Catherine E. Karkov, the Art of Anglo-Saxon England

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Catherine E. Karkov, The Art of Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011). xiv + 326 pp.; 82 black-and-white figures, 12 colour plates. ISBN 978-184383-628-5. 45-00 [pounds sterling].

Catherine E. Karkov states that her intention is threefold. 'Firstly I want to provide a discussion of the different types of images and monuments, their meanings and functions that make the art of this particular time and place unique. Secondly, I am particularly interested in the ways in which Anglo-Saxon art works to create and narrate the process of becoming a culture or a nation, and to map its changing identities. Thirdly I hope to provide some sense of just what it is that makes Anglo-Saxon art "art" rather than a series of historical or archaeological artefacts' (p. 1). This is an ambitious agenda which immediately raises the question of whether it would be best pursued along chronological or thematic lines. The author alternates between the two. Thus after two broadly chronological chapters--'The art of origins' treating selected pre-Christian and early Christian art, 'Sacred space' focusing on the 'Golden Age' of Northumbria--the third (Art, status and authority') surveys monuments of kingship from the seventh-century site of Yeavering to Edward the Confessor's Westminster Abbey and items associated with women from Baldhild (of Neustria) to the Salisbury Psalter, while the fourth ('Object and voice') explores inscriptions of all sorts ranging from those on the Franks Casket to the Eadwine Psalter. The last two chapters ('Books, words and bodies' and Art and conquest') look respectively at aspects of manuscript illumination--ranging from that in the sixth-century Irish Cathach of Columba to the illustrations in a codex of Old English poetry dating from c. 1000--and consider visual reflexes of the ninth-century Scandinavian settlers and the eleventh-century Danish and Norman conquerors.

The period that the volume aspires to cover is enormous: the earliest item discussed in detail (a buckle from Mucking) dates from the fifth century, the latest (the Eadwine Psalter) from the middle of the twelfth--some 700 years apart. Given that this is the equivalent of a span extending from the reign of Edward II to the present day, one problem is immediately apparent: with such a vast canvas, depth will inevitably be sacrificed for breadth. …