Research Interests: Medieval manuscript illumination, representations of King Solomon.
Signatures, strings of numbers, passwords, a chip embedded in a credit card: these are the ways we prove our identity in daily interactions.
I have been researching a medieval object, known as a seal matrix, that reveals how an official named Godwin dealt with similar authentication concerns in England 1,000 years ago. The seal matrix, carved from lustrous walrus ivory, fits comfortably in hand and dates to around 1040 A.D. The lower part of the matrix is round, roughly the size of a quarter, and shows Godwin’s portrait along with an inscription that names him. The upper section is where we find one of the earliest surviving representations of the Christian Trinity, depicting God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the dove of the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is a puzzling choice for Godwin’s matrix: What does it have to do with sealing?
In this period, the relationship of matrix and seal was understood as a metaphor for the relationship between the Trinitarian Father and Son, and for humanity created in God’s image. The portrait of Godwin carved into the seal matrix resembles the image pressed in wax, just as humanity resembled God. But the image in the matrix is made of valuable, durable material, while the seal image is soft, pliable wax. Rather than making humanity of clay, this sealing metaphor imagines humanity made of wax. Theologians talked about how sin deformed humanity, distancing it from the divine image, much like a wax impression could become misshapen and no longer resemble the image in the seal matrix.
Every time Godwin portrayed himself by pressing his seal was a reminder of his resemblance to God. If he lied or misrepresented himself, he would be deformed by sin like melting wax. And in thus distancing himself from God, he would court damnation. Now, imagine typing a PIN code or signing on the dotted line with the threat of eternal punishment hanging overhead.