Attending the York Christian Apocrypha Symposium

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend the York Christian Apocrypha Symposium in Toronto, Canada, organized by Tony Burke in consultation with Brent Landau. You can learn more about the conference, presenters, and papers delivered here. I was a medievalist in a sea of experts on early Christianity–a field to which I often look in my own research and teaching–and it was great to be welcomed into that community with common interests in studying apocrypha. For my own presentation, I talked about “Preaching the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in Anglo-Saxon England,” a part of my larger project examining the uses of Christian apocrypha in the earliest English sermons.

Here are some excerpts from my presentation:

In this essay, I examine uses of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew for preaching and related media in late Anglo-Saxon England. Christian apocrypha enjoyed a prominent afterlife in the medieval period (and beyond), particularly as subjects for preaching; this is especially the case in Anglo-Saxon England. This essay examines a partial translation of Pseudo-Matthew in an Old English sermon designated Vercelli 6 [surviving in the Vercelli Book], with the contention that this sermon should be considered as part of a larger network of media drawing on apocryphal narratives for details about Jesus’ childhood, including historical documents, liturgical objects, and visual arts.

This examination specifically addresses how visual images serve as translations of apocrypha, and therefore key contexts for the culture surrounding parallel narratives in Old English preaching. Adopting an interdisciplinary framework of transmission studies—encompassing book history, translations, and adaptations across media—allows for considering apocrypha beyond verbal representations, to encompass the many cultural currents that surrounded and affected Anglo-Saxons in their attitudes toward para-biblical narratives. Taken together, multimedia witnesses to Pseudo-Matthew further demonstrate how this apocryphon permeated Anglo-Saxon preaching contexts across a variety of porous social boundaries linked by common materials. Just as vernacular sermons containing apocrypha could have been preached to both elites and commoners as well as men and women, these narratives appeared in other media accessible to audiences across the spectrum of social strata.


One significant feature of representations in sermons and visual arts is how they emphasize Jesus’ deeds rather than his teachings. In Christian tradition, Jesus’ teachings are of course central, but Old English sermons based on apocrypha about his life do not use them as a basis; instead, they focus on narrating his actions. Similarly, artistic representations of Jesus’ life depict scenes that emphasize narrative action—not surprisingly, since actions lend themselves to pictures more readily than words. By highlighting narrative actions in verbal and visual media, Anglo-Saxons acknowledged that Jesus’ deeds are as significant as his words for teaching Christian doctrine, even when certain events are either not present or not related explicitly in the canonical gospels.

Extended narratives surrounding Jesus’ infancy miracles are wholly absent from biblical accounts, and the popularity of these traditions largely relies on details from apocryphal narratives. In other words, for medieval authors, apocryphal stories suitably embellish those in the canonical gospels. These deeds are central to understanding Jesus’ miraculous and divine nature as well as soteriological doctrines, making them, subsequently, central to Christian teaching. In fact, when considering the incarnational theology surrounding Jesus’ life—especially for the Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection—the lines between Jesus’ words and actions are blurred, since he is considered the Word of God. Jesus’ words and actions are simultaneously representative of his transcendent character, entwined together as signifiers of his divinity. In this sense, messages relayed through his speeches are no different from messages relayed through his actions. Reflection upon verbal and visual translations of apocryphal materials reveals this convergence.


One claim in the following examination is that sermons and visual arts are not so different in their adaptive translations of apocryphal gospels. Catherine E. Karkov has pointed out that visual translations (like sermons) refer to influences besides strictly textual sources, such as pictorial resonances.[1] If, as scholars have readily acknowledged, translation is a process contingent on complex contexts and influences, then associations that may not be apparent in a primary written source should be considered seriously. In this manner, it is useful to examine translations as analogous to each other, such as those related to a common source, which may open up keys to reading analogues in other media, or to the cultural meanings that resonate in and across media. When various materials are examined together as comparative projects of translation, we are able to see, as Jessica Brantley has productively pointed out, that they “represent related responses in different media.”[2] In this, we are urged to remember that each of these responses is a specific, ideological representation of how the creator perceived and used traditions from which the product was shaped. This reminder is particularly important for the present study, since Anglo-Saxon cultural artifacts provide us with an understanding of not only the transmissions but also the receptions via translation of apocrypha in mainstream culture.


An appreciation for the importance and role of Pseudo-Matthew in Vercelli 6 is further highlighted with examination of translations in other media. Previously, textual influences of this apocryphon have gained much attention, especially in relation to Marian devotion. Yet, as with many Christian apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon culture, one aspect of this text’s influence that has remained largely overlooked is in visual arts. As I suggest in the following, the early eleventh-century Sacramentary of Robert Jumièges (Rouen, Bibliothèque Municipale 274 (Y.6) contains a series of thirteen illuminations, two of which portray iconography ultimately indebted to Pseudo-Matthew. Such identifications provide further circulation of these apocryphal traditions as well as expanded contexts for Vercelli 6 and related preaching texts based on this apocryphon.

[1] Text and Picture in Anglo-Saxon England: Narrative Strategies in the Junius 11 Manuscript, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 31 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), 17.

[2] “The Iconography of the Utrecht Psalter and the Old English Descent into Hell,” Anglo-Saxon England 28 (1999), 43-63, at 62.

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