Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 1, 2001
William J. Diebold Word and Image: An Introduction to Early Medieval Art Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. 160 pp.; 4 color ills.; 63 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (0813335779)

Good things come in small packages. Diebold’s book should join the ranks of other petit books that have made a large contribution not only to their field of specialization but also to a wider audience. Word and Image: An Introduction to Early Medieval Art has found a place on my personal bookshelf alongside Arnold van Gennep’s Les rites de passage (1909) and Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity (1971). Diebold offers a fine, lively text—free of inhibiting scholarly apparatuses—that students and novice readers can enjoy. Based on his classroom lectures, Word and Image explores many of the key issues that make the study of medieval art fascinating and rewarding. Teachers of early medieval art will be pleased to find that Diebold offers a cogent and intellectually stimulating discussion of the familiar territory of patronage, orality, literacy, and viewing—all with a fresh perspective. He has a talent for the succinct sentence that gets to the heart of the issue. His discussion of “Gregory the Great composing a text” from the Registrum Gregorii (Trier, Staatsbibliothek, MS 171/1626) is but one example: “This early medieval image is inexplicable when judged by the standards established by Italian Renaissance one-point perspective or the mechanical illusionism of photography. But those are not the standards to apply” (3). His analysis of the image is insightful and demonstrates how satisfying is the study of early medieval images.

Word and Image is more than a nifty textbook for early medieval art historians. Diebold provides a means of access into the central discourse of early medieval art studies for the nonspecialist. Art historians have often lamented the limited role assigned to images by medieval scholars, a role that subordinates images to the texts by viewing them as illustrations rather than as visual testimony in their own right. Diebold is careful to maintain a balance here, acknowledging the importance of texts to the early medieval cultures without romanticizing the place of images. Diebold explores the key issue of the interplay between texts and images, tracing its nuances, significance, and evolution from Gregory the Great’s dictum up to the Romanesque period. He achieves a fine balance in a discussion that has often been polarized.

Diebold provides a solid introduction to the potential of images as a tool to derive meaning and context. Style, a mysterious term with elusive definitions, has often stumped the nonspecialist and has sent some art historians running to theoretical models. In his discussion of the Lindesfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiatinus, Diebold clearly lays out the issue and elucidates why the examination of style remains a worthwhile endeavor as an indicator of patronage: “Precisely because early medieval style was freighted with so much meaning, it often cannot be used as a reliable tool to date or locate a work” (51). His ability to analyze images and embrace style reveals his solid training in the Kurt Weitzmann tradition; his use of that ability demonstrates how young scholars have evolved in the field of early medieval art history.

Diebold introduces his book with the image of Gregory the Great composing a text, which he uses to characterize the art of the early medieval period. In Chapter 1, “Books for the Illiterate? Art in an Oral Culture,” he explores, through carefully chosen works of art, the interplay between Roman, Germanic, and Celtic cultures, providing dichotomies of oral/literate, Latin/vernacular, and pagan/Christian. It is precisely these kinds of paradoxes that led the creation of such works of art such as the Book of Durrow and the Franks Casket.

Seguing into Chapter 2, “Art in the Service of the Word,” Diebold investigates the implications of this interaction between cultures and ideologies. The liturgies of the word and the Eucharist were, and still remain, the bedrock of the Christian church. Diebold uses ritual practice as a context for understanding such puzzling images as the Te Igitur from a Reichenau sacramentary (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Canon. Liturg. 319, f. 31v). In this work, the capital T becomes the cross with the body of Christ hanging from the letter. Thus, as he points out, “The word has become flesh” (48). Diebold then delves into the use of rich materials for the worship service and the architectural context of the word made flesh and finishes with a brief discussion of spolia.

Chapter 3, “Books for the Illiterate? Meaning in Early Medieval Art,” confronts the issues of narrative, visual typology, and image appropriation in which “copying” has profound meaning. His outline of typology and how it worked in the early church is carefully balanced with the differences between textual typology and visual typology (which work in very different ways). My only quibble here is that Diebold, like many art historians, tends to define typology too narrowly and to avoid the more allegorical aspects. Still, Diebold makes an interesting association between copying in manuscripts and spoliation in architecture. Although typology is inherently text-based, Diebold reminds the reader of the vast numbers of artworks that had no pretensions of being visual texts or associated with texts, but served an iconic function as surrogates for saints and the Virgin with Child.

The next chapter, “The Crisis of Word and Image,” moves the discussion of word and image toward a growing conflict between theory and practice. While early medieval art theorists such as Theodulf, bishop of Orléans, embraced parts of Gregory’s dictum, the debate would shift within the context of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire to a more polemical stance against images. On the other hand, the growing cult of saints, with their accompanying reliquaries and sculptures, privileged the experience of Sight as a legitimate means of devotion. Within the context of a literate elite, images began to function as a means to understand hidden truths. As Diebold states, “…the image is now the Bible for the literate” (126).

Chapter 5, “Inscriptions and Images: Artist and Patron in the Early Middle Ages,” addresses the issue of the unknown artist. Through a list of art-historical titles, Diebold reminds us that we do know a great deal about patrons through the works of art they commissioned, as is the case with the Gero Crucifix, Alfred Jewel, and Hitda Codex. This is an important discussion that addresses the inherent problems of trying to impose post-Vasarian notions of the artist onto a culture that would have been perplexed by the notion of artistic genius. Diebold cites Germanic law that ordered a greater fine for the murder of an artisan (you could expect to pay anywhere from 100 to 200 solidi) than for an ordinary person (30 solidi). The penalty was not for the eradication of an artistic genius, but for the loss of a skill (or an asset) to the person who owned the artisan or the monastery to which the artisan belonged. Diebold points out the “apparent paradox” of patronage. Although the image may portray a humble patron, the inscription in fact advertised the praiseworthy aspects of the patron and his association with elite saints. Not all is false hubris. The images as Diebold suggests are often mnemonic devices that remind the viewer to pray for the patron.

Diebold concludes his book with the question, “Brother, What Do You Think of This Idol?” He traces the shift in the power of images through the writings of Bernard, the cleric who posed this question. Wary of cult statues such as St. Foy of Conques, Bernard is finally convinced of that saint’s efficacy through the magical powers of the saint and her image.

As a whole the book provides a coherent and thoughtful study of the tensions, debates, and practices concerning the relationship of images to sacred texts. Works of art solidly ground the discussion and provide a sequence of images that move the book through the principal issues at hand. The reader will often be delighted to find familiar works of art presented in new and informative ways. Diebold has found a balance in his presentation of the issues that will stimulate the novice and satisfy the specialist.

Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill