Tag Archives: churches

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Mysterious Knights at Claverley Church

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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

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Genève médiévale II: atop the cathedral

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Apologies for the lately-renewed delay: I had promised to review a couple of volumes, the time has only lately become free to do so and it feels rather as if the first one is trying to kill me… But we … Continue reading

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).

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Not the usual Beaulieu

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Our actual base on the trip to the south of France last summer I now seem to be documenting was a town called Beaulieu-sur-Mer, not to be confused with the home of my stock non-Catalan monastery example, St-Pierre de Beaulieu-en-Limousin … Continue reading

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Out here, on Sundays, they leave the churches open

This gallery contains 10 photos.

The summer is pretty clearly ended, and so is my time in Oxford. As I indicated a while back, some time elsewhere has thankfully been found, and as enquirers on other matters have cleverly determined, there is news on other … Continue reading

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Worship with teeth in it: pictures of Iffley church

This gallery contains 4 photos.

The New Zealand thread has sparked up again, which is one of the many signs one might adduce that I haven’t updated for longer than is good for the blog. In terms of backlog I appear to have now reached … Continue reading

Big books, high praise and tiny queries

(Written substantially offline on the East Coast main line between Edinburgh and Newcastle, 23rd May 2011.)

My current job is quite luxurious, there’s no point in denying it (and you know, I don’t exactly mind). One of these luxuries is somewhat enforced, however, which is: time to read. This is a luxury, no mistake, because I sorely missed it in the previous job, where I could only spare the time to read up for my own papers; now I can read more, but, on the other hand what I have to read is now also dictated not just by what I’m working on but by what I’m teaching, where I really do have good reasons to get current quickly because I have to tell other people to read it. So, since arrival, I have been attacking this problem.

Cover of Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568

Cover of Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568

Cover of John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society

Cover of John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society

Quite a lot of the books I have got through have been really quite large. I don’t mean so much the multi-authored exhibition catalogues and conference proceedings the Continental scholarship, especially, generates, like Jordi Camps’s edited Cataluña en la época carolingia that’s been in my sidebar, well, possibly since I started the blog—and every now and then I take in another of its informative little papers—but single-author syntheses. Among these there are two I thought it was fairly urgent for me to get a hang of, Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007) and John Blair’s The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005). The reason for the latter will be obvious: my idea of the scholarship of the man I’m standing in for was a decade behind the times and since then he’d written something that was now on every reading list in the subject. Guy’s book, meanwhile, I’d bought on a whim in the CUP bookshop a few years before, probably after hearing him present somewhere but maybe just on the basis of what I knew of his work, which is now of course much easier to know about, and because of a sneaking suspicion that it probably should be on a lot of reading lists, and it just took me a while to make it urgent: sorry, Guy! But Guy’s book is 616 pages long, and John’s 624 (gloss, heavy), so this was a bit daunting; I knew when I picked these things up that I would be living with them closely for a while. (There’s also another very obvious extremely large book of wide-ranging comparative focus that has defeated scholars as least as bibliovoric as me, temporarily I’m sure, which I am now taking on properly rather than just reading via the index, and that invites comparisons in what follows, but if they occur at all they will have, in justice, to wait till I’ve taken it all in.1)

There are obvious limits to what I can say about these books: both these (all three of these) scholars’ goodwills are important to me, in so far as I have them I want to keep them and so you would probably expect what follows to be basically praiseworthy, and so indeed it will be (although it has been a pain to phrase because of implicit comparisons – I apologise if any offence remains to be taken, it is not intended) but that’s because I think they are good, I have no need to pretend about this. My adulation will be very slightly tempered below with some tiny points of query, but I think the first thing to make clear is that it was or is worth reading all of these books. I actually enjoyed the reading of Guy’s; I picked it up each time genuinely wanting to know where it would go next, as opposed to simply wanting to know what was in it. It may be that he was conscious that his book was in a series of supposed textbooks, and so wrote deliberately clearly, and if so it pays off, he is admirably lucid and the reading goes quickly. John’s is slower going because there is so much information on every page that one keeps being caught up by footnotes and going, “really? where? <flip flip flip page> Wow that sounds interesting. Hang on, where was I?” (Guy’s is by no means short of information but John has little local details that distract. This may only really affect English readers though.) Also, and this is just my weakness really, Guy’s chapters are shorter and more divided up: beyond a certain amount per lump I do find that my brain creaks trying to hang on to it all, and here Guy is kinder. (I’m conscious that I myself fail on this assessment; sorry about that.)

Roman ruins at Volubilis, Morocco, old Mauretania

Roman ruins at Volubilis, Morocco, old Mauretania

Both of these books also offer very big interpretative answers to substantial historical questions. Guy is of course offering an answer to to the great question about the fall of the Roman Empire, and he is far from the only person doing so; the only reason his book isn’t on more reading lists, I would guess, is that most people who set them read Peter Heather’s almost equally large tome that narrowly preceded it into the shops and then felt they had all the answer they needed for the moment. Many will know that Guy and Peter do not agree about many things: Guy is scrupulously polite in his references here, however, indicating disagreement where necessary but never without respect, and certainly the opposition is not silenced but acknowledged and engaged. The big difference between Guy and his opposition for me, and the one that means I prefer Guy’s take, is that for him archæology is crucial. Archæological evidence is given at least equal billing throughout his book and it substantially underpins his argument, which is, basically, that even in economic and military crisis Rome was still a sufficiently potent political force that it warped and changed the cultures at its borders and offered them opportunities of engagement and enrichment that drew them in towards it, while at the same time its military and aristocratic culture was increasingly affected (and I use that word both transitively and intransitively) with supposedly-barbaric overtones. No-one, however, wanted to fell the Empire; they wanted to control it. It was competition between such ambitious members of a military élite that overlapped the Empire’s borders which did the whole thing in.2

In the course of this, Guy raises several important issues about assumptions people make about barbarian identities, not least that they are detectable in burial styles and that they are incompatible with Roman identities. The most interesting examples of counters to these that he provides, for me, are the facts that the Visigoths only started doing furnished burial with grave-goods once they were in Spain, so it can hardly be an imported ethnic practice—he argues that instead it represents, here and in other places, competition and insecurity among élites that Romans as well as others could employ for status display (pp. 342-346 for Spain and more generally at pp. 27-29 and per people thereafter)—and the weird and oddly loyalist imperial dignities claimed by the Moorish rulers of the western edges of Roman Africa, left on their own by the Vandal takeover as ostensibly legitimist rulers who would never again recognise a higher authority (pp. 405-410). I don’t know where else you could go for someone writing in English who makes these populations part of the wider story of Empire.

All Saints' Brixworth, usually held the oldest Anglo-Saxon Church substantially standing

All Saints' Brixworth, usually held the oldest Anglo-Saxon Church substantially standing, from Wikimedia Commons

John’s book is also part of several wider debates. Most people are probably familiar with John’s work because of the ‘minster hypothesis’, an argument he started in the 1980s about the organisation of the early Anglo-Saxon Church which now has a Wikipedia entry, and which holds that it was substantially or entirely built round collegiate churches with priests operating out of a shared base ministering to very large mother-parishes, and that there wasn’t really any other kind of Church organisation than that before the tenth and eleventh centuries. This `minster’ category included both gatherings of priests and gatherings of monks; John held and holds (pp. 2-5) that there was no functional difference except in wealth until the age of reform.3 This book represents the deep background that makes such a picture of the Church in early Anglo-Saxon England plausible. (He doesn’t deny the occasional existence of smaller-range churches, especially in zones where the British Church might have survived into Anglo-Saxon control, but doesn’t think them significant.) He has a case, at the very least: it’s impossible to deny that with this much detail thrown behind it, pulled from legislation, place-names, charters, narratives, archæology and topography, and this level of detail means that even if you don’t yourself buy the case, or indeed if you’re actually interested in something else, there’s still stuff in here that’s relevant to you. An example: a highly-touristic friend of mine said, on a visit to mine while I was reading this book, that he’d been in Kidderminster the previous week, which he gathered had “roots in your period”; I dimly remembered having read as much, figured the name was a give-away and was indeed able to check John’s index and show my friend a date of first record (736), the Old English place name (Husmerae) and a picture of the charter where it and the incipient church first occur (Sawyer 89),4 which was nice.

From this book, then, could start dozens and dozens of local history enquiries, and equally many have been incorporated and assimilated into it. There are also, either side of the big argument about the shape of the Church, absolutely fascinating chapters about the conversion (pp. 8-78) and the social function of the parish church (when we have some; pp. 426-504), both a bit more informed by foreign scholarship and indeed social anthropology than the more structural chapters, but because of that all the more engagingly humanistic, showing a lively compassion for the everyday member of a community and an almost combative willingness to consider the unusual and see if it makes more sense with the evidence than arguments of long tradition. What John achieves with these chapters is to demonstrate how flexible, adaptable and individual such traditions might be, and how we might do better to talk in terms of changing religious practice than of converting people. So, whether or not you come for the argument, stay for the people: this book is full of them, and John’s writing is always prepared for them to do something odd or opposite to the usual interpretation of the evidence. It is, really, a very rich volume.

The Ruthwell Cross, now in Ruthwell Parish Church (ironically?)

The Ruthwell Cross, now in Ruthwell Parish Church (ironically?)

It seems almost rude, therefore, to wish that there was even more in it,5 and indeed I would probably have groaned to find it as I was reading, but with it all inside my head in some way, I still want to know what John thinks about some areas he doesn’t have space to cover here. Some of these are questions hanging from his argument, and I actually hope to have his help in tackling them separately later, so I’ll not go into detail now, but they include the significance of Roman sites to the Anglo-Saxon kings—owned but unused?—the possibility of non-church religious foci like standing crosses occupying the small parish rôle, and the actual management of the ministry in a minster landscape. All of these strike me as areas where John’s book indicates that we don’t yet have good answers, and that is another value it has but I wonder if he has answers anyway for which there just wasn’t space here.

As for Guy’s book, that leaves me with fewer questions, not least I admit because I know his subject in much less detail and so am just readier to accept what look like careful well-founded answers. I do really like his recharacterisation of the ambitions and mores of those implicated in the Empire’s break-up, and I really like his use of archæological evidence as part of that. But, on the Continent I work much later and I don’t have the kind of acquaintance with the material to query someone who so obviously does. It’s only when Guy deals with England, my long-lurking secondary interest, that I have enough of a grasp to wonder if his argument doesn’t get a bit fragile this far away from Rome. I don’t just mean his challenging reinterpretation of Gildas’s chronology, which is set aside in an appendix (pp. 519-526), but, well, really just one thing: quoit brooches. These are made to bear an awful lot of weight in his interpretation of sub-romanitas in southern Britain (pp. 236-237 & 316-319). I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the book where he would allow that one type of dress item holds a fixed archæological significance (in this case, (post-)Roman military organisation) over a hundred and fifty years of change, they are here almost his only evidence for such a survival and I’m not sure I buy it. At the very least, at the end of that period the fact that this was an old type of artefact must have meant its meaning differently to what it did when they had first been current wear among soldiers in the island. Maybe I have him wrong here: I’m sure he will say if so, but to me this implies that we might better think of more disruption to identities and organisation earlier in Britain than he suggests, and I don’t see why it should damage his argument for the rest of Europe at all if Britain, as so often, refuses to fit comfortably in with it.

Second- or third-century Roman quoit brooch

Second- or third-century Roman quoit brooch

So yes: big books, high praise and tiny queries. But the queries are only tiny, and the books’ impact is much greater than them; I humbly commend these works to the readership. I already own one and am happy about this; I will have to own the other. May there be more whence these came!


1. I ought perhaps to worry about his reading this, which I know he does, and finding out that I haven’t yet properly read his magnum opus, but firstly I’m sure the fact that I cite his earlier work avidly but not this one had been noticed and in any case I’ve by now given up assuming I have any information that he hasn’t already found out. If he didn’t have two eyes I’d be looking for ravens, I tell you.

2. I’m conscious that I’ve rephrased fairly freely here and that I may be emphasising things a bit differently to Guy, but I do want to point out that the fact that I can do this belies the particularly bone-headed Amazon review of this book that maintains that it has no argument. The book’s argument is set out at the beginning, the end and most of the discussion between is directed to it so I can only presume that the reviewer didn’t spot it because they were only prepared to see the argument they already believed.

3. The debate before this can be pursued through J. Blair (ed.), Minsters and Parish Churches: the local church in transition 950-1200 (Oxford 1988); Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104; Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. 193–212; and D. M. Palliser, “The ‘Minster Hypothesis’: a Case Study”, ibid. Vol. 5 (1996), pp. 207–214.

4. Blair, Church, pp. 102-103 & fig. 14.

5. And it reminds me infallibly of the first time I ever saw Stuart Airlie presenting a paper, one in which he said while discussing the inadequacy of the treatment of his subject by some recent Sonderforschungquellenschriftarbeit-type monster, “And isn’t that always what you think when a new six-hundred-page German-language monograph bang on your subject area lands on your desk? `Oh, it’s just not big enough!'” This reassures me that I may not be confessing awful scholarly inadequacy by occasionally enjoying it when a book is short.