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In Memoriam: Robert Deshman (1941-1995)


A Remembrance by Herbert L. Kessler Johns Hopkins Univ.

On July 13,1995, Robert Deshman succumbed to the esophageal cancer that had taken his voice six years before and the use of legs at the end but had never affected the acuity of his mind. He had the joy of seeing a preview copy of The Benedictional of Æthelwold, issued by Princeton Univ. Press, the culmination of his life's work; but he was already engrossed in new projects bearing on Anglo-Saxon art, including an article on the Galba Psalter and a long essay on the motif of the disappearing Christ, both now slated for publication.

When he died, he was a full professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the Univ. of Toronto, having joined the faculty in 1968 while still completing a Princeton Univ. Ph.D. (1970) and having then risen through the ranks. He had been a Fulbright Scholar and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study (1975-76).

In addition to his book on Æthelwold's great Benedictional, Robert Deshman published Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian Art: A Critical Bibliography, (Boston, 1984) and numerous articles on Anglo-Saxon art, among others: "Anglo-Saxon Art after Alfred," Art Bulletin, 56 (1974), which won the A. Kingsley Porter Prize of the College Art Association of America, "Christus Rex et Magi Reges: Kingship and Christology in Ottonian and Anglo-Saxon Art," Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 10 (1976), "The Leofric Missal and Tenth Century English Art," Anglo-Saxon England, 6 (1977), "Benedictus Monarcha et Monarchus: Early Medieval Ruler Theology and the Anglo-Saxon Reform," Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 22 (1988), and "The Medieval Images and Cult of St. Swithun," Winchester Studies (forthcoming). He also produced important contributions to the history of Early Christian, Carolingian, and Ottonian art, including "Otto III and the Warmund Sacramentary: A Study in Political Theology," Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 34 (1971), "The Exalted Servant: The Ruler Theology of the Prayerbook of Charles the Bald," Viator, 11 (1980), and "Servants of the Mother of God in Byzantine and Medieval Art," Word and Image, 5 (1989).

Robert Deshman shunned positivism because, "it does not even touch on the important and interesting religious, intellectual, and cultural questions," and with equal insistence facile theorizing, because it allows "the historical context to sink from sight, this time into an arcane, jargon-filled morass of modem critical theory that, whatever its autonomous intellectual value, has scant relation to medieval modes of thought, imagination, and creation." He was committed, instead, to contextual history and deployed every scrap of evidence and reasonable tool of analysis to coax from each work of art its unique character and the particular circumstances behind its production.

OEN 29.3 (1996): 12.