Contributed by Juliet Mullins
First impressions of the Crucifixion scene in the tenth-century Irish Southampton Psalter might be that it is crude, simplistic and unsophisticated. When cataloguing the manuscript, M. R. James described its three images as affording: “most striking examples at once of skill in decoration and total inability to draw figures”. Even the colour palette seems to confirm that this image represents an impoverished and diminished descendent of the tradition which reached such heights in the Book of Kells. When we turn to contemporary Irish writings on the Crucifixion, however, we find poets and exegetes revelling in the complex symbolism that the Passion affords. The Cross functions as a sign of Christ’s suffering, a symbol of his saving grace and, finally, as an image of judgment and the end of earthly time. These symbols can be traced not only in literature, but also in images, the use of space, music and the liturgy. ‘Christ on the Cross’ is an interdisciplinary project that aims to provide a holistic approach to medieval culture that brings together these different areas of study into a shared space. Drawing upon the expertise of its constituent members, this research team aims to demonstrate that the Cross is the most potent of all objects in early medieval culture: it is a strikingly simple image in structural terms, yet its significance is profound and its readings multifaceted.
The complex symbolism of the Cross rendered it fertile ground for medieval exegetes. By his death upon the Cross and his sealing of a New Covenant, Christ was understood to have unlocked the mysteries of the Old Testament, which in turn prefigured and illuminated the mysteries of the New Testament. One of the most widespread typological topoi focused upon connections between Christ and his ancestor David, a connection which brought the victory of the Crucifixion to the fore. On the Continent, this topos had been powerfully expressed in the sixth-century hymns to the cross by Venantius Fortunatus, which formed part of the liturgy of Holy Week, and in another hymn ascribed to Hilary of Poitiers (ca.300-ca.368) which is preserved in the late seventh-century Antiphonary of Bangor. In Irish literature, the powerful resonances of the Crucifixion as a battle and Christ as a warrior find expression in the poems of Blathmac (where Christ is a hero, ‘óclach’, who takes sovereignty, ‘fír flaith’, over his kingdom, ‘slánside’, ‘tír na mbithbéo’) and in the tenth-century verse Saltair na Rann. Returning to the Southampton Psalter, we find that the Cross can be understood as a battleground that had been prefigured in the many battles fought by David: through the other two images in the Psalter, of David’s defeat of the lion and of Goliath, the Psalter itself is understood in light of Christ’s victory over death. The position of the Southampton Crucifixion scene within the manuscript and its place within a wider textual and artistic dialogue, therefore, reflect on multiple levels the complexity with which the medieval world envisioned the defining moment in Christian history and theology when Christ was on the Cross.
Blogging and the wider theory and practice of digital humanities have opened up new spaces and audiences for history, literature, arts, culture and heritage and broken down traditional boundaries of discipline and field. Through its conference, publications and online database of material representations of the Crucifixion, CoIRP (Corpus of Irish Representations of the Passion), the ‘Christ on the Cross’ project hopes to emphasise that such boundaries were unknown to the medieval world; the Cross was a relic, artefact, gesture, symbol and sign familiar across cultures and societies. Studied together, medieval artworks and texts can revive this interdisciplinarity and the highly-charged symbolic value of the Cross in medieval Ireland.
This project is funded by an IRCHSS Project Grant in Theology and Religious Studies. Juliet Mullins is a lecturer in Old English at University College Cork and Principal Investigator of the ‘Christ on the Cross’ project. Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh (History of Art) and Richard Hawtree (English) are Associate Investigators. You can find more details via the project website, Facebook, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Southampton Psalter (Cambridge, St John’s College MS C9), reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.