By Henry Tudor-Pole
What do tenth-century Egypt, an Anglo-Saxon beast-head and the Jesuits have in common?
Perhaps many things, but for one, all their influence can be found on this thirteenth-century ivory crosier-head that I have been studying as part of the undergraduate History of Art course at Oxford. In their first year, students are required to write a 5000-word project about an object, image or building situated in Oxford, which they research and then use to construct an argument or historical discussion. This is called the Object Essay. Before starting I did not have much of an idea about what I was going to look at, but I had developed a taste for medieval things, a common reaction in migrants to the carved stones of Oxford, and so I headed into the Ashmolean’s ‘England 400-1600’ gallery and eventually found the ivory crosier-head [Fig. 1]. A crosier is the staff of office held by a bishop or an abbot and carried ceremonially as a symbol of their pastoral care, and the crosier-head is the most visible and decorated part, fixed to the top.
In its display cabinet, I liked the look of the object. It stood out as a beautiful piece of sculpture, its form seemed full of symbolic meaning bound to rituals that were at the centre of medieval Christian life, and so I thought I might be able to extract 5000 words’ worth of decent essay from it. The description in the gallery said it probably came from the twelfth or thirteenth century, but they were not sure exactly from where or when it originated. It had been donated to the museum in 1683, the year of its founding, accompanied by the rumour that it had once belonged to Saint Augustine of Hippo.
Professor Gervase Rosser and Dr Eleanor Standley supervised my research and gave me invaluable advice and lots of readings to get started on what would turn out to be a complicated object. The original ivory carving appears to have been modified at least twice, with metal additions such as the figure of Christ on the cross, which does not match the original ivory one, and the ‘IHS’ mount at the top of the volute. So, following Eleanor’s recommendation, I adopted an approach to the essay where I would construct an ‘object timeline’ and trace the history of the crosier-head from the time of its creation to its present status as a historical artefact in a museum, addressing its different contexts, meanings and functions and how they shifted over time.
The first step was to read the literature that already existed on the object, the most immediate of which was Jeremy Warren’s catalogue of the medieval sculpture in the Ashmolean. This suggested that the crosier-head was made in southern Italy in the thirteenth century, and he had a good bibliography that I could use to take my research further. Unfortunately, it turned out that a large number of Warren’s references extended beyond English scholarship, and after fighting my way through Les Ivoires Gothiques Français, I had to admit defeat at the hands of Romanische Leuchter und Gefässe Giessgefässe der Gotik. Nonetheless I plodded on with the research, and, realising that a large amount of the work would involve simply locating the origins of the crosier-head, I soon found myself studying the stylistic influences on it, many of which Warren had usefully pointed to in his study of the object.
The earliest crosiers with a lamb and dragon motif such as ours come from twelfth-century Sicily, and were probably made by craftsmen within a Muslim community in Palermo that had been there since the island was part of the Fatimid Caliphate, and who were tolerated by the Normans who conquered it in around 1072. The shape of the lamb on these early crosiers strongly recalls an Islamic motif of a gazelle, attacked by a bird, and with some of the Sicilian crosiers it appears to be a gazelle rather than a lamb contained within the ivory volute [Fig. 2]. This shows that the craftsmen who made these objects used designs they already knew when making products for the new, Christian market. This crosier design where a lamb and dragon face each other within a volute quickly spread across Europe, and I found many examples that came either from Italy or from northern regions such as Saxony, northern France or England. Italian crosiers were often painted and in many of the Sicilian crosiers visible traces remain. There is none on our crosier-head, which relies more on carving for its ornamentation, such as in the torsion of the neck of the lamb and the intricate head of the beast, than either the Sicilian crosiers, or most Italian crosiers made from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries.
The linear style of ornamentation on the head of the dragon particularly recalls an Anglo-Saxon beast-head in Deerhurst, Gloucestershire [Fig. 3], and the beast on the Alfred Jewel, which is displayed in the same room in the Ashmolean as the crosier-head. There is an image of the Hellmouth in the Winchester Bible that also resembles the beast on the crosier-head, and these similarities suggested to me that the crosier may have originated in England, or had at least been made with strong influence from there. However, the itinerant nature of craftsmen around cities in northern Europe makes locating the exact place of origin notoriously difficult with medieval ivory carvings.
I continued trying to locate the origins of the object, and also traced a conjectural history, where the crosier-head was retained after the death of its original ecclesiastical owner, became a devotional object and underwent additions in metal, to add to its impressiveness. The small metal figure of St Paul on the obverse has had his face rubbed away by a pious touch, and the presence of the Jesuit trigram ‘IHS’ hints at their involvement in the counter-reformation. What struck me is that within the crosier-head is contained influence from across Europe, and beyond. It is the product of the cosmopolitan nature both of the clergy, and also an artisanal workforce, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and so it is a good advertisement for the way the Catholic Church helped peoples within Europe to intermingle in the middle ages. Therefore the crosier-head’s history, whether or not this was known during the Reformation, makes its function as an agent of Catholic resistance highly appropriate, and the object is much more powerful as a result.
Henry Tudor-Pole is a BA History of Art student at the University of Oxford who has just successfully completed his first year