REPRESENTATIONS OF CHRIST IN ANGLO-SAXON ART

Eileen Harney

Copyright 2000

The most common portrayals of Christ in Anglo-Saxon art were those of the Crucifixion, the Lord enthroned, and the Virgin and Child. These images were found in manuscripts as well as in materials such as ivory, stone, wood and metal. Manuscripts often had the same scene depicted several times throughout with each illustration distinctly different from the rest. The repeated illustrations of Christ in Majesty, for instance, or the Virgin and Child, informed artists of the widely accepted impression of how the individual portrayals were to be accurately presented. (Gameson, pp. 128-9)

Another effect of the frequency of subject matter was that once a certain scene had been customized, any change in the accepted form was striking. Therefore, if an artist desired to make a specific impact through his work, he did so by slightly altering the portrayal norm. For instance, the impression left by the suffering Christ on the Cross attended by His mother roused quite a different reaction than that of Christ as the triumphant conqueror who climbed willingly onto the Rood. (Gameson, p. 132)

These varied representations not only allowed the artist to customize each depiction, thereby giving rise to a particular idea, but also to explore the depths of a certain occurrence through various supplemental aspects. The Boulogne 11 Gospels, for example, showed Christ enthroned in four different forms, each of which pertained to a specific event in the text. In the four instances Christ was exhibited: first adorned with a halo among the evangelists; secondly, also with a halo but surrounded by the sun, moon, and stars; thirdly holding a book, supported by angels, and accompanied by Isaiah and Mark; and fourthly amidst stars and flanked by angels. Each of these four depictions of the same subject matter differed in the "(highlighting of) distinct aspects of the Lordís nature. Consequently, as a series they more fully expound(ed) the character of the Divinity and direct relationship between Him and the gospel texts." (Gameson, p. 133)

This repetition of the portrayal of God also strengthened peopleís faith by presenting Christian followers with various depictions of the Trinity, each stressing a different aspect of the triune Deity. These varied portrayals were found, as stated above, not only in manuscripts, but also in medians that were used in the construction of altars and church walls. The ever-present and frequent depictions of Christ served as a reminder in the minds of the faithful as to the omnipresence and omnipotence of God. "God really was everywhere: repetition of His image fostered continual reaffirmation of faith." (Gameson, p. 134)

Some of the most striking variations on a single theme occurring in Anglo-Saxon art were that on the Crucifixion. The early Church concentrated much more on Christís Resurrection and mankindís salvation than on His death. The eleventh century saw a shift in focus concerning the basis of manís redemption. The Church turned to the portrayal of the suffering, sacrificial Christ and to devotions to the Crucifix, distancing itself from the illustrations of Christ in Majesty. The alteration arose from an effort to end the idea that "good" kings possessed a vicarious divinity through Christ. In answer to the problem, reformers asserted that one must "earn salvation that God alone provides. An essential component of this earning was the contemplation of Christ and His sufferings." (Campbell, p. 206) The first instance of the dead Christ appeared in the late tenth century. (Campbell, pp. 206-7)

Once the Crucifixion became favored, the depictions fell into four categories: 1) Christís death as passover from death to life, 2) emphasis on Christís two natures, that of Almighty God and the suffering son of Mary, 3) His death as reversing the effects of the Fall, and 4) His death as linked to the sacraments of the Church, for instance the blood and water from His pierced side were traditionally considered symbols of the Eucharist and baptism. (Raw, pp. 119, 162)

Possibly the most striking variation in Crucifixion portrayals was the demeanor of Christ on the Cross. Both the suffering Christ on the Cross and the Christ warrior-victor over death were evident. In the context of the latter, even the Cross itself is praised as the banner for the Savior. The depiction of the Cross was especially explored in the poem The Dream of the Rood. (Raw, p. 167) The Rood speaks to the narrator of the piece in lines 83-9: "On me the Son of God suffered for a time; for that cause I now tower up secure in majesty beneath the heavens and I am enabled to heal everyone who holds me in awe. Once I was made the cruelest of tortures, utterly loathsome to people-until I cleared for them, for mortals, the true path of life." (Bradley, p. 162) Similarly artistic depictions of Christ in this manner showed him erect on the Cross, very much alive, and looking ahead with his eyes wide open. (Raw, p. 109) Once again the intense contrast between the two methods of illustrating the Crucifixion aided in inspiring Christians to a deeper understanding of Christís simultaneous sacrifice and victory as well as in arousing faith in their Redeemer.

FOR FURTHER READING

Bradley, S.A.J. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. (Everyman, 1995)

Campbell, James. The Anglo-Saxons. (Oxford, 1982)

Gameson, Richard. The Role of Art in the Late Anglo-Saxon Church. (Oxford, 1995)

Raw, Barbara C. Anglo-Saxon Crucifixion Iconography and the Art of the Monastic Revival. (Cambridge, 1990)