Thursday, November 22, 2007

Summary of Lecture Eleven

The gravamen of the lecture concerned four works (or groups of works) stemming from the Hiberno-Saxon or Insular orbit during the period ca. 625-820.

In the Hiberno-Saxon enterprise, the Irish (converted, some of them at least, by St. Patrick prior to 493) were the senior partners. Irish monasticism was a distinctive adaptation of the Egyptian model, whereby remote islands served as hermitages. The severe conditions toughened the monks, making possible the beginnings of their wanderings. These migrations took them, in the first instance, to northern England, especially Northumbria. There the English converts proved apt pupils, matching or even surpassing the accomplishments of their Hibernian teachers.

The Sutton Hoo treasure is the first monument of English art. The instructor briefly traced and critiqued the history of the more extreme claims of English exceptionalism, while recognizing the connection with the people who first spoke the English language.

The Sutton Hoo finds from East Anglia belong to a distinctive moment of transition between paganism and Christianity. The coins found in the purse were probably meant to pay the phantom rowers who would take the king to the afterworld.

The two most remarkable objects in the treasure (now in the British Museum) are probably the gold buckle and the purse. The buckle demonstrates an intricate pattern of lacertines and interlace, probably with apotropaic intent. The purse has a remarkable set of appliques, showing the virtuosity of the goldsmiths of the time.

The Book of Durrow (ca. 675; Trinity College, Dublin) was briefly noted in the previous lecture. Here we focused on the carpet pages (three survive), which probably had an apotropaic intent.

The Book of Lindisfarne (ca. 725; British Library) is also a gospel book, in this instance certainly made in Northumbria by English scribes. Larger and more lavish than its Durrow predecessor, this book replaces the evangelist symbols with full-page portraits of these authors. While these are of Mediterranean derivation, they clearly, almost relentlessly, translate the motifs into the linear northern style.

The Book of Kells (ca. 820) is the most extravant of the three Insular gospel books examined. It ranks with the Tres Riches Heures of the Limbourg brothers as one of the two most towering masterpieces of medieval illumination. There are carpet pages, evangelist portraits, narrative scenes and much else. The most elaborate text page is devoted to a presentation of the Chi-Rho theme.

Taken as a whole, these works document the remarkable Anglo-Irish partnership, yielding works that were unique in sophistication during the era. A recent book is entitled "How the Irish Saved Western Civilization." It should have been entitled "How the Irish and the English Saved Western Civilization."

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