Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 7, 2018
Benjamin Anderson Cosmos and Community in Early Medieval Art New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 216 pp.; 67 color ills.; 10 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300219166)

In Cosmos and Community in Early Medieval Art, Benjamin Anderson studies three cultures—Frankish, Umayyad, and Byzantine—to examine how each used cosmological imagery to express social and political relationships between the ruler and the people. That zodiac imagery has remained stable from antiquity to the present allows for this type of study. For those unfamiliar with the history of zodiac and cosmos studies, Anderson provides a logical and helpful introduction, deftly framing the two approaches to the study of cosmos iconography in art and architecture: the Warburgian school, which focused primarily on the survival and revival of cosmic images, and the school represented by Herzfeld, Lehmann, and L’Orange, which concentrated chiefly on architectural settings that showcased the king as the cosmic ruler of the universe.

Arranged thematically, the book comprises four discreet chapters with a lengthy introduction and conclusion. In the first two chapters, Anderson juxtaposes specific objects, architecture, and literary sources from the disparate cultures to tease out the nuances of how images of the sun, moon, constellations, and zodiac signs were adapted to the needs of the Byzantine, Islamic, and Frankish rulers. For example, in chapter 1, “Tyranny and Splendor,” Anderson employs the legend of the Throne of Khosrow, known only from literary descriptions, as a cautionary tale of how a ruler can be corrupted when tyranny is unchecked. The story of Khosrow II, the ambitious Sassanian king of Persia (r. 590–628) who was defeated in a war with the Byzantines and ultimately deposed in a palace revolution and executed, was known to both Frankish and Ummyad rulers. The Throne of Khosrow—which in one remarkable description was circled by heavenly bodies—exemplified his universal ambitions and thus became a potent symbol of kingly pride that comes before the fall. Against this backdrop, Anderson discusses the Carolingian Cathedra Petri (ninth century) and the Umayyad Great Mosque in Damascus (early eighth century). In both, the ruler is praised as occupying the center of the world; however, the authority of the ruler was tempered by relations with others and restraints placed on him by the larger community. No longer the ultimate ruler of the heavens and the earth, he governed a cosmos peopled by his ecclesiastical peers in the Frankish case and a unified community led by a divinely guided caliph in the Umayyad case.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the production of cosmic imagery in the Frankish and Byzantine states. In the Frankish kingdom between 800 and 820, a remarkable number of manuscripts with cosmographical imagery were created in monastic, ecclesiastical, aristocratic, and courtly settings. Anderson makes a convincing case that the manuscripts—of disparate artistic quality—were a means for the local to share in the universal. Here, I wanted to raise a quibble: Despite the large number of cosmological manuscripts with computational tables produced during these two decades, Anderson never considers the part Easter and the liturgy may have played in their creation and use. The need to determine the exact date of Easter was an imperative even in the most backwater parish, as well as a means of uniting a Christian empire. Indeed, discussion of the religious context of the cosmological imagery is essentially missing from Anderson’s book. On the other hand, such discussion probably would divert from his central thesis.

The relatively few manuscripts with cosmographical imagery created in the East seem limited to imperial and elite circles, where there was an emphasis on the emperor’s special knowledge of the universe and its workings. In chapter 4, Anderson focuses on the Vatican Ptolemy (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vaticanus graecus 1291) as a tool for calculating and predicting future events. This tool would have been held in the hands of the emperor, who would be viewed as an “expert” in understanding the celestial mechanics of the universe. Rather than creating community and strengthening the bonds between ruler and ruled, cosmographical imagery was used by the Byzantine court to reinforce the “superpowers” of the emperor.

Anderson’s central thesis is that even though Frankish, Byzantine, and Islamic states produced cosmic imagery that is remarkably similar, the ways each state used the cosmic imagery suited its distinct political, geographical, and chronological moment. In other words, rather than viewing these three cultures as mere conduits and preservers (often deemed poor ones) of ancient imagery until it was rescued and corrected by the Renaissance, Anderson studies and appreciates them in their historical specificity. He concludes that the Frankish and Islamic states embraced the cosmos as a unifying force in creating community, while the Byzantine tradition affirmed the singular knowledge of the cosmos held by the emperor and a narrow circle of elites.

Yale University Press has produced a beautiful book with numerous high-quality color images, many of which reproduce relatively obscure works of art known to only the specialist. Particularly notable is the attention given to details that aid the reader; for example, the Cloth of the Ewaldi (before 1000) is reproduced as a whole along with two full-page color images of its pendants, one showing Sol and Luna and the other displaying Annus (the personification of the year) and the signs of the zodiac. Anderson should be commended for his ambitious and refreshing approach to an important topic that has received only specialized and Christian-focused attention. He has demonstrated the potential to discuss Frankish and Byzantine material culture within the broader context of their geopolitical neighbors. The book is also a welcome addition for those, like this reviewer, who are interested in the role of the zodiac in medieval culture beyond the typical understanding of it as a pendant to the labors of the month. Well organized and clear in its thesis, Anderson’s book is a strong contribution to both specialized and lay audiences interested in how early medieval people may have understood and interpreted their world as they stared up into the midnight sky.

Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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