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Between Book and Body: Art, Language and the Limits of Interpretation in the Manuscripts of the English Benedictine Movement

Research Lunch – Avantika Kumar

  • 24 February 2023
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Paul Mellon Centre

The Benedictine monastic reform, a tenth- and eleventh-century movement to reshape an English church fragmented by Viking raids, renewed focus upon the interpretation of sacred Christian texts. Integral to the movement were literary strategies that complicated readers’ understanding of the known and knowable, prompting meditation on the potential – and limitations – of human language to capture divine truth. This body of literature at once expresses awareness of the inadequacy of the material world to reveal God’s transcendence, and attention to the sanctity intrinsic to crafted things.

Focusing on books produced in response to the English Benedictine movement (ca. 950–1066), this paper analyses the interplay between literary tradition and artistic practice. The paper proposes that, during this period, monastic theologians tested the limits of word and image precisely to expose these limits’ presence. The paper considers the intertwined texture of the literary and visual by reading images of the sacred Word in three English manuscripts produced around the first millennium: the visualisation of the speech of God the Creator in the Tiberius Psalter, the graphic arrangement of devotional poetry in a copy of Aldhelm’s works and the image of the book as a signifier of Christ in the Boulogne Gospels.

In ways evocative of early English literary strategies that framed language as intrinsically enigmatic, these images self-reflexively pictured artistic form as unstable in its signifying potential. In doing so, these works confronted their own boundaries as media of ineffable truth, portraying – and performing – a theology of limitation. In larger terms, this paper speculates upon the ways the enigmatic art and literature of the Benedictine reform movement textured its self-definition: the ways media that complicated the work of interpretation, consequently complicated the political project of forming an interpretive community.

Listing Image Caption: Boulogne-sur-Mer Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 11, fol. fol. 107r, courtesy of Avantika Kumar

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Avantika Kumar

    Avantika Kumar is a sixth-year doctoral student in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. Her dissertation considers how works of tenth- and eleventh-century English art and literature thematise their own limitations: how they reflect their makers’ understanding of interpretive fallibility in relation to larger questions of human fallibility. More broadly, she is interested in the interplays of art, literature and theology in the early Middle Ages, as well as the ways theological thought shaped political self-definition.