On Friday I treated myself to a visit to the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Exhibition. If you’re in a position to go, I’d urge you to – it’s spectacular.
One of the more jaw-dropping items is the Alfred Jewel, on loan from the Ashmolean (https://www.ashmolean.org/alfred-jewel). Now I’ve visited this wonderful object many times; but for the first time on Friday I wrenched my eyes away from the striking image, the marvellous crystal, the sheer astonishment of the pierced instription running around the sides – and looked at the business end, where the pointer would have fitted.
This is the classic view, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, source Dresses and Decorations of the Middle Ages, by Henry Shaw, 1843. Isn’t it gorgeous?
But the pointer end isn’t anything particularly amazing.
Now look at this photo, which is how close a look you can get at the exhibition. (This from a user called Richard’s Flickr feed, marked for non-commercial reuse. Thank you Richard! – https://www.flickr.com/photos/tortipede/5874079689)
What does it look like to you – a boar? A bear? Scroll back up and look at the left-hand picture, showing the top of its head; maybe a great cat? The Ashmolean sometimes calls it a dragon. Not your usual Christian icon, in this sumptuous jewel comissioned by a deeply Christian King. Alfred’s passion was the translation of religious texts into Anglo-Saxon from Latin, and the British Library’s exhibition holds manuscripts which might be his translation and written in his hand (another shiver-up-the-spine moment!).
The speculation is that the jewel was one of many pointers made to accompany such a text and sent as a gift alongside the book. That kingly assocation would explain its richness and beauty – but certainly not its iconography; it simply makes it more of a puzzle. Until, perhaps, you consider who the recipients of such a gift might be – possibly missionaries going out into the perilous wild lands of 9thC Britain, with the Danelaw all up the Eastern side of the country, and tribes not acknowledging Alfred’s rule to the North and West of him.
I’ve been lucky enough to handle several Iron Age coins in silver and gold, and that’s the strongest association I have – that this Christian jewel is also using the power, imagery, and deep, deep roots of the Celtic world to get its message across.
Magical! Do you agree?