Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 7, 2000
George Henderson Vision and Image in Early Christian England Cambridge University Press, 1999. $90.00 (0521551307)

Readers familiar with George Henderson’s work on Gospel Books, the color purple, or the importance of opus sectile as a source for art in other media will find all three themes woven through the various topics covered in his new volume. This is an extraordinarily rich book that attempts to set the art of early Anglo-Saxon England within its broader religious and cultural context, both within the Insular world and in relation to late antiquity and the Early Christian church.

The chapter titles promise a logical progression from subject to subject. The introduction is devoted to Early Christian art and a lengthy consideration of the role of images in the Early Christian world. The first two chapters examine the secular background to early “Insular” manuscript style, and the impact of the introduction of Christianity and “Christian art” on the same. Chapter three provides a consideration of the color purple in both late antiquity and in Anglo-Saxon England—a topic that at first glance appears to develop out of the discussion of manuscripts in the previous chapters. We then move to a study of images of angels and saints, and the book concludes with a chapter devoted to case studies of the Lindisfarne Gospels, the coffin of St. Cuthbert, and the Ruthwell cross, as well as a consideration of artistic production in “Early Christian England.” Henderson’s central thesis throughout is that the relationship between the art of early medieval England and that of Early Christian Rome is much richer and more complex than previous surveys have revealed. In this, he is no doubt correct.

Language and definition, however, are a problem in this book as the quotation marks around several of the words in the previous paragraph imply. Presumably the term “Early Christian England” was chosen to break down the “Insular” and “Anglo-Saxon” labels under which this material is usually discussed, as well as to stress the continuity between the art of Early Christian Rome and that of England in the sixth through ninth centuries. This is admirable, and Henderson does a good job of locating the origins of the art of early medieval England in the Early Christian world. Nevertheless, the terms “Insular” and “Anglo-Saxon” are retained without comment in the body of the text. For the scholarly reader this is merely annoying, but given that the preface implies that the book is intended for students, the problem is more serious.

There is, moreover, a second, and more important problem of conception: the thematic progression promised by the table of contents is, unfortunately, not delivered by the individual chapters. Henderson describes “early Anglo-Saxon art” as “like a spider’s web—broken, left lop-sided with a mere tangle of its link lines, retaining only a pittance of what it may formerly have enmeshed” (xvii). His goal is to address “the incomplete nature of the evidence not simply by making the best possible connections between the works of art that have survived, but also by attempting to envisage what else there likely was, in substantial quantities, now lost” (xvii). Unfortunately, he moves quickly from work to work, frequently leaving readers to make transitions in thought or argument for themselves. For example, chapter two ends with a lengthy consideration of the Franks Casket, a work that “stands for local native visual traditions and taste” (121), while chapter three opens with an account of luxury textiles and the various shades of purple and scarlet produced in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. There is a connection via the imperial imagery included on the Franks Casket and the object’s own status as a luxury item, although Henderson fails to make this point. Notwithstanding this objection, his separate discussions of the relationship between inscriptions, images, and function of the casket, and the production and characteristics of different forms of “purple” are surely fascinating. Furthermore, while Henderson gives extensive consideration to what may have been lost, he does not always indicate just how patchy the evidence is. What he has to say about Bishop Wilfrid’s lost Gospel Book is excellent, and firmly grounded in documentary sources and surviving manuscripts, but his speculations about lost works of opus sectile remain speculation. There is little, if any, evidence for a knowledge of this medium in Anglo-Saxon England.

Interpretation presented as fact is a consistent problem of Henderson’s text. What is his justification for claiming that the mosaic of St. Lawrence in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia would have been more diversely lit than that of the Good Shepherd in the same building? He describes the latter as lit originally by “a whole phalanx of lamps and candles” (3). Why does he identify the figure on the small silver sheet from Hexham (182) as female when most scholars identify it as male? What is his evidence for describing the Virgin of the Annunciation on the Ruthwell cross as holding a spindle? Presumably it rests on his comparison of the Ruthwell Annunciation scene with that at Hovingham, and Jane Hawkes’ identification of the object at the feet of the Hovingham Virgin as a basket of wool. (Henderson cites her “Mary and the Cycle of Resurrection: the Iconography of the Hovingham Panel,” in The Age of Migrating Ideas, ed. R. M. Spearman and John Higgitt [Edinburgh & Stroud, 1993], 254-60.) Yet James Lang has identified the same object as a vase with a lily (York and Eastern Yorkshire, vol. III Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture [Oxford: 1991], 148). Nor is there any clear reason to interpret the figures in the panels showing a monk kneeling before an angel on the crosses at Dewsbury, Otley, and Halton as the archangel Michael with either Wilfrid or St. Pachomius (155, 173). And surely the image of Christ over the beasts was so widespread that there is no reason to connect the Ruthwell cross version of the scene with the story of Cuthbert and the sea otters (206). There can be similar problems with his presentation of the documentary sources. The author of the anonymous Life of Gregory written at Whitby (a double house) in the late seventh or early eighth century could as easily have been an “Englishwoman” as an “Englishman” (147). And Bishop Wilfrid did not try to dissuade Aethelthryth from consummating her marriage to King Ecgfrith (166). According to Bede she had already made up her mind, and Wilfrid simply ignored the king’s request to talk her out of it.

Henderson’s interpretations of many of the works and compositions in question may well be right, but he consistently either glosses over, or is unfamiliar with alternative interpretations or the controversies surrounding many of the works. This is a pity as it detracts from the complexities of the works themselves and even the period as a whole. There is no mention of Richard Marsden’s work on the Codex Amiatinus, its sources, parallels, and influences in Henderson’s analysis of this same topic; and there is only one reference to Eamonn O’Carragain’s extensive work on the Ruthwell cross and its relationship to Early Christian Rome (there are, however, other references to O’Carragain’s work on related topics). The treatment of this monument is particularly troubling as Henderson gives no indication of the debates surrounding it or its individual scenes. The scene he, following David Howlett, identifies as Martha and Mary (170) has also been identified as the Visitation (e.g. O’Carragain, The City of Rome and the World of Bede, Jarrow Lecture, 1994), and more recently as a combination of the Visitation and Martha and Mary (Carol Farr, “Worthy Women on the Ruthwell Cross: Woman as Sign in Early Anglo-Saxon Monasticism,” in The Insular Tradition, ed. C. Karkov, M. Ryan and R. Farrell [Albany: 1997], 45-61.) Moreover, as early as the 1995 Leeds Congress, Fred Orton, Joyce Hill, and Ian Wood had pointed out that the upper stone at Ruthwell was likely a later addition to the monument, and that there is good reason to question whether Ruthwell was originally a cross (as opposed to an obelisk or “pyramid”) at all. (Published by Fred Orton in “Rethinking the Ruthwell Monument: Fragments and Critique; Tradition and History; Tongues and Sockets,” Art History 21, 1998, 65-106.)

Finally, and ultimately most detrimental to its use by students, the book is inadequately illustrated, and the works and topics discussed are inadequately cross-referenced. We read on page 22 that the contortions of the sandmen excavated at Mound 5, Sutton Hoo, are paralleled by the poses of figures on the Franks Casket, but there is no illustration of the sandmen, nor are we directed to Henderson’s more detailed discussion and illustrations of the Franks Casket in chapter 2.

There is a wealth of information in this book and Henderson’s analyses can be both good and thought-provoking—as is his treatment of the Franks Casket—but the problems overwhelm the text. Most distressing is that a student, the book’s intended reader, would have a very hard time discerning accepted opinion from speculation and historical fact from scholarly fiction.