Europe after the
Fall of Rome
Early Medieval Art
This chapter presents the Early Medieval Period, no longer known as a dark period simply existing between Classical Rome and Renaissance Italy. This chapter deals with Europe after the fall of Rome. It discusses the split of the empire into two distinct units, the East and the West. This chapter chronicles the development of medieval Europe following the long period of development ca. 500–1000 A.D. The student will be introduced to the “dark ages” and an alternate definition will be presented which might perhaps refute that title. The student will be introduced to the monastic tradition, which was responsible for the maintenance of the antique resources that might have been lost through the vandalism of the invading barbarians. The student will be re-acquainted with Imperial Rome and how this icon, Rome, was re-defined into “barbarian” lexicon. The student will also be presented with the influences coming from the invading barbarians. This period roughly 500 years in length describes the development of Europe into separate states and entities. Not yet fully formed as Europe is today; however, this period does slowly lead to that formation. There are migrations from the East that account for much of the unrest. Powerful groups of peoples migrated and settled in the remnants of the domain of the Roman Empire, there was a fusion of images, motifs and perceptions synthesizing together the heritage of the Christian, Greco-Roman and the Barbarian.
1) Two things were necessary for the development of medieval civilization. The first was the christianization of the barbarian tribes invading Europe. The second was partial unification of Western Europe. The Roman Empire had repelled the Barbarian influx into Europe, but now, by the 5th century A.D., the Empire had collapsed and it no longer guarded the “gates of the city.” The Migration Period in Europe is generally dated from the 5th century A.D., the date of the arrival of the Huns. During this period new Barbarian groups were on the move, they were gradually settling and were being converted to Christianity by missionary monks.
These peoples were originally centered on the Baltic Sea in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. Developing a higher technology, the use of iron, caused them to seek more land for settlement, and, thus, were brought into the purview of the Roman Empire. The appearance of the Huns, a tribe from Mongolia in the 5th century, caused the Goths, now Arian Christians to split into two groups. The groups that moved the shortest distances established the most permanent kingdoms: the Lombard, the Burgundians, the Angles, and the Saxons, the latter two moved across the channel to England. The Angles and the Saxons pushed the Celts, then known as Britons, to the western shore of Britain. The Celts once covered a large geographic area expanding from central Europe into France and Spain and then into Great Britain, Ireland, and Wales.
The Ostrogoths, moved west into Italy where they came as the allies of the East Roman Emperor, Zeno. Their leader, Theodoric, established a kingdom in Italy that lasted from 489–540. The other group, the Visigoths, went on an unbelievably long journey. First they moved south to the tip of Greece, then the full length of Italy, and finally on to Spain, where they established a kingdom that lasted from 412–672. Although the Vandals started from further south, they crossed Europe, down into Spain, and then across to North Africa where they established a kingdom from 429 to 523. After North Africa was reconquered by Justinian this group disintegrated and were heard from no more, leaving only their name “vandal” to signify wanton destruction.
Eventually these peoples were to become civilized and that civilizing process led them to create permanent monuments. Yet they were all aware of the Empire of Rome and the impact this had on these peoples led them to mimic Imperial Rome, both artistically and politically. The boundaries of Europe were being laid out and established. They were setting themselves, as the inheritors of the empire, along with that inheritance was the need for a visual statement of their patrimony.
The art objects, which remain, are small and portable. It is thought they are perhaps status objects. These works have been discovered in graves and it not that implausible to suggest that they were, in fact, precious. Previous cultures did have a history of burying objects, utilitarian goods as well as the precious items.
This period also saw the emergence of the Church as a secular power. Europe was now open to invasion and conquest, not only from without but also from within. The struggle for power was a constant and often bloody conflict. The invasions of the barbarians led to alliances between the pope and the settled groups who could provide protection. The acknowledgement of the spiritual and economic power of the Church assisted in gaining barbarian converts who became Christian and provided even more substantive protection from the invading hordes.
The Franks, who moved from Germany into France and established what, was to become the powerful Frankish or Merovingian kingdom. The Frankish fibula (16–1) 6th–7th centuries A.D. is such an object, which can define this early period. It is small and ornate. The color of the set stones hearkens back to Imperial Rome. The color red is thought to be an imperial color. The surface is involved not only in the entire design, but the shape hints at a fantastic animal, a heritage from the Frankish barbaric past. The small fish attached to the surface also indicates the conversion to Christianity. This was a quiet symbol used during the period of Persecution in the Roman Empire to unobtrusively show religious preference. The Merovingians adapted this symbol not only to indicate their religion but also to join in the mandate set by Christ, “become fishers of souls.” The symbol, fish, was used now as a testimonial of the preference rather than its earlier use as an inconspicuous sign.
This color could also be attributed to the Christian Church as a representation for the Passion of Christ and Martyrdom. The small fish set in the center of the fibula (fastener or buckle or pin) does indicate the religious inclination of the owner. At this time the population, both aristocratic and peasant was illiterate, so it was essential for signs and symbols to be used. As previously stated the stones in the fibula do take on iconic value. The garnet (red gemstone) is aligned not only with the Passion of Christ but also is used in reference to the Virgin as well as the early Christian martyrs and Imperial Rome. A small medallion of a triumphant Christ ca. 750 A.D. illustrates even more the impact Imperial Rome and the Church had on these newly christianized Frankish peoples. A youthful Christ, reminiscent of the Good Shepherd from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (11–15), is depicted in cloisonné (partitioned areas filled with enamel and high fired). The color reflects the glory of God and also repeats the colors of Imperial Rome. This work also shows a connection with the Byzantine East. The yellow, blue and red are frequently used colors in the Byzantine mosaic programs designed for their church interiors. This imitation does indicate a contact between the East and the West. What these objects show, even more, is the evolution of an iconic style and theme that was to become a pattern for this period. These newly settled groups of peoples, who became Christian, adopted the visual motifs, which defined and explained the teachings of the Church. These small objects made the philosophical tenets of this religion more real and believable. It would be much easier to believe in an “unseen” god, if one had in hand an image or a reasonable likeness of that god. Even more important it is easier to acknowledge a Supreme Being if the associated works reflect a heavenly glory and power and the richness of these small metal ornaments do mirror that glory. These Frankish peoples also wanted to show an allegiance to Imperial Rome and their rightful role as inheritors of the Roman Empire.
The Sutton Hoo treasure assembled for the ship burial of an Anglo Saxon king who died in 654 contained objects from Luristan and Byzantium, as well as magnificent gold jewelry decorated with garnets, mosaic glass, filigree, and animal interlace made in England. The motif of the man and lions from the Sutton Hoo purse ca. 625 A.D. (16–2) may ultimately derive from the ancient Near East, like the representations of Gilgamesh and his lions (2–10), the old symbol of the hero’s conquest of the forces of nature. For Christians, this motif had come to represent Daniel in the Lion’s den. It is now generally believed that the Sutton Hoo ship burial was given in honor of King Anna who became a Christian; if that is the case, this motif could also be interpreted in the Christian sense. The Sutton Hoo treasure was originally placed in a wooden ship, much like a ninth century Viking ship from Osberg, either buried or set adrift in flames.
The swirl and infinite knot pattern, motifs which have roots in the Barbarian figural body of design elements, is evident in Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts. The Irish monks utilized motifs from both the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Germanic traditions, blending the two into richly interlaced ornamental compositions. A rich interlace covers the cross from the so-called “carpet page” (16–6) from the Lindisfarne Gospels, a manuscript that was illuminated at the monastery of Lindisfarne in the late seventh century. This manuscript combines the Germanic rigid organization of the page with the swirling Celtic decorative filling. The cross and carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels ca. 698–721 A.D. (16–6) illustrates this rich pattern and design. The monks who created this work sought to create an object, which would encourage meditation and thoughtful prayer. Another rationale presented for this surface treatment is thought to be laying a trap for the devil or evil. The creature once trapped within the endless and infinite knots would forever circle with no prospect of escape. An alternate argument for this richly ornamented page is a visual illustration for the “infinite goodness of God and His boundless love for humanity.” The continuous pattern seen in the carpet page has been suggested to represent infinity and the heavenly reward.
The pattern of endless design does trace its roots deep into the past. Bronze mounts found in Emilia, Italy and dated to the late 4th century BC illustrate the heritage of the Irish manuscript page. Not as richly involved, nevertheless, the knotting pattern is clearly seen and it does encompass the entire surface of the mounts.
Another carpet page from the Book of Durrow ca. 645 A.D. illustrates this endless pattern as well. In the border medallions, the artist-monk has included the Gordian knot pattern, again reminiscent of the infinite goodness of God. The surface ornamentation of both manuscripts indicates the strong use of design, but they also point out the interchange and exchange of stylistic motifs and ideas.
We know that precious manuscripts were brought to monasteries to be copied, for we have a record that the Codex Amiatinus (16–9) was one of three copies made at the English monastery of Jarrow of a manuscript brought by the Bishop of Jarrow from Rome. The artist who made this copy seemed to have a much better understanding of the original than did the copyist at Lindisfarne, for the furniture seems to be depicted more effectively in space, even though it was again Byzantine reverse perspective that was used. The artist also did a better job of articulating the forms of the human body, although there is still a roughness about the copy that one would undoubtedly not have found in the original.
In comparing “St. Matthew” (16–8) from the Lindisfarne Gospels and “Scribe Ezra” (16–9) from the Codex Amiatinus, certain differences become clear. The foundational idea of both manuscripts is the “act of writing.” Both characters are seen in the act of writing, in St. Matthew’s case and transcribing in the Scribe’s case. It could be argued that the difference between Matthew and Ezra is philosophical as well. Matthew as an evangelist and recorder of events which occurred during the life of Christ and subsequent years after his death, could be seen as the originator of the written word, both the spiritual Word and the record of the events. Whereas Ezra, is a scribe, a transcriber, a copyist and he is seated in a chamber surrounded by manuscripts. His work is not original in the sense of originality as applied to Matthew. The intensity of the work of transcribing is in itself, the description of the image as much as the act of copying. Matthew is also in a room, but completely stripped of any furnishings. The intensity of his work is amplified by the presence of the angel, also a symbol representing the evangelist Matthew, it could be suggested that this is the original creative process of writing and not copying. Also indicating the importance of such an endeavor, both as a manuscript transcriber (scribe) and disseminating the Word of God, the abbot or prior of the monastery of Lindisfarne has added a colophon (information relating to the manuscript) to the back of the manuscript indicating the names of the individuals involved in the production. This history of the period has been documented by this entry and also we gain an understanding of the importance of this activity to the community and to the geographic area. This was considered an important resource that was carefully guarded and secured. The illiteracy of the population made reading and writing a very precious activity and the end product, a visually pleasing manuscript recorded the Word of God but also presented that Word as meditative tool. The illuminations were to create an inspirational feeling so meditation on the Word would follow.
The Vikings remained pagan until the beginning of the eleventh century. Not only did they continually harass England and Ireland, but they also sailed to Spain and even through the Straits of Gibraltar to gain access to the rich Mediterranean ports. They initiated trade and mercenary alliances with Byzantium. Viking ship burials were usually conducted at sea, with the ship set afire and pushed out. The old Germanic tale of Beowulf describes such a burial, but some were buried in the ground, for instance the Osberg ship found in Norway. The ship was carved with elaborate animal interlace decoration and topped by the head of a ferocious animal (16–3). When the Vikings were Christianized, they decorated their wooden stave churches with the same motifs (16–4). An interlace pattern of delicacy and intricacy which enveloped the eye of the viewer in an endless repetition of pattern and movement.
2) Charlemagne (16–11) united much of Europe. He united most of France and Germany, subjugated the Slavs north of the Elbe River, then conquered Lombardy and most of Italy, and finally he fortified the Pyrenees against the Muslims. Charlemagne was six feet four inches tall, quite unusual for those days, and was renowned for his physical energy. He devoted himself not only to conquest and political renewal, but also tripts. His work is not original in the sense of originality as applied to Matthew. The intensity of the work of transcribing is in itself, the description of the image as much as the act of copying. Matthew is also in a room, but completely stripped of any furnishings. The intensity of his work is amplified by the presence of the angel, also a symbol representing the evangelist Matthew, it could be suggested that this is the original creative process of writing and not copying. Also indicating the impotian manuscripts from Rome to be copied, as is apparent from the picture of St. Matthew from Charlemagne’s Coronation Gospels (16–12). Roman techniques of modeling in the round and the free brushwork are used here to create an illusion of depth and solidity (10–19). The Carolingian artists who worked at the Palace scriptorium at Aachen seem much more adept at copying their classical models.
A rather different style is apparent in the Evangelist St. Matthew depicted in the Ebbo Gospels (16–13), which wa an important resource that was carefully guarded and secured. The illiteracy of the population made reading and writing a very precious activity and the end product, a visually pleasing manuscript recorded the Word of God but also presented that Word as meditative tool. The illuminations were to create an inspirational feeling so meditation on the Word would follow.
The Vikings remained pagan until the beginning of the eleventh century. Not only did they continually harass England and Ireland, but they than solidity of the body. The little landscape in the upper portion of the composition is a suggestion. There are several trees, a sprightly little winged figure, and a tiny temple, done in quite passable perspective. That same energy is closely related to the manuscript known as the Utrecht Psalter (16–14), which was produced by Reims artists. There is the same combination of nervous line and Roman illusionism. The scenes serve as illustrations for the Psalms from the Old Testament that are written out in the measured Carolingian miniscule.
The Lindau Gospels cover was in gold set with pearls and precious stones (16–16). The plates of gold are embossed from the back with an image of the Crucified Christ. In this small figure one can see the influence of the Early Christian version of the youthful Christ.
Many of Charlemagne’s buildings display his imperial pretensions and his interpretations of Roman architecture. The Torhalle of the Monastery of Lorsch, which is based on a Roman triumphal, as was the west front of the palace chapel he built at Aachen. The chapel itself was a two-story construction (16–18), with a throne for Charlemagne set at the upper level. Many of the stones for the chapel had been retrieved from Roman ruins, as were most of the columns that we see in the interior. The centralized plan of the building (16–19) bears an obvious resemblance to Justinian’s church of San Vitale at Ravenna (12–7), for Charlemagne, San Vitale was just as Roman as the Pantheon. It is quite possible that San Vitale served as a model for Charlemagne’s imperial Palatine chapel (16–18), but it is certainly not a direct copy. The chapel at Aachen is sixteen-sided, while San Vitale is octagonal (12–8 and 12–9).
Carolingian verticality is apparent in the drawing of the abbey church of St. Riquier at Centula (16–21), that was built at about the same time as Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel at Aachen around 800 A.D. The great towers are placed at both ends of the building. One of the towers is set on the westwork while the other is placed over the area of intersection of nave and transept. Centula is an early example in the development of what is known as ‘square schematism,” a technique of a modular construction in which the proportions of various parts of the buildings are strictly related. The basic module is the crossing square that is created by intersection of nave and transept of equal width. This square is clearly set off by arches and the length of the nave is precisely double the size of this square.
In the plan for the abbey church of the monastery of St. Gall (16–20) the crossing square as basic module is more rigorously applied to the rest of the structure: the transepts are exactly the same size as the crossing square; there is one square between transept and apse; and the nave is four and one half crossing squares long. The aisles themselves are exactly half the width of the crossing square. The entire building is tightly organized and clearly structured.
3) The unified Holy Roman Empire that Charlemagne established did not survive the rule of his sons, but it was revived in Germany by the Ottonians in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The Ottonians adopted Byzantine trappings to symbolize their imperial power (12–10). The French segment of Charlemagne’s empire suffered under renewed onslaughts from the Vikings during this period and when the Vikings were finally controlled, new and separate political forms developed in France.
The illumination from the Gospel Book of Otto III (16–29) clearly demonstrates the imperial pretensions of the Ottonian emperors. Otto I had revived both German political power and learning and had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the year 962. Artists turned much more toward Byzantium for models, perhaps because the rigid formality and protocol of the Byzantine court formed a better model. The sure lines of Ottonian drapery and flat, clear planes of color differ from Carolingian examples.
It was the Ottonian sculptors who created larger works that led the way to the monumental sculpture of the Romanesque period. Bernward, Bishop of Hildesheim, played a decisive role in that development. In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Bernward was an accomplished bronze-caster. In the year 1001 he made a trip to Rome, where he undoubtedly saw the Early Christian wooden doors with their carved relief on the church of Santa Sabina. The idea of combining the relief tradition of the south with the bronze so beloved of the northerners was most likely Bernward’s. The casting of the great doors (16–25) was an impressive technical achievement, for each of the doors weighing over 3000 pounds was cast as a single piece. The detail of the scene of God condemning Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is clearly understood from the lively gestures. God points to Adam and Adam points to Eve blaming her, while Eve in turn points down to the dragon on the ground. There is great dynamism in the figures and the space between them becomes real and believable. The viewer can easily understand the context of the story as is appears on the doors. The Church now provides for redemption and salvation from that original sin of Adam and Eve yet the story reminds the viewer of the temptations of the devil is still prevalent. Bishop Bernward created a teaching instrument in the doors as well as a sculptural monument. The Gero Crucifix (16–27) illustrates the influence from the Byzantine East. Christ is a mature man, in the Byzantine sense (12–13 and 12–14) unlike the Carolingian Lindau Gospels figure (16–6) which follows the Early Christian representation as a young beardless youth. This crucifixion has more drama and power. It becomes more representational of the period; the viewer relives the agony and pain, which is reflected in the work. The sculptor has created an image that illustrates the emotion of the Crucifixion; the sagging body and blood are dramatically presented.
The use of modules by the Germanic builders is thought to derive from the technique of constructing a series of uprights, which are tied together by cross beams. As many units as necessary could be added to give the desired length. The basic modular unit of such structures is known as a ‘bay,” and it is the use of modular bays that essentially distinguish the church of St. Michael’s at Hildesheim (16–24). It has the double apse that we saw at St. Gall and the multiple integrated towers that we saw at St. Riquier. Great square towers are placed over the crossings at both east and west, with small towers at the end of each transept arm (16–23). This can also be seen in the exterior of the Abbey Church of St. Pantaleon, Cologne 966–980 (16–22). The piers down the center of the nave alternate with columns according to an A–b–b–A–b–b rhythm. This new feature, which is known as an ‘alternating support system,” marks a further step in the development of what we call “square schematism,” for the piers mark the modular units that repeat the size of the crossing square unit in the nave. We can summarize the steps in the development of square schematism as follows:
1. Equalization of the width of the nave and transept that results in the crossing square.
2. Use of the crossing square as the modular unit.
3. Use of alternating supports to mark the comers of these squares.
4. Upward projection of the modular floor plan.
5. Cross projection of the system by transverse arches.
We have already seen the first three steps in this process, with the third step, the use of alternating supports to mark the corners of the squares, appearing at Hildesheim (16–24). Although the ceiling of St. Michael’s is flat and the nave wall is unarticulated, the nave of St. Michael’s contained the seeds of the bay system that was to transform the architectural expression in Western Europe.
Share with your friends: