The labels we use for historical periods tend to be like the nicknames
of people. Once established, they are almost impossible to change, even
though they may no longer be suitable. Those who coined the term "Middle
Ages" thought of the entire thousand years from the fifth to the
fifteenth century as an age of darkness, an empty interval between
classical antiquity and its rebirth, the Renaissance in Italy. Since
then, our view of the Middle Ages has changed completely. We no longer
think of the period as "benighted" but as the "Age of Faith."
With the spread of this positive conception, the idea of darkness has
become confined more and more to the early part of the Middle Ages. A
hundred years ago, the "Dark Ages" were generally thought to extend as
far as the twelfth century. They have been shrinking steadily ever
since, so that today the term covers no more than the 200-year interval
between the death of Justinian and the reign of Charlemagne. Perhaps we
ought to pare down the Dark Ages even further to the century 650 to 750
A.D. During that time, as we have already pointed out, the center of
gravity of European civilization shifted northward from the
Mediterranean, and the economic, political, and spiritual framework of
the Middle Ages began to take shape. We shall now see that the same
hundred years also gave rise to some important artistic achievements.
371. Purse cover,
from the Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial. 625-33
A.D. Gold with garnets and enamels, length
8" (20.3 cm). British
372. Animal Head, from the
Oseberg Ship-Burial, ˝ 825
A.D. Wood, height ˝.
5" (12.7 cm). University Museum of
National Antiquities, Oslo
The Germanic tribes that had entered western Europe from the east during
the declining years of the Roman Empire carried with them, in the form
of nomads' gear, an ancient and widespread artistic tradition, the
so-called animal style. We have encountered early examples of it in the
Luristan bronzes of Iran and the Scythian gold ornaments from southern
Russia . This style, with its combination of abstract and organic
shapes, of formal discipline and imaginative freedom, became an
important element in the Celtic-Germanic art of the Dark Ages, such as
the gold-and-enamel purse cover (fig.371) from the grave at
Sutton Hoo of an East Anglian king who died between 625 and 633.
On it are four pairs of symmetrical motifs. Each has its own distinctive
character, an indication that the motifs have been assembled from four
different sources. One motif, the standing man between confronted
animals, has a very long history indeedŚwe first saw it in Egyptian art
more than 3,800 years earlier (see fig. 52). The eagles pouncing
on ducks bring to mind similar pairings of carnivore-and-victim in
Luristan bronzes. The design above them, on the other hand, is of more
recent origin. It consists of fighting animals whose tails, legs, and
jaws are elongated into bands forming a complex interlacing pattern.
Interlacing bands as an ornamental device occur in Roman and Early
Christian art, especially along the southern shore of the Mediterranean.
However, their combination with the animal style, as shown here, seems
to be an invention of the Dark Ages, not much before the date of our
Metalwork, in a variety of materials and techniques and often of
exquisitely refined craftsmanship, had been the principal medium of the
animal style. Such objects, small, durable, and eagerly sought after,
account for the rapid diffusion of this idiom's repertory of forms.
During the Dark Ages, these forms migrated not only in the geographic
sense but also technically and artistically, into wood, stone, and even
Wooden specimens, as we might expect, have not survived in large
numbers. Most of them come from Scandinavia, where the animal style
flourished longer than anywhere else. The splendid animal head of the
early ninth century in figure 372 is the terminal of a post that
was found, along with much other equipment, in a buried Viking ship at
Oseberg in southern Norway. Like the motifs on the Sutton Hoo purse
cover, it shows a peculiarly composite quality. The basic shape of the
head is surprisingly realistic, as are certain details (teeth, gums,
nostrils). But the surface has been spun over with interlacing and
geometric patterns that betray their derivation from metalwork. Snarling
monsters such as this used to rise from the prows of Viking ships, which
endowed them with the character of mythical sea dragons.
The earliest Christian works of art made north of the Alps also
reflected the pagan Germanic version of the animal style. In order to
understand how they came to be produced, however, we must first acquaint
ourselves with the important role played by the Irish (Hibernians), who
assumed the spiritual and cultural leadership of western Europe during
the Dark Ages. The period 600 to 800 A.D. deserves, in fact, to be
called the Golden Age of Ireland. Unlike their English neighbors, the
Irish had never been part of the Roman Empire. Thus the missionaries who
carried the Gospel to them from England in the fifth century found a
Celtic society entirely barbarian by Roman standards. The Irish readily
accepted Christianity, which brought them into contact with
Mediterranean civilization, but they did not become Rome-oriented.
Rather, they adapted what they had received in a spirit of vigorous
The institutional framework of the Roman Church, being essentially
urban, was ill-suited to the rural character of Irish life. Irish
Christians preferred to follow the example of the desert saints of Egypt
and the Near East who had left the temptations of the city to seek
spiritual perfection in the solitude of the wilderness. Groups of such
hermits, sharing the ideal of ascetic discipline, had founded the
earliest monasteries. By the fifth century, monasteries had spread as
far north as western Britain, but only in Ireland did monasticism take
over the leadership of the Church from the bishops.
Irish monasteries, unlike their Egyptian prototypes, soon became seats
of learning and the arts. They also developed a missionary fervor that
sent Irish monks to preach to the heathen and to found monasteries in
northern Britain as well as on the European mainland, from Poitiers to
Vienna. These Irishmen not only speeded the conversion to Christianity
of Scotland, northern France, the Netherlands, and Germany, they
established the monastery as a cultural center throughout the European
countryside. Although their Continental foundations were taken over
before long by the monks of the Benedictine order, who were advancing
north from Italy during the seventh and eighth centuries, Irish
influence was to be felt within medieval civilization for several
hundred years to come.
373. Cross Page,
from the Lindisfarne Gospels, ˝.
700 A.D. 13 1/2 x 9 1/4"
(34.3 x 23.5
cm). British Library, London
374. Chi-Rho Monogram Page, from the
Book of Kelts, ˝.
800? 13 x 9 1/2" (33
x24.1 cm). Trinity College Library. Dublin
375. Symbol of St. Mark, from
the Echternach Gospels. ˝.
690 A.D. 12 3/4
x 10 3/8"
(32.4 x 26.4
In order to spread the Gospel, the
Irish monasteries had to produce copies of the Bible and other Christian
books in large numbers. Their scriptoria (writing workshops) also became
centers of artistic endeavor, for a manuscript containing the Word of
God was looked upon as a sacred object whose visual beauty should
reflect the importance of its contents. Irish monks must have known
Early Christian illuminated manuscripts, but here, as in other respects,
they developed an independent tradition instead of simply copying their
models. While pictures illustrating biblical events held little interest
for them, they devoted great effort to decorative embellishment. The
finest of these manuscripts belong to the Hiberno-Saxon style, combining
Celtic and Germanic elements, which flourished in the monasteries
founded by Irishmen in Saxon England. The Cross Page in the Lindisfarne
Gospels (fig. 373) is an imaginative creation of breathtaking
complexity. The miniaturist, working with a jeweler's precision, has
poured into the compartments of his geometric frame an animal interlace
so dense and yet so full of controlled movement that the fighting beasts
on the Sutton Hoo purse cover seem childishly simple in comparison.
It is as if the world of paganism, embodied in these biting and clawing
monsters, had suddenly been subdued by the superior authority of the
Cross. In order to achieve this effect, our artist has had to impose an
extremely severe discipline upon himself. His "rules of the game"
demand, for instance, that organic and geometric shapes must be kept
separate; also, that within the animal compartments every line must turn
out to be part of an animal's body, if we take the trouble to trace it
back to its point of origin. There are other rules, too complex to go
into here, concerning symmetry, mirror-image effects, and repetitions of
shapes and colors. Only by working these out for ourselves by intense
observation can we hope to enter into the spirit of this strange,
Irish manuscripts reached a climax a hundred years later in the Book
of Kells, the most varied and elaborate codex of the so-called Dark
Ages. Once renowned as "the chief relic of the Western world," it was
done at Iona and left incomplete when the island was invaded by Vikings
between 804 and 807. Its many pages present a summa of early medieval
illumination, reflecting a wide array of influences from the
Mediterranean to the English Channel. The justly famous Chi-Rho Monogram
(standing for Christ; fig. 374) has much the same swirling design
as the Cross Page from the Lindisfame Gospels, but now the rigid
geometry has been relaxed somewhat and, with it, the ban against human
representation. Suddenly the pinnacle of the X-shaped Chi sprouts
a thoroughly recognizable face, while along its shaft are three winged
angels. And in a touch of enchanting fantasy, the tendrillike P-shaped
Rho ends in a monk's head! More surprising still is the
introduction of the natural world. Nearly hidden in the profuse
ornamentation, as if playing a game of hide-and-seek, are cats and mice,
butterflies, even otters catching fish. No doubt they perform some as
yet unclear symbolic function in order to justify their presence.
Nevertheless, their appearance here is nothing short of astounding.
Of the representational images they found in Early Christian
manuscripts, the Hiberno-Saxon illuminators generally retained only the
symbols of the four evangelists, since these could be translated into
their ornamental idiom without much difficulty. The lion of St. Mark in
the Echternach Gospels (fig. 375), sectioned and patterned
like the enamel inlays of the Sutton Hoo purse cover, is animated by the
same curvilinear sense of movement we saw in the animal interlaces of
our previous illustration. Here again we marvel at the masterly balance
between the shape of the animal and the geometric framework on which it
has been superimposed (and which, in this instance, includes the
inscription, imago leonis).
The human figure, on the other hand, remained beyond the reach of Celtic
or Germanic artists for a long time. The bronze plaque of the
Crucifixion (fig. 376), probably made for a book cover, shows
how helpless they were when faced with the image of a man. In attempting
to reproduce an Early Christian composition, our artist suffers from an
utter inability to conceive of the human frame as an organic unit, so
that the figure of Christ becomes disembodied in the most literal sense:
the head, arms, and feet are all separate elements joined to a central
pattern of whorls, zigzags, and interlacing bands. Clearly, there is a
wide gulf between the Celtic-Germanic and the Mediterranean traditions,
a gulf that the Irish artist who modeled the Crucifixion did not
know how to bridge.
The situation was much the same in Continental Europe. We even find it
among the Lombards in northern Italy. The Germanic stone carver who did
the marble balustrade relief in the Cathedral Baptistery at Cividale (fig.
377) was just as perplexed as the Irish by the problem of
representation. The evangelists' symbols are strange creatures indeed.
All four of them have the same spidery front legs, and their bodies
consist of nothing but head, wings, and (except for the angel) a little
spiral tail. Apparently the artist did not mind violating their
integrity by forcing them into their circular frames in this Procrustean
fashion. On the other hand, the panel as a whole has a well-developed
sense of ornament. The flat, symmetrical pattern is an effective piece
of decoration, rather like an embroidered cloth. It may, in fact, have
been derived in part from Oriental textiles (compare fig. 118).
plaque from a book cover (?).
8th century A.D. Bronze. National Museum of Ireland,
377. Balustrade relief inscribed by
the Patriarch Sigvald (762-76
A.D. Marble, ˝.
36 x 60" (91.3
Cathedral Baptistery, Cividale, Italy
The empire built by Charlemagne did not endure for long. His grandsons
divided it into three parts, and proved incapable of effective rule even
in these, so that political power reverted to the local nobility. The
cultural achievements of his reign, in contrast, have proved far more
lasting. This very page would look different without them, for it is
printed in letters whose shapes derive from the script in Carolingian
manuscripts. The fact that these letters are known today as "Roman"
rather than Carolingian recalls another aspect of the cultural reforms
sponsored by Charlemagne: the collecting and copying of ancient Roman
literature. The oldest surviving texts of a great many classical Latin
authors are to be found in Carolingian manuscripts, which, until not
very long ago, were mistakenly regarded as Roman; hence their lettering,
too, was called Roman.
This interest in preserving the classics was part of an ambitious
attempt to restore ancient Roman civilization, along with the imperial
title. Charlemagne himself took an active hand in this revival, through
which he expected to implant the cultural traditions of a glorious past
in the minds of the semibarbaric people of his realm. To an astonishing
extent, he succeeded. Thus the "Carolingian revival" may be termed the
first, and in some ways most important, phase of a genuine fusion of the
Celtic-Germanic spirit with that of the Mediterranean world.
During the early Middle Ages, the term architect (which derives from
Aristotle's word for leader and was defined in its modem sense by the
Roman writer Vitruvius during the first century B.C.) could apply to the
chief mason, head abbot, or donorŚwhoever was responsible for a project.
By the tenth century, it was replaced by a new vocabulary, in part
because the building trades were strictly separated, and the term was
not revived until three centuries later by Thomas Aquinas. As a result
of these changes, the design of churches became increasingly subordinate
to practical and liturgical considerations. Their actual appearance,
however, was largely determined by an organic construction process.
Roman architectural principles and construction techniques, such as the
use of cement, had been largely forgotten in the Dark Ages and were
rediscovered only through cautious experimentation by builders of
inherently conservative persuasion. Thus vaulting remained rudimentary
and was limited to short spans, mainly the aisles, if it was used at
PALACE CHAPEL, AACHEN.
The achievement of Charlemagne's famous Palace Chapel (figs. 378-80)
is all the more spectacular seen in this light. On his visits to Italy,
he had become familiar with the architectural monuments of the
Constantinian era in Rome and with those of the reign of Justinian in
Ravenna. His own capital at Aachen, he felt, must convey the majesty of
Empire through buildings of an equally impressive kind. The Palace
Chapel is, in fact, directly inspired by S. Vitale (see figs. 319-22).
The debt is particularly striking in cross section (compare fig. 380
to fig. 321). To erect such a structure on Northern soil was a
difficult undertaking. Columns and bronze gratings had to be imported
from Italy, and expert stonemasons must have been hard to find. The
design, by Odo of Metz (probably the earliest architect north of the
Alps known to us by name), is by no means a mere echo of S. Vitale but a
vigorous reinterpretation, with piers and vaults of Roman massiveness
and a geometric clarity of the spatial units very different from the
fluid space of the earlier structure.
378. Palace Chapel of Charlemagne, Aachen.
378. Entrance, Palace Chapel of
380. Cross section of
the Palace Chapel of Charlemagne (after Kubach)
Equally significant is Odo's scheme for the western entrance, now
largely obscured by later additions and rebuilding (fig. 378). At
S. Vitale, the entrance consists of a broad, semidetached narthex with
twin stair turrets, at an odd angle to the main axis of the church (see
fig. 320), while at Aachen these elements have been molded into a
tall, compact unit, in line with the main axis and closely attached to
the chapel proper. This monumental entrance structure, known as a
westwork (from the German Westiverk), makes one of its first known
appearances here, and already holds the germ of the two-tower facade
familiar from so many later medieval churches. Initially the westwork
may have served as a royal loge or chapel, but contemporary documents
say little about its function. Both here and elsewhere it may have been
used for a variety of other liturgical functions as the need arose.
379. Interior of the
Chapel of Charlemagne, Aachen
Interior of the Palace
Chapel of Charlemagne,
An even more elaborate west-work formed part of the greatest basilican
church of Carolingian times, that of the monastery of St.-Riquier (also
called Centula) near Abbeville in northeastern France. It has been
completely destroyed, but its design is known in detail from drawings
and descriptions (figs. 381 and 382). Several innovations
in the church were to become of basic importance for the future. The
westwork leads into a vaulted narthex, which is in effect a western
transept. The crossing (the area where the transept intersects the nave)
was crowned by a tower, as was the crossing oi the eastern transept.
Both transepts, moreover, featured a pair of round stair towers. The
apse, unlike that of Early Christian basilicas (compare fig. 301),
is separated from the eastern transept by a square compartment, called
the choir. St.-Riquier was widely imitated in other Carolingian
monastery churches, but these, too, have been destroyed or rebuilt in
Abbey Church of St.-Riquier
Abbey Church of St.-Riquier ,
382. Abbey Church of St.-Riquier
after a 1612 view
from an 11th-century
381. Plan of the Abbey Church of St.-Riquier, France.
799 A.D, (after Effmann, 1912)