo 1949-1951), 2 vols, I no. 24, as cit. by Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 128 n. 228; cf. the prose version, printed as Santiago García Larragueta (ed.), Colección de Documentos de la Catedral de Oviedo (Oviedo 1962), no. 3. On its authenticity compare Claudio Sánchez-Albórnoz, “Alfonso III y el particularismo castellano” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 13 (Buenos Aires 1950), pp. 19-100 at pp. 90-100, that section being repr. with addenda as “Otra vez sobre la crónica de Alfonso III” in idem, Investigaciones sobre historiografía, pp. 97-108, at pp. 98-99 of the reprint & n. 8 and “Addenda”, ibid. p. 108, and A. Floriano Cumbreño, “El testamento de Alfonso II (Estudio paleográfico y diplomático)” in Boletín del Instituto de Estudios Asturianos Vol. 86 (Oviedo 1975), pp. 593-617, and Escalona, “Family Memories”, pp. 251-254.

14. This dating seems to have been adopted in Cherubini, Valdes & García, Bíblia de Danila, to judge from Pereira, review, p. 260: “Materializado, grafiado y decorado con visos de verosimilitud en Oviedo -concretamente en el scriptorium aúlico alfonsino- en el primer decenio del siglo IX….”

15. Presumably in García, Documentos de Oviedo, but known to Cherubini through Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz (ed.), “Serie de documentos ineditos del reino de Asturias” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 2 (Buenos Aires 1944), pp. 298-351 at pp. 329-344, cit. Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 130 and n. 233, whence quoted; the English is my translation of the Latin.

16. Ibid., p. 130.

Seminar CCXXXI: the disappearing Byzantine teenager

The close of February 2015 seems to have seen me spending a lot of time at seminars, including three evenings in a row of which you heard about the first two posts ago. Here now is the second, when I was in London because Professor Leslie Brubaker of Birmingham was presenting at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, leaving me several flags of loyalty to show by turning up. Her topic was “Teenagers of Byzantium”.

Paris, Musée du Louvre, MS 416, showing Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos and family

One problem with such an enquiry is that most of the families of which we have pictures are either royal or holy, and neither necessarily naturalistic… Here Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos illustrates that last problem: if as is thought this was done in 1415, the boys at his and his consort’s sides were 23, 19 and 12 when depicted, given the which we would rather expect some of them to be taller. The artist obviously didn’t think like that! Paris, Musée du Louvre, MS 416, I’m afraid I don’t know what folio

As we have already seen with an earlier paper, the middle patch between childhood and adulthood is one that the Roman, and therefore in law at least the Byzantine one, didn’t really acknowledge in the way that we do, so has to be tracked down in indirect evidence. That earlier paper had used literature from the twelfth century; Leslie works earlier and, of course, in images.1 There it is easy enough (well; not easy, but possible) to point at depictions of people we know to have been the relevant age and observe how their juniority was marked artistically, but the problem is disambiguating that visual language from ways of signalling other sorts of lesser status. For example, things that often mark out youth in Byzantine imagery are less-than-adult size, beardlessness for men and lack of veils for women (sometimes), all of which also tend to be used when servants or followers are being depicted. These are not really signs of youth, therefore, just of less-than-autonomy. That language was also used on coins to indicate junior and senior emperors, and indeed once we get into the Isaurians that language hardens up, with even fully adult junior emperors being shown beardless compared to their fathers and so on. Whatever that is telling us, it’s not telling us what Byzantines thought teenagers looked like. One is left with much more subjective things like roundness of face, relative heights and so on, by which one can suggest that the artists was trying to differentiate someone, but it’s not easy.2

A gold solidus of Emperor Leo IV with his son Constantine V, struck at Constantinople in 776-780, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4583

A gold solidus of Emperor Leo IV with his son Constantine V, bearded and not respectively, with their dead ancestors Leo III and Constantine IV on the reverse, fully fuzzed, the coin struck at Constantinople in 776-780 and being Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4583

Leslie did argue, however, that the run into the eighth and ninth centuries marked a change in even this ambiguous visual language more widely than the coinage. Depiction in general was becoming more generic and less individualised, and this left less and less room for the specialisation of appearances in the way that she had been seeking in the earlier period. As Iconoclasm settled in, whether connectedly or not, figural art stopped including the subtleties by which artists might indicate gradation of youth, and non-adults appeared the same way whether they were aged two or twenty-two. Transition across this line came with the beard for men or marriage for women (although pictures of women—pictures at all but therefore especially of women, always a small part of the sample—are very thinly preserved from this period).3 They seemed even less evident to us, sadly, as about half of Leslie’s images were of such high resolution or file-size that the struggling IHR laptop couldn’t actually display them! But what there was provoked a lively discussion and it was good to be part of it all.

Copy of an ivory plaque showing Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria overseeing a relic translation in Constantinople, this copy in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original in Trier

One of the other depictions that came up was this, the Trier Ivory, which Leslie thinks shows Emperor Constantine V (beardless) and his mother Empress Eirini (tiny), but which I now realise Jill Harries had the previous year claimed shows Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria (just Roman). Who’s right? It would be a fun argument to spectate on! This is a copy in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original is still in Trier.


1. Children at least are quite well studied in this light: see Cecily Hennessy, Images of children in Byzantium (Aldershot 2008) and Arietta Papaconstantinou & Alice-Mary Talbot (edd.), Becoming Byzantine: Children and Childhood in Byzantium (Washington DC 2009), plus also Eve Davies, “Age, Gender and Status: a three-dimensional life course perspective of the Byzantine family” and indeed Leslie Brubaker, “Looking at the Byzantine Family” in Brubaker (ed.), Approaches to the Byzantine Family, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 14 (Farnham 2013), pp. 153-176 & 177-206 respectively.

2. Indeed, when coins get involved as evidence it can all get worryingly circular, as subjective art-historical criteria like size and shape of face are actually ways in which the coins have been attributed to emperors, so that the art historians then take the numismatist’s words that these are in fact depictions of those emperors although those were largely art-historical judgements in the first place… See for examples Philip Grierson, Phocas to Theodosius III, 602-717, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection II (Washington DC 1968, repr. 1999), pp. 386-387 (are there any coins of Heraclius Constantine? Yes if we distinguish them by size of head! No other way of telling) & pp. 391-394 (the same argument for Heraclonas, but with a distinctive inscription in only one of the several such types which still doesn’t distinguish him) or idem, Leo III to Nicephorus III, 717-1081, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection III (Washington DC 1973, repr. 1999), pp. 291-292 (uncertainty over where Leo IV’s coinage with Constantine as junior emperor stops and Constantine V’s with Leo as deceased ancestor begins).

3. Of course, a lot was changing generally in that period, and few if any people know this so well as Leslie: see L. Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), but on this issue more specifically eidem, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 650-850: the sources. An annotated survey, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Monographs 7 (Aldershot 2001), pp. xxiii-xxvii.

Seminar CCXVI: Umayyad connections in early medieval architecture

The backlog remains larger than a year but the only way to deal with that, apart from ceasing to go to or think of things about which I want to blog, which ain’t gonna happen, is for me to keep writing. So, let me now bring you to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in the University of Birmingham on the 20th November 2014, where you could have found myself among a good number of others there to hear Professor John Mitchell speak to the title: “Abul-Abbas and all That: the West and the Caliphate in the age of Bede, Desiderius and Charlemagne”.1

The desert palace of Qasr Amra, in modern-day Jordan

The desert palace of Qasr Amra, in modern-day Jordan, which will be made to bear a great deal of weight in this report. “Qasr Amra“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Despite the venue, Professor Mitchell had come not to praise Byzantium but to sideline it, in as much as he was out to contend with the common idea that most early medieval art was basically attempting at one or more removes to look Byzantine, that being the current reflection of the inheritance of Rome to which so many western rulers and patrons wished to lay claim. Instead, he suggested that the evidence is just as strong for early Islam, the alternative and more recently successful superpower of the Eastern Mediterranean and in control of the Holy Places where Westerners more often voyaged than they probably did to Constantinople.2 For example, he argued that the idea of a palace with an inbuilt chapel, found in Byzantine and Lombard contexts and adopted from the latter by Charlemagne, most famously in Aachen, can be found earliest at Khirbat al-Mafjar; that the ornamental projecting towers found on Charlemagne’s palace at Paderborn were best paralleled from the Umayyad desert palaces at Qasr el-Hayr; that Khirbat and Qasr Amra both boast baths like the ones in which Charlemagne sometimes held councils at Aachen (and that Caliph al-Walid is said to have done this himself at Qasr al-Hallabat). More specifically, he pointed to the use of gypsum stucco, not a Roman technique but found at Saint-Germigny-des-Prés, Cividale and San Salvatore di Brescia anyway and for which there are many Islamic examples, and diagonal marbling of columns, another trick with no known Roman roots but good Islamic ones and also found at Brescia; and there was more besides.3

Diagonally-marbled columns at San Salvatore di Brescia

Diagonally-marbled columns at San Salvatore di Brescia, a Lombard foundation much modified by the Carolingians. By Stefano Bolognini (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

To this, Professor Mitchell met several kinds of counter-argument. Archie Dunn invoked parallels from Greece, and specifically a place with a name like ‘Lulutheis’ which my notes obviously don’t have right (Eleutherai maybe?), for the towers and bath-house, as evidence that such things could also be found in Byzantine contexts and Leslie Brubaker pointed out how much Byzantine evidence is gone, not least because this was the era of the supposedly Iconoclastic emperors whose works were subsequently largely derided and replaced, and both together argued that, if the traditional view is not to hold, at best it must be replaced with one of a three-way conversation, in which the two superpowers both influenced each other and which one then influenced the West is yet to be decided. I, meanwhile, was struggling with some of the supposed influence: the palace chapel idea seemed too vague of definition, since after all what is a palace? The projecting towers at issue seemed to me to clearly be echoes of Roman camps, rather than anything palatial, and in any case Paderborn’s towers were curved, unlike those at Qasr el-Hayr; arguments about connections showing in the fact that these places’ walls contained plumbing seemed to me to forget that they would presumably all have had latrines in; and the stucco work, while the technique may be as Professor Mitchell says unknown in the Roman world, was certainly being used for very different imagery on his Western and Eastern examples. The best parallels of all seemed to be at San Salvatore di Brescia, but that reduces the question to what was going on at that one centre, not over the West as a whole…

Theoldulf of Orléans's church at Saint-Germigny-des-Prés

Nothing survives of Paderborn above the surface, and we’ve had San Salvatore already, so here is Saint-Germigny-des-Prés which I suppose we have to remind ourselves was commissioned by someone who’d grown up in Muslim Spain, for what relevance that may have… « Germigny des Pres » par user:CancreTravail personnel. Sous licence CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, I don’t want to appear wholly sceptical; after all, it’s not as if there’s any good reason why people in the West who’d been East shouldn’t have tried to imitate some of the wonders they’d seen there, particularly if, as I speculated in questions, they didn’t necessarily know that these palaces and baths and so on were new and Muslim rather than slightly older and Roman or Byzantine, given how imitative of late Roman building some Umayyad stuff was. If even a tenth of what Professor Mitchell suggested was accurate, we probably should be thinking of such people’s ideas being thus inspired, and in that case what I find most intriguing about this paper in retrospect is the apparent importance of Lombardy as a conduit. I can see how, once someone in Benevento built a palace like the one he’d seen at Qasr Amra or wherever, and then people from there went north or someone from the Frankish court came south and saw it and wanted to build something ‘like they have in Italy’, the style might leak north. But the thing about Umayyad desert palaces is their location, you know? And now I wonder what on earth was taking Lombards to Qasr Amra about which we have no other idea…

Ruins of the Umayyad desert palace at Khirbat al-Mafjar, in Palestine

Again, we’ve had Qasr Arma, so here’s the ruins of the Umayyad palace at Khirbat al-Mafjar, in Palestine. “Hishams Palace site view Author MDarter” by MichaelDarter at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.


1. I was there not least because of an excellent chapter of Professor Mitchell’s I read a long time ago which was the first thing that made me think about monumentality as a political statement properly—who could see what and what would they take from it?—that being J. Mitchell, “Literacy Displayed: the use of inscriptions at the monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno in the early ninth century” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 186-225.

2. On contacts of this kind between Islamic East and West Professor Mitchell cited Oleg Grabar, whose most relevant work would I suppose be his “Trade with the east and the influence of Islamic art on the ‘Luxury Arts’ in the west” in Atti del XXIV congresso internazionale di Storia dell’Arte (Bologna 1982), 10 vols, II pp. 27-34, but his “La place de Qusayr Amrah dans l’art profane du Haut Moyen Âge” in Cahiers Archéologiques Vol. 36 (Paris 1988), pp. 75-83 and his “Umayyad Palaces Reconsidered” in Ars Orientalis Vol. 23 (Ann Arbor 1993), pp. 23-38, also look worth investigating on the topic. One could add John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (Jerusalem 1977), to which cf. for now Peter Darby and Daniel Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’: the Case of Bede’s De locis sanctis” in Bulletin of the Council for British Research in the Levant Vol. 9 (London 2014), pp. 27-31, DOI: 10.1179/1752726014Z.00000000022; Dan has more work on this sort of thing under way.

3. I was wondering whether Professor Mitchell might have published some of this material by now, but websearching for it has brought to my attention Beatrice Leal, “The stuccoes of San Salvatore, Brescia, in their Mediterranean context” in Gian Pietro Brogiolo & Francesca Morandini (edd.), Dalla corte regia al monastero di San Salvatore – Santa Giulia di Brescia (Mantova 2014), pp. 221-247, which appears to be part of the same project. On the desert palaces more widely see Grabar, “Umayyad Palaces” as above and on the Carolingian palace at Paderborn the latest word seems to be Antonella Sveva Gai, “Die karolingische Pfalzanlage in Paderborn (776-1002). Vom militärischen Stützpunkt bis zum Bischofssitz” in Götz Alper (ed.), Sulzbach und das Land zwischen Naab und Vils im frühen Mittelalter, Schriftenreihe des Stadtmuseums und Stadtarchivs Sulzbach-Rosenberg 19 (Sulzbach-Rosenberg 2003), pp. 135-154, apparently transl. as “La residenza palatina di Paderborn in Westfalia tra la fine dell’VIII secolo e l’anno mille. Da centro militare a sede vescovile” in Sveva & Federico Marazzi (edd.), Il cammino di Carlo Magno (Napoli 2005), pp. 13-40, though I haven’t seen either so can’t be sure.

Seminar CCX: reading backwards into Frankish brooches

I have to start with the now-usual apology for lapse in posting; quite a lot is being required of me right now and mostly there is no time for blogging. In fact, like a proper obsessive compulsive I have a 12-step triage list for getting through the day without any of the spinning plates dropping, in which the blog is only no. 10 and in which on an ordinary day I’m rarely reaching no. 5… but we struggle on. In particular, I struggle on with the first seminar I went to in the Autumn term of 2014, and you can tell I was a bit busy then because that wasn’t till the 15th October. But on that date, Professor Guy Halsall, no less, was giving the David Wilson Lecture at the Institute of Archaeology in University College London, so obviously I was going to go. His title was “The Space Between: the ‘undead’ Roman Empire and the aesthetics of Salin’s Style I’.

A bronze clasp from Gotland

One of Salin’s own illustrations, a bronze clasp from Gotland busy with animal bits. Originally from Berhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornametik (Stockholm 1904).

For those that don’t know, Salin was a nineteenth-century archaeologist who worked on the artefacts of the period of the end of the Roman Empire in the West, particularly of the Franks, and he distinguished two styles of carving and ornament among their metalwork, which we still know as Style I and Style II.1 Style I is characterised by intertwined animal-form creatures (zoomorphs, is the rather splendid technical term) and disconnected animal or bird heads, in sometimes quite complex conjunction as you see above. Salin thought, and since he wrote many others have thought, that this was characteristic of the art of the barbarian peoples invading the Roman Empire, and could indeed be used as a proxy for their presence or at least influence.

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop, a clearer but more abstract example of the style

With this, Guy began by arguing, and arguing that Style I is not, and was never, characteristically Germanic, not least because it only appears in the fifth century, so was obviously being generated within the Empire and could hardly therefore be barbarians’ imported ancestral custom, and still less the shared ancestral custom of a whole range of previously-unconnected groups. With that out of the way, and entirely in keeping with his other writing on the subject, he proceeded to what on earth this style of carving may have meant.

A sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5

A good example case, a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5, with many significant-looking bearded heads to focus in on as this decoder page on the British Museum blog shows.

It’s not that no-one’s tried doing this, of course: people have seen in this art archetypes of Germanic folk heroes and gods and apotropaic serpents and so on, but as Guy pointed out such information can only be drawn from much later Norse sources, written after Christianization, which is thus in several ways the wrong direction to make these artefacts face; those traditions and that worldview not only come from later than the objects, but might have been partly formed by those objects or objects like them.2 Rather than being anachronistic like this, therefore, Guy opted to be ‘achronic’, and employ the work of the modern theorist Derrida to try and understand how these signifiers did their signifying.3

The Roman general Stilicho portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The master signifier made manifest, a supposed barbarian—none other than the Roman general Stilicho—portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The question here seems to me to be a good one, and perhaps it could not have been asked like that without the use of such modern work, but it still seems to me that this is not achronism but witting anachronism. That might not be bad, though, depending on what it gets you. What it got Guy was a development of his argument that Roman identity is idealised as the civil self-governed male, and that from the third century onwards that identity was challenged to the point of destruction by peripheral and destructive identifications, for Guy more or less what being ‘barbarian’ meant, the powerful other whom it became increasingly cool to be like. For Guy this only works because of the core referent, the old Roman identity against which this was expressed, a periphery set against a centre which comes to be the new defining cultural identification.4

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle, with animal heads confined to its ends

So on this occasion Guy tried to fit Style I into this framework, as an artform in which the periphery takes over, the beasts and interlace erasing the geometric centres common in late Roman ornamental metalwork. He argued that this was a deliberate artistic expression of uncertainty, in which it is no accident that we can’t tell,that contemporaries could not have told, how many animals there actually are on the brooch. It was born ‘out of disturbance’, that disturbance presumably being the breakdown of the Roman West with all its concomitant changes in social and economic organisation and prosperities. The areas worst hit by all this are not where Style I seems to have originated, Guy admitted, but it spread into them very quickly. The signification of the Empire was now uncertain, indeterminate and ‘undead’, in the sense that no-one could be sure it wouldn’t yet rise again, as it had done before.5 And the art that best captured that mood was Style I.

The Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum

I’m not sure if this is technically Style I, but it gets the point about indeterminacy over nicely… It is of course the Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum. “Belt buckle” by Michel walOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

I like that this lays such emphasis on uptake of material culture by an audience, rather than requiring it to move with immigrants as per the nineteenth century narrative that likewise refuses to die. Nonetheless, I have reservations. One of these is chronology: it was very recently, for example, that the relative stylistic chronology of lots of Anglo-Saxon metalwork was pushed back by fifty years.6 Even that preserves a stylistic chronology where some of the directional links are assumption. My limited knowledge of the Frankish metalwork suggests to me that there are lots more of those assumed links, many of which Guy has contested. With them uncertain, however, a similar shift backwards of the dating of this stuff would possibly radically change its relationship to other styles of metalwork. I am just not sure that we know well enough what comes before what and whether people necessarily only used one of these styles at once to hang such large arguments about cultural change off them. Then secondly, of course this is an argument Guy has also made from other evidence. With the aid of Derrida he is now able to fit the metalwork into that theory comfortably too, and he might not even have needed the theorist. But it’s not a free reading of the evidence, if that were even possible.

And thirdly, of course, we cannot know what this stuff meant to people, not least because of a lot of it presumably being unconscious: how many people who wear black leather jackets have consciously thought “I want to look like a nineteen-fifties motorcyclist” rather than, “that’s cool?” How many people who wear Ramones t-shirts have actually heard any of the songs? And so on. “What were they thinking?” is one thing to ask; “what did they not realise they were thinking?” is a whole new order of superiority to take over our study subjects… So I am still fairly clear that what Guy was offering was, explicitly in fact, a theory brought from outside to bear upon dead people who can’t be questioned, and whatever it was that they thought about their dress accessories, they weren’t reading Derrida to do it. I don’t know that we can work out what this stuff meant to its users, but if we must try I would rather start with tools that they also had.7


1. The starting point for Salin style is of course Bernhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornamentik (Stockholm 1904), but an Anglophone introduction can be found in Günther Haseloff, “Salin’s Style I” in Medieval Archaeology 18 (Leeds 1974), pp. 1-18, online here.

2. An example of the kind of work Guy meant here, I guess, is Lotte Hedeager, “Myth and Art: a passport to political authority in Scandinavia during the Migration Period” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms. Papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 151-156.

3. I don’t know Derrida’s writings, but I guess from this webpage that the key text here is Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence (Paris 1967), in which case I should probably think twice about calling it modern; that’s older than Geertz…

4. See most obviously G. Halsall, “Gender and the End of Empire” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Vol. 34 (Durham NC 2004), pp. 17-40.

5. On this I thoroughly recommend Guy’s Barbarian Migrations and the End of the Roman West 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), which has become part of how I think about this period.

6. John Hines (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London 2013). the primary text of reference for Merovingian stuff other than the work of Patrick Périn, which has its own problems, seems still to be Edward James, The Merovingian Archaeology of South-West Gaul, British Archaeological Reports (Supplementary Series) 25 (Oxford 1977), 2 vols, so some such reevaluation can’t be too far away! Guy’s Cemeteries and society in Merovingian Gaul: selected studies in history and archaeology, 1992-2009, On the Early Middle Ages 18 (Leiden 2009) starts this work but a systematic review will be necessary for a while yet.

7. I am aware in writing that that Guy posted on social media shortly after the lecture that he thought it was beyond the understanding of most of his audience. I may well have misunderstood it, given both that and that I’m reconstructing from year-old notes, but the text is online should you want to try it yourself, and I’m sure he will correct any misunderstandings too awful to be allowed to stand…

Seminar CCI: absence of ornamentation in Byzantine churches

My last seminar of the spring term of this (calendar) year was back to Byzantium, in the form of turning up to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham to hear Professor Henry Maguire speak with the title “Why was there no Renaissance in Byzantine art?” Professor Maguire was known to me only as a name at this point, but I had been assured that it was quite a big name in the field, and this he demonstrated by having to apologise for the fact that he was giving us a version of a public lecture he’d done in the USA. He was apologising for what he called the “flourishes”, but actually I was glad of the nods towards accessibility. I am however faced with the peculiarity that though I remember him making a perfectly reasonable stab at answering the question of his title, my notes seem determined to answer another one, which was more like “why is Byzantine art so darn austere?”

Madonna and Child by Berlinghiero, Lucca, 1228x1236

Looking pretty Byzantine, this gold-on-tempera Madonna and Child is actually from Lucca, by a chap called Berlinghiero who was active in the first third of the thirteenth century, but it gets the idea over both of what was and what could change. “Berlinghiero: Madonna and Child” (60.173) in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/60.173 (October 2006).

Comparisons with the art of the Italian Renaissance certainly helped to mark a contrast: even when the subject matter was similar, the level of ornamentation was usually starkly different. To drive this home Professor Maguire showed us two suspiciously similar Madonna and child portraits, both with the classic long gloomy Byzantine faces and almost identical poses, but one from Italy having a background loaded with architecture, ships and trees and a Byzantine one, well, not doing that. This lack of ornamentation is characteristic of Byzantine art as we know it, and can be set with Byzantine theologians’ disdain for the Latins’ concentration on external things rather than the internal, spiritual ones that really mattered, but that feeling didn’t stop them celebrating the glories of God’s Creation visually elsewhere.1 Nonetheless, from the ninth century onwards it’s really hard to find much beyond geometric ornament and stylised portraits in Byzantine art as it survives. Why?

Dome of the church of the virgin of Arakas, Lagoudera, Cyprus

Obviously there are exceptions… but even here, in the dome of the church of the virgin of Arakas, Lagoudera, Cyprus, this twelfth-century painting is figures of holy men and geometric ornament and little more, however much there is of it. I’m not sure austere is quite the word, but… Link goes to a web-page with a zoomable image.

Well, one obvious factor is that survival, because we’re talking almost entirely about churches here and may suspect, from what little we have of secular art and even manuscript painting, that that was more lively. In church, however, such things could be criticised as distracting from the holy focus of worship from as early as the fifth century. Defacement of palæochristian mosaic pavements and so on has been put down to Muslim pressure, but it was happening in Christian buildings and does seem to thrive as an ethic of non-natural display even in unconquered areas (though it is definitely strongest in modern Jordan and Palestine, as Daniel Reynolds pointed out in questions). Professor Maguire suggested that the real enemy here, as evinced in the legislation that closed the controversy over icons at Nicæa in 787, was not Islam but paganism, an imagery of zoomorphs and human-animal hybrids essentially inherited from Egypt and the Classical era. He ingeniously argued that the removal of the natural world from ornamentation was in fact how one allowed the human figure to remain as a visual object, because of its unique potential to reside in the next world, to which churches then operated as a gateway as they should.2 Consequently the saints only appear in the upper registers of Byzantine church spaces, where one’s eyes are upraised to Heaven to see them; they stand between the worshippers and the uppermost spaces, it’s all quite plausible when put together like this.

A 'corrected' mosaic at St Stephen's Umm al-Rasas, Jordan

A ‘corrected’ mosaic at St Stephen’s Umm al-Rasas, Jordan, with all the human figures carefully replaced with blank or reused tessera. I’m really not sure this is the same phenomenon, myself…

It was this different focus on heaven in art rather than the world that Professor Maguire used to explain the lack of a revival of interest in the created world by which he was characterising the Western Renaissance, but the questions centred most of all on the issue of defacement of imagery in churches. Daniel Reynolds, as said, raised the issue of regionality, and Matthew Harpster that of chronology: whether or not such imagery was criticised earlier, the defacements that we can date are post-Islamic, late eighth or ninth century. There’s a certain sense in this as that’s when Islam generally hardened up in its dealings with the other Abrahamic faiths; it’s when the so-called Covenant of ‘Umar’ starts to be invoked, for example.3 Christians might well feel under scrutiny then… Daniel Reynolds doubted that this could be fear of paganism as late as the ninth century, at least, and also put forward an idea from his own research on the early Islamic Holy Land, which is that as far as he has been able to discover, such defacement happens only in churches which held to the Chalcedonian rite, not in Monophysite/Coptic or other non-Orthodox ones.4 If the attack on Classical imagery is only a Melkite thing, as he put it, then at the very least Islam, while it may have been the catalyst somehow, was not the only actor in play and it served as a reminder that there were lots of stakeholders in Byzantine Christianity, and presumably its art, even after Byzantium ceased to be able to control much of it.


1. Cited doing this were the Vita S. Andreae Sali, which you may be able to find in Lennart Rydén (ed./transl.), The Life of St Andrew the Fool: text, translation and commentary (Uppsala 1995), 2 vols, and Symeon of Thessaloniki, who apparently also provides the Latin-slagging and whose stuff is edited as David Balfour (ed.), Politico-Historical Works of Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica (1416/1417 to 1429): critical Greek text with introduction and commentary, Wiener byzantinische Studien 13 (Wien 1979) and idem (ed.), Ἔργα θεολογικά, Ἁγίου Συμεὼν ἀρχιεπισκόπου Θεσσαλονίκης, 1416/17-1429 (Thessaloniki 1981), but only some translated; I don’t know which work was meant here, so I can’t be any more guidance than Wikipedia can I’m afraid. This is probably also the place to mention Professor Maguire’s most obviously relevant works, his collected papers, H. Maguire, Rhetoric, Nature and Magic in Byzantine Art, Variorum Collected Studies 603 (Aldershot 1998) and idem, Image and Imagination in Byzantine Art, Variorum Collected Studies 866 (Aldershot 2007), and his more recent monograph, idem, Nectar and Illusion: nature in Byzantine art and literature (Oxford 2012).

2. I believe I am prevented, both by good sense and probably also contractually, from mentioning Iconoclasm without citing Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era ca. 680–ca. 850: a history (Cambridge 2011).

3. Something that I know about mainly from Norman Daniel, “Spanish Christian Sources of Information about Islam (ninth-thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qantara: revista de estudios árabes Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 365-384.

4. Dan needs to get more stuff into print (don’t we all?) but has some limited excuse what with only just having left his doctorate, “Monasticism and Christian Pilgrimage in Early Islamic Palestine c. 614-c. 950″, University of Birmingham 2013, behind him; he will at least soon be able to boast of D. Reynolds, “Monasticism in early Islamic Palestine: contours of debate” in Robert Hoyland and Marie Legendre (edd.), The Late Antique World of Early Islam: Muslims among Christians and Jews in the East Mediterranean (London forthcoming).

Seminar CXCI: Jews in Western art before, during and after the 1160s

As well as its intermittent seminar series, Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages also puts on an annual lecture. Once again I am pleased to see that I am reporting on last year’s event before this year’s has occurred, I hope for continuing improvements in this respect, but obviously that only happens if I keep writing so, here is my account of last year’s on 9th December 2013, when Professor Sara Lipton came to speak with the title “Beauty and the Eye of the Beholder: Jewish caricature and Christian devotions in the later twelfth century”.

Twelfth-century depiction of Christ performing miraculous cures

Predictably, the web is much more interested in pictures of Jews as enemy than of anything before that point, but here is a twelfth-century picture of Christ being miraculous, and of course the crowd must, pretty much by definition, include Jews. You’d have to start making some fairly unpleasant arguments about nose shape to guess who, though… The manuscript is in the Morgan Library, New York.

Professor Lipton’s lecture was lively, entertaining and intriguing in equal measure, and of course very well illustrated, since she is an art historian by trade.1 Her key point was that Western medieval art goes through a change in the 1160s in how it showed Jews. Before that time, she said, Jews were rarely identified as such, but as the people among whom Christ lived they get depicted in scenes of His life, with hats and beards denoting them generally as figures of Biblical Antiquity like the prophets. From the 1160s onwards, however, we see (and Professor Lipton showed us) depictions of Jews with twisted features, hook noses, darker skin, pointed hats and so on, and at this time they replace the Romans as those torturing Christ on the Cross. Professor Lipton chose to look more deeply here than sudden prejudice, however, and saw it as a theological development. The Jews are often shown looking away from Christ: they do not see Him in His Passion. In this respect, however, as some theologians of the time indeed argued, they are no more foolish than the Christians who do not really live their faith. The Jews could have chosen to be saved, but did not, and now many supposed Christians commit the same failure of choice every day; it was for these people that such images might have been meant to serve as a warning.2

Jesus being brought before the High Priest Caiaphas, from the Salvin Hours

These kinds of images, however, it is all to easy to find, because these are how everyone knows the Middle Ages (by which we naturally mean 1150 onwards) saw Jews, right? It’s not that these images aren’t there, it’s just the seven hundred years before that get forgotten that irks me. This, anyway, is from the Salvin Hours of c. 1275, probably made in Oxford, now London, British Library Additional MS 48985, fo. 29 recto, and shows a very white Western Jesus being brought before the High Priest Caiaphas.

This is an attractive theory and the way that Professor Lipton married texts and image in it appealed to my sense of coherence; the same thing does seem to be going on in both. I suppose, however, that it is fair to say that with five or six 1160s images and two or three theological treatises we are not necessarily sounding the full breadth of medieval opinion. It occurred to me while Professor Lipton was speaking, for example, that this is at the peak of the period that Bob (“please, not Robert”) Moore has called ‘the formation of a persecuting society’, when many sorts of Other were becoming thoroughly marginalised in terms of hatred and impurity by a now-developed mainstream orthodox Christian society, and whether one accepts that or not, many of these manuscripts came from central Germany, an area where Jews had been slaughtered in their hundreds at the beginning of the First Crusade.3 If these texts and images are not demonising Jews, at the very least the context in which they were being produced means that they are doing something a lot edgier by using such imagery to make a different point than was necessarily exposed here. I asked about the imagery of Saracens at the same sort of time, but apparently the men at least are always distinguished by their headgear and even darker skin for the Saracens (the two groups’ women remaining indistinguishable as before until 1400 or so). So it’s not just a general Othering and Orientalising here, the depiction of the Jews is specific. It might therefore indeed have been being used to make a particular point, but if so it may have been moving against a popular stream.

Depiction of the Crucifixion of Christ from an 1166 copy of Peter Lombard's Commentary on the Psalms

This is the crucial image, but only available on the web really small, alas. Squint! It’s from an 1166 copy of Peter Lombard’s Commentary on the Psalms

While I’m coming up with reasons I mistrust art-historical interpretations… The most illustrative image by far that Professor Lipton used was from an 1166 Bremen manuscript of the Commentary on the Psalms of Peter Lombard, where a depiction of Christ on the Cross is used to illustrate Psalm 68. It has all you could require for her point: Christ is suffering (itself quite new) at the hands of Jewish tormentors with pointy hats and long beards who are otherwise spending their time worshipping a brazen serpent, arrayed on the cross-shaft beneath Jesus. This picture also contains what Professor Lipton believes is Europe’s first depiction of a hook-nosed Jew. One Jew, only, looks at Christ with what seems to be concern. He may perhaps be saved. All of this interprets quite nicely in Professor Lipton’s terms, and I would have no trouble swallowing this were it not for the fact that the whole Cross scene is arranged in front of a huge sinuous fire-breathing wyvern that is bigger than anything else in the picture. I could, if pushed, see this as the Devil-as-serpent exulting in his short-lived triumph over the Son of God, a sign that the Crucifixion was all the Devil’s work (though I’m not sure how orthodox that is given that it was also supposedly required for human Salvation…) but if so, this picture is doing something else that is a lot bigger than just an allegory of blindness! In fact, it’s hard not to see it, in fact, as a demonisation of the Jews as not just blind idolaters, but unwitting servants of Satan. In which case, Professor Lipton’s point about blindness might still work, but I think it needs saying!

There’s a wider methodological point here, I suppose. If this were hagiography, we would by now be more or less OK with raiding stories for incidental but revealing details, regarding those as much safer information than the main point of any given saint’s Life. That’s allowable, however, because in those cases we know what the main purpose of the Life is, viz. to show the holiness displayed by and through the saint and the identification of his or her friends and enemies in contemporary political terms. In doing the same thing with art, however, we run the risk when we look at details as sources for our wider theses that we have not, in fact, necessarily understood the wider thesis of the artist, and in this particular case an explanation of that picture that can’t squeeze in a huge wyvern makes me uncomfortable that we are leaving out something we should be including, as the artist obviously intended.


1. At the time of the lecture, the obvious point of introduction to Professor Lipton’s work was apparently S. Lipton, Images of Intolerance: the Representation of Jews and Judaism in the Bible moralisée (Berkeley 1999), but since then there has apparently emerged eadem, Dark Mirror: the medieval origins of anti-Jewish iconography (New York City 2014), which is where you would presumably now go for more on this lecture’s theme.

2. Professor Lipton here cited her article, “The Sweet Lean of His Head: Writing about Looking at the Crucifix in the High Middle Ages” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 1172-1208, and so so shall I.

3. Robert I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: power and deviance in western Europe, 950-1250 (Oxford 1987, 2nd edn. Malden 2006); on Jews in the Crusades see the heart-rending contemporary texts translated in S. Eidelberg (transl.), The Jews and the Crusaders: The Hebrew Chronicles of the First and Second Crusades (Madison 1977, repr. Hoboken 1996), and for analysis not least Matthew Gabriele, “Against the enemies of Christ: the role of Count Emicho in the anti-Jewish violence of the First Crusade” in Michael Frassetto (ed.), Christian Attitudes toward the Jews in the Middle Ages: a casebook, Routledge Medieval Casebooks 17 (New York City 2007), pp. 61-82.

Seminar CXC: close-reading a 75-pound Bible

I said a few posts ago that I was teaching at Birmingham last year more or less in imitation of an Anglo-Saxonist, and I meant to link that phrase to the webpage of Dr Peter Darby at Nottingham, because it was in fact very specifically him that I was imitating; he had been on contract to do the teaching I took over before Nottingham made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.1 He has Birmingham academic background, however, so it was a sort of homecoming when he addressed Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Seminar on 25th November 2013, with the title, “Heresy, Orthodoxy and the Codex Amiatinus Christ in Majesty”.

Full-size replica of the Codex Amiatinus

What the BBC confusingly calls “the only full-sized replica in the world of a Bible created more than 1,000 years ago”, raising the question of why someone is using gloves to handle a modern replica (not that you necessarily should even with parchment). Nonetheless, this gives you the size of the volume, and if you imagine those pages being skin, not paper, also the weight…

The Codex Amiatinus is the 75-pound Bible of the title, famously one of a set of three made at Bede’s monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow for presentation, in this case to the papacy, the source as Bede saw it of England’s Christianity.2 It was done in Roman-style uncial script, in columns, by at least eight different scribes; it is probably reasonable to see it as the baby Church demonstrating to Papa that it’s all grown-up now. It was taken to Rome, probably by the following of Abbot Ceolfrið, who died on the way there, and by the ninth century was in the monastery of San Salvatore al Monte Amiata, whence it gets its name; in 1786 it was moved to Florence, [Edit (see comments): atby which point someone had for reasons best known to themselves altered the dedication page so that it claimed (and claims) to be a gift from one Peter of the Lombards]. There is a lot of decoration in the book, including the famous portrait of Ezra that has been reused so many times by people looking for images of medieval scribes. Peter pointed out that most of this decoration is in the first quire of the book now, and wondered if it might have been rearranged, but some pictures remain later on, and his paper was essentially a close-reading of the one below in search of communications of orthodoxy.

Christ in Majesty, from the Codex Amiatinus

Christ in Majesty in the Codex Amiatinus, ink and dyes on sheepskin parchment. “Amiatinus Maiestas Domini” by Unknown – Internet. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This rather splendid example of medieval book-painting occupies the folio between the Old and New Testaments, thus opening the New, but Peter argued that it also closes it, by invoking in its depiction of Christ in Majesty the throne in Heaven described in the Book of Revelation: against a background of stars, jasper and ruby, a rainbow encircling, four living creatures around it that represent the Evangelists… I was happy to accept that (and indeed to drag the image straight into my teaching materials next term) but Peter also found a lot of fours in this image, numerical and geometrical, including pointing out that if you draw diagonal lines between the Evangelists’ books they intersect at Christ’s book and that even the stars in the background are arranged in quincunxes, crosses of four points around a fifth. The trouble for me here is that there are four Gospels, that’s a given starting place, and I’m not sure that this kind of structuring has to mean any more than a recognition of that as an organising principle for a necessarily four-sided artwork. Peter also argued that the portrayal of Christ as human was very current and correct, because the Church had just (as of 692) agreed that the Lamb of God should no longer be used to depict Jesus, but the Christ in Majesty usually is human, isn’t he, and that might to be honest just be because lambs look silly standing on furniture.

"The

What I certainly took from this was that the artwork was meticulously planned and laid out, and that once again it as with many another Insular Gospel Book stands as very obvious evidence against anyone who wants to argue that medieval artists weren’t very good. This was difficult and deliberate work, especially with the tools, inks and dyes available, and no effort was being spared to make a top-of-the-range codex. Peter’s case that it was sending an up-to-the-minute communication of theological orthodoxy to the papacy, however, rather than just advertising that its artists and home monastery were world-class… well, I’m still open to it, but this paper did not close it for me.


1. Given that this could be taken as a critical review, I should admit in full disclosure that I was also interviewed for the Nottingham job. I hope that that doesn’t affect my thinking here but I suppose you ought to know it could technically be a factor.

2. If there is a one-stop academic read on these matters it is for now Paul Meyvaert, “Bede, Cassiodorus, and the Codex Amiatinus” in Speculum Vol. 71 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 827-883, DOI: 10.2307/2865722. A bigger picture (literally) can be got from George Henderson, From Durrow to Kells: the Insular Gospel-books 650-800 (London 1987).