Picture this: portraits of Anglo-Saxon rulers
Only five contemporary manuscript portraits of identifiable Anglo-Saxon rulers survive. Recent visitors to the British Library or to this Blog are probably already familiar with one of them. This is the illuminated miniature featuring King Edgar (959–975) which forms the frontispiece of the New Minster Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), confirming the rights of the reformed church at Winchester. It is the 'frontispiece' of our sold-out exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, adorning the posters as well as the entrance to the Library.
In this blogpost, we look at some of these Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits, alongside contemporary European examples.
King Edgar with the Virgin Mary, St Peter, Christ in Majesty and angels (New Minster, Winchester, c. 966): Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v
In the New Minster Charter, made in around 966, King Edgar, facing towards the heavens, presents a golden copy of the document to Christ. The Virgin Mary and St Peter look on approvingly. The fact that he is surrounded by saints and handing the charter straight to Christ reminds the viewer of his status as a pious, Christian king, ruling with divine blessing. These themes were all central to the idealised representations of the royal office in the early medieval Christian West.
Depicting the king holding a politically important document, in the shape of a book, is more remarkable in the context of early medieval ruler portraits. This emphasised Edgar as a learned king, to whom the written word was significant, but also visually confirmed his politically motivated patronage of the New Minster. It exemplified the key motifs of the specifically Anglo-Saxon image of kingship and queenship, in which the ruler was shown to be actively involved with learning, patronage of the Church, and the production or use of texts and books. These motifs set the Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits apart from those of their early medieval contemporaries.
The Continental approach to portraying rulers makes this contrast clear. Throughout their mutual history the Anglo-Saxons and their neighbours across the Channel, the Carolingians, were in close contact. The most famous and influential ruler of the Carolingian dynasty (c. 714–877), whose empire covered most of western Continental Europe, was Charlemagne (768–814).
Emperor Lothar I enthroned (the court of the Emperor Lothar, ?Aachen, c. 840–855): Add MS 37768, f. 4r
No contemporary illustrations of Charlemagne have survived, but there is a striking depiction of his oldest legitimate grandson, Lothar I (817–855), in the manuscript known as the Lothar Psalter (Add MS 37768).
Roman imperial portraits were the main source for early medieval ruler portraits. This link became even more important to the Carolingians when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in 800. The resulting emphasis on imperial majestic splendour and military authority is clearly seen in Lothar’s portrait. His golden and jewel-encrusted crown is matched by an extravagant cloak of gold, covered in gems. The entire backdrop is a deep purple — the colour associated specifically with emperors since Antiquity because of the exceedingly high value of the pigment. In his hands he holds a long sceptre, recalling the sceptrum Augusti (sceptre of imperial majesty) of the Roman emperors, and the hilt of a sword, drawing visual comparisons to the military status of the imperial role.
The Anglo-Saxon ruler portrait closest in time to that of Lothar is also the earliest surviving. In a manuscript containing Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert, King Æthelstan is depicted presenting the book itself to St Cuthbert (d. 687). Cuthbert was a monk and bishop of Lindisfarne, whose cult became increasingly popular across northern England. The image commemorates Æthelstan’s gift of the manuscript to St Cuthbert’s community, while also associating the king with the patronage of a politically significant religious centre, and the production of a book containing works by an eminent Anglo-Saxon author.
King Æthelstan presenting St Cuthbert with the book (South England, c. 934–939): Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v
Despite Æthelstan’s many diplomatic connections with Continental rulers (not least exemplified by his gifts of books), the Continental focus on the extravagant stateliness and military might of the monarch has not influenced this portrait. He humbly bows his head to the saint; only his crown betrays his grand status.
The surviving Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits also stand apart when it comes to the depiction of queens. Hardly any portraits of Carolingian queens survive, but during the Ottonian dynasty (c. 919–1024) double-ruler portraits of the queens alongside their husbands or sons became popular.
Christ in Majesty crowning Henry II and his wife Kunigunde, with St Peter on the left and St Paul on the right. Below is the female personification of Rome, with female personifications of Gallia and Germania on either side (Reichenau, c. 1007–1012): Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4452, f. 2r
For instance, the Evangelistary of Henry II (Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4452) contains an extravagant image of the future coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry II (1014–1024), and his wife, Empress Kunigunde of Luxembourg (d. 1040). Christ crowns both Henry and Kunigunde, while St Peter supports Henry on the left, and St Paul supports Kunigunde on the right. Kunigunde is depicted as equal in size to her husband, but it is Henry who stands on the right of Christ, symbolically the place of honour.
In the lower register stands the female personification of Rome, holding a sceptre. Beside her are female personifications of the territories of Gallia and Germania (the primary territories of the king and queen, respectively). Undoubtedly, this represents the joining together of Henry and Kunigunde’s territories into one Holy Roman Empire, underlining the political importance of their union.
Queen Emma, one of the most important political figures in 11th-century England, is depicted in two of the five surviving Anglo-Saxon portraits. In one, the New Minster Liber Vitae, she is depicted next to her second husband, King Cnut, in a manner similar to the double-coronation portrait of Henry and Kunigunde. But in a slightly later manuscript (Add MS 33241) there is a decidedly different portrait of her.
Queen Emma enthroned, with two of her sons in the background, receiving the Encomium Emmae reginae (northern France or England, mid-11th century): Add MS 33241, f. 1v
Emma alone is enthroned and centrally placed in this image, whereas her two sons (both of whom became king) peer slightly awkwardly from behind a pillar. Moreover, she is shown receiving a copy of the manuscript, which contains the Encomium Emmae reginae ('In Praise of Queen Emma'). This is a highly political work, commissioned to portray Emma's past actions in a more favourable light, while smoothing over the current, turbulent political situation. It is entirely appropriate for her to be portrayed as the central character and as a queen in her own right and with her own independent agency.
You can read more about some of the manuscripts featured in this blogpost on the British Library's Anglo-Saxons webspace. Due to incredible demand, all tickets to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition have now been sold.
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