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  • Vision and Image in Early Christian England
  • John Higgitt
Vision and Image in Early Christian England. By George Henderson. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1999. Pp. xviii, 292. $90.00.)

The wealth, variety, and inventiveness to be found in the art of early medieval Britain and Ireland owe much to the interaction of cultures. In Ireland and in the Celtic-speaking areas of Britain (British, Pictish, and Scottish), distinctive regional and 'national' traditions developed in the post-Roman period drawing to some extent on older traditions of Celtic curvilinear design. Elsewhere, in the English kingdoms, Germanic-speaking settlers from the Continent ('Anglo-Saxons') were, by around 600, patronizing work in which interlacing animals were a dominant motif. The visual culture of this phase is mainly represented by high status secular metalwork, often of superlative quality, such as can be seen, in an English context, in the grave-furnishings of the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo. The gradual adoption of Christianity by the English during the course of the seventh century, partly following the papal mission led by Augustine of Canterbury from Rome and Gaul and partly from the already Christian Irish, brought Insular cultures into fruitful contact with each other and with the Continent. One of the most striking products of this interaction was the development of a shared artistic style, a visual koine, now usually known as the 'Insular' style. This style is probably best known in the decoration of the Insular gospel-books of Durrow, Lindisfarne, and Kells.

George Henderson has written widely on medieval art and, in recent years, on early Insular art. His Vision and Image is an imaginative and stimulating exploration of art produced in England during the seventh and eighth centuries within wider Insular and European contexts. His approach is thematic rather than chronological, and the thickets of controversy on dating and provenance are therefore largely, and for present purposes justifiably, ignored. There are rewarding [End Page 305] discussions of familiar objects such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Franks Casket, and the Ruthwell Cross, but the arguments also make much use of less familiar and sometimes of lost material.

The Insular style of manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow is seen as a dynamic "visual experiment" drawing on a range of secular traditions. This new style had the dual advantage of being familiar and accessible to secular patrons and viewers and also, as can be inferred from its widespread adoption, of "acceptability in many parts of the British Isles." In line with recent thinking, the Frankish contribution to seventh-century Anglo-Saxon visual culture is stressed. Henderson speculates, plausibly, that "working drawings" may have played a role in the transfer of motifs from secular metalwork to the ornamentation of Christian manuscripts. He then investigates Anglo-Saxon responses to visual sources imported following the adoption of Christianity, rightly stressing that these imports may have been in very different styles. The italianate images in the Codex Amiatinus may be more or less faithful Northumbrian facsimiles of sixth-century Italian models, although, as he makes clear, that is controversial. The more two-dimensional and linear paintings of evangelists in the Lindisfarne Gospels are usually seen as Insular stylizations, but Henderson makes a striking comparison with the simplified images of impeccably Italian pieces of opus sectile (a form of small-scale mosaic composed of shaped pieces of stone).

This speculation reflects Henderson's fascination with the visual impact of materials and, often, with "encoded symbolism relating to the precious materials employed." The most original chapter is dedicated to the color purple, which, because of its imperial connotations in the Roman Empire, was a powerful political and religious symbol for the early Middle Ages. Wilfrid's lost purple gospel-book is seen as an instance of his dangerous predilection for "the outward signs of royal power." Henderson sees Wilfrid's book as a romanizing equivalent to the very different motifs adopted from high-status 'native' metalwork into the Insular style. Henderson's own experiments in recreating the techniques for making purple from a substance extracted from the whelk enliven and inform the discussion and challenge some commonly repeated views.

Themes interweave in this book in ways...


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