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  • Seeing Faith, Printing Pictures: Religious Identity during the English Reformation by David J. Davis
  • Ian Green
Seeing Faith, Printing Pictures: Religious Identity during the English Reformation. By David J. Davis. [Library of the Written Word, Vol. 25; The Handpress Word, Vol. 19.] (Boston: Brill. 2013. Pp. xvi, 243 pages. $146.00. ISBN 978-90-04-236010-1.)

This study of religious images printed as woodcuts and engravings in English publications from 1535 to 1603 is based on the author’s doctoral research under the supervision of Alexandra Walsham at the University of Exeter. Setting the scene in the first two chapters, David Davis reviews the rapidly expanding literature on the print trade in sixteenth-century England and on contemporary attitudes toward the use of images. This literature has already done much to discredit older assumptions of a sharp divide between Catholic and Protestant positions, and to tease out the relationships between images and text in various contexts, but the author feels these ideas can be taken further. In the remaining chapters he analyzes the meaning and deployment of a wide range of images and symbols—the Virgin, the Holy Monogram, the Crucifixion, the Agnus Dei, the Good Shepherd, visions of God, and the tetragrammaton—and concludes that developments in England should not be “graphed along strict confessional or ideological lines” (p. 7), but seen as producing “religious identities” (p. 9) that, although remaining aware of the differences between Catholic and Protestant, were able to embrace the common ground between them as well. The monograph is well written and throws numerous shafts of light on specific cases and on wider issues such as the debate on “iconophobia.” It is also moderately well illustrated, given the indifferent quality of many surviving images. With caveats, it can be recommended to scholars and students interested in this subject.

Although the author is adept at identifying occasions when highly educated and theologically sophisticated Protestant clergy gave limited and conditional approval for the use of selected images inside the church or outside, there remains a dearth of solid evidence to show how far these views were known to or shared by the authors or editors, or more usually the printers and publishers, who opted to insert a particular woodcut or engraving in a particular place in a particular work. Time and again, the gap between theory and practice is filled by a presumption that [End Page 148] the placement was deliberate and enlightened—an act of informed recontextualization, to strengthen the sense of Protestant identity—even if that same image had been borrowed from a Catholic source, or was subsequently recycled several times within the same volume or in other works in a variety of genres. Indeed, the more images were used in early-modern publications, the more they became generic or decorative rather than helping to support or explain a particular text, so that contemporary readers received mixed signals from the printer’s habit of recycling images. Furthermore, we know little of English readers’ reactions to the texts, let alone the accompanying images, of the works they encountered. Many of the works in which Davis’s images appeared were not at the cheap end of the spectrum, indicating an educated but limited market. However, when these images appeared in a best-selling title, they could be hard to interpret. Did those who bought—or were lent—one of the many copies of Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins’s metrical psalms that had on its title-page a copy of Hans Holbein’s image of Christ triumphing over evil and death use it as a point of reference for meditation or recognize it as a symbol of the divine? Or, if they noticed it at all, did they wonder what an image of Christ surrounded by four scripture texts with Latin incipits was doing on a work that did not mention him by name in the psalms they were singing?

Ian Green
University of Edinburgh


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pp. 148-149
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