Monday, October 12, 2015

Considering wood, cross, and crucifixion iconography in the world of Anglo-Saxon England, part 7 deferred

Anglo-Saxon bed burial with gold cross
Artifacts from a 7th century grave of a teenage Anglo-Saxon girl found near Cambridge, England in 2012.

 Before I continue with part 7 of the current blog, I find I need to step back and do some more research on the iconography of trees and wood for the Anglo-Saxons since it spans pagan and Christians periods.  

Also I needed to go back to read Elene by Cynewulf (in translation since I cannot read Old English). Somehow I missed it in English literature classes.  But I suspect that is because the poem by Cynewulf was deemed "too Christian."  Instead we had a read Beowulf  in a not very good translation.  I never grasped the structure of the original nor its use of alliteration. More modern translations come closer to giving a sense of the original poem. 

 I wanted to back to reread Barbara  C. Raw's seminal book Anglo-Saxon Crucifixion Iconography and the Art of the Monastic Revival.  There have been quite a number of newer works that have expanded her work that I needed to read.  Since the Jesse Tree design falls so  much into the Anglo-Saxon tradition of iconography and not narrative design, I wanted to explore more before I added anything more to a world already too crowded with words that lack any thought.

Crucifixion from Holy Rood Church, Daglingworth, Gloucestershire. Though Christ in on the cross, he is not a figure of suffering but one nimbed in majesty. 10th century.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Jesse Tree Wood: Trunk, Vine, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit-Part 3 Addendum

          I was looking back to see if I was putting together the foundation stones for the elaborate legends of the Holy Cross as they develop in the 13th century onward. There were several items that needed either emphasis or additional material.

         Earlier I mentioned Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem who writing about 350 mentioned that wood from the Cross was in Jerusalem.

       It was Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who composed an oration De Obitu Theodosii in 395 who seems to make the first mention of Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, as the finder of the cross. It is Helena who goes to Jerusalem, to Golgotha, to look for the lignum crucis.(,  Ambrosius,_De_Obitu_Theodosii_Oratio,_MLT.pdf) It was Helen that gave the nails of the crucifixion to her son to be used to make a bit, and another to be added to a diadem.
         Now, it is hard to know if Rufinus writing about 6 or so years later knew about Ambrose's funeral oration when he added the story of Helen and the Cross to Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, or if both men were using the same unknown source for this addition to the story of finding the True Cross. In any case, I realized that I had given Rufinus only a passing mention, and there is little doubt that his works were known in Anglo-Saxon England.

          Rufinus of Aquileia, also called Tyrannius Rufinus, was born about 344 in the city of Julia Concordia at the head of the Adriatic Sea.   In his mid-20s, he traveled to Alexandria and the eastern Mediterranean to study.  During this time he acquired a patroness, Melania, a wealthy Christian widow from Rome.  She eventually moved to Palestine, and with Rufinus, founded a monastery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.  Rufinus moved between Jerusalem, Rome, Aquileia, and Sicily. He studied Christian theology in Greek.  He was a contemporary of Jerome.  He is not as well known as Jerome, lacking Jerome's writing style.  Both of them introduced to the western Latin speaking Church, the great trove of Greek learning, that was otherwise unknown in an area where Greek was virtually unknown.  Rufinus left Rome because of the incursions of the Goths and died in Sicily in 411. In England, at least, translations by Rufinus were attributed to Jerome.  (See Aelfric’s homily for the Exaltation of the Cross, for example.  More on this later.)

       Rufinus did very little original writing.  He was primarily a translator, who thought nothing of editing and revising the material he was translating.  Rufinus began translating Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History in 401 at the request of Bishop Chromatius of Aquileia. The translation was often quite free, more a paraphrase of Eusebius' work.  He shortened the original text quite freely. (Rufinus of Aquilea (Author), Philip R. Amidon, tr. and ed. The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia: Books 10 and 11(1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.vii-xiii, 16-8),

       Rufinus wrote  a simple version of Helena's finding of the crosses.Sec. 10.7.  Helena, the emperor Constantine's mother, is described as "matchless in faith, devotion, and singular generosity." (p.16)  She is instructed by a vision to travel to Jerusalem to the site of the Crucifixion, now covered by a temple to Venus.  She orders the removal of all that is "profane and defiled."  When all the rubble is removed, three crosses are discovered "jumbled together."  Not being able to identify the true cross even after the inscription was found, it is Bishop Macarius who suggests that God will show them the true cross by healing a woman of high station who was near death.  Sec 10.8 continues with the prayer of Bishop Macarius.  He then touches the woman with the first two pieces of wood and she remains very ill.  When he touches her with the three cross, she was immediately healed.  She opened he eyes, got up, and ran about the house glorifying the Lord. (p.17)  Helena then presented some of the wood to her son.  The rest she put into silver reliquaries and left in Jerusalem.  The nails of the crucifixion Helena also gave to her son.  Some went into a bridle and the remainder were placed in a battle helmet. The helmet/diadem part of the story is repeated in Cassiodorus' Historia Ecclesiastica Tripartita.

   Copies of the Rufinus' translation of Eusebius' Ecclesiatica Historia in England before 1100 (From Gneuss and Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts)
  1. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College Library 187.  11th or 12th century, prob. made at Christ Church, Canterbury.  
  2. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College Library 192.  mid 10th century, Landevannec (Brittainy). In England at Canterbury by mid 10th century at Christ Church or St. Augustine's.(excerpt only of Historia)
  3. Cambridge, Pembroke College 108.  Excerpts from Book 10, sec. 1-14 (that includes the finding of the Cross) mid 9th century France.  In England at Bury St. Edmunds.
  4. Worcester Cathedral Library, Q.28. mid 9th century France.  In England by mid 10th or 11th century at Canterbury. Provenance Worcester.
  5. Fragment now at Vienna Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, series nova 3644.  Made probably in north England in 8th century.
  6. Almost certainly other copies were known in Anglo-Saxon England.  



Saturday, October 3, 2015

Jesse Tree Wood: Trunk, Vine, Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit-Part 6

Altar cross with gems or crux gemmata, made in Belgium, about 1250. From the workshop of Hugo de Oignies.  In Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum number 244-1874.
          Though I keep mentioning the Dream of the Rood, I seriously doubt that many people, with the exception of those few who might read this blog, have even heard of the poem, let alone know how to read it in Old English.  (I may be able to figure out a few words.  I am not facile with language and so learning Old English is really hard for me.)  Given its Christian theme, it is not taught in school anymore.  Without a special interest in things Insular-Saxon and early medieval, it is mostly unknown now.  
         The only complete version is found in second half of the 10th or early 11th century manuscript that was found in the cathedral library of Vercelli Cathedral in Piedmont, northern Italy.  How the rather large manuscript, made in England, came to be lodged in Italy where it was found in the 19th century is still not known.  None of the proposed theories including one that somehow the manuscript came into the possession of Bishop Jacopo Guala Bicchieri (d. 1227) who had been papal legate in England 1216–1218 explains the journey the manuscript made from England to Italy.  Bishop Bicchieri founded a rest place or hostel for English pilgrims in Vercelli.  The manuscript is rather heavy for a pilgrim to carry for personal use.  The writing of the Vercelli book is in square miniscule and was copied from earlier texts.  The composition date is before the 10th century and probably much earlier, perhaps in the 8th century.  The runic text on the Ruthwell cross quotes lines that are very similar, but not quite identical, to the version of Dream of the Rood found in the Vercelli manuscript.  In addition, the inscription on the Brussels Cross made during the 11th century in northern England but now housed in Belgium also bears great similarity to lines from the Dream of the Rood.  The inscription in translation reads, “Rood is my name.  Trembling once, I bore a powerful king, made wet with blood.”[1] The Dream of the Rood may have had several oral versions before it was written down.
The opening lines of the Dream of the Rood as they appear in the Vercilli manuscript.

          A digital version of the text is found at:

          Numerous online translations include:
         The poem is set in the frame work of a dream that the poet had at night when all is quiet.  In the first part of the poem, the poet dreams of a beautiful gem-covered cross of gold applied over wood.  Beneath the gold and jewels, a crux gemmata, is the real blood stained cross on which Jesus was crucified.  The Saxons did not practice crucifixion as a form of punishment, and so the cross was unknown to pagan Saxons, though the gallows was used for capital punishment.  The dreamer at first compares the cross to the gallows that has become a victory-beam.  The dreamer is “stained with sins, wounded with wickedness.”  The dreamer saw “the tree of glory adorned with drapery, shining with joys, decked with gold; gems had worthily wrapped the All-Wielder's tree.” [Note: I am borrowing freely from the translation of Eleanor Parker, PhD as it appears on her blog, A Clerk of Oxford,  I am no linguist but I relish her neologisms that attempt to give one a sense of the constructed words of the original Old English.]  Beneath the fairness of the crux gemmata, the dreamer sees the cross bleeding from its right side.  This recalls the piercing of Jesus’ side by a Roman soldier as told in John 19.34.  Frequently it is Jesus’ right side that is shown as pierced in Christian iconography, but crucifixes and drawings of the Crucifixion in manuscripts of northern Europe date from a couple of centuries later than the composition of Dream of the Rood. (The earliest crucifix in northern Europe is the Gero Crucifix in Cologne Cathedral made about 965-70.[2])  The dreamer’s vision shifts between the bejeweled cross and the bloody gore when the cross speaks.

Crucifixion of Jesus with St. Mary and St. John. British Library Harley 2904 f. 3v. Ramsey Psalter. Made 980-1000 in Winchester, south England probably for use in the Benedictine monastery of Ramsey. This appears to be the oldest manuscript crucifixion scene made in England.  It has many features the recall the Utrecht Psalter made in the 9th century in Europe.  The drapery style referred to as "agitated" is typical of  Winchester.
        The cross speaks as an old man recalling the memory of being cut down and carried on men’s shoulders until it was affixed to a hill.  The Cross sees Jesus, the Savior of the world as a young hero who embraces his crucifixion with resolve as a ransom for mankind.  Unlike the cross of Venantius Fortunatus’ poem that is asked to relax its sinews, the Cross of the Dream is firm and steadfast.  The cross could have “felled all those enemies” that crucified the “young lord” “but stood fast.”  Christ is the young triumphant warrior even when humiliated with death upon a cross.  “I trembled when that man [Christ] embraced me, yet I dared not bow to the earth, fall to earth's fields; I had to stand fast.” (quotations again Dr. Parker’s translation)  The cross raised up the Lord, the noble king.  The Cross then spoke of the unhealing wounds of malice created by the nails used for the Crucifixion .  The Cross was drenched in the blood of Jesus before he died.  The Cross watched as “All creation wept, lamented the king’s fall. Christ was on the cross.”  The steadfast cross is forsaken by the soldiers, left alone, wounded and wet, while the body of the dead (limb-weary) Jesus awaited burial.

         In the poem there is the tension between the beauty of the gold and jeweled cross and the  rough, grim, bloody wooden cross.  There is also the tension between the solidity of the dead wooden cross, the instrument of death, and the weakness, fear, and trembling that the living cross experiences as a sentient being, aware of the pain, suffering and sacrifice of Jesus.  Father G. Ronald Murphy, SJ, refers to this as a "double identity."  Father Murphy refers to this as an especially Germanic feature where the cross as gallows is contrasted with the "compassionate and so-suffering tree of rescue."  It is the trembling and suffering wood that recalled the long-suffering world tree Yggdrasil of Nordic myth. (G. Ronald Murphy, SJ.  Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross of the North. (2013) Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, pp. 125-153.)

            The Cross watched the sepulcher being dug and the body placed there before the Resurrection.  Then the poet reveals that he knows the story of the discovery of the cross by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine.  The Cross is cut down and thrown in a deep pit where it was buried.  Later the cross was found by friends and servants of the Lord who dug up the cross and adorned the remnants with gold and silver.  The Cross went on to say that once an instrument of cruel torture and death, the Cross is now an instrument of healing.  The Cross orders the dreamer to reveal the dream:

     that you tell men about this vision:
     reveal with words that it is the tree of glory
     on which almighty God suffered
     for mankind's many sins
     and Adam's ancient deeds.
     Death he tasted there; nevertheless, the Lord rose again
     with his great might to help mankind.
     He ascended into heaven. He will come again
     to this earth to seek mankind.           
     on doomsday, the Lord himself,
     almighty God, and his angels with him,
     so that he will then judge, he who has the power of judgement,
     each one of them, for what they themselves have
     earned here earlier in this transitory life.  (Elaine Treharne translation)

            The third section returns to the poet’s prayers and hopes for a place in Paradise.

                             and I for myself expect
     each of my days the time when the Lord’s rood,
     which I here on earth formerly saw,
     from this loaned life will fetch me away
     and bring me then where is much bliss,
     joy in the heavens, where the Lord’s folk
     is seated at feast, where is bliss everlasting;
     and set me then where I after may
     dwell in glory, well with those saints
     delights to enjoy. May he be friend to me
     who here on earth earlier died
     on that gallows-tree for mankind’s sins.
     He loosed us and life gave,
     a heavenly home…(Glenn translation)

            The splendor of a Saxon hall is recalled in Dream of the Rood, far different from a first century cooking fire of one-roomed house in dusty Palestine.  The cross became a powerful and deeply influential image in Saxon art and poetry.  The cross was the promise of salvation at death and the messenger that:

     will fetch me    from this feeble life
     and bring me    to where there is great bliss,
     joy in heaven,    to join the Lord's people
     always sitting    in unceasing bliss.  (Leech translation)

            The vines and trunks of Jesse Trees of the 12th century onward are luxuriant with their leaves, flowers, fruit, in various combinations.  They are not the solid shaft of high crosses.  They are not the tree cross of the hero young warrior.  But they do draw upon the ancient idea of the cross as tree of life.

            In the British Library is a manuscript psalter made in Winchester, England after 1073 or so but before 1099 with a drawing of the Crucifixion with Sts. Mary and John that has a rough-hewn green wooden cross.  I do not intend to follow that path just yet.  This was just a reminder that the cross of death is also the tree of life.

British Library. Arundel Psalter f. 12v.  Made about 1060 at Winchester, England.

            The Vita Adae et Evae (Life of Adam and Eve) in Latin dates from the 10th century.[3]  It was originally a Jewish legend the extended the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall.  It continued the story until Adam’s and Eve’s deaths and the writing of their lives by Seth on stellae.  The parts of the story include:
a.      Adam and Eve after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden,
b.     Penitence of Adam in the Jordan River and Eve in the Tigris river,
c.      Adam blames Eve for the Fall and the birth of Cain,
d.     The death of Abel,
e.      Adam’s version of the expulsion with the vision of archangel Michael from the Garden of Eden as told to Seth,
f.      Adam at age 930 years as he is ill and death approaches,
g.     Adam’s short version of the Fall as told to his children,
h.     Adam in pain commands Eve and Seth to get him the oil of mercy from the Tree of Life,
i.       Eve and Seth encounter the serpent and Seth is bitten,
j.       Arrival at Paradise where Eve and Seth beg Archangel Michael of the Oil of Mercy, and Michael’s refusal,
k.     Return to Adam with spices nard, crocus, calaminth, and cinnamon.  Depending of the version they also may have branches as well.
l.       The death of Adam.  God gives his soul to Michael until Judgement Day.
m.   The burial of Adam and Abel,
n.     Death of Eve and her funeral,
o.     The recording of the life of Adam and Eve,
p.     A final potpourri of stories about the nature of Adam, the formation of Adam from soil brought by the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel from the four corners of the earth to Bethlehem, and the naming of Adam.[4]  These are not in all versions.

            One part of the legend gets carried over in the Legend of the (Holy) Rood or De ligno sancte crucis, and therefore of particular interest when tracing the origins of the wood of the Jesse Tree.  I am skipping ahead with the rood legends and then I will come back to the finding of the Cross in the homilies of Aelfric and poem  Elene, even though both are older that the Legend of the Rood.

            Usually the first part of the story of the multipart story is about Seth, the son of Adam, seeking the oil of Mercy for his dying father.  When Adam was old and in pain at aged 930 years, he sent Eve and his son Seth back to the gates of Paradise to beg for oil from the Tree of Mercy to anoint himself and ease the pain.  Adam commands Eve, “Rise, go with my son, Seth, near to the gates of paradise and cast dust on your heads, and prostrate yourself on the ground,lamenting in the sight of God.  Perhaps he will take pity and send his angel over to the tree of his mercy from which flows the oil of life, and will give you a little of it with which to anoint me so that I may have rest from these pains with which I am consumed.”[5]

            The angel Michael met them and did not give them the requested oil.  Instead, they were given a branch and sweet smelling spices.  Adam died and his children mourned him.  Then Seth saw the hand of God give the body of Adam to the angel Michael.  The angels Michael and Uriel buried Adam and his son Abel in Paradise.  Six days later Eve died.  Seth and his brothers and sisters mourned her for only six days because of the instruction from the angel Michael.  Another version of this tale has Seth looking into Paradise and seeing in a large tree at the center of the garden the Virgin and infant Jesus.  Upon Seth’s reporting this sight to his dying father, Adam exclaims, “Blessed are you, O Lord, for now I know truly that a virgin will conceive a son who will die on the cross, whence we shall all be saved.”[6]
          One such story is in the Holy Rood legend(s) dating perhaps from the 11th century and found in a 12th century vernacular Old English manuscript at the Bodleian Library (Bodley 343), Oxford.[7] The story starts with Moses finding three rods/trees in the desert after the Red Sea crossing.  He was asleep and three rods sprung up during the night.  One was at his head and one was at his right and left.  The trees are cypress, pine, and cedar.  At first, Moses is afraid of the wood.  Another version has Moses recognizing the three wands as a symbol of the Trinity.  After Moses discovers that the rods have to power to sweeten bitter water, he takes the three rods with him.  David carried the trees to Jerusalem where they were placed in a pool of bitter water.  The three become one mighty tree that grew in David’s garden, and, on which, David hung 30 silver hoops.  Solomon cut down the tree to use in building the Temple but the wood was always the wrong length.  The wood would get longer or shorter than what was needed.  So the tree was put in the Temple.  The thirty silver hoops were made into thirty plates that hung in the temple.  The silver eventually came to Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, as 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26.15).  The tree remained in the Temple in Jerusalem and many miracles were associated with it.  Eventually Caiaphas ordered that three hundred men get the tree to make the cross for Jesus.  None of the three hundred men could move the tree.  So, a section of wood was cut from the tree for the cross for Jesus. 
          The Legend of the Holy Rood picks up later with Helena, the mother on Constantine, coming to Jerusalem.  She went into the temple and saw wood there that was left from the cross that had previously been made for Jesus.  She was told by a voice of an angel to cut the remaining wood into four pieces, each 10 ells in length.  These four pieces were to be sent to the four corners of the earth.  Helen found the cross of Jesus’ crucifixion and the cross on which the robber was crucified,  the wood was carried with great honor to Constantinople.[8]  When Helena entered the city, a dead man was brought to her, and he was made alive by the wood from the true cross.
          A week later, Constantine went to Jerusalem.  Helena gave him two pieces of the Holy Cross.  One piece went to Jerusalem, one piece to Alexandria, one piece to Rome with Pope Silvester, and the final piece went to Constantinople.  Three days after the finding of the Cross, Judas, the Jew who helped Helena find the Holy Rood, gave Helena the five nails used in the crucifixion of Jesus. An angel again come to Helena and told her to make a bridle for her son from the five nails used for the crucifixion.  The mouth of the horse wearing the bridle had a great flame coming from it.  As a consequence, the people seeing it were terrified and accepted Christianity. The bridle sped the spread of Christianity.
      It is clear even from this summary that not all the story as we now have it hang together.  There are inconsistencies both within the story and between the story and the Gospels.It would seem that parts were added or parts lost.  It appears that the story or stories had different probable oral traditions before being written down and the versions were never completely reconciled.

[1] Eamonn O Carragain.  Sources or Analogues?  Using Liturgicial Evidence to Date The Dream of the Rood. In Sarah L. Keffer, Karen L. Jolly and Catherine E. Karkov, ed.  Cross and Cruciform in the Anglo Saxon World.  Studies to Honor the Memory of Timothy Reuter. (2010) Morganton, WV. West Virginia University Press, 135-165. Eamonn O Carragain. Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition. (2005) Toronto. University of Toronto Press.
[2] <>
[3] Charles, R. H. ed. Apocrypha and Pseudepigraphia of the Old Testament in English.  Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1913. < >  See also: Murdoch, Brian.  The Apocryphal Adam and Eve in Medieval Europe : Vernacular Translations and Adaptations of the Vita Adae Et Evae. (2009) Oxford, Oxford University Press. 27 ff. 74-77.
[4]<>   < > <>
Anderson, Gary & Michael E. Stone. “Introduction and problems of the text, in Part One of An Electronic Edition of the “Life of Adam and Eve” 1995. <>
[5] <> 36.1 and 36.2.
[6] This interpolation is to be found in London, British Library, MS Arundel 326, said by Mozley to have derived from a manuscript of the thirteenth century, and its close copy, London, British Library, MS Sloane 289, dated to the fifteenth century. See J. H. Mozley,  Documents: The Vita Adae, Journal of Theological Studies. (1929) XXX-os,
[7] Napier, Arthur S. ed.  History of the Holy Rood-Tree : A Twelfth-century Version of the Cross-legend with Notes, EETS, OS 103 (1894) London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.  2-32. <> <>
[8] See Matthew 27.38, Mark 15.27, Luke 23.39.41, John 19.18.