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Reviewed by:
  • Anglo-Saxon Art by Leslie Webster
  • Sarah Kathryn Moore
Leslie Webster, Anglo-Saxon Art (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 2012) 256 pp., 140 ill.

Lavishly illustrated and meticulously researched, this comprehensive overview of Anglo-Saxon art sets a new standard in the field. Although it assumes no knowledge of its subject on the part of its reader, it will no doubt be useful for both scholarly and popular audiences. Tonally, the book is friendly to the neophyte, but it is nonetheless rigorously researched, thoroughly detailed, and up-to-date on recent developments in the field, making it ideal for the upper-level undergraduate classroom. It is also a gem for scholars of the earliest English literature, as Webster consistently highlights the commonalities between Anglo-Saxon art and literature (for example, a love of riddles and a highly inventive while in some senses relentlessly formulaic vocabulary) and emphasizes visual literacy alongside and as a counterpoint to the much rarer ability to read and write. The author demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of Old English literature, citing, among other texts, Beowulf, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and Life of St. Cuthbert, as well as various shorter poems including “The Dream of the Rood” and “The Ruin.” The monograph will no doubt prove useful as well to scholars and teachers of the early history of Britain, and will [End Page 358] serve as a useful overview and reference for scholars already familiar with Anglo-Saxon art. The purpose of the book, in the author’s words, is “to give an accessible overview that covers the entire Anglo-Saxon period, placing it within a broader cultural and historical context, and incorporating the new discoveries and new thinking of recent years.” Covering a vast temporal swathe (ca. 400–1100 CE), the study proceeds roughly chronologically although certain themes are carefully tracked throughout (for example, the differences between figural, animal-form, and decorative art traditions; the dialogue between Christian and pre-Christian themes and forms; and the influence of Celtic, Eastern, Latin, and Viking art upon native Anglo-Saxon forms). The book stays well abreast of recent developments in the field; it takes into account not only the 2009 discovery of the Staffordshire hoard but also recent excavations at Lichfield and Deerhurst, Gloucestershire. A wide range of art forms and media are addressed, including metalwork, sculpture, clothing and jewelry, reliquaries, paintings, friezes, carvings, illuminations, illustrations, coins, weaponry, and many other aspects of material culture.

After an introduction that briefly contextualizes the field and describes the author’s approach, chapter 1 addresses the ways in which Anglo-Saxons “read” images and interacted with visual and material art and culture in their day-today lives. This chapter is particularly rich in connections between art and literature, and introduces the monograph’s major thematic currents. Chapters 2 and 3 (variations on “Rome Reinvented”) examine the Roman influence on British art, first in its initial stages of conquest (emphasizing political and secular culture) and then in bringing Christianity to the British Isles. Sufficient historical background is sketched out for reader new to this period to follow the historical narrative, but the focus remains firmly on artistic, rather than political or religious, developments. Extensive exploration of Style I vs. Style II animal art is here particularly illuminating. Manuscript culture and terminology is introduced as well, although readers looking for any sort of comprehensive exploration of codicology would be advised to look elsewhere. Chapter 4 traces the Celtic and Eastern influences upon Anglo-Saxon art, focusing on the sixth through ninth centuries, while chapter 5 (“Art and Power”) explore how art objects functioned to create, express, and maintain power in both the secular and the ecclesiastical sphere. Chapter 6 picks up the chronological approach once more in addressing the eighth through eleventh centuries, and chapter 7 closes with the Viking and finally Norman conquests. An afterward addresses the “afterlife” of Anglo-Saxon art and visual culture, from Matthew Parker and Sir Robert Cotton in the early modern period to Punch and Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” in the Victorian Era.

The monograph is rounded out by a reasonably comprehensive index as well as more than two hundred full-color illustrations. It also includes...


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pp. 358-360
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