Early Medieval Art and History
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I am starting a new series breaking down the history of medieval art. This period in history covers about 1000 years, so it’s simply too large to cover in a single video. Although it used to be called “The Dark Ages”, this term has fallen out of use because historians have uncovered that this era was one of immense growth and change in society. I am going to start with the Early Middle Ages, so to find out more, then keep on reading! (And I have to admit, I’m quite excited about this blog series! My speciality is medieval art, so I’ve had a blast researching and writing!)
The beginning of the medieval period is typically dated at 476 CE. This was the year that the western half of the Roman Empire fell to Odoacer and his barbarian forces. Since historical periods are rarely so cut and dry, there is some overlap with the late antique/Early Christian period. This fact is reflected in some of the early art, which I’ll talk about later in this post.
Once the Roman Empire was gone, there was a power vacuum. Barbarian tribes had slowly been chipping away at imperial territories for about a century beforehand, but this increased dramatically by the end of the 5th century. Franks, Lombards, Anglo Saxons, and more all set about conquering lands and expanding their own domains.
However, a new unifying force began to take a hold on Europe: Christianity. During the medieval period, the Church would send missionaries out into the field to begin converting the pagan masses. Slowly but surely, the religion reached the far corners of Europe. From St. Patrick in Ireland to St. Boniface in Germany, from St. Denis in France to Bishop Ulfilas in Gothic territory, it is easy to see how Christianity was able to make its way from Israel. the Italian Peninsula, and beyond.
One of the most important things to note about the medieval period is that there was no concept of art for art’s sake. Not only could ornamentation be seen as vanity, but it was expensive and time consuming to produce. Art always served a purpose, being beautiful was secondary. Whether it was for religious devotion, burial goods, or another practical purpose, artistic merit wasn’t the top priority.
Besides the fall of the Roman Empire, the most important event of the Early Middle Ages was the Carolingian Renaissance. This “rebirth” was thanks to one man: Charlemagne. He
was born into the Frankish royal family in 742. Through a series of successful military campaigns, Charlemagne was able to also become King of the Lombards. The final culmination of his power came in 800. That year, Pope Leo III crowned him Holy Roman Emperor in recognition of his strength and promise to defend Christianity. This period led to the most growth in political, social, and artistic areas of society since the days of the Pax Romana.
Reidersche Tafel (Reider Table)
Now that we’ve established some historical background, let’s look at some art! This beautiful ivory piece is called the Reidersche Tafel and dates from around 400 CE. It features two scenes, the Ascension of Christ and the three holy women visiting the tomb on the day of the Resurrection. This work was created in either Rome or Milan and is the oldest known representation of these moments in the history of art.
When looking at this piece, it is clear that there is a heavy influence of classical art on this piece. Firstly, each figure is draped in heavy robes, similar to those worn in Ancient Rome. (One can imagine that the unknown artist used their own clothes as reference!). Next, Christ is shown as young and beardless. This way of depicting Him did not last very long, which is how historians were able to date it so early in the history of Christianity. Finally, there is a sense of three dimensionality to this work. The buildings, trees, clouds, and people all project out from the ivory plane.
In the British Isles, a unique and fascinating style developed in the early middle ages. It is called Insular (meaning island) and represents a combination of pagan and Christian art. This
was due to the fact that, as discussed previously, there was a lot of tribal migration happening at this time. One of the best examples of this is the Lindisfarne gospels. (If you want to listen to a deep dive on this subject, check out my podcast episode linked here). This codex dates from around 715-720 CE and contains the four gospels of the New Testament and a number of beautiful and intricate illustrations.
This page of the Lindisfarne Gospels contains the opening lines of the Book of Matthew. As you can see, the letters are created with beautiful, swirling lines that criss-cross and weave through each other. The pigments are bright, creating quite a visual impact. If you look even closer, there are little animals inside of the larger letters! It’s a bit cheeky and also a testament to the unique nature of Insular art.
St. Matthew from the Ebbo Gospels
The final work of this blog post is a product of the Carolingian Renaissance. It is an illumination from the Ebbo Gospels, showing St. Matthew writing his Gospel. This piece dates from around 820 and is quite unique for medieval art. There is a sense of frenzy and energy to this work. St. Matthew hunches over his desk, stylus flying across the page. Behind him, there is a church and an angel (this was a traditional symbol of St. Matthew)
One of the reforms that Charlemagne brought about was the study of Roman art and texts. He admired Constantine and supported artists that helped revive the style of that period. We can see that here in the Ebbo gospels as the artist attempts to create a three dimensionality and perspective. The viewer can spot Matthew’s knee underneath his robes and the landscape is clearly set behind him.
The Early Medieval period is a fascinating one. Not only do we see a shift in politics, but there is a major shift in art as well. This post only highlights the beginning of that change. Keep an eye out for the next part on the High Middle Ages, coming soon!
Cover image (and last image): St. Matthew from the Ebbo Gospels. 9th century CE. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Map of Barbarian Invasions. CC 2.5 by MapMunster via Wikimedia Commons
Bust of Charlemagne. c. 1350 CE. CC 3.0 by Beckstet via Wikimedia Commons.
Reidersche Tafel (Reider Table). c. 400 CE. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
St Matthew from the Lindisfarne Gospels. End of the 7th Century CE. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons