Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 2, 2014
Leslie Webster Anglo-Saxon Art: A New History Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. 256 pp.; 210 ills. Paper $29.95 (9780801477669)

In her introduction to Anglo-Saxon Art: A New History, Leslie Webster states that “the aim of this book is to give an accessible overview that covers the entire Anglo-Saxon period, placing it within a broader cultural and historical context, and incorporating the new discoveries and new thinking of recent years” (10). For an intended audience of beginning students and the interested public, Webster takes a thematic approach, with chapters entitled “Reading the Image, Seeing the Text”; “Rome Reinvented: The Early Inheritance”; “Rome Reinvented: The Impact of Christianity”; “Celtic Connections, Eastern Influences: Sixth to Ninth Centuries”; “Art and Power: From Sutton Hoo to Alfred”; “Mission and Reform: Eighth to Eleventh Centuries”; and “The North Ascendant: The Viking Impact.” The book is amply illustrated with high-quality color images, along with two maps of Anglo-Saxon England, one for the first half of the eighth century and the second for the first half of the tenth century. The glossary, although not comprehensive, is a very welcome addition that authors of other introductory surveys of art-historical topics would do well to include in their offerings. Recent finds are clearly in evidence, most notably the Staffordshire Hoard, but given Webster’s stated intention of “incorporating . . . new thinking of recent years” (10), notation in the text is sparse and the bibliography, provided as “a guide to further exploration” (248), is brief and excludes many important contributions to the field. Further, the book considers art as separate from and not inclusive of architecture; the survey of Anglo-Saxon art has yet to be written that includes the archaeology and standing remains of the architectural environments of Anglo-Saxon culture in which the objects described by Webster found their original audiences.

Webster’s evocatively descriptive text is written in a graceful and fluid style that makes her presentation of the objects and her readings of their meanings readily accessible. I assigned much of this book as part of the readings for an undergraduate seminar on Insular art in Fall 2013. The students found Webster’s text interesting and enjoyable reading; the only problems they noted had to do with placement of illustrations: several complex designs of animal ornament were described in one place but illustrated overleaf or elsewhere in the volume. Designers of art history texts for students often seem insufficiently aware of the need for close juxtaposition of text and image for such analyses of visually challenging material. Elsewhere in the volume, works are discussed at some length but are not illustrated at all, problematic for novices who do not have the cited sources for the illustrations at hand. Strict limitations on the number of illustrations are a constant challenge for art historians, but why is the Tiberius Psalter provided with two illustrations while the Bury Psalter and the Gospel of Judith of Flanders, discussed on the same pages (188–90), given none at all? Similarly, in her afterword (236), Webster discusses the image of Victoria and Albert in a Romantic version of Anglo-Saxon dress in the royal mausoleum at Frogmore, Berkshire, but this delightfully strange monument is not illustrated. The brevity necessary to surveys also occasionally if rarely obstructs the level of clarity needed by beginners, as in the mention of “some Scandinavian gold foil sheets” (31): is Webster referring to the gulgubber found on Bornholm and elsewhere? A discussion of the role of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton in preserving a substantial number of Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts does not mention the Ashburnham House fire, in which so many exempla were lost or severely damaged. Historical sequence has been somewhat skewed by Webster’s definition of themes in her chapters: readers may be a bit puzzled by the placement of a chapter that focuses in part on the Monastic Reform movement ahead of a chapter that considers the role of the Vikings and Anglo-Norse art, especially since, as Webster notes, this latter material plays a role in the development of the art of the Monastic Reform.

As to issues of content, perhaps the most potentially controversial aspects of the book are Webster’s readings of the Iconographic and cultural meanings of pre-Christian imagery. Anglo-Saxon animal ornament may be “understood” as readable animal forms by the eye trained by long-term exposure, but to what extent may they be construed as having more specifically protective or apotropaic roles, especially when the species of, say, a “quadruped” cannot be more closely determined? On the one hand, Webster emphasizes what she sees as the riddling polysemy of this art, as echoed in Old English literature (34). Elsewhere, however, she shows little hesitancy in pinning down a particular meaning for both human and animal motifs, as well as for cultural activities, by describing these as evoking religious and protective references to supernatural beings, following in the interpretative tradition of Karl Hauck’s work on bracteates. She thereby seems to exclude the possibility that such motifs might refer instead or additionally to broader contexts of identity for those who displayed and saw them, such as gender, social rank, family, and loyalties to leaders and peer groups among a militarized elite. Male and female figures pointing to their genitalia “may represent deities associated with fertility” (38), but why should these not also be construable as fertility amulets, with their deposition at shrines functioning as a form of proximity magic? Similarly, group drinking is described as extending the protective power of a lord to his men (31), but there is little evidence of belief in the supernatural abilities of early Anglo-Saxon leaders, and construction of the loyalty of a leader’s warband through the use of hospitality to initiate reciprocity, as described in the work of Michael Dietler on feasting, must surely also play a role.

Other direct interpretations of objects, their meaning, and their connections may raise questions for specialists. The Ormside Bowl (Yorkshire Museum) is presented as a “liturgical water bowl” (139), but at only 13.8 centimeters in diameter it seems too small for hand washing or rites of baptism or group blessing, and the cross in the bowl’s ornamental layout may not necessarily denote liturgical function: could this be a metal version of a palm cup for a bishop, an abbot, or a pious aristocrat, on a scale comparable to those used in the feasting scenes in the Bayeux Tapestry? If the Lamb of God is to be construed as apocalyptic when it appears in manuscripts of the Monastic Reform movement, close to the year 1000, how if at all does that meaning evolve from its earlier uses on the Anglo-Saxon stone crosses? For the later Anglo-Saxon period, international links are mentioned to both Byzantine and Ottonian rulers (as on page 220), but the possible connections in art could be explored further in the broad variety of manuscripts Webster ties together as the “Winchester group”; for example, the suffering Christ in the Ramsay Psalter has antecedents in Ottonian Germany. Similarly, a mid-eleventh-century pen case with scenes of hunting and archery (fig. 174) has possible precursors in the Islamic world, perhaps known via diplomatic gift exchange or through trade. References to historical texts and contexts may also raise a few questions: inter alia, Boniface’s dictum on restricting Anglo-Saxon women’s pilgrimage, because, he claims, so many end up becoming prostitutes in continental brothels, is taken at face value (162) rather than as part of a broader view on gender and monastic enclosure. Monastic life before the Reform movement is characterized as “haphazard and unstructured” (173); but while it may have lacked the uniform standards of practice of Regularis Concordia, it did not consistently want for structure at a more local level, as Benedict Biscop’s careful editorial compilation of a rule for Monkwearmouth and Jarrow attests. Webster’s frequent engagement with issues of media and technique delighted the two studio art majors in my seminar, but some of their questions were left unanswered: for example, how if at all was carved stone primed to receive and retain paint?

Many of the questions that are raised above result in part from the nature of the volume under review; it is, after all, an introductory survey, a genre in which the requirements of brevity and of sustaining readers’ interest and momentum must outweigh the nuanced complexities about which professionals concern themselves. This volume is not, as the publishers claim, the first survey of Anglo-Saxon art in twenty-five years; it was preceded into print by a year by Catherine Karkov’s equally excellent but more theory-oriented The Art of Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2011). But Webster’s Anglo-Saxon Art: A New History is a finely written, exceptionally accessible, and beautifully illustrated first walk through the tangled thickets of interlacing objects, texts, events, and ideas that constitute the history of Anglo-Saxon art.

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