Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.05.36 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.36

Benjamin Anderson, Cosmos and Community in Early Medieval Art.   New Haven; London:  Yale University Press, 2017.  Pp. vii, 204.  ISBN 9780300219166.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Steven H. Wander, University of Connecticut, Stamford (


Cosmos and Community in Early Medieval Art, which revisits the subject matter of the author's 2012 Bryn Mawr dissertation,1 addresses the question of how the Mediterranean societies of Byzantium, the kingdom of the Franks, and Islam "roughly from A.D. 700 to 1000" (p. 5) made use of cosmological imagery. After the brief "Preface and Acknowledgments" which addresses the thorny question of transliteration, the "Introduction," entitled "Solitude and Community," presents the author's dichotomy between the shared understanding of cosmology by the "universal community . . . experienced by all in contemplation of the stars" and that of the "solitary individual" with a particular point of view (p. 9). The intellectual underpinning for this relationship, as noted in a review of the exhibition "Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity," curated by Alexander Jones at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (October 19, 2016 - April 23, 2017), existed "Because the heavens and the earth were thought to be connected in so many ways, the destinies of nations as well as individuals presumably could be read by someone with expertise in the arrangements of the sun, the moon, the known planets and constellations in the zodiac."2 The author's opening anecdote regarding Septimius Severus (193-211) illustrates this. The emperor had two zodiacs with different ascendants painted in his reception halls so that astrologically knowledgeable visitors would not "share Severus's own knowledge regarding the time of his death!" (p. 2; exclamation point added).

For the purposes of his study, Anderson distinguishes between the "psychological" approach of Aby Warburg (Denkraum) and fellow iconographers Fritz Saxl and Erwin Panofsky, which "in the study of images of the cosmos focuses on psychology, book illumination, the transmission of knowledge, and the solitary scribe" (p. 15), and the approach by archaeologists such as Ernst Herzfeld, Karl Lehmann and Hans Peter L'Orange, who, from reconstructions of specific monuments, establish the theme "of the 'ruler in the cosmic setting,' . . . in its immediate spatial contexts" (p. 13) and "focuses on politics, monumental architecture and ceremonial display, and the communal spectacle" (p. 15).

The author deemphasizes the idea of direct links in the transmission of images of the cosmos among Islam, Byzantium, and the West, aware of "no account of such images circulating via trade or diplomacy in the early Middle Ages" (p. 8). One example of such exchange, however, may involve the Christian Topography of Kosmas Indikopleustes with its images of the zodiac and diagrams of the cosmos (pp. 114 and 127-132), where God's primordial design for the universe manifested itself in the model of the tabernacle of Moses at Sinai. Illustrations there connect with the diagram in Coelfrith's Codex Amiatinus, produced in Northumbria at Wearmouth-Jarrow. Knowledge of the Greek text may have come to Anglo-Saxon England directly through the mission of Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury (668-690), or indirectly through the intermediary of works in Latin by Cassiodorus (ca. 485-ca. 585).3

The first chapter, "Tyranny and Splendor," analyzes from that perspective three discrete objects of distinctly different character: the Throne of Khosrow, known only from literary accounts both in Arabic and Persian, on the one hand, and in Greek and Latin on the other, the much restored Umayyad mosque of Damascus, and the Cathedra Petri, an ivory throne with diverse imagery, including representations of the constellations along with a Frankish emperor, usually identified as Charles the Bald. All three present difficulties of interpretation. Anderson offers sensible and appropriate assessments based on the available information about how these works might have functioned to underscore the multivalent character of universal rulership.

Chapter 2, "Declaration and Transaction," focuses on another three objects: the Star Mantle of Henry II in Bamberg, a Carolingian silver table, now known only from literary accounts, and the frescoed dome of the caldarium of the princely bath of Qusayr 'Amra, which is linked by inscription to the Caliph al-Walid ibn Yazid who reigned between 743-744 (pp. 65-66), all very different but each associated with royalty. For the Star Mantle and related textiles, "the cosmic garment served not to declare the dominion of an individual, but to mediate between distinct sources of power—aristocratic, imperial, episcopal, and monastic" (p. 54). The table also is seen through the lens of "transactions, between a ruler and his advisors on the one hand, and between generations of rulers on the other" (p. 63). Likewise, Qusayr 'Amra turns "The transactional use of explicit cosmological imagery to political ends" (p. 63). So Anderson concludes his discussion of the bathhouse with the truism that, "Like the star mantle and the silver table, the celestial dome of Qusayr 'Amra was appropriate to political ends" (p. 69). In an oversight, Charlemagne is identified as the son and not the grandson of Charles Martel (p. 55).

Chapter 3, "Carolingian Consensus," begins with a discussion of astronomical imagery on the Cloth of the Ewaldi, Cologne, and then declares: "In this chapter we will be concerned with the first proliferation of astronomical images (rings of the zodiac, cycles of constellation images, and celestial maps) in European manuscripts" (p. 77). They are divided, somewhat arbitrarily, into four "clusters" since "Each cluster is linked to the next by substantial shared elements: the first to the second by a shared series of diagrams, and the second to the third by the adoption of the Aratean cycle. The selection of texts in the fourth cluster depends directly on that of the third" (p. 79).

Chapter 4, "Byzantine Dissensus," suggests that "the Byzantine reception of the ancient constellations was different in kind from the European and the Islamic…later Byzantine astronomical iconography is characterized by sporadic and isolated revivals from deep antiquity and borrowings from abroad—or, in Athens, by a literal spolium" (i.e., the Panagia Gorgoepikoos) (p. 114). Here Anderson's focus is on two very different manuscripts, the Handy Tables of Ptolemy (BAV, gr. 1291) and the surviving copies of the sixth-century Christian Topography of Kosmas Indikopleustes (the earliest BAV, gr. 699 from the ninth century along with two related eleventh-century codices), where he stresses the pair's contrasting visions of the universe, the one spherical and the other vaulted.

Next is a brief "Conclusion" affirming that "early medieval sources represent the political position of astronomical knowledge in Byzantium in different fashion than in the Frankish and Islamic states. Byzantine courtiers cultivated the image of the emperor as sage, the figure who alone has mastered the knowledge necessary to rule the empire. Frankish and early Islamic authors, on the other hand, cultivated the image of the ruler as a clever and willing pupil, who recognizes the value of astronomical knowledge and encourages its cultivation, but leaves the finer points to the experts" (p. 146). Last are sections containing "Notes," "Bibliography," "Illustration Credits," and the "Index."

How the cosmography of the ancient and medieval worlds should be understood remains an open question, but Anderson demonstrates that there is still much to be discussed and that the evidence of the sources, both visual and literary, can be understood in new and intriguing ways. The work is well-written and thoroughly researched, but one can wonder at times what prompted the author's selection of these particular objects, among the many possible choices, or how their juxtaposition, coming as they often do from different times and cultures, sheds light on one another. The book might be compared to an arranged marriage between three sets of in-laws—Byzantium, Islam, and the Franks—which all shared the inheritance of Greco-Roman antiquity. As Anderson points out, the result was a rich and diverse progeny of cosmological imagery.

Cosmos and Community is a welcome and thought-provoking study, a significant addition to the vast literature on the subject.


1.   Benjamin Anderson, "World Image after World Empire: The Ptolemaic Cosmos in the Early Middle Ages, ca. 700-900." PhD diss., Bryn Mawr College, 2012.
2.   John Noble Wilford, "A Manhattan Exhibit With Antiquity on the Clock," New York Times (Oct. 24, 2016). See also Alexander Jones, Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity (The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, October 19, 2016 - April 23, 2017), p. 29: "The basic principle of astrology was that the configuration of the heavenly bodies at any time influenced or even determined subsequent developments in the terrestrial environment according to patterns that could be interpreted by someone with the suitable expertise. In particular, the state of the heavens at the moment of an individual's conception or birth, constituting the person's horoscope, was held to contain information from which his or her character and life story could be predicted."
3.   For the possible presence of the Christian Topography of Kosmas Indikopleustes in Anglo-Saxon England, see Bernhard Bischoff and Michael Lapidge, Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 10 (Cambridge, 1994), esp. pp. 208-211, 320-321, and 451-452; and the review by Michael Gorman, "Theodore of Canterbury, Hadrian of Nisida and Michael Lapidge," Scriptorium (1996): 184-192, esp. 191.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010