Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 11, 2022
Beatrice E. Kitzinger The Cross, the Gospels, and the Work of Art in the Carolingian Age Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 304 pp.; 148 color ills. Cloth $79.99 ( 9781108428811)
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Beatrice Kitzinger’s book, The Cross, The Gospel, and the Work of Art in the Carolingian Age, examines the cross as both a concept and an image in northern Europe from the eighth to the tenth centuries. Her book is a welcome addition to the field of early medieval art history because of its innovative approach and because it considers many objects and artworks that have received little attention before now. Kitzinger includes a wealth of materials that have been previously neglected due to their apparently lower quality and artistic skill when compared to the higher-status illuminated productions that have been more widely studied. By broadening her scope, Kitzinger reveals sophisticated content in a large body of manuscripts, expanding the field in exciting ways. That the book contains 148 color photographs, many of which are of manuscript pages that have rarely or not previously been published, is also a great boon to the field, and will make this volume an important resource for years to come.

In her introduction, Kitzinger lays out her main aim, which is to examine the cross, as concept and as image or object, as multi-temporal. She establishes cross images as referencing the past (the Crucifixion), the future (the Second Coming), and the present (crafted objects that were central to the activities of Christian worship). Because others have addressed the sign of the cross as referencing past and future, Kitzinger’s stated aim is to focus on their “present register” (5). She shows how the present is indicated in narrative and symbolic cross images by elements that depict the cross, not as an abstract sign, but as a three-dimensional object. This is done by the inclusion of utilitarian features, such as tangs, bases, handles, hanging pendants, and other elements, that show how the referent cross would have been set up or carried. These elements indicate the importance of such tangible crosses, and thus reveal the power of crafted objects, in general.

In her introduction, Kitzinger defines her terms in a clear and concise way and explains the theological context of her study, as well as the scholarly foundation upon which her own work is built. Especially useful is her discussion of early medieval debates about images, in which both Byzantine and Carolinian theologians defended the image of the cross, arguing that it was fundamentally different from other religious images and, in fact, was not an image at all but a sign. Despite such assertions, as Kitzinger shows again and again, manuscripts contain illustrations of the cross as a tangible, material object. This aspect of the cross, its presence and its instrumentality, she labels utilitas, which becomes a central theme and concept throughout the book.

Chapter 1 is the book’s longest and most expansive. Here Kitzinger looks at crosses in multiple media and genres, comparing extant three-dimensional crosses and their two-dimensional counterparts on manuscript pages. She closely examines examples of the genre, including the Cross of Justin II, the Brussels Cross, and the Otto and Matilda Cross, analyzing the form, imagery, and inscriptions of each to show how they reference all three temporal registers. These examples lay the foundation of her argument that crosses depicted in manuscripts purposely emphasize their physicality, so that they are not only references to the historical past or to the eschatological future, but to the material, crafted object in the viewer’s present. One of the most compelling sections of this chapter deals with figural acrostic poems in various productions of Hrabanus Maurus’s ninth-century work De laudibus sanctae crucis. His book offers variations on the shape of the cross, each of which is created from clever arrangements of words and letters organized within a grid. At the same time that he creates these cross images in his arrangements of words, those very words criticize the period’s love of gold and bejeweled crosses. His protests thus shine a spotlight on the actuality of such objects and the activities surrounding them. Kitzinger shows how later copies of his visual poems depict his cross arrangements with tangs and stands. That the later artists visually contradict Hrabanus’s criticisms suggests a societal acceptance of, and reverence for, these objects, demonstrating Kitzinger’s point very effectively. The rest of the chapter looks at cross pages in several sacramentaries, including the Gelasian, Gellone, and Coronation. Because sacramentaries are central to the performance of the mass, the cross images they contain are especially relevant to the notion of the cross, not only as a reference to past and future, but also to the liturgical present. As she states, “the Cross defines these manuscripts by positioning the rite they contain relative to the larger conception of Christian time contained within the sign” (62).

The rest of the book considers the specific relationship between the cross and the Gospels. Chapter 2 focuses on an illustrated version of the gospel harmony of Otfrid of Weissenburg. The manuscript that Kitzinger examines juxtaposes Otfrid’s verse text with an image of the crucifixion and another of a labyrinth. Taken together, the text and images of the book reveal the utilitas of both the Gospels and the sign of the cross, which, by means of their tangible presence, aid the reader/viewer in their spiritual progress.

In chapter 3, Kitzinger returns to a broader approach. She looks at cross imagery in gospel books in general and addresses the self-reflexive aspect of cross images, which relates to the fact that the cross symbolizes both the Passion and the Resurrection stories told in the Gospels. In this chapter, Kitzinger examines how gospel book imagery, especially depictions of the Evangelists as scribes and the architectural framework of canon tables, emphasizes the gospel book as a manufactured object and thus highlights its utilitas as “an instrument of transmission and interpretation” (130). Kitzinger goes on to survey Insular and Continental gospel books, both high-status examples as well as more provincial and, seemingly, lower-quality ones. The author shows that, in all these manuscripts, the focus on the physical elements of manufactured crosses emphasizes their “present register” as much as they illustrate historical stories. At the end of this chapter, she addresses the various ways that artists illustrated the beginning of the book of Matthew, the first of the four Gospels. Here she makes a sophisticated argument about how the choice of a cross or of a Crucifixion image in this position subtly changed the temporal relationships between the image, the text, and the reader/viewer.

Chapter 4 offers a final case study; here it is the Angers Gospels. Kitzinger continues her investigation of Matthew imagery by examining the complex narrative of Crucifixion and Deposition scenes discussed at the beginning of the book. Her detailed analysis of the imagery, as well as other codicological elements, leads to her conclusions about the ability of gospel books to serve also as a present and physical symbol of Christ’s presence.

Kitzinger’s book offers a novel framework for interpreting the ubiquitous cross images of early medieval manuscripts. Her scholarship is thorough, as is her knowledge and analysis of medieval theological texts. This is not a suitable textbook for an undergraduate class on medieval art. But for the expert reader, who is familiar with the scholarship on Carolingian manuscript studies and who is invested in the complex theological arguments about the role and power of images in the Carolingian period, it is an essential work. 

Laura E. Cochrane
Middle Tennessee State University