Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 3, 1999
Barbara C. Raw Trinity and Incarnation in Anglo-Saxon Art and Thought New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 221 pp.; 23 b/w ills. Cloth $64.95 (0521553717)

In Trinity and Incarnation in Anglo-Saxon Art and Thought, Barbara Raw continues to apply the methodology she also utilized in Anglo-Saxon Crucifixion Iconography and the Art of the Monastic Revival (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), considering pictorial imagery as an expression of ideas developed in contemporary texts. Here the homilies of Ælfric of Eynsham, along with their antecedents, particularly the exegetical writings of Augustine and Bede and the Apostolic and Athanasian Creeds, serve as a springboard for Raw’s interpretation of later Anglo-Saxon manuscript images of the persons of the Trinity, both individually and in groups. Central to her argument about the meaning and importance of these illuminations are later Anglo-Saxon conceptualizations of the visualization of the divine and of the salvific role of the contemplation of images of Christ, based in early medieval theory concerning representation of Christ as a demonstration of the reality of the Incarnation and the primacy of sight among the senses. Raw’s focus on deep iconographic readings in later Anglo-Saxon art places her work beside contributions of the past decade by Robert Deshman, Kaye Openshaw, and Richard Gameson, among others.

Raw is emeritus professor of Anglo-Saxon studies at the University of Keele, and her lifelong productivity as a scholar of texts is clearly the foundation of her reading of visual representations as reflecting contemporary and earlier written sources, of which her command is extraordinary. Art historians, on the other hand, will find Raw’s approach problematic. The first point that most historians of medieval visual culture will dispute in the her methodology in this book and elsewhere was raised by Robert Deshman in a posthumously published article (“Anglo-Saxon Art: So What’s New,” in Paul E. Szarmach and Joel T. Rosenthal, eds., The Preservation and Transmission of Anglo-Saxon Culture, Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997, 250–51). Commenting on Raw’s Anglo-Saxon Crucifixion Iconography, Deshman noted that medieval visual images are not entirely text-dependent but also respond to traditions of visual expression. Although the images of the Trinity in the later Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are certainly unusual in the context of medieval visual art, there is no shortage of earlier medieval images of Christ, and most assuredly some of these deal with the questions of Christ’s identity as eternally inherent in the Trinity and temporarily circumscribed within the Incarnation. Raw does mention earlier trinitarian imagery in the depiction of Abraham and the three men (Genesis 28: 1-8) at San Vitale and Sta. Maria Maggiore, but it is likely that trinitarian and incarnational themes are also present in other, more subtle images as well. It is likely that some of these earlier images also respond to some of the early texts adduced by Raw. However, it is not necessary to assume that each successive generation of artists went back to the texts as an exclusive source of inspiration; earlier art works may also have provided models. Raw’s premise that the visual exploration in late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts of such central themes of Christian belief as the Incarnation and the nature of the Trinity is influenced by contemporary writing is not surprising; what is astonishing is the tacit assumption that these themes had not been previously explored in depth in the visual arts, or that such a precedent would have little or no bearing on developments in later Anglo-Saxon illumination.

In the early medieval context, the relationship of texts and images is complex and diachronic, with influences extending, possibly in both directions, over long periods of time and in a variety of contexts. Yet the individual image arises from a synthesis of textual and visual traditions with the concerns and agendas of the specific community where the image is made. Consequently, when new images develop, the context in which they are generated should be defined narrowly as well as broadly. Raw works within a broad context, considering late Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination as the product of a single unified thought-world and site of artistic production. However, availability of sources, both textual and visual, as well as preferences in subject matter and style, may have varied significantly from center to center. Of the manuscript images illustrated by Raw, the majority come from either Christ Church, Canterbury or New Minster, Winchester. Certainly there are notable distinctions of style in illumination between these two venues of manuscript production within the same time period, variations that art historians have ascribed to differences in available models; should it be assumed that, in the same time period, interpretation of source texts and images at the two centers would be similar? Or do the commonalities of Raw’s images suggest stronger links between these centers than have previously been considered? In a passage of brilliant insight, Raw discusses how certain images in the Ælfwine Prayerbook (London, British Library, Cotton Titus D. xxvi, 75v, 65v, 19v) build on one another to form a meaningful sequence for contemplation; but how if at all are the other central images of her presentation mutually referential beyond the context of the individual manuscript or center of production?

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Raw’s book is the limited selection and quality of its illustrations. This may not be the author’s choice, but a decision by the publishing house reflecting general cost cutting or a desire to keep the price of the publication within limits. However, the absence of some critical images and the poor quality of others impede the reader’s appreciation of Raw’s interpretations. In many cases Raw discusses at length objects and images that are not illustrated, including the Fuller Brooch (pp. 71–73), the canon tables of the Trinity, Pembroke, and Harley Gospels (pp. 126–128), and folio 7r of the Old English Hexateuch (pp. 105–106), although 6v and 7v, the other parts of what Raw calls a triptych, are reproduced. Presumably specialists in this particular field will be able to call these images to mind or follow Raw’s references to illustrations elsewhere on their bookshelves, but should a publication have to rely on such recall or availability of support from other publications? Further, of the twenty-three black and white photographic plates included in the book, thirteen are reduced to half-page or smaller dimensions. Often the details critical to Raw’s argument are not particularly large or visually emphasized in the original image, and the combination of the lack of sufficient contrast and the reduction of scale in the reproductions often makes them illegible. In an age of diminishing resources in academic publishing it is difficult enough to find venues of publication for the kind of intensive scholarship on the history of texts and images that this book represents, and I do not intend my criticism to discourage the editors of Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England and other similar series from dealing with visual culture. However, a few additional judiciously chosen illustrations and a slightly higher level of clarity in the reproductions would have made a world of difference here.

Carol Neuman de Vegvar
Professor, Fine Arts Department, Ohio Wesleyan University