Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 1, 2001
Dominic Marner St. Cuthbert: His Life and Cult in Medieval Durham Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2000. 112 pp.; 51 color ills.; 13 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (0802035183)

Densely illustrated manuscripts of the lives and miracles of the saints constituted a distinct category of artistic production during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Of particular interest for the study of narrative and the relationship between text and image, these works also offer important evidence for scholars of political and religious history. Once deemed less aesthetically significant and intellectually sophisticated than illuminated Bibles and liturgical manuscripts, illustrated vitae have recently been the subject of much thought-provoking work by scholars such as Cynthia Hahn and Barbara Abou-El-Haj. Dominic Marner’s book is devoted to one of the latest of these hagiographic cycles: the Yates Thompson MS 26 (Add. 39943) housed at the British Library, London. The manuscript glorifies St. Cuthbert (d. 687), the most celebrated hagiographic figure of northern England, whose relics have been housed at Durham since the end of the tenth century.

Like many of the illustrated vitae, the London Cuthbert manuscript is small (158 × 108 mm) and rich with images. Picture and text alternate and are accorded equal prominence. Bede’s prose biography of the saint is supplemented by two miracles from his Historia ecclesiastica and twenty-five additional postmortem miracles, most of the latter not recorded until the early twelfth century. As is usually the case in these textual compilations, only the earlier core material—in this case the Bedan texts—is illustrated. There are forty-six framed miniatures, the majority of them full page, beginning with a portrait of Cuthbert dressed as a bishop. Facing this is an author portrait of Bede, set within an elaborate architectural frame. Each chapter of Bede’s text is prefaced by one or more images deriving from the accompanying text. Together, this collection of texts and images conveys in compelling detail the full range of Cuthbert’s accomplishments as monk and priest at Melrose Abbey, prior at Melrose and Lindisfarne, hermit at Farne Island, and bishop of Lindisfarne. Marner’s book reproduces each of the surviving miniatures from the London manuscript to scale, on its own page, and accompanied by a brief description of the image as well as Bede’s chapter heading and an excerpt from Bede’s text. The plates accurately convey the rich blues, reds, and greens of the original, as well as the generous use of gold in the frames and the background panels.

One of the difficulties in studying hagiographic cycles is the unavailability of complete, accurate, and easily accessible reproductions. The ideal solution in some ways would be to produce an exact facsimile, accompanied by a separate volume of scholarly analysis. Although a facsimile can convey with great accuracy the quality of the manuscript as a material object, including the precise physical relationship between text and image, it is too expensive to be widely distributed. Marner’s publication will make an important cycle available to a broad audience, all of whom will find in the notes and bibliography a solid foundation for further research. The short introductory text provides a readable summary of the essential aspects of Cuthbert’s life and the celebration of his cult. The author is clearly familiar with the extensive scholarship on these topics, as well as with some of the newer methodological strategies for interpreting the imagery of pictorial hagiography. (One useful addition to the Cuthbert bibliography is David Rollason’s recently published translation of the work of Symeon of Durham, a member of the monastic community at Durham who wrote a comprehensive institutional history in the early twelfth century [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000].)

The London manuscript can easily be placed in Durham on both stylistic and iconographical grounds, and internal evidence confirms that the work was in the possession of the Benedictine cathedral priory of Durham. Marner shows how the manuscript’s creation was part of a larger effort to promote Cuthbert’s cult, an effort that acquired greater urgency in the face of increasing competition from the cult of St. Thomas Becket (ca. 1120-70) at Canterbury. Hugh of Puiset, bishop of Durham (1153-95), played a central role in this effort by sponsoring an ambitious program of renovations and decoration for the cathedral, all intended to provide a grander and more accessible setting for the saint’s relics. Interest in Cuthbert was also stimulated by the many new miracles that took place at his shrine, as recorded in the 1160s and 1170s by Reginald of Durham.

Yet the precise contribution made by a small, expensively produced manuscript to the larger public celebration of Cuthbert’s cult is not clear. We know that books were sometimes kept at the altar or attached to a saint’s shrine and could be treated like relics in their own right. Marner cites Reginald of Durham’s account of how a copy of The Life of St. Cuthbert was displayed to a crowd by the visiting Archbishop of York; when a member of the crowd later tried to handle the manuscript without authorization, he was punished by illness. But surely a book as small and as richly embellished as the London Cuthbert was read (and viewed) in private by individuals, most likely members of the Durham monastic community. Text and image would serve to reaffirm the readers’ sense of spiritual identity, which derived from the monks’ role as the successors of St. Cuthbert and the guardians of his relics. In this regard, it is worth noting how insistently the figures of black-robed, tonsured monks—both Cuthbert himself as well as his companions in religious life—dominate the majority of the images. This monastic presence continues even after Cuthbert’s death, for it is the monks who are the custodians of his relics (fols. 77, 79, 84v). Of course, this line of argument poses the danger of circular reasoning: If we assume, as do most scholars, that the book was made for the internal use of the Durham monks, then we will tend to read its illustrations as a reaffirmation of the ideals of monastic life and a mirror of the attitudes of the monks toward such pressing contemporary issues as their authority in relation to the bishop at Durham.

One particularly fruitful method for the interpretation of hagiographic imagery, exemplified in Malcolm Baker’s fundamental study of the Cuthbert cycles, is based on two types of comparisons. The first requires a close, joint reading of the text together with the illustrations, which were created several centuries after the vita was originally composed and which often respond more closely to contemporary social and political events than to the adjacent text. Further evidence of responsiveness to contemporary concerns can be provided by comparisons between the images in the London Cuthbert and earlier versions of the Cuthbert cycle, in particular an illustrated vita in Oxford from ca. 1100. Following a methodology similar to Baker’s, Marner arrives at a different conclusion. Noting the importance accorded the images of Cuthbert as bishop, both in the manuscript itself and in more publicly accessible sites sponsored by Bishop Hugh—like the wall painting in the Galilee Chapel—Marner suggests that the illustrations in the London manuscript “represent the attitude of the Durham episcopate rather than the monastic community” (49). Certainly the formal, frontal image of Cuthbert as a twelfth-century bishop, resplendent in his rich robes, his mitre and crosier, and adored by a small monk who kisses his feet (fol. 1v), is a far cry from the modest monk and prior featured in the Oxford manuscript. Other images present Cuthbert as a humane, if paternalistic, guardian of his flock, which extends beyond the monastic audience to include the laity, particularly women and children (fols. 58v, 60, 62v).

Marner uses stylistic comparisons to push the date of the manuscript back to the 1180s, earlier than the traditional dating between the 1190s and ca. 1200, and closer in time to a period of documented conflict between Bishop Hugh and the Durham monks, who presumably would have been in need of visual instruction concerning the status and authority of the bishop. Or perhaps the manuscript was more of a mirror for Bishop Hugh’s ambitions, intended for his own personal use. In any case, Marner’s thesis is worthy of further investigation. Interpretations that attempt to link the pictures’ ideology with the views of a specific patron or audience are complicated by the nature of Cuthbert’s career, which encompassed the multiple roles of monk and hermit, prior and bishop. Bede crafted the saint’s hagiographic personality to form a seamless combination of both the active and the contemplative ideals of Christian life, and both the texts and the images of Cuthbert’s life were accessible to more than one audience. Additional research would be necessary to make a stronger case in favor of either a monastic or an episcopal patron for the London manuscript, and it is probably safer to leave the issue open. Perhaps it is also time to reconsider the model of conflict between tightly defined interest groups as a primary way of understanding the genesis and function of hagiographic imagery.

Magdalena Carrasco
Professor of Art History, New College of Florida