8: Europe, Sixth to Eleventh Century, Western Art In the Melting Pot

8: Europe, Sixth to Eleventh Century, Western Art In the Melting Pot

Western Art In the Melting Pot

We have taken the story of Western art up to the period of Constantine, and to the centuries in which it was to adapt itself to the precept of Pope Gregory the Great that images are useful for teaching laymen the sacred word. The period which followed this early Christian era, the period after the collapse of the Roman Empire, is generally known by the uncomplimentary title of the Dark Ages.

We call these ages dark, partly to convey that the people who lived during these centuries of migrations, wars and upheavals, were themselves plunged in darkness and had little knowledge to guide them, but also to imply that we ourselves know rather little about these confused and confusing centuries which followed upon the decline of the ancient world and preceded the emergence of the European countries in the shape, roughly, in which we know them now. There are, of course, no fixed limits to the period, but for our purpose, we may say that it lasted almost five hundred years approximately from AD 500 to AD 1000. Five hundred years is a long time, in which much can change and much, in fact, did change. But what is most interesting to us is that these years did not see the emergence of anyone clear and uniform style, but rather the conflict of a great number of different styles, which only began to fuse towards the end of that period. To those who know something of the history of the Dark Ages, this is hardly surprising.


Church of All Saints , Saxon Tower
(Fig 1) A Saxon Tower, timber structure, Church of All Saints, Barton – Built about 1000

It was not only dark, but it was also a patchy period, with tremendous differences among various people and classes. Throughout these five centuries there existed men and women, particularly in the monasteries and convents, who loved learning and art, and who had a great admiration for those works of the ancient world which had been preserved in libraries and treasure-houses. Sometimes these learned and educated monks or clergy held positions of power and influence at the courts of the mighty and tried to revive the arts which they most admired. But frequently their work came to nought because of new wars and invasions by armed raiders from the north, whose opinions about art were very different indeed. The various Teutonic tribes, the Goths, the Vandals, the Saxons, the Danes and the Vikings, who swept through Europe raiding and pillaging, were considered barbarians by those who valued Greek and Roman achievements in literature and art.

In a sense they certainly were barbarians, but this need not mean that they had no feeling for beauty, no art of their own. They had skilled craftsmen experienced in finely-wrought metalwork, and excellent woodcarvers, comparable to those of the New Zealand Maoris ( Fig. 1). They loved complicated patterns which included the twisted bodies of dragons, or birds mysteriously interlaced. We do not know exactly where these patterns originated in the seventh century or what they signified, but it is not unlikely that the ideas of these Teutonic tribes about art resembled the ideas of primitive tribes elsewhere.

London Museum of mankind
(Fig 1)- Carved wooden intel from a Maori chieftain’s house


There are reasons for believing that they, too, thought of such images as a means of working magic and exorcising evil spirits. The carved figures of dragons from Viking sledges and ships give a good idea of the character of this art (Figs. 1.2, 1.3). One can well imagine that these threatening heads of monsters were something more than just innocent decorations. In fact, we know that there were laws among the Norwegian Vikings which required the captain of a ship to remove these figures before entering his home port, ‘so as not to frighten the spirits of the land.


Bayeux Tapestry, Bayeux Library
(Fig 1.2)- A Longship of the Viking type with dragons head, From the Bayeux Tapestry, made about 1080


The monks and missionaries of Celtic Ireland and Saxon England tried to apply the traditions of these northern craftsmen to the tasks of Christian art. They built churches and steeples in stone imitating the timber structures used by local craftsmen (Fig. 1), but the most amazing monuments to their success are some of the manuscripts made in England and Ireland during the seventh and eighth centuries.


A dragons Head , University Museum of National Antiques
(Fig 1.3) A Dragon’s Head. Wood Carving found at Oseberg, Made about 820

Fig. 1.4 is a page from the famous Lindisfarne Gospels, made in Northumbria shortly before AD 700. It shows the Cross composed of an incredibly rich lacework of intertwined dragons or serpents, standing against a background of an even more complicated pattern. It is exciting to try to find one’s way through this bewildering maze of twisted shapes, and to follow the coils of these interwoven bodies. It is even more astonishing to see that the result is not confusion, but that the various patterns strictly correspond to each other and form a complex harmony of design and colour. One can hardly imagine how anyone could have thought out such a scheme and had the patience and perseverance to finish it. It proves, if proof were needed, that the artists who took up this native tradition were certainly not lacking either in skill or in technique.


 Page from Lindisfarne Gospels, London British Library
(Fig 1.4) Page from Lindisfarne Gospels, London British Library


It is all the more surprising to look at the way in which human figures were represented by these artists in the illustrated manuscripts of England and Ireland. They do not look quite like human figures but rather like strange patterns made of human forms (Fig. 1.5). One can see that the artist used some examples he had found in an old Bible and transformed it to suit his taste. He changed the folds of the dress to something like interlacing ribbons, the locks of hair and even the ears into scrolls, and turned the whole face into a rigid mask.


St Luke from a Gospel Manuscript
(Fig 1.5) St Luke from a Gospel Manuscript painted about 750

These figures of evangelists and saints look almost as stiff and quaint as primitive idols. They show that the artists who had grown up in the tradition of their native art found it difficult to adapt themselves to the new requirements of Christian books. Yet it would be wrong to look upon such pictures as being merely crude. The training of hand and eye which the artists had received, and which enabled them to make a beautiful pattern on the page, helped them to bring a new element into Western art. Without this influence, Western art might have developed on similar lines to those of the art of Byzantium. Thanks to the clash of the two traditions, the classical tradition and the taste of the native artists, something entirely new began to grow up in Western Europe.


Aachen Cathedral Interior
(Fig 1.6) Aachen Cathedral interior, consecrated in 805

For the knowledge of the earlier achievements of classical art was by no means lost altogether. At the court of Charlemagne, who regarded himself as the successor of the Roman Emperors, the tradition of Roman craftsmanship was eagerly revived. The church that Charles had built about AD 800 at his residence in Aachen (Fig. 1.6) is a rather close copy of a famous church that had been built in Ravenna some three hundred years earlier.

We have seen before that our modern notion that an artist must be ‘original’ was by no means shared by most peoples of the past. An Egyptian, a Chinese or a Byzantine master would have been greatly puzzled by such a demand. Nor would a medieval artist of Western Europe have understood why he should invent new ways of planning a church, of designing a chalice or of representing the sacred story where the old ones served their purpose so well. The pious donor who wanted to dedicate a new shrine for a holy relic of his patron saint not only tried to procure the most precious material he could afford, he would also seek to provide the master with an old and venerable example of how the legend of the saint should be correctly represented. Nor would the artist feel hampered by this type of commission. There remained enough scope for him to show whether he was a master or a bungler.

Perhaps we can best understand this attitude if we think of our own approach to music. If we ask a musician to perform at a wedding we do not expect him to compose something new for the occasion, any more than the medieval patron expected a new invention if he asked for a painting of the Nativity. We indicate the type of music we want and the size of the orchestra or choir we may be able to afford. It still is up to the musician to produce a wonderful performance of an ancient masterpiece or to make a mess of things. And just as two equally great musicians may interpret the same piece very differently, so two great medieval masters might make very different works of art of the same theme and even of the same ancient model. An example should make this clear:

Fig. 1.7 shows a page from a Bible produced at the court of Charlemagne. It represents the figure of St Matthew writing the gospel. It had been customary in Greek and Roman books to have the portrait of the author represented on the opening page and this picture of the writing evangelist must be an extraordinarily faithful copy of this type of portrait. The way the saint is draped in his toga in the best classical fashion, the way his head is modelled in many shades of light and colour, convinces us that the medieval artist had strained every nerve to give an accurate and worthy rendering of a venerated model.                 


St Matthew at Aachen
(Fig 1.7) St Matthew. From Gospel Manuscript, Painted at Aachen, about 800


(Fig 1.7) St Matthew. Painted at Reims, about 830
(Fig 1.8) St Matthew. Painted at Reims, about 830

The painter of another manuscript of the ninth century (Fig. 1.8) probably had before him the same or a very similar ancient example from early Christian times. We can compare the hands, the left hand holding an inkhorn and resting on the lectern, the right hand holding the pen; we can compare the feet and even the drapery around the knees. But while the artist of (Fig. 1.7) had done his very best to copy the original as faithfully as possible, the artist of Fig. 109 must-have aimed at a different interpretation. Perhaps he did not want to represent the evangelist like any serene old scholar, sitting quietly in his study.

To him St Matthew was an inspired man, writing down the Word of God. It was an immensely important and immensely exciting event in the history of mankind that he wanted to portray, and he succeeded in conveying something of his own sense of awe and excitement in this figure of a writing man. It is not mere clumsiness and ignorance which made him draw the saint with wide open, protruding eyes and enormous hands

. He intended to give him that expression of tense concentration. The very brushwork of the drapery and of the background looks as if it had been done in a mood of intense excitement. This impression, I think, is partly due to the evident enjoyment with which the artist seized on every opportunity to draw scrolly lines and zigzagging folds.

There may have been something in the original to suggest such a treatment, but it probably appealed to the medieval artist because it reminded him of those interlaced ribbons and lines which had been the greatest achievement of northern art. In pictures like these, we see the emergence of a new medieval style which made it possible for art to do something that neither ancient Oriental nor classical art had done: the Egyptians had largely drawn what they knew to exist, the Greeks what they saw; in the Middle Ages the artist also learned to express in his picture what he felt.

One cannot do justice to any medieval work of art without keeping this purpose in mind. For these artists were not out to create a convincing likeness of nature or to make beautiful things—they wanted to convey to their brothers in the faith the content and the message of the sacred story. And in this, they were perhaps more successful than most artists of earlier or later times. Fig. 1.9 is from a gospel book which was illustrated (or, as it called, ‘illuminated’) in Germany more than a century later, around the year 1000. It represents the incident told in the Gospel of St John (xiii. 8–9) when Christ, after the Last Supper, washed the disciples’ feet:

Peter saith unto him, ‘Thou shalt never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, ‘If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.’ Simon Peter saith unto him, ‘Lord, not my feet only, but my hands and my head.’

This exchange alone is what mattered to the artist. He saw no reason to represent the room in which the scene occurred; it might merely have diverted attention from the inner meaning of the event. He rather placed his principal figures before a flat, luminous golden ground, on which the gestures of the speakers stand out like a solemn inscription: the imploring movement of St Peter, the calm teaching gesture of Christ. A disciple on the right takes off his sandals, another brings a basin, the others crowd behind St Peter. All eyes are rigidly turned towards the centre of the



Image of Christ Washing the Apostle's feet
(Fig 1.9) Christ Washing the Apostle’s feet, From the Gospel Book of Otto III, Munich

scene and thus give us the feeling that something of infinite significance is happening here. What matters if the basin is not evenly rounded, and if the painter has to wrench the leg of St Peter up, the knee somewhat forward, to get his foot clearly into the water? He was concerned with the message of divine humility, and this he conveyed.

It is interesting to glance back for a moment to another scene representing the washing of feet, the Greek vase painted in the fifth century BC ( Fig. 5.6). It was in Greece that the art of showing the ‘workings of the soul’ was discovered, and however differently the medieval artist interpreted this aim, the Church could never have used pictures for its own ends without this heritage.


Ulysses recognized by his old nurse
(Fig 5.6) Greek Vase, Ulysses recognized by his old nurse


We remember the teaching of Pope Gregory the Great that ‘painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read’ (First tow pages). This search for clarity comes out not only in the painted illustrations but also in works of sculpture such as the panel from a bronze door which was commissioned for the German church of Hildesheim shortly after the year 1000 (Fig. 2.0). It shows the Lord approaching Adam and Eve after the fall.

Again there is nothing in this relief that does not strictly belong to the story. But this concentration on the things which matter makes the figures stand out all the more clearly against the plain background-and we can almost read off what their gestures say: God points to Adam, Adam to Eve, and Eve to the serpent on the ground. The shifting of guilt and the origin of evil is expressed with such forcefulness and clarity that we soon forget that the proportions of the figures are perhaps not strictly correct and the bodies of Adam and Eve not beautiful by our standards.

From the bronze doors of Hildesheim Cathedral
(Fig 2.0) Adam and Eve after the fall

We need not imagine, though, that all art in this period existed exclusively to serve religious ideas. Not only churches were built in the Middle Ages, but castles as well, and the barons and feudal lords to whom the castles belonged also occasionally employed artists.

The reason why we are inclined to forget these words when we speak of the art of the earlier Middle Ages is simple: castles were often destroyed when churches were spared. Religious art was, on the whole, treated with greater respect, and looked after more carefully, than mere decorations of private apartments. When these became old-fashioned they were removed or thrown away-just as happens nowadays. But, fortunately, one great example of this latter type of art has come down to us and that because it was preserved in a church. It is the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which illustrates the story of the Norman Conquest. We do not know exactly when this tapestry was made, but most scholars agree that it was within living memory of the scenes it illustrates-perhaps round about the year 1080.


Bayeux Tapestry
(Fig 2.1) King Harold swears an oath to Duke William of Normandy before returning to England, Bayeux Tapestry made about 1080.


Bayeux Tapestry
(Fig 2.2) King Harold swears an oath to Duke William of Normandy before returning to England, Bayeux Tapestry made about 1080.

 The tapestry is a picture-chronicle of the kind we know from ancient Oriental and Roman art (Trajan’s Column, for example, Fig 5.7)-the story of a campaign and a victory. It tells its story with wonderful liveliness. On (Fig. 2.1) we see, as the inscription tells, how Harold swears his oath to William and on (Fig. 2.2) how he returns to England. Nothing could be clearer than the way in which the story is told we see William on his throne watching Harold laying his hand on the sacred relics to swear allegiance-it was this oath which served William as the pretext for his claims on England.

Trajan's Column
(Fig 5.7) Trajan’s Column

I particularly like the man on the balcony in the next scene, who holds his hand above his eyes to espy Harold’s ship as it arrives from afar. It is true that his arms and fingers look rather quaint and that all the figures in the story are strange little manikins which are not drawn with the assurance of the Assyrian or Roman chroniclers. When the medieval artist of this period had no model to copy, he drew rather like a child. It is easy to smile at him, but by no means so easy to do what he did. He tells the epic with such an economy of means, and with such concentration on what seemed important to him, and the final result remains more memorable than the realistic accounts of our war reporters and newsreel men.

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