Another Look at the Disappearing Christ: Corporeal and Spiritual Vision in Early Medieval Images

Article excerpt

The exceptional originality of tenth- and eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon art is justly renowned.l Perhaps the most extraordinary of all its many innovations is a new type of Ascension iconography that seems to have been invented about the millennium. Traditionally, the ascending Christ had been depicted with his body entirely visible.2 In Eastern art, he appeared either standing or enthroned frontally in a mandorla carried by angels, an iconography adopted by the Galba Psalter (Fig. 1);3 and in Western images he most often strode upwards in profile, as in the Benedictional of AEthelwold (Fig. 2).4 The new Anglo-Saxon figural type, christened the "disappearing Christ" by Meyer Schapiro,5 broke decisively with these traditional poses: Christ is portrayed at the very moment he vanishes into heaven, his upper body hidden in clouds, leaving only his feet or legs visible. First extant in England in the early eleventh-century Missal of Robert of Jumieges from Canterbury (Fig. 3),6 the new imagery soon supplanted the older types of the Ascension to become the standard English iconography. The disappearing Christ is found in three later Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, all from the eleventh century: the Bury St. Edmunds Psalter (Fig. 4),7 the Tiberius Psalter (Fig. 5),8 and the Cotton Troper (Fig. 6).9 Almost immediately after its invention, the Anglo-Saxon iconography spread to the Continent, appearing in two English-influenced manuscripts: the early eleventh-century Odbert Gospels from St-Bertin (Fig. 7)10 and the so-called costly Gospels of Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim (Fig. 8).11 Nonetheless, on the Continent, in contrast to England, the disappearing Christ did not become common until the Gothic period.

In a classic study, Schapiro related the religious meaning of the disappearing Christ to literary and exegetic tradition.l2 He argued that the exegesis had existed long before the creation of the imagery and so was not sufficient to explain the timing of the pictorial invention. Nor, in his opinion, did preceding images prepare for the pictorial innovation. Rather, Schapiro emphasized that the new iconography showed Christ from the subjective viewpoint of the Apostles below, who watch him vanish into the cloud. For Schapiro, this was an example of optical "realism" that resulted from the precocious disposition of Anglo-Saxon artists to reexperience standard objective religious themes from their own subjective personal perspective, that is, to reconstitute traditional sacred subjects, weighted with theology, with fresh empirical details drawn from their individual experience of the real world.

More than half a century has passed since Schapiro's pioneering study, and the time has come to take another look at the disappearing Christ. In addition to reconsidering the image's relation to literary and pictorial traditions, any new investigation must take into account highly significant and revealing variations in the iconography that have been missed. It must also reassess the issues of "optical realism" and artistic individualism, as Schapiro conceived them, in light of medieval liturgy, devotional practice, and concepts of vision.

Schapiro suggested that the new Ascension type was related to the old exegetic tradition that Christ had ascended to heaven without any help. In the sixth century, Gregory the Great had contrasted the Ascension of Christ with the ascension of two Old Testament precursors, Elijah and Enoch.l3 Elijah had required the aid of a chariot and Enoch the assistance of angels to rise to the sky, but Christ had ascended entirely on his own power above the sky to heaven. Gregory's ideas were adopted by Bede in the eighth century,14 by Carolingian homilists in the ninth,l5 and, most important, by Anglo-Saxon vernacular writers about the millennium. Schapiro cited the commentary on the description of Christ's Ascension in Acts 1:9 ("And when he had said these things, while they looked on, he was raised up and a cloud received him out of their sight")16 in the anonymous late tenthcentury Old English Blickling homilies:l7 The cloud did not make its appearance there because ou Lord had need of the cloud's aid at the Ascension, nor dic the cloud raise him up; but he took the cloud before him since he hath all creatures in his hand, and by his divine power and by his eternal wisdom, according to his purpose [will], he orders and disposes all things. …