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Early Medieval Art: A Short Guide

By Danielle Trynoski

The medieval world was full of color, craftsmanship, and creativity. From the seemingly impossible gold filigree beads to intricate hand-painted miniature illustrations to delicate porcelain, every cultural group around the globe during the Middle Ages produced something of beauty and skill. These precious objects still offer the ability to connect us with their makers, and inspire us to wonder about the artist’s trials, tribulations, and daily life. By exploring a sample of these rich artistic traditions, it becomes obvious that art isn’t limited by age or chronological time limits.

Anglo-Saxon

The best-known products of the Anglo-Saxon craftsmen are beautiful zoomorphic gold-and-garnet artifacts. Cells of garnet or red glass framed by gold are common in high-value pieces of jewelry, belt strap fittings, harness fixtures, sword belt fittings, and other decorative metalwork. The Sutton Hoo hoard discovered in the 1930’s produced elaborate brooches, purse lids, chest fixtures, and exquisite jewelry. More recently, the Staffordshire Hoard proved once again the skills and mastery of Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths and metal craftsmen.

The boar, predatory birds, and human figurines are some of the dominant imagery in Anglo-Saxon metal works. The Sutton Hoo brooches feature boars, however finds recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme also show the predominance of this animal.

PAS-5D5B56 – Portable Antiquities Scheme / British Museum

PAS-5D5B56 is a stunning gilded boar’s head with cabochon garnets for eyes, complete with fine details like beaded wire and the original rivets to attach it to the front of a finely crafted helmet. Another boar’s head, DENO-92C3BB, is damaged from being broken off a larger piece however the gold and garnets still shine.

DENO-92C3BB – Portable Antiquities Scheme / Bassetlaw Museum

Other zoomorphic forms were used, however the boar may have represented strength, fertility, royalty, protection, and/or bravery. Anglo-Saxon art represents a curious transition phase as Christianity was being established throughout Britain in the 5-8th centuries. Christian symbology gradually replaced the earlier naturalistic forms and Britain’s artwork transitioned into Anglo-Scandinavian, Romanesque, and Norman styles.

The Alfred Jewel is an excellent example of this; it combines a Christian image (likely Christ) on a delicate example of Anglo-Saxon gold filigree in the shape of a boar’s head. The inscription in gold in the frame translates to “Alfred ordered me made.” Whether or not this refers to the famous King Alfred is up for debate, however the skill in the construction of the piece can’t be questioned.’

Byzantine

The art of Byzantium was some of the most diverse of the Middle Ages with influences from Greece, Roman Italy, Asia Minor, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Christianity. Sufficient Byzantine architecture survives to make a study of its forms and trends, especially in Turkey and Armenia.

One of its more recognizable features is the dome over a square in an adaptation of a basilica plan as seen in the Hagia Sophia and multiple surviving churches in Armenia and Syria. While this art style is directly named after a city, its aesthetic was widespread in the Middle Ages with elements appearing in Rome, Ravenna, Paris, and more locations across the European continent.

Ravenna, with its high quality of preservation of 6th and 7th century buildings and mosaics, is thought to be a direct descendant of Constantinople’s techniques and aesthetic. The wall-covering mosaics at Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo likely resembles the wall mosaics constructed by Justinian in the early 6th century in the Great Palace of Constantinople, and represents the Byzantine trends in elaborate decoration only on the inside of a church. It also was the front-runner in using imagery to represent the Biblical narratives and thus allow illiterate worshippers the opportunity to learn the stories and symbols in their own fashion.

The blending of Roman, Greek, and Eastern iconography into Christian scenes is what makes Byzantine art so distinctive. In carvings, fragmentary illuminations, and statuary we can see glimpses, however the mosaics are truly the most illustrative of this creative movement of the early Middle Ages.

Medieval India

India in the Middle Ages hosted a series of dynastic rulers who led the changes in politics, economy, religion, societal structure, and art. The medieval period in India began in the 6th century with the Rashtrakuta dynasty and ended in the 16th century with the rise in power of the Mughal Empire. The high number of dynastic systems allowed for a corresponding number of religious groups which is reflected in the art from this period.

An Indian MS illumination. Despite his treachery, Muḥammad Ḥusaym Mīrzā, a relative of Babur, is being released and sent to Khurāsān. Image: The Walters Ms. W.596, The Walters Art Mseum

Medieval Indian art is characterized by natural motifs and the rich diversity of the Indian pantheon of deities. The human form is prominently featured, whether in the depiction of humans or gods. A good amount of material is preserved in buildings and alternative structures like caves. Columns, painted walls, high-relief carvings, bronze sculptures, and some manuscripts survive. These works reflect strong regional preferences and talents since it wasn’t until the 16th century Mughal Empire that royal patronage of the arts flourished.

Several notable historic sites such as Ajanta, Badami, Mahadeva, Konark, and Ellora preserve excellent examples of the highly decorative architecture ad wall paintings in this period.

Baburnama, or the Letters of Babur, is the early 16th century memoir of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammed Babur (1483-1530) who founded the Mughal dynasty. A 16th century fragmentary manuscript at the Walters includes 30 illuminations representing the Mughal court style. The Ellora caves contain 34 monasteries and temples over two kilometres dedicated to Buddhism, Hindusim, and Jainism. Created between 600-1000 AD, the caves are highly decorated with sculpture and paintings.

Visigothic

Visigothic art was a cultural style dominant in Spain and Portugal in the early Middle Ages. After the withdrawal of Rome from the peninsula, the Visigoths moved west and ascended to power in these regions. From the 5th century to the dominance of the Moors in the 8th century, the Visigoths produced stunning works of art in metal, stone, ceramics, and illuminations.

Influenced by Byzantine, Roman, pagan, and Christian traditions, this style is a blend of naturalistic symbols and Christian elements. Some art historians refer to it as Pre-Romanesque however it contains some Romanesque elements especially in some of the surviving architecture. With a capital in Toledo, the Visigoths developed decorative arts and jewelry to high standards producing works like the Recceswinth Crown now housed at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid.

Recceswinths Crown – photo by Ángel M. Felicísimo / Wikimedia Commons

This votive crown was likely never worn, however this composition of a hanging crown with pendants, gemstones, crosses, and letters is repeated. The Reeceswinth Crown is part of the Treasure of Guarrazar, one of the most significant medieval discoveries in Spain. The treasure contained 26 votive crowns and jeweled crosses. The votive crowns are a unique type of artifact; they would be hung above a Christian altar as a sort of sacrifice to the church. At least it would make it easy to observe the highly skilled craftsmanship! The placement of the gemstones, the gold wire decoration, and the overall aesthetic is heavily influenced by Byzantine styles, and this is typical of Visigothic objects.

In architecture, the Visigoths brought and adapted many Roman elements. Most of the surviving churches are built on a basilica plan and those survivors contain finely carved capitals and doorways. Column capitals use leaves, vines, flowers, and animals in the Classical tradition, but wrap those elements around Christian saints and symbols. It’s a clear relative of the Romanesque style which would come to the forefront of European art in the 9-12th centuries.

Chinese

Chinese art represents one of the most cohesive cultural traditions in the world. Unlike Europe’s many changes and variations throughout the medieval period, Chinese artists and patrons were highly aware of their heritage and traditional motifs. Inherent in the Chinese culture is a strong desire for maintaining consistency and ancestral esteem, which means a clear relationship throughout a millennium of art and style.

Nature was a prominent theme, and Chinese artists constantly explore the connection between nature and humanity. Animals, trees, rocks, water, and flowers were all popular subjects.

Medieval China produced a wide range of art and artistic artifacts and were innovative in adapting materials. Porcelain and other specialty ceramics are the result of Chinese artists and production centers. The theories of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism made an impression on Chinese styles throughout the Middle Ages. Painters experimented with representative art, playing with perspective, relative sizes, lines, and minimalism. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), influences from India encouraged artists to try new media like cave paintings, life-sized sculpture, and decorative architecture.

Carolingian

Charlemagne actively imitated Roman Imperial traditions and styles, including his efforts to foster and encourage creative centers of artistic production. Distinct styles emerged from workshops in Aachen, Metz, Reims, Corbie, Tours, and Saint-Denis. There was enormous emphasis on imitating classical motifs but apparently little interest in invention. Where the primary difference lies is in the function of the art objects. A great amount of Roman art was memorial, public, and large scale.

Almost all known Carolingian art is small, decorative, and private except in the case of architecture. The same dedication to royal patronage exists in the two periods and Charlemagne and his sons were highly influential in bringing this practice back to western Europe.

Metal artifacts, manuscripts, and carved ivory panels are the primary survivors from the 9-10th Carolingian periods. Like most early medieval art, they show a variety in size, depth, ratio, and perspective farther from reality than classical compositions. Due to the long slow spread of Christianity, symbols varied and took decades to be “chosen.” Frequently borrowed from Roman sects, these symbols required interpretation by religious leaders and so religious communities became art production centers. Charlemagne used this connection to his advantage as he pushed his empire north and east and implemented cultural uniformity.

The hallmarks of Carolingian art involve motifs from Roman, Celtic, and Nordic art traditions. With a high number of educated monks and artists moving from Ireland and northern England into Francia, their aesthetics blended with the burgeoning interest in classical forms in the 9th century. Elongated faces, large eyes, disproportionate human figures, and an emphasis on Christian symbols are all typical of this period and especially in Carolingian art.

Late eighth century ivory carvings, now in the Louvre – photo by Jebulon / WIkimedia Commons

Jelling

This Scandinavian style is difficult to identify due to its diverse forms and geographical spread, however its name comes from the royal cemetery monuments at Jelling in Jutland, Denmark. The large inscribed stones at the site are 10th century funerary monuments with intricate inscribed patterns, imitated on the artifacts excavated from the associated graves. The stones were possibly installed by Harald Bluetooth in the late 10th century (after 983 a.d.) in memory of his parents and the most notable artifact, a silver cup, has fueled major debates over its origins and decorative motifs.

The style features ribbon-like animals with pronounced lip lappets intertwined (as opposed to the Mammen style which is contemporary yet typically features independent zoomorphic forms) and hands, paws, or claws gripping the animals or framework. The Jelling style is seen in multiple applications from the 9-10th century including horse collars, carts, brooches, strap ends, and of course the Jelling cup. Objects recovered from the Gokstad and Oseberg ship burials both display Jelling style decoration, including the “spiral hip” which joins the animal’s limbs to its body.

At the Jelling stones, a lion is intertwined with a snake and a Scandinavian interpretation of the Crucifixion features interlace and Jelling style elements. These stones were likely painted and very colorful when first carved, creating a unique and notable monument in the landscape.

Danielle Trynoski earned her MA in Medieval Archaeology at the University of York in England. When she’s not visiting museums and historical sites, she’s riding horses or reading about Vikings. She currently lives in southern California and manages the website CuratoryStory.com

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

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