Any visitor to a museum or art gallery will in due course come to realize the extent to which medieval Christianity in its varying forms fostered the growth of visual art. The books reviewed here are a testimony to some of its manifestations. Françoise Henry presents new reproductions of large parts of the great Gospel Book of Kells, now preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. Icons of Byzantium and Eastern Europe, scattered in museums throughout the world, are catalogued and ingeniously dated by David and Tamara Talbot Rice. The catalogue of the exhibition of 1974, “Venice and Byzantium,” reminds us that in San Marco in Venice we have a living museum of the art of Constantinople at its peak. Sirarpie Der Nersessian has commented on eleven of the luxuriant manuscripts of the Armenian communities scattered throughout the Near East, now preserved in the Walters Art Gallery. The humble craftsmanship of the tombs of Ireland from 1200 to 1600 catalogued by John Hunt provides us with an index to the difference between great art and the day-to-day demands of craftsmanship in a provincial culture. Furthermore, we have guides to the very different societies that produced such art: the masterly survey of Professor Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), can be fruitfully contrasted with the northern world evoked in the enthusiastic narrative of Professor John T. McNeill; The Celtic Churches: A History, AD 200 to 1200.
With books such as these we learn to enter a world where the patronage and execution of works of art could not be taken for granted. The brittle magnificence of the monasteries of the Celtic world, as fragile and isolated as the courts of their neighbors and patrons, the Celtic chieftains, collapsed at a touch with the Viking invasions of the ninth century. The history of many of the icons dated by David and Tamara Talbot Rice is the history of feudal families living at risk in the ravaged Balkans. The tranquil masterpieces of Russian art were produced in towns overshadowed by the Tartar horsemen: “I painted these four pictures of the temple and those of the Evangelists which you saw when I, in fear of Yedigei, fled to Tver and found refuge with you in my grief, and showed you all the books which were left to me after my flight and ruin.” Even in the few periods of peace, in early medieval Ireland and Byzantium, leisure and wealth were a volatile surplus, hurriedly placed beyond the envy of time in the form of those great works of religious art that we now admire in the solid comfort of galleries.
There is a yet greater gulf which we must leap. A majority of the works of art discussed here have a theme in common. They were considered, in their varying ways, as points where men and the supernatural could meet. Each of them asked to be judged by the degree of success they achieved in helping the mind to that high peak from which another world—a world palpable, ever present, and hidden only by the passing mist of the human body—might be viewed. A revolution in Western religious sentiment stands between ourselves and this early medieval zenith of Christian art.
We in this present period expect religious art to instruct us, to stir up appropriate feelings in us, to clutter our childhood imaginations with tasteful vignettes of Near Eastern life inserted as illustrations to our Bibles and Sunday School textbooks. We do not expect a work of art to be a direct bridge to the holy. Yet an icon, for instance, is just this: it is a clean patch in the misted pane of glass that stands between us and the invisible presences that press in around us from the other world. The Russian acquaintance of a friend, when presented with a bad copy of the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, dismissed it instinctively: “No,” said he, “it is not transparent enough.” It is this translucence of the good icon that made it, as it were, a window opening on to the other world. Art and closeness to the supernatural converge: “The icons which came to be most revered and admired in Russia, and credited with miraculous powers, are also among the finest from the aesthetic point of view” (Talbot Rice, page 90).
To understand why this should be so we may turn first to Professor Pelikan’s Spirit of Eastern Christendom. It is a pleasure to salute this masterpiece of exposition. The foundation of this model book is to be found in its margins, where reference follows reference down the side of the page, indicating an astonishingly deep absorption of the primary evidence. Through these, Professor Pelikan enables us to hear the Eastern Christians speaking in their own language about the concerns that were built into the heart of their theology.
“We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Byzantines are notorious for their rhetoric. The impression given by most surveys is of a contentious world, where the streets of great classical cities were filled by clashing bands of circus factions and slogan-chanting monks. Professor Pelikan has abandoned this facile image. He has rediscovered for us the sustained poetry of the Eastern Christian argument with itself. Precisely for being so resolutely abstract, this is as true a picture of the realities of Eastern Christian society as is the more fashionable interest in the garish aspects of Byzantine factionalism. We are dealing with a society whose leaders had inherited from the classical world a yearning for retirement—where the cultivated intellectual would chirrup like a cicada in the long summer sunlight of scholarly leisure—and had reinforced this tendency by seeking the solemn shelter of great monasteries, in which many of the masterpieces of Eastern Christian theology came to be written.
Beneath the overt issues of each of the many controversies that raged in the Eastern Christian world is the logical development by which each problem unfolded out of the other. This is what Professor Pelikan calls the “hidden agenda” of Eastern Christian thought, and he shows rare intellectual flair in uncovering it. The book flows like a great river, slipping easily past landscapes of the utmost diversity—the great Christological controversies of the seventh century, the debate on icons in the eighth and ninth, attitudes to Jews, to Muslims, to the dualistic heresies of the high Middle Ages, to the post-Reformation churches of Western Europe. Not the least value of Professor Pelikan’s treatment is his refusal to adopt a false phil-Hellenism. His book succeeds in being a study of the Eastern Christian tradition as a whole.
His evocation of the development of the Nestorian tradition—of a Christianity, that is, that developed outside the frontiers of Byzantium, in Persian and, later, Islamic, territory, and that expressed itself in Syriac not in Greek—is exceptionally illuminating. A book that can realize the stature of Babai the Great and Abdisha of Nisibis alongside the well-known figures of Maximus the Confessor and Saint John Damascene can only help us to appreciate more fully the richness of a great Christian tradition. For in the Nestorians we have a truly Eurasian Christianity. In great fortress-like monasteries in the hills of northern Mesopotamia Nestorian thinkers grappled with the problems shared by Christian intellectuals in Constantinople and Antioch; while in the wake of soldiers and traders Nestorian monks and clergymen carried their ideas to the oases of Central Asia, to Malaya and Peking. In 635 AD the emperor of China was presented with a statement of their faith which, beneath its alien language, was a faithful echo of the basic concerns of Eastern Christian thought.
Within his exposition of the evolution of Eastern Christian teaching in all its multiplicity, Professor Pelikan offers us the austere road to an understanding of the need for icons in the Eastern Church. As he frequently makes plain, the basic concern of Eastern theology was the manner in which the divine world is revealed to humans, frail as they are. Thus the constantly recurring apprehension that “things divine are real” was for ever in the grip of the question which asked: if they are real, how are men, alienated by the Fall and their own sins, to recapture a reality that is so close and yet so far? The icon offered one such bridge to the other world. In front of an icon, the Eastern Christian felt his ever-labile mind come to rest; its grave face, “expressive of the silence of God,” was a “nest” to which the fluttering soul, its wings tired with the ill-directed flights of imagination, could return.
For over a century, in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, the fate of the icons hung in a balance. Their role in the church was challenged by the iconoclastic movement in the Byzantine empire. This movement did not object to art as such. Professor Pelikan’s and other studies have made plain that the iconoclasts were concerned to replace icons by what they considered to be yet more effective vehicles of the holy—by the blessed Eucharist and the compact symbol of the cross. They shared the Eastern Christian obsession with bridging the gulf between the human and the divine; only the vehicles they chose were different. Thus in the victory of icons what was won was not art itself; it was the role of the visual element in man’s perception of the divine.
Icons gave precision and location to the immensity of the invisible world, much as a shadow, hitherto blurred, takes on clear, hard lines as the sun emerges from behind a cloud. The icon took the believer to the threshold of the visionary experience which always has remained the warm heart of Eastern Christendom. For what the prophet or the holy man had seen with his own eyes, the average man could rightly imagine in the icon, its tones as clear, as sharp in outline, and as shadowless as a dream. An icon showing an event in the Gospel did not attempt to instruct the believer, or merely to mobilize his feelings: it strove “to transfer the event from the terrestrial world in which it had occurred to the celestial, to which the persons concerned had been transported” (Talbot Rice, p. 93).
The icon, therefore, was a patch of clear visibility. This, of course, was vision, or perception, going in two ways. The “red corner” in a Russian house where the icons were hung was also the corner from which God and His saints watched their human protégés. The icon scanned with silent gaze the crises of domestic life. In Greece, so we are told, the discreet adulterer would cover the face of the icon—for if you gazed at it, it gazed at you. Throughout the Eastern Christian world, icon and vision validated each other. Some deep gathering into one focal point of the collective imagination—a subject that remains to be studied—ensured that, by the sixth century, the supernatural had taken on the precise lineaments, in dreams and in each person’s imagination, in which it was commonly portrayed in art. The icon had the validity of a realized dream. Often it served as an Identikit: the dreamer, on waking, would find out by referring to his icon which invisible protector had appeared to him in the night.
What we have in Byzantium and Russia is a religious art which cannot be prized loose from the other means by which a society strove to obtain intimacy with the divine. Together with the Scriptures and the liturgy, religious art was an indispensable component of the “melody of theology.” Professor Pelikan demonstrates this conclusively in his third chapter, and the Talbot Rices assume it in contrast to Western art: “While the orthodox paintings were invariably closely linked to the cult, the Western paintings were not created exclusively to serve as vehicles of worship.” What is more difficult to seize are the full implications of such a view for the art historian and the historian of religious sentiment. Hence the value of comparing a world where the exceptionally strict integration of art and worship is assumed with societies where it is either subjected to strain—as in early modern Russian icon painting—or is lapped by alien civilizations—as in Armenia—or is arrived at from a totally different starting point, in a world dominated by totally different assumptions—as in Celtic Ireland.
To go to Venice and to come, in San Marco, upon a candle-lit plaque of eleventh-century marble, white and waxen as a lily, is to meet Byzantine art at its peak: there is nothing in that still figure that is left unmobilized in the attempt to catch a vision in stone. It is the Virgin, “as she has often been seen of old in many visions.”
The catalogue of last summer’s exhibition “Venice and Byzantium” and the opening chapters of the Talbot Rice’s book bring home the tragedy of this great art. The culture of Byzantium was burned out at its heart. What survives comes less from Constantinople than from the ragged fringes of the empire—from the Balkans, from Italy, from the Crusader kingdoms. Even to talk of “Byzantine influence” is misleading. The exhibition has enabled us to appreciate the continued prestige of Byzantine craftsmanship throughout the Mediterranean up to the thirteenth century; but such “Byzantinizing” artifacts are mere disjointed fragments compared with what a true Byzantine wanted from the beaten gold and gold enameling of the faces of angels and saints—the vision of another world.
It is to Russia that we should turn to find the search for the vision of another world continued into modern times. The “hidden agenda” of Professor Pelikan continued to mold the art of the icon at a particularly stormy period of Russian piety. With this aspect of the Russian icon, the Talbot. Rices have not done as well for us as they might have done. Their notes show a heavy dependence on the great Russian catalogue of Antonova and Mneva of 1963. The water flows fast under that particular bridge; they could have said more, both in detail and in general.
The “sleuthing” of icons, in order to date them, in the light of recent Russian research, can now take place against a fascinating background of subtle and decisive shifts of emphasis in the theological tradition in early modern Russia. The icons of fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Russia are reminders that the Eastern tradition, though stable, was never static. We find the painters of Russia struggling to catch in their art an invisible world whose dramatis personae and structure change, beneath the pressure of religious sentiment. At the end, with the arrival of Western baroque art in the seventeenth century, the ancient, sure guides to vision were swept aside, and in the protests of the conservatives we can sense the pain of a dreamer to whom a beloved face has appeared horribly transfigured in a nightmare:
…the number of painters using an unseemly manner of icon-painting has increased in our land. They paint the image of the Saviour Emmanuel with bloated face, red lips, swollen fingers and large fat legs and thighs….
With the fine plates of the Armenian manuscripts and meticulous commentary of Sirarpie Der Nersessian, we enter a corner of Eastern Christendom very different from the solemn, self-absorbed refinements of Russian icon-painting. Here are the manuscripts of Armenian communities notorious for their combination of tenacity and adaptability. We follow them to the end of the seventeenth century. A breath of the Muslim Near East blows through them: the manuscript of 1455, produced at Khizan, to the southwest of Lake Van, shows the figures of Christian story moving with gusto against a background of bright patterns and twining flowers that reminds us of Muslim tiles and metalwork. The Marriage Feast at Cana has become a very Near Eastern occasion: the men squat with their long-stemmed wine jars and shallow drinking cups in a garden without women. Later, as Armenian colonies spanned the trade routes from Venice to Isfahan, fragments of Western baroque art—the same that so disconcerted the Russians—are happily integrated wherever the firm cycle of Byzantine themes had left a gap to be filled.
A Byzantine reviewer might not have liked these manuscripts: “The restraint of an ever-present law,” writes O.M. Dalton, “may impoverish imagination, but it forbids rhetoric…. The mean and trivial accidents of life do not intrude into the sphere of these high abstractions” (Byzantine Art and Archaeology, Oxford, 1911, p. 35). The Armenian manuscripts, where Christ, for instance, in the Harrowing of Hell is shown “clad in a tight-fitting bodice, wide trousers and shod with high, nail-studded boots,” are impenitent offenders against this rule, so lovingly and finely observed in the far-distant plains of Russia. The distinctive quality of Armenian art is a reminder of the sweep of the Eastern Christian tradition. For the exuberance of Armenia, its unparallelled scattering of energies and interest, nevertheless took place from a firm base.
A second look at the manuscripts that first strike us by their departure from Byzantine reticence shows how the drawn-out “melody of theology” still predominates and gives each manuscript a tone of Mediterranean tranquility. For the Evangelists remain Byzantines. Heirs, like Professor Pelikan’s theologians scattered in monasteries between Constantinople and the edges of Iran, of the late classical ideal of the writer inspired by the Muses, they sit in their classical robes, in front of classical writing desks—desks strangely misconceived, at times, by Near Eastern artists more used to writing across their knees, so that the dolphin of the desk support comes to live a gay life of its own; yet recognizable. The inspiration of God falls on them as they write. They are the models for centuries of Eastern Christian theologians, who, so they insisted, wrote in the same way under the same inspiration, and, with clear eyes, gazed into the same Heaven.
Compared with these quiet, classical figures, the men we meet in the Celtic world of the Book of Kells are unrecognizable. The moment of inspiration is past for them; they grip closed books, their eyes see no vision, they are stamped on the holy pages like intricate talismans. The book itself, not the writer and his vision, is the palpable reminder of the other world.
To turn from Armenian manuscripts to the Book of Kells is to appreciate, from a distant viewpoint, just how close-knit and polished by age was the synthesis of art and religion which was achieved in the eastern Mediterranean, and which extended for a millennium from Persia to the Baltic, when compared with the unruly world of the Celtic illuminator. To enter this world Professor McNeill’s survey is somewhat less helpful than that provided by Professor Pelikan for Eastern Christendom. Professor McNeil has, understandably, succumbed to the charm of the Celts. “The people who have been our companions through these pages constitute a rare and choice company.” Indeed they do. There is “Saint Piro, Samson’s predecessor at Ynys Byr, who is said to have met his death by falling into a well while inebriated”; Saint Brigid, who, when her coach overturned when attempting to cross the low wall of a boreen, remarked, “Short cuts make broken bones”; Saint Columba, who when “According to the verses of Dallán Forgaill, 1,200 bards entered the meeting and lauded in song the embarrassed saint,…covered his face with his cowl.”
However, Professor McNeill’s scholarly vigilance has not been lulled by this cavalcade. The relevant critical erudition on the Celtic Churches is carefully mobilized in his pages and notes. He knows the extent to which the image of the Celtic Church is a creation of its decline. The legends of the twelfth century attempt to gather the shreds of the past together in cosy tales that tell us little about the early medieval Celtic Church but much about their audience—the men who carved and patronized the little squat figures on the Irish tombs catalogued by John Hunt, provincial variants of the high art of the Gothic period in which hardly a trace survives of the electrifying subtleties of Irish art in earlier centuries.
Yet Professor McNeill has succumbed to the temptation both to write a narrative history from such intractable material, and, what is more, to write it in a tone of buoyant optimism. Continuous narrative is dangerous enough in the state of our knowledge of the lacunae of the evidence for the early centuries of Celtic Christianity: but optimism is doubly so. For the lacunae in the evidence seem to hint at vast geological faults that intermittently opened in the path of the Christian mission to this strange, northern world. A history of the Celtic Church has to do full justice to its discontinuities—to recessions, to new starts, to startling transmutations forced upon the Christian church in an alien environment. Such a history would enable us to seize the creativity of that Third World of early medieval Christendom, a world incredibly remote from the ancient Mediterranean of Rome and Byzantium.
To contrast the Book of Kells with the world of the icon is to realize how little of northern life and experience could be mobilized to form the kind of discreetly articulated vehicle of worship that Mediterranean men could take for granted. What we have in a Celtic Gospel book is the impact of a few powerful symbols of the holy on a society unprepared for their appearance, whose artistic traditions and ways of seeing the world remained recalcitrant of incorporation in a “melody of theology.”
The Christian missionaries brought books, not faces. As the Celtic legend of Saint Patrick says—faced by his first convert “He baptized him…and handed him the A.B.C.” When tribesmen murdered a missionary on the North Sea coast and looted his encampments: “Rushing together around this treasure trove with whoops of joy, they smashed the chests, only to find books, not gold, parchment leaves covered with divine knowledge, not silver.” It was in the pages of the Gospels that a Northern Christian hoped to find his God. The contemplative did not gaze eye to eye into the face of an icon; he crouched in rapt attention over an open page:
over the holy white scriptures.
For the Northern Christian lived in a half-pagan world where his visions still escaped the unconscious molding force of centuries of the Christianization of the imagination. Vision and icon did not coincide, as they did in the calm, classical faces that ringed the imagination of Mediterranean men. If he dreamed of supernatural presences, these were as likely to take the form of those totemlike animals that summed up, far more effectively than could any human face, the realities of northern life—the raven, the dragon, the ravening wolf whose sparse shape, scratched on the rocks of southern Scotland, twisted the conventional Christian lion of Saint Mark into a new and strangely powerful shape in the Lindisfarne Gospel Book of the seventh century.
A world of hunters drew the boundary between the human and the animal differently from a world of townsmen in Byzantium. A world of poets and exquisite jewelers knew how formal qualities of ornament could create a vision of their own, linking the strange half-human forms of the new figures of the Christian faith to the sure-footed procession of holy words across those white pages among which, as in the lines of an Irish poet, the deer, the salmon, the great hunting dog run and leap. The craftsmanship itself—a craftsmanship that still carried an aura of quasi-magical powers—and not any vision mediated in paint made the Celtic Gospel Book a holy thing in an unholy world. The book of Durrow, we learn from Professor McNeill, “did duty as a magic cure for cattle” until it found its way into Trinity College, Dublin, where it now lies, in tasteful impotence, beneath glass.
With this in mind we can turn over the pages of the superb reproduction of the Book of Kells and savor to the full the wisdom of Françoise Henry’s remarkable commentary, which drives home the essence of this great book and so helps us to grasp what distinguished the Celtic tradition of religious art from its Mediterranean counterpart. We have an art where not every detail is caught in the fine meshes of a long-prepared iconographic tradition. There is room for the greatest diversity, even for lack of orientation, and so for the elaboration of totally unexpected versions of ancient themes. Saint Mark and his lion intertwine on plate 51, “irreverent perhaps to our stilted minds, though it must have looked simpler and commonplace to the freer imagination of the painter.” The unknowable Trinity plays hide and seek with us from behind a letter, on plate 12.
There are “weight free” areas, totally unconcerned to communicate any religious message. These “give us a glimpse of the farmyard which was no doubt attached to the monastery,” where we meet an old acquaintance of the Atlantic—the barnacle goose. Ultimately, the letters count for most. The majority of the pages of the Book of Kells are devoted to the text of the Gospels. This text is of greater beauty and certainty of touch than are the few great pages of virtuoso illumination which form the normal subject of reproductions of this manuscript. A superb calligraphy enshrines the religious joy of a page covered with holy words. It is a singular merit of this edition that we should be given a fair share of such pages, and the analysis of the differing scribes at work upon them is a high point in Françoise Henry’s commentary.
The Evangelists gave this book to the world. Portrayed in the weird totemic shapes they had taken in the vision of the Apocalypse, they stand in serried ranks behind the Gospel Book: “the great commotion of the fiery cloud still seems to linger about them.”
So here we have two worlds of religious experience and of artistic expression. Each joins religious experience and artistic expression of different terms. Byzantium assumes a synthesis based on the total Christianization of the imagination. In the Celtic world, by contrast, we find confrontations and recalcitrant outcrops of untamed nature. When Professor McNeil writes that the Celtic saints managed “to implant and preserve a Christian culture like a cultivated garden amid a wilderness of disorder” one wonders whether this is, after all, the true measure of their success. It might lie elsewhere. A “cultivated garden” is not always the best environment for growth and creativity. In the study of the northern world of the early Middle Ages, it is the weeds that blow in over the fence from the “wilderness of disorder” that made the Celtic churches so immeasurably rich and robust. The very uncertainty and recalcitrance to Christianity of much of the ornament of the Book of Kells is one such vigorous weed: the rare beauty of the book depends on Christian monks who have not lost touch with skills that reached back to prehistory. It is the same with the vernacular literature of the British Isles in the early medieval period: the rank weeds of Anglo-Saxon and Old Irish epic sprouted happily in the monastic garden.
These books, therefore, raise the problem of the role of religion in very different societies. In the one, men choose to live by a tradition that is quietly and insistently mobilized toward a single, sacred goal. In another, the restless solidities of daily life find an utterly unselfconscious expression among the lines of holy texts. And in that northern society of the monks who produced the Book of Kells, sacred and profane have fought themselves to a draw—and so we find men passing quietly backward and forward from figures still glowing from the glory of the vision, to the crouched hare, the poultry in the yard, and the barnacle goose.
A hedge of trees is all around;
The blackbird’s praise I shall not hide;
Above my book so smoothly lined
The birds are singing far and wide;
In a green cloak of bushy boughs
The cuckoo pipes his melody.
Be good to me, God, on judgment day!—
How well I write beneath the trees.
February 20, 1975