Barbarian Art

Barbarian Art
   The product of the various peoples who entered the Roman world in late antiquity and then established successor kingdoms during the early Middle Ages, barbarian art was often highly stylized and quite accomplished. Indeed, the label barbarian or barbarian art in some ways demeans the quality of the works that Germanic and other peoples created from the fourth to ninth centuries. Works of art were produced in various media. These artists produced works in ivory and precious metals and gems, creating beautiful book covers of carved ivory or metalwork and jewelry of gold and silver. Weapons, too, were created as works of art. Some of the most impressive examples of barbarian or early medieval art, however, are found in the manuscript illuminations that were produced in monasteries throughout Europe. Both the covers and illustrations of early medieval manuscripts reveal a high level of skill and a well-developed aesthetic sensibility. Barbarian art drew its inspiration from various sources and, especially after the initial period of contact and conversion, mixed Christian, Germanic, and Roman influences to create a distinctive and often beautiful artistic style.
   The most predominant form of artistic expression of the migration period and into the early post-Roman period was in metalwork. Artists and artisans created exquisite pieces of jewelry - earrings, rings, bracelets, and brooches - and other things, such as belt buckles, to adorn clothing and the body. There were several categories of the design of metalwork during the migration period. Some pieces were simply abstract and geometric in design; other styles were more clearly representational, and the decoration of the jewelry and other metalwork included animal patterns. The representational, animal style is generally classified in one of two categories, Style I or Style II. Style I, which originated in northern Europe and spread into France by the sixth century, arranged parts of animals or complete but compact animals in a decorative pattern in the metalwork. The ribbon animal style, Style II, was a Lombard innovation that spread to other peoples, and it placed animal figures in elongated, intertwined, continuous, and symmetrical patterns in the metalwork. These traditional designs mixed and mingled with Roman influences, especially among the Visigoths and Lombards, as the various Germanic peoples settled in the former Western Empire and came into fuller contact with Roman artistic traditions.
   Other forms of metalwork include that done in bronze and other base metals, used for adorning soldiers. A polychrome cloisonné style, which developed by the fourth century and employed gold and precious gems, was also popular. The polychrome style was used in brooches and to decorate the swords and other weapons of kings and nobles. Gold was also employed by late antique and early medieval artisans to decorate book covers, especially of the more important manuscripts in a monastic, cathedral, or royal library. Borrowing the techniques and styles used for jewelry and other metalwork, craftsmen decorated book covers with figures in gold and other metals, and incorporated precious gems to further enhance the beauty and value of the book and its cover. Because many of the covers were for books of the Bible and other religious texts, the scenes on the covers were often drawn from the history of the church and from the religious texts themselves. Especially popular were decorations portraying Christ in majesty, with the four Evangelists represented by their symbols.
   Another medium in which early medieval artists were skilled is ivory, which was used for decoration of book covers as well as liturgical objects. The style of the carved miniatures that adorned important books in the early Middle Ages was at first a continuation of ancient Roman styles. The artists borrowed both technique and subject matter from their Roman predecessors, but as time went on, they began to develop their own unique styles. The carvings often displayed scenes from the Gospels, Psalms, and other books of the Bible. The carvings themselves reveal variation in style, technique, and talent. Some ivory carvings are noteworthy for their monumental quality, even though they were done on a miniature scale, and others are characterized by more animated figures that recall the illuminations found inside the books. They also reveal the mingling of Christian, Roman, and Germanic influences. The covers often included scenes from the Christian Scriptures or history that were modeled on Roman or Byzantine precedents. The artists also often included decorative borders with geometric or floral patterns. Ivory carvings also adorned reliquaries and other small containers, various liturgical objects such as crosiers, and even larger architectural items, such as the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome.
   Brooch earrings, bracelets, and Visigothic jewelry, 621-672 a.d. (The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Madrid/Album/Joseph Martin)
   Among the most characteristic and magnificent products of early medieval artists are the manuscript illuminations that decorated many of the great books of the period. Although mural painting was practiced, few examples survive - one important exception is the mural from the church of Theodulf of Orléans, which portrays the story of the Ark of the Covenant and reveals Theodulf's sophisticated theory of art - to allow us to judge them, in contrast to the manuscript illuminations. Particularly by the Carolingian period, manuscript illuminators had achieved a highly developed style that merged Christian,
   Roman, and German traditions, just as the artists in ivory had. Numerous psalters, gospels, and other important texts received luxurious illuminations.
   Ark of the Covenant from the Oratory of Theodulf (mosaic), Germigny-des-Pres (Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis)
   Subjects included Jesus, Mary, the saints and apostles, and other important figures in the history of the church such as the popes. By the Carolingian age, subjects included kings and emperors, including Louis the Pious, Charles the Bald, and Lothar. The illustrations portraying the monarchs stressed key political ideas, emphasizing the religious nature and divine origin of kingship. The illustrations often borrowed from classical models, and some clearly repeat their Roman predecessors, but others reveal a more unique and individual spirit. The illuminations, in many colors and sometimes highlighted with gold, are often dramatic and stately.
   Individual letters in the text were sometimes decorated. These letters, the so-called historiated capitals, included images that captured a brief incident or scene or were decorated with abstract designs or floral patterns. The miniatures also included the kind of abstract or geometric ornamentation in the borders and throughout the main image that had been popular in the migration period. Some images as well include the dramatic movement and expression that the migration-period peoples seemed to favor. But Roman styles also shaped the illuminations and defined the way individuals like Louis the Pious or the Evangelist Matthew were portrayed: the former as a Roman ruler, the latter as a classical scribe.
   See also
 ♦ Beckwith, John. Early Medieval Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.
 ♦ Grabar, André. Early Medieval Painting from the Fourth to the Eleventh Century. Lausanne: Skira, 1957.
 ♦ Hubert, Jean, Jean Porcher, and Wolfgang Fritz Volbach. The Carolingian Renaissance. New York: George Braziller, 1970.
 ♦ Lasko, Peter. Ars Sacra 800-1200. 2d ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
 ♦ --- . The Kingdom of the Franks: Northwest Europe before Charlemagne. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.
 ♦ Mütherich, Florentine, and Joachim E. Gaehde. Carolingian Painting. New York: George Braziller, 1976.
 ♦ Ross, Marvin, and Philippe Verdier. Arts of the Migration Period in the Walters Art Gallery. Baltimore: Walters Art Gallery, 1961.
 ♦ Snyder, James. Medieval Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, 4th-14th Century. New York: Harry Abrams, 1989.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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