Amongst the many beautiful and extraordinary objects in the British Museum's current exhibition of reliquaries and associated materials, Treasures of Heaven, is an early 8th century box carved from whale's bone, originating in England. The Franks Casket, as it has come to be known, is ornately carved with scenes illustrating mythological stories on each side as well as on the lid. Walking round the box, peering at the scenes depicted and reading the translations of the inscriptions, I was struck by the idea that here was an almost perfect work of Art, and more than this, a work which could inspire us to create Art which is democratic, provocative, thought-provoking and which might intercede in the lives of those who encounter it as a challenge.
The carved scenes are taken from diverse traditions - Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic. The front panel shows the Adoration of the Magi, wise men bringing their gift to the infant Saviour, alongside which is, and here I'll use the useful description from the exhibition catalogue, "the Germanic tale of the exiled Weland. Imprisoned by King Nithland, Weland extracts a terrible revenge, murdering the king's two sons and raping his daughter." Two tales, two kings (the latter of this earth, the other of a kingdom "not of this earth"), on showing a horrible revenge for past deeds, the other positing forgiveness of sins (which, as William Blake suggested, is the key message of Jesus - see For Children: The Gates of Paradise).
On the lid of the casket, there is a scene which "depicts a siege from an unidentified episode in the life of the Germanic hero Egil, while the back shows the capture of Jerusalem from the Romans in AD 70." The first scene depicts a situations of entrapment and the second its bloody consequences (the Jews besieged at Masada killed themselves en masse and their compatriots who survived the 70 AD uprising in Jerusalem were driven from the Holy Land). The casket is sphinx-like as to what we should make of these scenes, but it is certain that we probably (unless we had a death-wish) wouldn't want to live them.
On the left panel, the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, are suckled by a wolf, as in their legend, and the catalogue supposes that this is "a symbol of the mother church offering succour". This may be true, as the Church in that day was the Roman church, but is it really inviting to see the maternal in the shape of a she-wolf? We cannot know how anyone seeing the casket in the 8th century would have taken this scene, nor can we suppose that everyone encountering the casket would have taken it in the same way - perhaps the ideology of Rome was so pervasive as to give everyone mono-vision; certainly with that ideology less gripping now, we can respond to the image with the full power of our imaginations (do we really want to suck on a wild and dangerous animals teats and be brought up as pack children?).
The right panel, described in the catalogue as "enigmatic", has a scene which "relates how Hos suffered at the hands of Ertae". The inscription reads "Here Hos sits on a sorrow-mound; she suffers distress as Ertae had assigned her to a wretched den of sorrows and of torments of her heart." This the she-wolf nurtures whilst Ertae rejects creates a tension between the left and right panels, but I wonder if this is an either/or tension or a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The stories bounce off each other, comment on each other, offer alternative views and stark choices. Can you believe in the redemption through Christ, or are the horrors of history inescapable and definitive? I used there the phrase "the redemption through Christ" but today (and perhaps this has always been true?) and we might ask ourselves what this could mean. I'll suggest that the words are poetic, and the Christ-child on the casket (like all of the other figures) is a hieroglyph whose meaning is framed in the eye of the beholder. This is why I suggest above that the casket offers the possibility of a democratic experience of Art - the individual is confronted by a number of stories, and must choose which one to believe is the Truth. Or is there no Truth, just different perspectives depending on where one stands? The Franks Casket is both democratic and postmodern.
The inclusion of the Jewish scene makes the casket problematic, but when has any Art worth its salt been anything else? If we insist on seeing the casket purely and simply as an ideological item selling Christianity as the One True Faith, then we might take the Jewish scene as evidence of anti-Semitism, although the casket is no more positive about Germanic/pagan traditions; perhaps what we have here is simply evidence of Christian chauvinism? But then again, by positing a saviour who offers redemption through the forgiveness of sins, a way of breaking free from the past into something new, the casket asks a very striking question - is this what you want? Do you want to break free? Because if we strip Christianity of all of its mystical obfuscation, all of its moralising cant and all of its kidnapping into Imperialist propagandas, we are confronted with a core message which is still capable of shaking the inner being of anyone who opens themselves up to the possibility that life could be something other than merely wars and rumours of wars.
To walk around the Franks Casket and looks at its various stories is to do what all of us always do - walk around looking at various stories. These stories are often both contradictory, complementary, frightening and inspiring. The Franks Casket does not tell us what to think about them, and nor must a contemporary democratic Art. It simply leaves the reaction up to you.
All catalogue quotes from:
Bagnoli, Martina, Klein, Holger A., Mann, C Griffin, Robinson, James (Eds.) Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe (London: The British Museum Press, 2011), p. 120.