Desktop version

Home arrow History

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font


<<   CONTENTS   >>

Continental links: occidental models and British images

Artistic renderings of the scene of the triumphant Christ standing on either a serpent or an assortment of up to four beasts are known at least as far back as the fifth century and as far away from the British Isles as the Near East and North Africa. The earliest known examples, which - by the presence of the diagnostic animals - can be identified as referring to Psalm 91:13, rather than to Revelation 20:2, are found in the centre field of clay lamps from the Holy Land and North Africa, especially Egypt and Carthage,3 as well as in a lost fresco in a funerary chapel in the Karmouz catacombs of Alexandria, which - according to a description - featured the lion and several crocodiles and other reptiles.4

Three further examples survive from fifth- and sixth-century Ravenna, Italy. The stucco relief in the Battistero Neoniano (Baptistery' of Neon) and the mosaic in the Archiépiscopal Chapel both portray Christ as a Roman military officer with the long-shafted cross on his shoulder and the book in his hand, standing on the necks of lion and serpent (Christus triumphans), while a relief on the Pignatta Sarcophagus in the Basilica di San Francesco shows Christ seated on a throne while treading down the animals.6

By the late eighth century, the motif had reached the Carolingian empire. A book illumination in the homilies of Gregory' the Great in Nonantola, Italy (Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare, MS. CXLVIII, fol. 72r), features only the lion,7 but several carved ivory book covers, such as the one from Chelles in France (the so-called ‘Oxford book cover’; Oxford, Bodleian Library', MS Douce 176), of the Lorsch Gospel (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. Lat. 50), or the magnificent cover from Genoelselderen, Belgium (Brussels, Musées Royaux de l’art et d’histoire, No. 1474; cf. Fig. 3.3d), almost appear to take pride in showing all four animals mentioned in the Psalm lying prostrate and defeated under the feet of the Saviour.8 In all of these examples, Christ is standing on the necks of the lion and a serpent or dragon (with the other two animals shown below these or next to Christ’s legs), holding the cross in his right hand and the book in his left, occasionally with readable lettering. The short inscription in the book cover from Chelles - reading ‘HIS | XPS | SVP | ASP’, ‘Jesus Christus super aspidem’ -anticipates the longer inscription framing the motif in the Belgian ivory: ‘+VBI DNS | AMBVLCABIT SVPER ASPIDEM ET BASILIS | CV|M] ET CON|CVLCABIT LEONE | M ET DRACONEM’. This clearly shows that these carvings were indeed meant as literal illustrations of Psalm 91:13.

Another example of this can be found in the ninth-century Stuttgart Psalter (Stuttgart, Germany, Wiirttembergische Landesbibliothek, Cod. Bibl. 1. 12; fol. 107v; cf Fig. 3.3c), where the Psalm is quoted in toto above a colourfi.il illumination."’ Unlike the depictions mentioned above, however, Christ is portrayed here as a helmeted warrior hero (Christus miles) clad in scale armour (which to some degree is reminiscent of the military garb Christ is wearing in the mosaic in Ravenna) and holding a spear instead of a cross, thrusting it down at a lion and a fire-breathing serpent. A very similarly warlike scene is shown in a line drawing in the contemporaneous Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, Netherlands, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectine I, 32, fol. 53v), but without the martial apparel.11

A rare example of Christ actively trampling down his demoniac antagonists may be seen in the posture of the Saviour in the ivory from Chelles, in which the slightly bent knees convey the impression that he is walking towards his right across the animals’ bodies on the ground.

These examples suggest that over the course of more than 500 years, the motif of ‘Christ trampling the beasts’ apparently made its way from the eastern Mediterranean to Carolingian/Ottonian Francia, but while quite popular there, it did not, as far as could be ascertained by this author, achieve any greater popularity in Britain and Ireland during this time.

There are only a few early examples of‘Christ in triumph' in the British Isles. A full-page book illumination in the earlier eighth-century Durham Cassiodorus (Durham, England, Dean and Chapter Library, MS. B. II. 30, fol. 172v) from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow depicts a haloed figure holding a spear and a ring and standing on a the scaly, worm-like body of a two-headed monster. An inscription in the ring identifies the man as ‘David’, but as he was considered as a prototype for Christ, it seems evident that Christ is shown here,12 in the character of the Biblical David and as a warrior king. The miniature is not unlike an image on the sepulchral stele in Niederdollendorf, Germany, from the seventh century. A man with a radiating nimbus and a ring or disc on his chest is shown here, holding a spear and standing on an oblong strand of simple interlace, which frequently is interpreted as a coiled serpent intertwined on itself.13 This monster - just as the one of the Durham Cassiodorus — might have been meant as the composite of two animals and thus an abbreviation of the four mentioned in the Psalm, but it appears equally reasonable to suppose that it was in fact intended to portray one beast, ‘the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil’ of Revelation 20:2.

This assumption may be confirmed by the surrounding motifs of two High Crosses from County Offaly in Ireland. On both, Christ can be seen in the centre of the crosshead, holding a cross and a sprouting bough in his hands, and -according to Françoise Henry - standing on a worm-like creature.14 On the High Cross in Durrow, Henry supposes the animal to be executed as a tight strand of interlace (perhaps with a pointed head in the lower left comer), while on the tenth-century ‘Cross of the Scriptures’ in Clonmacnoise, it is represented by only a single, short ridge in the stone relief with a head and gaping mouth on the right side.15 In both examples, the cross arms on both sides of Christ show several other motifs, such as the crowds of the Elect and the Damned, David playing the harp, and trumpeter angels. They identify the ensemble firmly as a depiction of the Second Coming of Christ at the Last Judgement, and at least make the idea of a diabolical serpent beneath Christ’s feet quite plausible.

A mere insinuation - or rather anticipation - of Psalm 91:13 appears to be offered by a zoological terminal in the form of a tiny, dragon-like head adorning the initial ‘Q’ at the beginning of Psalm 91 in the early-seventh-century Cathach of Columba (Dublin, Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, s.n., fol. 48r).16 However, there is neither the figure of Christ nor any other details.

Across these few early examples from the British Isles, the similarity with the eastern Mediterranean, Byzantine Italian, and/or Carolingian images of ‘Christ trampling on the beasts’ is not particularly marked. In fact, the presence of a spear in Christ’s hand instead of a cross puts these examples in a group of their own at this time. Possibly the earliest depictions in the British Isles of the triumphant Christ over the serpent (or beasts) are represented by two stone monuments. On the fragment of a tenth-century cross shaft displayed in St James’ church in Burton-in-Kendal, Cumbria, England (Fig. 3.1), beneath two haloed figures flanking a cross, another haloed man - obviously Christ - can be discerned on the stone’s badly weathered surface. He is holding a cross and a rod/bough, and a serpent is surrounding his lower body. Some irregular shapes protruding slightly from the stone’s background next to his legs have been identified as the serpent’s head and a coil of its body.17 Trampling on the ‘ancient serpent’, this therefore appears to be Christ in Majesty, as described in Revelation 20:2. Contrary to the prevalent reading of the stone, however, it is possible that these shallow ‘bumps’ once were designed to depict the lion standing behind the Saviour, complementing the snake to refer to Psalm 91:13. Despite a careful examination of the stone by this author, while confirming the presence of raised shapes in the fields next to and between Christ’s legs, there remains considerable doubt as to whether the example shows either a lion or any other animal or parts thereof, including the coiled body and head of the serpent. Thus, the classification of the Burton stone as an illustration of the Psalm must remain hypothetical, pending further investigations.

Medieval carving on the cross shaft in Burton-in-Kendal, Cumbria, England — including the speculative identification of the ‘lion’ behind Christ’s legs (© Photo/graphics

FIGURE 3.1 Medieval carving on the cross shaft in Burton-in-Kendal, Cumbria, England — including the speculative identification of the ‘lion’ behind Christ’s legs (© Photo/graphics: Dirk H. Steinforth; courtesy of the vicar and wardens of St James’ church, Burton-in-Kendal, England).

Less ambiguous, but even more intriguing, is the image on the fragment of the Viking-Age cross slab MM 128 (‘Thorvald’s Cross’) in St Andrew’s church of Kirk Andreas in the north of the Isle of Man (Fig. 3.2).18 The remains of the large central cross are decorated in the Scandinavian Borre style, dating the stone to the mid- or later tenth century. Carved in low relief, there is on one face (Face B) a man holding aloft a book and a cross, in an attitude as if walking towards his left, with a large fish in front of him and a large, knotted serpent below and above him, respectively. Even without a halo, the man must be identified as a Christian, and most probably Christ himself, by the long-shafted cross in his hand. Furthermore, the fish may be interpreted as the well-known symbol.19

Although in an entirely different style, the gesture of brandishing cross and book on Kirk Andreas MM 128 strongly resembles the Continental examples of the ‘Christ trampling the beasts’ motif, albeit with some differences in detail: on the Manx stone, Christ is holding the cross in his left, the book in his right hand, while on the Mediterranean/Continental models it (almost) invariably is the other way round. Also, instead of lion, serpent, basilisk, and dragon, this example shows

‘Christ trampling the beasts’ on the cross-slab MM 128 in Kirk Andreas, Isle of Man (© Photo

FIGURE 3.2 ‘Christ trampling the beasts’ on the cross-slab MM 128 in Kirk Andreas, Isle of Man (© Photo: Dirk H. Steinforth; courtesy of the rector & wardens of St Andrew’s church, Andreas, Isle of Man).

only one serpent beneath Christ’s feet (with another above his head). Depicted in profile, Christ appears to be actively walking on the animal’s body - a posture that is not unlike that of Christ in the ‘Oxford book cover’ from Chelles (see above). The option to abbreviate the ‘bestiarium’ of the Psalm has been remarked on above, and while unusual, the presence of two identical beasts also has an earlier parallel, in the form of two symmetrical basilisks in a miniature in the early-ninth-century Lorsch Homilies (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS. Pal. Lat. 220, fol. Av), which is demonstrating pronounced Irish influence,20 as well as similarities to the ivory of the contemporaneous Lorsch Gospel mentioned earlier.

Both serpents on the Manx stone are knotted, which would mark them as both evil and being vanquished and helpless in the presence of the Saviour. Similar instances can be found in a miniature in the eleventh-century Crowland Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 296, fol. 40r),21 probably from Peterborough, where the long tail of the basilisk is shown knotted in exactly the same way. Other examples of this appear on two Anglo-Scandinavian stones of similar date from York: on the tenth-century fragment of a Crucifixion (‘St Mary’s Castlegate 2’), a serpent appears on the cross arm under Christ’s right arm. Its body is knotted twice, as is the case for that of the serpent-like dragon Fafnir that is being killed by the hero Sigurd on Face D of the large Scandinavian-style stone grave-slab ‘York Minster 34’.22

Despite the idiosyncrasies particular only to MM 128, there can be no doubt that the scene must be counted as an illustration of Psalm 91:13, drawing on unidentified models of the ‘Triumphant Christ’ group of the motif of ‘Christ trampling the beasts’. For this reason, it is important to keep in mind that despite this motifs long history and its popularity' on the Continent, there is no known example of it in Britain that would predate the Manx stone from the middle of the tenth century'. The Isle of Man is a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea with strong traditional ties to Ireland and Wales as well as the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, and the lack of direct models in the British Isles raises the question how and where the clerical designer of MM 128 could have obtained the information and inspiration for the stone’s imagery. This point is even more intriguing as the Island had been conquered and settled during the later ninth century' by Hiberno-Vikings, who were - at least initially' and at least in parts - pagans and who not only' introduced the spiritual and artistic ideas of their Scandinavian homelands, but also, it has been surmised, might have disrupted Christian religious life.23 While their presence thus would have interfered with the Island’s established lines of communication overseas, it also provided a massive fillip to local stone sculpture, imbuing it with unprecedented expression and variety (see below).

An interesting, but later instance of the motif of‘Christ trampling the beasts’ in Britain - and a similar merging of the Christian imagery and Norse art styles - is the stone panel in St Andrew’s church of Jevington in Sussex, England, which features Christ, with halo and long cross (but without a book), standing over a lion and a serpent. It is important to note that the animals - the serpent’s coiled body' and the lion’s hind legs - are executed in interlace in a rather clumsy' rendition of the Urnes style, which dates the monument to the mid- or late eleventh century' and demonstrates a lingering link to Scandinavian art traditions.24

During this time, the motif of ‘Christ trampling the beasts’ continued to be popular on the late-Ottonian/early-Salian Continent, and it now found wider distribution in Britain and particularly England, too, but generally' on media other than stone. First, it can be recognised, carved in walrus ivory, in the head of the Alcester Crozier (London, British Museum, Reg. No. 1903,0323.1),25 but it finally also made its way into English book illumination, for example in the mid-eleventh-century Tiberius Psalter (London, British Library', MS Cotton Tiberius C, IV, fol. 114v),26 the Winchcombe Psalter (Cambridge University Library MS Ff. 1. 23, fol. 195v),27 or the Anglo-Saxon Bury Psalter, produced in Canterbury' (Vatican, Biblioteca Regina lat. MS. 12, fol. 98r).28 As was the case in the earlier Continental models, these miniatures occasionally' are accompanied by the text of

Psalm 91:13, but following a trend introduced in Carolingian Francia in the earlier ninth century, Christ no longer carries the cross on his shoulder. Instead, he stabs the pointed end of the long shaft down and towards the animals at his feet, often into the gaping jaws of one of them, a preference Meyer Shapiro attributes to the ‘primitive taste of the Anglo-Saxon tribes for imagery of heroic combats with wild beasts and monsters, as in Beowulf and the pagan legends’.29

Whatever the merit of this statement may be in general, the Manx stone for one does on its other face offer heroic combat as well as a distinct link in an entirely different direction: to Scandinavia and to pagan Norse mythology.

 
<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics