Anglo-Saxon Art

The Anglo-Saxon illuminations in the preceding pages, which are fac-similes, or nearly so, of drawings accompanying the original manuscripts in our public libraries, will not have impressed those unfamiliar with the subject with any very high notion of the state of art in this island eight or nine hundred years ago. It must be remembered that these specimens are selected, not as examples of the then state of art, but as materials for the history of manners and of costume. The false perspective, the slovenly delineations of the extremities, and the general distortion of the human figure, will at once be apparent. But there was nevertheless a school of art, if so it may be called, existing in England and Ireland, which has left some very remarkable proofs of excellence, and indeed of originality, in a humble walk of pictorial labour. The illuminated letters of the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are wholly different from those of any continental school; and they display a gracefulness of ornament, and a power of invention, which may be profitably studied in these our own times, when ornamental design in connection with manufactures is escaping from the monotonous barbarism which has so long marked us in such matters as a tasteless and unimaginative people. “The chief features of this species of illumination are described by Sir F. Madden to be,—extreme intricacy of pattern, interfacings of knots in a diagonal or square form, sometimes interwoven with animals, and terminating in heads of serpents or birds. Though we cannot distinctly trace the progress of this art, we may conclude that it continued in a flourishing and improving state in the interval from the eighth to the tenth and eleventh centuries, which were so prolific in Anglo-Saxon works of calligraphy and illumination, that perhaps, says a competent authority, speaking of this period, our public libraries and the collections abroad contain more specimens executed in this country than any other can produce during the same space of time.” (‘Pictorial History of England,’ Book II. Chap. V.) We give three examples, out of the great variety which exists in this branch of art. The illuminated letter P is of the eighth century (Fig. 301), at which period the illumination of books formed a delightful occupation to the more skilful in the monastic establishments, and was even thought a proper employment by the highest dignitaries of the Church. There is a splendid example known as the ‘Durham Book,’ which was the work of Eadfrid, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who died in 721. Dunstan himself, at a subsequent period, varied the course of his austerities and his ambition by employing his hand in the illumination of manuscripts. The ornament (Fig. 300) and the letter Q (Fig. 302) are of the tenth century.

But, although the examples are not very numerous, we have proof that the taste thus cultivated in the cloisters of the Anglo-Saxons was occasionally capable of efforts which would not have been unworthy of that period and that country to which we assign the revival of the arts. We are too much accustomed to think that there was no art in Europe, and very little learning, during what we are pleased to call the dark ages. But in the centuries so designated there were, in our own country, divines, historians, poets, whose acquirements might be an object of honourable rivalry to many of those who are accustomed to sneer at their scientific ignorance and their devotional credulity. At the time when Italian art was in the most debased condition, there was a monk in England (and there may have been many more such whose labours have perished) who, in all the higher qualities of design, might have rivalled the great painters who are held, three centuries later, to have been almost the creators of modern art. In the most successful labours of the Anglo-Saxon cloister there was probably little worldly fame; of rivalry there was less. The artist, in the brief intervals of his studies and his devotions, laboured at some work of several years, which was to him a glory and a consolation. He was worthily employed, and happily, because his pencil embodied the images which were ever present to his contemplation. He did not labour for wealth amidst struggling competitors. Dante says of the first great Italian artists,—

“Cimabue thought

To lord it over painting’s field; and now

The cry is Giotto’s, and his name eclips’d.

Thus hath one Guido from the other snatch’d

The letter’d prize: and he, perhaps, is born,

Who shall drive either from their nest. The noise

Of worldly fame is but a blast of wind,

That blows from diverse points, and shifts its name,

Shifting the point it blows from.”

There is an Anglo-Saxon collection of drawings in existence, undoubtedly produced in the tenth century, whose excellence is such that the artist might have pretended “to lord it over painting’s field” even amongst the Cimabues and Giottos. His name is supposed to have been Godemann; but even that is doubtful. To him, whoever he was, might now be addressed the subsequent lines of Dante,—

“Shalt thou more

Live in the mouths of mankind, if thy flesh

Part shrivell’d from thee, than if thou hadst died

Before the coral and the pap were left:

Or e’er some thousand years have past?”

But he has vindicated the general claims of his countrymen to take their rank, in times which men falsely call barbarous, amidst those who have worthily elevated the grosser conceptions of mankind into the ideal, showing that art had a wider and a purer sphere than the mere imitation of natural objects. The Benedictional of St. Ethelwold, an illuminated manuscript of the tenth century, in the library of the Duke of Devonshire, is the work to which we allude. It is fully described by Mr. Gage, in the twenty-fourth volume of the ‘Archæologia;’ and the Antiquarian Society, greatly to their honour, caused to be beautifully engraved in their Transactions thirty plates of the miniatures with which this remarkable work is adorned. This manuscript was the ancient Benedictional of the See of Winchester; and it is stated at the commencement of the work, that “A prelate whom the Lord had caused to be head of the Church of Winchester, the great Æthelwold, commanded a certain monk subject to him to write the present book: he ordered also to be made in it many arches elegantly decorated and filled up with various ornamental pictures, expressed in divers beautiful colours and gold.” At the end of this introduction, or dedication, the writer subscribes his name Godemann. This monk of St. Swithin’s subsequently became Abbot of Thorney. Mr. Gage says, “Although it is likely that this superb volume, filled with beautiful miniatures, and ornaments of the richest design, was finished before Godemann had the government of the Abbey of Thorney, we are sure of one thing, that it was executed in this country between the years 963, when Ethelwold received the episcopal mitre, and 984, when he died. . . . That Godemann was the illuminator of the manuscript, as well as the writer of it, I see no reason to doubt. Illumination was part of the art of calligraphy; and, generally speaking, the miniature painting and the writing in the early manuscripts are to be presumed the work of the same hand.” To furnish a general idea, though certainly an insufficient one, of the remarkable merit of the miniatures of this book, we present copies of the fifth and the seventh plates, as engraved in the ‘Archæologia.’ Fig. 303 is the second of two miniatures entitled ‘Chorus Virginum.’ Fig. 304 is the second of four miniatures, each containing a group of three Apostles. It is fortunately unnecessary that we should attempt ourselves any critical remarks on the rare merits of this early work of Anglo-Saxon art; for in the paper in the ‘Archæologia’ is inserted a communication from the late Mr. Ottley, whose familiar acquaintance with the works of the early masters, both in painting and engraving, and the general correctness of his judgment, have established for him a high reputation. We extract from his letter a passage which points out not only the beauties, but defects of this work, and of Anglo-Saxon art in general; and further notices the superiority of the best productions of this our early school, both in colour and drawing, to the works of its European contemporaries:—

Figure spread at pages 76 and 77:

“In the thirteenth century, as every one knows, the art of painting and sculpture in Italy received new life at the hands of Niccola Pisano, Giunta, Cimabue, and Giotto; from which time they steadily progressed, till the happy era of Giulius the Second and Leo the Tenth. But, for some centuries preceding the thirteenth, I have sometimes seen reason to conjecture that the arts were in a more flourishing state in various countries distant from Italy than there; to say nothing of Greece, from which, it is probable, the inhabitants of those countries, like the Italians themselves, directly or indirectly, and perhaps at distant periods, originally derived instruction in those matters. That the art of miniature painting, especially, was better known and more successfully practised in France in the thirteenth century, and probably long before, than in Italy, has always appeared to me clear, from the well known passage in the eleventh canto of Dante’s ‘Purgatorio,’ where the poet thus addresses Oderigi d’ Agubbio, a miniature painter, said to have been the friend of Cimabue:—

‘Oh dissi lui non se’ tu Oderisi,

L’ onor d’Agubbio, e 1’onor di quell’ arte

Che alluminar è chiamata a Parisi?’

(‘Art thou not Oderigi? art not thou

Agobbio’s glory, glory of that art

Which they of Paris call the limner’s skill?’)

“But to return to St. Ethelwold’s manuscript. The next thing I would mention is the justness of the general proportions of the figures, especially those larger standing figures of Confessors, female Saints, and Apostles, which occupy the first seven pages of the book. The two groups, entitled Chorus Virginum, are particularly admirable in this respect, as well as for the easy gracefulness of the attitudes of some of them, and the cast of the draperies; so that, had the faces more beauty and variety of expression, and were the hands less like one another in their positions, and better drawn, little would remain to be desired. This deficiency of beauty in the heads, amounting, I fear I must admit, to positive ugliness, appears to have been in a great measure occasioned by the difficulty which the artist encountered in his attempts to finish them with body-colours; as may be seen by comparing these heads with those drawn only in outline in the last miniature in the book; if, indeed, the colouring was not in great part performed by a different person from him who drew the outlines; and, I would add, that the fault is more apparent, throughout the volume, in the large than in the smaller figures. Indeed, the little angels, holding scrolls, or sacred volumes, especially the two last, have so much gracefulness and animation, are so beautifully draped, and so well adapted in their attitudes to the spaces they occupy, that I hardly know how to praise them sufficiently.

“Wherever the naked parts of the figure are shown, there we have most evidence of the incompetence of the artist; and consequently the figures of the Apostles, whose feet and ankles appear uncovered, are less agreeable than those of the above female Saint. But, as you are aware, this unskilfulness in the art of drawing the naked parts of the human figure is not the fault of the painter, but of the period; and indeed, it was not until three centuries after the date of this manuscript, that any notable advancement was made in this difficult part of the art.

The draperies of the figures throughout the volume, with scarce any exception, are well cast; though the smaller folds are often too strongly marked in proportion to the larger ones; which, with the want of any decided masses of light and shadow distinguishing those sides of objects which are turned towards the light from such as are not so, prevents their producing the agreeable effect which they otherwise would do: but this, again, is more the fault of the time than of the artist. The colouring throughout these Illuminations is rich, without being gaudy. It is possible that in the tenth century some of the gay colours, in the use of which the miniature painters of more modern times indulged so freely, were but little known. If I am wrong in this supposition, we must accord to the illuminator of this manuscript the praise of having possessed a more chastened taste than many of his successors.

It would be absurd to pretend that the work attributed to Godemann is an average specimen of Anglo-Saxon art. The illuminations, for example, are very superior to those of the sacred poem known as Cædmon’s Metrical Paraphrase of Scripture History, preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. In these the human figure is badly drawn; and there is perhaps more of invention in the initial letters than in the larger compositions. The poem itself is a most remarkable production of the early Anglo-Saxon times. The account which Bede gives of one Cædmon, the supposed author of this poem, is a most curious one:—“There was in this Abbess’s Monastery [Abbess Hilda] a certain brother, particularly remarkable for the grace of God, who was wont to make pious and religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of Holy Writ, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and compunction, in his own, that is, the English language. By his verses the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to the heavenly life. Others after him attempted in the English nation to compose religious poems, but none could ever compare with him; for he did not learn the art of poetising of men, but through the divine assistance; for which reason he never could compose any trivial or vain poem; but only those that relate to religion suited his religious tongue; for having lived in a secular habit, till well advanced in years, he had never learnt anything of versifying; for which reason being sometimes at entertainments, when it was agreed, for the more mirth, that all present should sing in their turns, when he saw the instrument come towards him, he rose up from table, and returned home. Having done so at a certain time, and going out of the house where the entertainment was, to the stable, the care of horses falling to him that night, and composing himself there to rest at the proper time, a person appeared to him in his sleep, and saluting him by his name, said, Cædmon, sing some song to me. He answered, I cannot sing; for that was the reason why I left the entertainment, and retired to this place, because I could not sing. The other who talked to him, replied, However, you shall sing. What shall I sing? rejoined he. Sing the beginning of creatures, said the other. Hereupon, he presently began to sing verses to the praise of God, which he had never heard.”

The ode which Cædmon composed under this inspiration is preserved in Anglo-Saxon, in King Alfred’s translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History; and the following is an English translation from Alfred’s version:—

“Now must we praise

The guardian of heaven’s kingdom,

The Creator’s might,

And his mind’s thought;

Glorious Father of men!

As of every wonder he,

Lord eternal,

Formed the beginning.

He first framed

For the children of earth

The heaven as a roof;

Holy Creator!

Then mid-earth.

The Guardian of mankind,

The eternal Lord,

Afterwards produced

The earth for men,

Lord Almighty!”

The Metrical Paraphrase to which we have alluded is ascribed by some to a second Cædmon; but the best philological antiquaries are not agreed upon this matter. As to its extraordinary merits there is no difference of opinion. Sir Francis Palgrave says, “The obscurity attending the origin of the Cædmonian poems will perhaps increase the interest excited by them. Whoever may have been their author, their remote antiquity is unquestionable. In poetical imagery and feeling they excel all the other early remains of the North.” One of the remarkable circumstances belonging to these poems, whether written by the cow-herd of Whitby, or some later monk, is that we here find a bold prototype of the fallen angels of ‘Paradise Lost.’ Mr. Conybeare says that the resemblance to Milton is so remarkable in that portion of the poem which relates to the Fall of Man, that “much of this portion might be almost literally translated by a cento of lines from that great poet.” The resemblance is certainly most extraordinary, as we may judge from a brief passage or two. Every one is familiar with the noble lines in the first book of ‘Paradise Lost’—

“Him the Almighty Power

Hurl’d headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,

With hideous ruin and combustion, down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

In adamantine chains and penal fire,

Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.

Nine times the space which measures day and night

To mortal men, he with his horrid crew

Lay vanquish’d, rolling in the fiery gulf,

Confounded though immortal.”

The Anglo-Saxon Paraphrase of Cædmon was printed at Amsterdam in 1655. Can there be a question that Milton had read the passage which Mr. Thorpe thus translated?—

“Then was the Mighty angry,

The highest Ruler of heaven

Hurled him from the lofty seat;

Hate had he gained at his Lord,

His favour he had lost,

Incensed with him was the Good in his mind.

Therefore he must seek the gulf

Of hard hell-torment,

For that he had warr’d with heaven’s Ruler.

He rejected him then from his favour,

And cast him into hell,

Into the deep parts,

When he became a devil:

The fiend with all his comrades

Fell then from heaven above,

Through as long as three nights and days,

The angels from heaven into hell.”

Who can doubt that when the music of that speech of Satan beginning

“Is this the region, this the soil, the clime

That we must change for heaven?”

swelled upon Milton’s exquisite ear, the first note was struck by the rough harmony of Cædmon?—

“This narrow place is most unlike

That other that we ere knew

High in heaven’s kingdom.”

It would be quite beside our purpose to attempt any notice, however brief, of the Anglo-Saxon literature in general. Those who are desirous of popular information on this most interesting subject may be abundantly gratified in Mr. Sharon Turner’s ‘History of the Anglo-Saxons,’ in Mr. Conybeare’s ‘Illustrations of Saxon Poetry,’ and especially in Mr. Wright’s admirable volume of ‘Literary Biography’ of ‘the Anglo-Saxon period.’ The study of the Anglo-Saxon language and literature is reviving in our times; and we have little doubt that the effect will be, in conjunction with that love of our elder poets which is a healthful sign of an improving taste, to infuse something of the simple strength of our ancient tongue into the dilutions and platitudes of the multitudes amongst us “who write with ease.” Truly does old Verstegan say, “Our ancient English Saxons’ language is to be accounted the Teutonic tongue, and albeit we have in latter ages mixed it with many borrowed words, especially out of the Latin and French, yet remaineth the Teutonic unto this day the ground of our speech, for no other offspring hath our language originally had than that.” The noble language—“the tongue that Shakspere spake”—which is our inheritance, may be saved from corruption by the study of its great Anglo-Saxon elements. All the value of its composite character may be preserved, with a due regard to its original structure. So may we best keep our English with all its honourable characteristics, so well described by Camden:—“Whereas our tongue is mixed, it is no disgrace. The Italian is pleasant, but without sinews, as a still fleeting water. The French delicate, but even nice as a woman, scarce daring to open her lips, for fear of marring her countenance. The Spanish majestical, but fulsome, running too much on the o, and terrible like the devil in a play. The Dutch manlike, but withal very harsh, as one ready at every word to pick a quarrel. Now we, in borrowing from them, give the strength of consonants to the Italian; the full sound of words to the French; the variety of terminations to the Spanish; and the mollifying of more vowels to the Dutch; and so, like bees, we gather the honey of their good properties, and leave the dregs to themselves. And when thus substantialness combineth with delightfulness, fullness with fineness, seemliness with portliness, and currentness with staidness, how can the language which consisteth of all these, sound other than full of all sweetness?” (‘Remains.’)