The First Initials


The art of manuscript illumination is the glory of the Anglo-Saxon period. From the strange abstract wildness of the Book of Durrow, completed in Northumbria in the middle of the seventh century, to the richness and vitality of the Grimbald Gospels ornamented at Winchester in the early eleventh century, there emerge features that will become intrinsic to English art itself. And how could it not be so? A tradition of four hunded years does not pass in a night, if it can be said to pass at all.

There is much here in these early manuscript pages to excite contemplation in the twenty-first century. A bull in a field becomes an abstract shape invested in spiritual mystery, as if formed by Henry Moore; a hieratic full-length figure is decorated in radiant detail like some Pre-Raphaelite model; the ornamentation of a sacred chalice is strong and precise, as richly coloured as a tapestry by William Morris or a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard. Wandering through the intricate and elaborate mysteries of the Lindisfarne Gospels, we catch glimpses of William Hogarth’s “line of beauty,” that long serpentine line which the artist considered to be characteristic of English art; discerning the sinuous outlines of the figures within the Lindisfarne gospels, we may be inclined to agree with Roger Fry’s remark at the beginning of the twentieth century that the art of recent English painters is “primarily linear . . . and not plastic,” the only difference being that we are obliged to date this linearity back to the eighth and ninth centuries.

Other attributes may be seen as English in inspiration and in execution. The fascination for detail, and the obsession with the riddle or the puzzle, have already been discussed. But latent within them is the art of the miniature. Its apotheosis lies perhaps with the work of Nicholas Hilliard, who flourished at the Elizabethan court, but its most striking realisation may be in the art of the “historiated initial”—by which is meant the small scenes painted within the initials of manuscript texts. These initials may be an English invention and, according to one historian of medieval art, “this might partly account for their persistent popularity during the whole later history of English illumination.”1 The predominance of pattern and border over figure has also been characterised as English in style. The body is represented as flat, as part of the detail, rather than an object formed in volumetric space.

In his The Englishness of English Art published in 1956, the German art historian Nikolaus Pevsner noted this denial of the body in English art, quite unlike the typical art of the Mediterranean. Pevsner associated it with the English tendency towards embarrassment and understatement. And yet it might be interpreted as an aspect of a fundamentally non-human art; it is significant that the decorations of the Lindisfarne texts are borrowed from, or related to, the abstract patterns inscribed upon weaponry and jewellery of the same epoch. In the same way the Christian poetry of Beowulf is striated with ancient and pagan myths. If there is some wildness here in the obsession with spirals, whorls and lines rather than human figures, one historian of Anglo-Saxon art has a possible explanation: “It is a spiritual mystery; something eerily intangible, as though in secret shrines honour was still paid to older art, and dim traditions of prehistoric and later British aesthetic sensibility lived on to guide the artist’s hand.” 2 It has been described as “tense abstraction,” and is precisely the quality that may be recognised in the art of William Blake. When Anglo-Saxon illuminators from the tenth and eleventh centuries are placed against the engravings and tempera paintings of Blake, the resemblance becomes extraordinarily clear; there is the same figural grace, the same flowing linear pattern. The drawings of the Winchester school, in particular, have a delicacy within the outline, of which Blake’s instinctive movement with the brush or engraver is reminiscent. This is not, however, a matter of chance. Blake had seen the ancient wall-paintings in Westminster Abbey, as well as the funereal monuments of a later date, and had imbibed the Saxon art of outline and linear decoration.

The art of the Winchester monks and of William Blake is a wholly English achievement. One historian of medieval painting has remarked upon “the growth of a new and strongly marked national idiom,” with “the exquisite delicacy of line and proportion in the decorative detail” as of “a particularly English character.”The “light, agitated style of drawing,” characterised by the Winchester school and amplified by William Blake, was “intrinsically English” and a “national idiom”4 as English as the decorated stone crosses of the north and the elaborate embroidery of the south. Linearity and abstract pattern have already been deemed to be native characteristics. It is what Pevsner described in another context as “the anti-corporeal intricacies of line”5 to be traced in English architecture. It is why the English “developed an enthusiasm for brasses—that is not sculpture at all but engraving.” 6 It can be seen in what Reynolds called the “marks and scratches” of Gainsborough and “the formalised linear portrait” only to be found in England.7 It is the single line of melody in English music, where, for example, Tudor songs are “linear in conception.” 8 It is to be observed in the length of the naves, and of the long galleries, in English buildings; after all, “the long house was traditional in England.”9 It is evinced in the Queen’s House at Greenwich by Inigo Jones, in the straight progression of the Georgian terrace, and in “the calm rectilinear uniformity” of York Minster.10

The flowing linear pattern is central to the English imagination. The line drawings of Beardsley and Gillray exemplify this tendency, and it has been said that “line and tone rather than colour were on the whole characteristics of English painting at the end of the nineteenth century.” 11 These examples might be multiplied indefinitely, but they all lead back to the mysterious limpidity and simple outlines of Anglo-Saxon illuminators. It is what Blake called the “bounding” outline as if it exemplified all the vigour and animation of his own “illuminated books,” in which word and image are as indissolubly connected as any on the page of a tenth-century psalter.

The Anglo-Saxons had in a sense anticipated that energy in their own preoccupation with leaping figures. Among the foliated initials of illuminated manuscripts are to be seen human figures “climbing and jumping among the branches”;12 one illuminator from Winchester Cathedral has become known as “the Master of the Leaping Figures,” since his figures “sway and ‘leap,’ with swinging drapery and wide-flung arms”;13 animals “jump” with them in scenes of overflowing energy which seem so characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon world. A curious image which testifies to this delight in motion comes in an early eleventh-century psalter illuminating the Ascension of Our Lord; as is so often the case in presentations of this dramatic scene “the subject is indicated by the feet of the ascending figure only, at the top of the picture.”14 Four hundred years before, in the Echternach gospels of Northumbria, the “Lion of St. Mark” is shown in a bounding leap of joy. The same image occurs frequently in the literature of the medieval period, when, for example, the heart “ maketh moni liht lupe” in Ancrene Wisse. Christ is often described as “leaping” in the womb, while at an earlier date Bede describes the cripple healed by the apostles “walking, and leaping, and praising God.” We may leap forward to the middle of the fourteenth century when, in a poem of London, “lads left their labour and leaped to the place.”15 Then we can return once more to Blake’s vision where

The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d


Ornamental page with the monogram “Chr(ist) autem.” Beginning of the Christmas story, Matthew 1, 18. From the Lindisfarne Gospels

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