The Crucifixion of Christ

Harley MS 2904

The delicate line drawings inspired by the arrival in Britain of the Utrecht Psalter are among my favourite works of art in any medium. Though scarcely more than breathed on to the page, their figures have an explosive vitality that goes back through that manuscript to the Classical style of late-Roman Christian art.

This Crucifixion is unusual among its contemporaries in that Christ is shown almost without passion. Here is the steadfast, undefeated Christ of the Dream of the Rood and the Gospel of St John. The Virgin, however, shivers in agony. Hunched over and soaked by tears, she hovers on pathetically tiny feet, a diminished figure annihilated by grief.

By contrast, St John raises his face to Christ’s with what seems an impossible smile. He gestures toward a scroll bearing words that take us to the heart of his Gospel: that humanity’s salvation is through Christ’s death and Resurrection. Is this still the nub of my faith? Today, when we are familiar with other religions as profound as Christianity, I would have to rephrase it: our salvation must lie in following an exemplum as wise and as simple, as tragic and as triumphant, as this one.

Curatorial note:
This Psalter – a collection of psalms, prayers and hymns, together with a litany of saints – was produced in the late 10th century, probably at one of the Winchester monasteries. Details of its litany of saints suggest it was made for Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire. It is written in Latin on vellum. The text scroll reads “This is the disciple who beareth witness of these things” (John 21:24). A small group of other 10th-century manuscripts sharing this tinted-outline drawing style are attributed to the same artist, who was influential in introducing the technique into Anglo-Saxon England. At that time, the peace following the long period of Viking invasions enabled a revival of the monastic tradition, which in turn fostered a late flowering of Anglo-Saxon art.

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