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Sweotol Tacen / A Clear Token: The Anglo-Saxon Tacen and the Medieval Donor’s Model

Sweotol Tacen / A Clear Token: The Anglo-Saxon Tacen and the Medieval Donor’s Model

By Elizabeth Holley Ledbetter

Master’s Thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 2014

Miniature of St. Peter Enthroned, In 'Aelfwine's Prayerbook'

Abstract: The Anglo-Saxon patron often commissioned images in which he or she bears a visual rendering of his or her donation. The donor’s model is often overlooked in modern scholarship because there is no existing framework with which to address larger issues raised by the image type. This thesis proposes a framework developed through a close reading of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Using the Old English literary trope of the tacen, or in modern English, the token, this thesis seeks to reframe the donor’s model in order to understand how the model creates meaning. Like the donor’s model found in medieval donor portraits, the tacen in Anglo-Saxon literature is a held object that in large part symbolizes the gift giver’s relationship with the community. This thesis argues that beyond merely a model used to attribute patronage, the tacen found in Anglo-Saxon donor portraits acts simultaneously as a visual record of an event and an object used to teach and encourage viewers. Viewing the donor’s model as a tacen also surpasses the purely historical function of the image type by allowing the representation of the model to transcend both time and space.

Using the concept of the tacen as a framework for analysis demands that an entirely new set of questions be asked of Anglo-Saxon donor portraits (and potentially all medieval donor portraits) in which a model is featured. This thesis strives to answer the how instead of the what. And in doing so it has the potential to foster a greater understanding of the image type that spread, by the requests of patrons, throughout the Anglo-Saxon world and the wider medieval world. Beyond cultivating a greater understanding of the medieval donor portrait, this thesis underlines the profound connections between medieval literature and art and highlights the advantages of interdisciplinary scholarship.

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Click here to read this thesis from the University of Texas at Austin

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