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12.4: Early Medieval Europe

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    In this chapter

    Merovingian & Anglo-Saxon





    Anglo-Saxon England


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Ship’s figure-head, (Germanic?/Roman? found in Belgium), late 4th century-5th century. Oak, 149 cm. (Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum, via Smarthistory)

    In the fifth century CE, people from tribes called Angles, Saxons, and Jutes left their homelands in northern Europe to look for a new home. They knew that the Romans had recently left the green land of Britain unguarded, so they sailed across the channel in small wooden boats. This warlike dragon figurehead is from a ship of that time.

    The Britons did not give in without a fight, but after many years the invaders managed to overcome them, driving them to the west of the country. The Anglo-Saxons were to rule for over 500 years.

    Some objects were left behind by the Anglo-Saxons which have given us clues about how they lived. The British Museum is home to the largest and finest Anglo-Saxon collection in the world.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Æthelwulf Ring, England, c. 828-58. Niello, gold, 2.8 cm diameter. (Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum, via Smarthistory)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of Anglo-Saxon England. (Image via Smarthistory)

    Anglo-Saxon England was divided into the five main kingdoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Kent, each with its own king. Kings often died early and violent deaths. As well as fighting against each other for power, they had to keep their own nobles happy, or they might rise up against them. One way that they did this was to give them expensive presents.

    The ring on the left was perhaps given to a noble by King Æthelwulf of Wessex. The other ring has AD on it which stands for “Agnus Dei” meaning “Lamb of God” in Latin. On the back the name Æthelswith has been cut. She was Æthelwulf’s daughter and the ring might have been a gift she gave to show her favour.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Æthelwulf Ring, England, c. 828-58 CE. N iello, gold, 2.8 cm diameter. (Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum, via Smarthistory)



    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Crossbow Brooch (detail), made in Rome or Constantinople, c. 430. Gold, 11.9 x 5.5 x 4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photo: public domain)

    Medieval jewelry

    Fibulae (singular: fibula) are brooches that were made popular by Roman soldiers, who wore them to hold a cloak or cape in place. Bow fibulae all consist of a body, a pin, and a catch — like safety pins. As a historian of the medieval period writes,

    A German archaeologist, Herbert Kuhn, first called the bow fibula an early medieval artifact par excellence. Textbooks and art history studies use it to illustrate sections dedicated to the Dark Ages. There are probably thousands and hundreds of thousands of bow fibulae in European museum collections. A still greater number of specimens come out of archaeological excavations and their incredible diversity defies any attempts to establish unequivocal typologies.[1]

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Attendants wearing fibulae, Emperor Justinian Mosaic (detail), San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 546-56. (Photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Ornate fibulae became all the rage in the early middle ages (c. 500 – 800), and are one of the most commonly found objects in barbarian grave sites. The word “barbarian” comes from the Greek word barbaros, meaning “foreign,” so it is often used as a blanket term for the non-Roman groups who migrated into western Europe in the early middle ages (such as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Franks, and Lombards). This was the time when Europe was becoming Christianized and the Roman Empire split apart. The Roman Empire ceased to exist in the west, but continued in the east as the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

    This period is also sometimes referred to as the Migration Period. Sparse written documentation of these people survives, so grave goods like fibulae provide the most concrete cultural information available.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Three views of Crossbow Brooch, c. 430. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photo: public domain)

    Byzantine fibula

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Crossbow Brooch (detail with floral motif emerging from what may be an acanthus leaves), c. 430. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photo: public domain)

    This gold fibula was made in Rome or Constantinople in the 5th century and is called a crossbow fibula because of its resemblance to the weapon. Unscrewing the left knob at the end of this “crossbow” would release the pin.

    This intricate object is typical of the Byzantine/Roman fibulae style. The detailed incising on the body is called pierced openwork. At the top we see a cross, and below that, on either side, floral scrolls that appear to grow out of acanthus leaves and may symbolize paradise and the promise of salvation. In addition, the circular form around the cross is a victory wreath, which, in the Christian tradition, symbolizes victory over death (resurrection). One art historian has remarked that the brooch “evokes one of the most interesting epochs in antiquity, a period marked by the subtle, often elusive transition from Late Roman to Early Byzantine art.”[2]

    Lombardic Fibula

    This Lombardic fibula found in Kranj (modern day Slovenia) provides a good comparison, because it is a stylized variation of the crossbow fibula. It features at one end a semi-circle from which radiate nine rectangular incised forms topped with spheres (this type of fibula is called “radiate-headed” or “digitated”). It is gilded and inlaid with niello, a black metal alloy. The incisions are hatched lines—a popular decoration technique in Lombardic fibulae.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Lombard silver bow fibula, found in Kranj, mid-6th century CE. Gilded silver, with inlaid niello and engraved decoration, length 11.3 cm. National Museum, Slovenia. (Photo: Internet archive, via Smarthistory)

    The Lombards (or Langobards, from the Latin Langobardi) are thought to be of Germanic origin, although their background is still contested. They established their kingdom in Italy in 558 and were defeated by Charlemagne , king of the Franks, in 774.

    Over the centuries the Lombards assimilated into Roman culture, adopting Christianity, and left their own administrative legal procedures behind. This piece shows the adoption of the crossbow fibula style, but with a small Lombardic “twist.” According to one historian, “everything points to the conclusion that ‘Slavic’ bow fibulae were not simply symbols of social status or gender, but badges of power. This was the power of those able to establish long-distance relations and thus to yield influence.” [3]

    Frankish fibulae

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Merovingian (Frankish) Looped Fibulae, mid-6th century. Silver gilt worked in filigree with inlaid garnet and other stones. Musée des Antiquities Nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    This pair of Merovingian fibulae is a good example of cloisonné, a technique that was popular in barbarian art. This technique is characterized by inlaid semi-precious stones. The word cloisonné literally means “partitioned” in French. The artisan would solder wires onto a metal base and fill the areas created with polished stones (this is different from cloisonné enamel, which has colored enamel baked within these partitions).

    This example also shows a popular motif in barbarian art of the middle ages—eagles. The eagle was a symbol of the Roman empire and was adopted at this time because it still carried connotations of status and power. The top end of these fibulae are in the shape of eagle heads and a series of similarly stylized eagle heads can be seen creating the loops on the opposite end of each pin and on the sides. A small fish decorates the main body of each of the brooches. Garnets were used for the eyes of the eagles, and a wide range of gems were used in the rest of the fibulae. These stunning objects demonstrate the remarkable skill of barbarian metal workers during the early middle ages.

    Visigothic fibulae

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Eagle Fibulae, found at Tierra de Barros (Badajoz, southwest Spain), 6th century. Sheet gold over bronze inlaid with garnets, amythysts, and colored glass, 14.2 x 7.1 x 3.2 cm. (Photo: The Walters Art Museum, CC0)

    This pair of Visigothic fibulae in the form of eagles provide another good example of barbarian metalwork and cloisonné. They are decorated with garnets, amethyst, and colored glass and were found at a Visigothic grave site in Spain. They likely would have fastened a cloak at the shoulders and pendants may have hung from the loops at the bottom.

    Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight, Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century. (Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum, via Smarthistory)

    One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

    A love of riddles

    The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

    Style I

    Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th and 11th centuries, but puzzles and story-telling remained central. The early art style of the Anglo-Saxon period is known as Style I and was popular in the late 5th and 6th centuries. It is characterized by what seems to be a dizzying jumble of animal limbs and face masks, which has led some scholars to describe the style as an “animal salad.” Close scrutiny shows that Style I is not as abstract as first appears, and through carefully following the decoration in stages we can unpick the details and begin to get a sense for what the design might mean.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Decoding the square-headed brooch (top). (Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum, via Smarthistory)

    One of the most exquisite examples of Style I animal art is a silver-gilt square-headed brooch from a female grave on the Isle of Wight. Its surface is covered with at least 24 different beasts: a mix of birds’ heads, human masks, animals and hybrids. Some of them are quite clear, like the faces in the circular lobes projecting from the bottom of the brooch. Others are harder to spot, such as the faces in profile that only emerge when the brooch is turned upside-down. Some of the images can be read in multiple ways, and this ambiguity is central to Style I art.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Decoding the square-headed brooch (bottom). (Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum, via Smarthistory)

    Once we have identified the creatures on the brooch, we can begin to decode its meaning. In the lozenge-shaped field at the foot of the brooch is a bearded face with a helmet underneath two birds that may represent the Germanic god Woden/Odin with his two companion ravens. The image of a god alongside other powerful animals may have offered symbolic protection to the wearer like a talisman or amulet.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Turning the brooch upside-down (above) reveals four heads in profile on the rectangular head of the brooch, highlighted in purple. (Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum, via Smarthistory)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Decoding the great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo. (Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum, via Smarthistory)

    Style II

    Style I was superseded by Style II in the late 6th century. This later style has more fluid and graceful animals, but these still writhe and interlace together and require patient untangling. The great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo is decorated in this style. From the thicket of interlace that fills the buckle’s surface 13 different animals emerge (above). These animals are easier to spot: the ring-and-dot eyes, the birds’ hooked beaks, and the four-toed feet of the animals are good starting points. At the tip of the buckle, two animals grip a small dog-like creature in their jaws and on the circular plate, two snakes intertwine and bite their own bodies. Such designs reveal the importance of the natural world, and it is likely that different animals were thought to hold different properties and characteristics that could be transferred to the objects they decorated. The fearsome snakes, with their shape-shifting qualities, demand respect and confer authority, and were suitable symbols for a buckle that adorned a high-status man, or even an Anglo-Saxon king.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The five senses on the Fuller Brooch. (Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum, via Smarthistory)

    Further transformations

    Animal art continued to be popular on Anglo-Saxon metalwork throughout the later period, when it went through further transformations into the Mercian Style (defined by sinuous animal interlace) in the 8th century and then into the lively Trewhiddle Style in the 9th century. Trewhiddle-style animals feature in the roundels of the Fuller Brooch (above), but all other aspects of its decoration are unique within Anglo-Saxon art. Again, through a careful unpicking of its complex imagery we can understand its visual messages. At the centre is a man with staring eyes holding two plants. Around him are four other men striking poses: one, with his hands behind his back, sniffs a leaf; another rubs his two hands together; the third holds his hand up to his ear; and the final one has his whole hand inserted into his mouth. Together these strange poses form the earliest personification of the five senses: Sight, Smell, Touch, Hearing, and Taste. Surrounding these central motifs are roundels depicting animals, humans, and plants that perhaps represent God’s Creation.

    Sight and wisdom

    This iconography can best be understood in the context of the scholarly writings of King Alfred the Great (died 899), which emphasized sight and the “mind’s eye” as the principal way in which wisdom was acquired along with the other senses. Given this connection, perhaps it was made at Alfred the Great’s court workshop and designed to be worn by one of his courtiers?

    Throughout the period, the Anglo-Saxons expressed a love of riddles and puzzles in their metalwork. Behind the non-reflective glass in the newly opened Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe 300-1100, you can do like the Anglo-Saxons and get up close to these and many other objects to decode the messages yourself.

    Rosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

    The Sutton Hoo purse lid


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, early 7th century. Gold, garnet and millefiori, 19 x 8.3 cm (excluding hinges). British Museum, London, England. (Photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial

    Wealth, and its public display, was probably used to establish status in early Anglo-Saxon society much as it is today. The purse lid from Sutton Hoo is the richest of its kind yet found.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Sutton Hoo shoulder-clasps (Early Anglo-Saxon), late 6th-early 7th century. Gold, millefiori, and garnet, 5.4 x 12.7 x .5 cm. The British Museum, London, England. (Photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    The lid was made to cover a leather pouch containing gold coins. It hung by three hinged straps from the waist belt, and was fastened by a gold buckle. The lid had totally decayed but was probably made of whalebone—a precious material in early Anglo-Saxon England. Seven gold, garnet cloisonné and millefiori glass plaques were set into it. These are made with a combination of very large garnets and small ones, deliberately used to pick out details of the imagery. This combination could link the purse-lid and the fine shoulder clasps, which were also found in the ship burial, to the workshop of a single master-craftsman. It is possible that he made the entire suite of gold and garnet fittings discovered in Mound 1 as a single commission.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Decorative plaques (detail), Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, early 7th century. (Photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    The plaques include twinned images of a bird-of-prey swooping on a duck-like bird and a man standing heroically between two beasts. These images must have had deep significance for the Anglo-Saxons, but it is impossible for us to interpret them. The fierce creatures are perhaps a powerful evocation of strength and courage, qualities that a successful leader of men must possess. Strikingly similar images of a man between beasts are known from Scandinavia.

    The Vikings

    By Lumen Learning

    Norse Ships in the Early European Middle Ages

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Osberg Ship Head Post: Animal head post found in the Oseberg ship. Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway. The exact function of the head post is unknown. (Photo: public domain)

    Of Scandinavian descent, Norsemen are often called Vikings after their trading locations on the Norwegian shoreline. Known as pre-Christian traders and pirates, Vikings used their great ships to invade European coasts, harbors, and river settlements on a seasonal basis. They created fast and seaworthy longships that served not only as warring and trading vessels, but also as media for artistic expression and individual design.

    The great ships of the Vikings contain some of the major artworks left from this time. For instance, the Oseberg Bow demonstrates the Norse mastery of decorative wood carving and intricate inlay of metal. Likewise, the ship head post—representing a roaring beast—is five inches high with complicated surface ornamentation in the form of interwoven animals that twist and turn.

    Other examples of artistic design on Norse ships include the “King” or “Chieftain” vessels designated for the wealthier classes. Chieftain ships were distinguishable by the design of the bow of their vessel with designs such as bulls, dolphins, gold lions, drakes spewing fire out of their nose, human beings cast in gold and silver, and other unidentifiable animals cast in bronze metal. Typically, the sides of these vessels were decorated using bright colors and wood-carvings.

    A Ship Burial

    The Oseberg ship (Norwegian: Osebergskipet) is a well-preserved Viking ship discovered in a large burial mound at the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg in Vestfold County, Norway. This ship is widely celebrated as one of the finest artistic and archaeological finds to have survived the Viking Age.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Oseberg Ship: The Oseberg ship. Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway. (Photo: Arnejohs, public domain)

    The Oseberg burial mound contained numerous grave goods and the remains of two female human skeletons. The ship’s interment into its burial mound dates from 834 CE, but parts of the ship date from around 800 CE, and scholars believe that ship itself is older. The bow and stern of the ship are elaborately decorated with complex woodcarvings in the characteristic “gripping beast” style, also known as the Oseberg style. This style’s primary features are the paws that grip the borders around it, neighboring beasts, or parts of its own body. Although the Osberg style distinguishes early Viking art from previous trends, it is no longer generally accepted as an independent style. Although seaworthy, the ship is relatively frail. It is thought to have been used only for coastal voyages.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Oseberg Ship: This detail from the Oseberg ship demonstrates the elaborate woodcarving designs used as ornamentation on the bow and front of the ship. (Photo: Karamell, CC BY-SA 2.5)

    The skeletons of two women were found in the Oseberg burial mound. One may have been sacrificed to accompany the other in death. Regardless, the opulence of the burial rite and the grave goods suggests that this was a burial of very high status. For instance, one woman wore a very fine red wool dress of fabric woven in a lozenge twill pattern (a luxury commodity) and a fine white linen veil in a gauze weave. The other wore a plainer blue wool dress with a wool veil, showing some stratification in their social status. Neither woman wore anything entirely made of silk, although small silk strips were appliqued onto a tunic worn under the red dress.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): “Buddha Bucket”: The so-called “Buddha bucket” (Buddha-bøtte), brass and cloisonné enamel ornament of a bucket (pail) handle in the shape of a figure sitting with crossed legs. (Photo: Thorguds, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The grave had been disturbed in antiquity and many precious metals that were initially buried with Oseberg ship went missing. Nevertheless, many everyday items and artifacts were found during the early 20th-century excavations of the site. These included four elaborately decorated sleighs, a four-wheel wooden cart, bedposts, wooden chests, and other richly decorated items. For instance, the so-called “Buddha bucket” is a well-known object from the Oseberg site that features a brass and cloisonné enamel ornament of a bucket (pail) handle in the shape of a figure sitting with crossed legs. The bucket itself is made from yew wood held together with brass strips, and the handle is attached to two anthropomorphic figures often compared to depictions of the Buddha in lotus posture (although any connection to Buddhism is uncertain). Archaeologists also found more mundane items, such as agricultural and household tools, and a series of textiles that included woolen garments, imported silks, and narrow tapestries. The Oseberg burial is one of the few sources of Viking-age textiles, and the wooden cart is the only complete Viking-age cart found so far.

    Jelling Stones

    The Jelling Stones are massive carved runestones from the 10th century, named for the town of Jelling in Denmark. Prior to the 10th century, stone carving was extremely rare or non-existent in most parts of Scandanavia. Subsequently, and likely influenced by the spread of Christianity, the use of carved stone for permanent memorials became prevalent.

    The older of the two Jelling Stones is attributed to King Gorm the Old, thought to have been raised in memory of his wife Thyra. King Gorm’s son Harald Bluetooth raised the larger of the two stones in memory of his parents, in celebration of his conquest of Denmark and Norway, and to document his conversion of the Danes to Christianity. Art historians consider the runic inscriptions on the Jelling stones the best-known in Denmark.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Jelling Stones: The Jelling Stones are massive carved runestones from the 10th century, named for the town of Jelling in Denmark. Here they are seen protected behind glass. (Photo: Alicudi, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Scholars have long considered the Jelling Stones visual records of the transitional period between the indigenous Norse paganism and the victory of Christianization in Denmark. The larger stone, known as Harald’s stone, is often cited as Denmark’s baptismal certificate (dåbsattest ), containing a depiction of Christ and an inscription celebrating the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. The Jelling Stones are also strongly identified with the creation of Denmark as a nation-state, and both stones offer the earliest examples of the name Danmark (in the form of tanmaurk on the large ston, and tanmarkar on the small stone).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Harald’s Stone: Carving of Christ: The figure of Christ on Harald’s runestone. One scholar has suggested that this imagery was used to indicate that Christ had replaced the Norse pagan god Odin, who in one myth hung for nine nights in the tree Yggdrasill. (Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0)

    The runestone of Gorm, the older and smaller of the Jelling Stones, has an inscription that reads: “King Gormr made this monument in memory of Thyrvé, his wife, Denmark’s adornment.” The larger runestone of Harald Bluetooth is engraved on one side with an inscription that reads: “King Harald ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother. That Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.” Harald’s stone has a figure of Jesus Christ on one side and on another side a serpent wrapped around a lion. The depiction of Christ standing in the shape of a cross and entangled in what appear to be branches is of note. One scholar suggested that this imagery was used to indicate that Christ had replaced the Norse pagan god Odin, who in one myth hung for nine nights in the tree Yggdrasill.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Harald’s Stone: Inscription: This Jelling Stone, with its depiction of Christ and celebration of the Conversion of the Danes, is widely regarded as Denmark’s “baptismal certificate.” (Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0)

    Remnants of red pigment show that the Jelling Stones were once brightly painted. This practice was apparently widespread across Scandinavia, with runestones at locations such as Strängnäs Cathedral (Sweden) and Oppland (Norway) bearing similar hues . Replicas made from plaster casts in the twentieth century recreate the stones’ polychromatic appearances.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Replica of Harald’s Stone: This plaster-cast replica gives us an idea of the original polychromatic appearance of the Jelling Stones. National Museum of Denmark. (Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0)

    The reliefs on Harald’s Stone bear a striking resemblance to the styles of humans, animals, and abstract patterns that appear in illuminated manuscripts and on decorative arts in the British Isles of the Early Middle Ages . This common thread is a result of contact between the cultures through migration and invasion.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Animal relief on Harald’s Stone: The drawing of this stone depicts a colorful, stylized animal that bears a striking resemblance to similar forms found in the British Isles, such as in the hoard found at Sutton Hoo. (Image: CC BY-SA 4.0)

    Norse Timber Architecture in the Early European Middle Ages

    Timber architecture is used to describe a period of medieval art in which two distinctive wood building traditions converged in Norwegian architecture. One was the practice of building with horizontal logs notched at the corners, a technique likely imported east of Scandinavia. The other influence was the stave building tradition, which possibly evolved from improvements on the prehistoric long houses that had roof-bearing posts dug into the ground .

    Although scant evidence exists of actual buildings from the earliest permanent structures, the discovery of Viking ships (i.e. the Oseberg) and stave churches suggest a significant mastery of woodworking and engineering in Viking culture . Not counting the 28 remaining stave churches, at least 250 wooden houses predating the Black Death of 1350 are preserved more or less intact in Norway. Most of these are long houses, some with added stave-built galleries or porches. As political power in Norway was consolidated and had to contend with external threats, larger and more durable structures including fortresses, bridges, and ultimately churches and manors were built with stone and masonry.

    Long Houses

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Viking Long House: Reconstructed long house in the Viking Museum in Borg, Vestvågøy/Lofoten, Norway. (Photo: public domain)

    Very little archaeological evidence of actual buildings from the earliest permanent structures in the Viking era have survived. However, in the Lofoten archipelago in Northern Norway, a Viking chieftain’s holding has been reconstructed at the Lofotr Viking Museum. In 1983, archaeologists uncovered the Chieftain House at Borg, a large Viking-era building likely established around the year 500 CE. Excavations later in the 1980s revealed the largest building ever to be found from the Viking period in Norway. The foundation of the Chieftain House at Borg measured 272 feet long and 30 feet high. After the excavation ended, the remains of what had once been the long house remained visible.

    Also known as mead halls, long houses typically housed the high-ranking members of Viking society, particularly royalty and aristocracy. From around the year 500 up until the Christianization of Scandinavia (by the thirteenth century), these large halls were vital parts of the political center. They were later superseded by medieval banquet halls.

    Typically load-bearing with post-and-lintel entrances, long houses had sharply pitched roofs that bore a curve similar to that of a ship. In fact, the roofs of many reconstructed long houses resemble inverted boats placed atop the exterior walls. This shape was likely due to the climate, as pitched roofs allow snow to fall to the ground without causing collapse.

    Stave Churches

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Stave Church: Example of a Norwegian wooden stave church: Stave church in Lom. Norwegian Museum of Cultural History. (Photo: Axel Lindahl, public domain)

    The most commonly cited examples of timber architecture are the Norwegian stave churches. Until the beginning of the 19th century, as many as 150 stave churches still existed. Many were destroyed as part of a religious movement that favored simple, puritan lines , and today only 28 remain (although a large number were documented with measured drawings before they were demolished).

    A stave church is a medieval wooden church with post-and-beam construction related to timber framing. The wall frames are filled with vertical planks. The load-bearing posts (stafr in Old Norse, stav in Norwegian) lend their name to this building technique. The stave churches owe their longevity to architectural innovations that protected these large, complex wooden structures against water rot, precipitation, wind, and extreme temperatures. Most important was the introduction of massive sills underneath the staves (posts) to prevent them from rotting. Over the two centuries of stave church construction, this building type evolved to an advanced art and science.

    Forms of Church Construction

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Type A: Reinli Stave Church: Reinli stave church with the old pillory and a single nave: Sør-Aurdal. (PhotoJohn Erling Blad, CC BY-SA 2.5) 

    Archaeological excavations have shown that stave churches descend from palisade constructions and later churches with earth-bound posts. Similar palisade constructions are known from the buildings of the Viking era. Logs were split in two halves, rammed into the ground, and given a roof. This was a simple form of construction but very strong. The wall could last for decades if set in gravel—even centuries. Remains of these buildings are found over much of Europe and are commonly grouped into two categories. Type A had no free-standing posts and a single nave as seen in the Renli Stave Church.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Type B Lomen Stave Church Interior: Interior from Lomen stave church depicting a raised roof and cross braces between upper and lower string beams and posts. Intermediate posts have been omitted. (Photo: Nina Aldin Thune, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Type B had a raised roof and free-standing internal posts as in the Lomen Stave Church. Type B churches were often further divided into two subgroups. The Kaupanger group had a complete arcade row of posts and intermediate posts along the sides and details that mimic stone capitals . These churches gave an impression of a basilica . The other subgroup was the Borgund group. These churches had cross braces joining upper and lower string beams and posts that formed a very rigid interconnection, resembling the triforium of stone basilicas. Many stave churches had or still have outer galleries running around the entire perimeter, loosely connected to the plank walls. They probably served to protect the church from the harsh climate.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Hedal stave church portal: Drawing by G. A. Bull of the main portal in Hedalen stave church (c. 1853), depicting the intricate ornamentation. (Photo: public domain)

    After the Protestant Reformation , no stave churches were built. Instead, new churches were composed of stone or horizontal log buildings with notched corners. Most old stave churches disappeared because of redundancy, neglect, deterioration, or because they were too small to accommodate larger congregations and too impractical according to new architectural standards.

    Ornamentation of Stave Churches

    Even though the wooden churches had structural differences, they give a recognizable general impression. Facade difference may conceal common floor plans, while apparently similar buildings might have significant structural differences. Certain basic principles were common to all church types.

    Basic geometric figures, simple numbers, just a few length units, simple ratios, and perhaps proportions were among the theoretical aids all builders inherited. The specialist knew a particular type of building so well that he could systematize its elements in a slightly different way from previous designs, thus carrying developments a stage further. Ornamentation included intricate interlace patterns, stylized human figures, and mythological animals.

    The Lindisfarne Gospels

    by and

    A medieval monk takes up a quill pen, fashioned from a goose feather, and dips it into a rich, black ink made from soot. Seated on a wooden chair in the scriptorium of Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of Northumberland in England, he stares hard at the words from a manuscript made in Italy. This book is his exemplar, the codex (a bound book, made from sheets of paper or parchment) from which he is to copy the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Lindisfarne Gospels, St. Matthew (detail), second initial Page, f.29, early 8th century. (Photo: British Library, via Smarthistory)

    For about the next six years, he will copy this Latin. He will illuminate the gospel text with a weave of fantastic images—snakes that twist themselves into knots or birds, their curvaceous and overlapping forms creating the illusion of a third dimension into which a viewer can lose him or herself in meditative contemplation.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Lindisfarne Gospels, John’s cross-carpet page, folio 210v. (Photo: British Library, via Smarthistory)

    The book is a spectacular example of Insular or Hiberno-Saxon art—works produced in the British Isles between 500-900 CE, a time of devastating invasions and political upheavals. Monks read from it during rituals at their Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island, a Christian community that safeguarded the shrine of St Cuthbert, a bishop who died in 687 and whose relics were thought to have curative and miracle-working powers.

    A Northumbrian monk, very likely the bishop Eadfrith, illuminated the codex in the early 8th century. Two-hundred and fifty-nine written and recorded leaves include full-page portraits of each evangelist; highly ornamental cross “carpet pages,” each of which features a large cross set against a background of ordered and yet teeming ornamentation; and the Gospels themselves, each introduced by an historiated initial. The codex also includes sixteen pages of canon tables set in arcades. Here correlating passages from each evangelist are set side-by-side, enabling a reader to compare narrations.

    In 635 C.E. Christian monks from the Scottish island of Iona built a priory in Lindisfarne. More than a hundred and fifty years later, in 793, Vikings from the north attacked and pillaged the monastery, but survivors managed to transport the Gospels safely to Durham, a town on the Northumbrian coast about 75 miles west of its original location.

    We glean this information from the manuscript itself, thanks to Aldred, a 10th-century priest from a priory at Durham. Aldred’s colophon—an inscription that relays information about the book’s production—informs us that Eadfrith, a bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 who died in 721, created the manuscript to honor God and St. Cuthbert. Aldred also inscribed a vernacular translation between the lines of the Latin text, creating the earliest known Gospels written in a form of English.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Lindisfarne Gospels, St. Matthew, cross-carpet page, f.26v. (Photo: British Library, via Smarthistory)

    Matthew’s cross-carpet page exemplifies Eadfrith’s exuberance and genius. A mesmerizing series of repetitive knots and spirals is dominated by a centrally-located cross. One can imagine devout monks losing themselves in the swirls and eddies of color during meditative contemplation of its patterns.

    Compositionally, Eadfrith stacked wine-glass shapes horizontally and vertically against his intricate weave of knots. On closer inspection many of these knots reveal themselves as snake-like creatures curling in and around tubular forms, mouths clamping down on their bodies. Chameleon-like, their bodies change colors: sapphire blue here, verdigris green there, and sandy gold in between. The sanctity of the cross, outlined in red with arms outstretched and pressing against the page edges, stabilizes the background’s gyrating activity and turns the repetitive energy into a meditative force.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Lindisfarne Gospels, St. Luke, incipit page, f.139. (Photo: British Library, via Smarthistory)

    Likewise, Luke’s incipit (incipit: it begins) page teems with animal life, spiraled forms, and swirling vortexes. In many cases Eadfrith’s characteristic knots reveal themselves as snakes that move stealthily along the confines of a letter’s boundaries.

    Blue pin-wheeled shapes rotate in repetitive circles, caught in the vortex of a large Q that forms Luke’s opening sentence—Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem. (Translation: As many have taken it in hand to set forth in order.)

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Lindisfarne Gospels, St. Luke, incipit page, f.139. (Photo: British Library, via Smarthistory)

    Birds also abound. One knot enclosed in a tall rectangle on the far right unravels into a blue heron’s chest shaped like a large comma. Eadfrith repeats this shape vertically down the column, cleverly twisting the comma into a cat’s forepaw at the bottom. The feline, who has just consumed the eight birds that stretch vertically up from its head, presses off this appendage acrobatically to turn its body 90 degrees; it ends up staring at the words RENARRATIONEM (part of the phrase -re narrationem).

    Eadfrith also has added a host of tiny red dots that envelop words, except when they don’t—the letters “NIAM” of “quoniam” are composed of the vellum itself, the negative space now asserting itself as four letters.

    Lindesfarne Gospels, St. Luke, portrait page (137v) (British Library)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Lindesfarne Gospels, St. Luke, portrait page, 137v. (Photo: British Library, via Smarthistory)

    Luke’s incipit page is in marked contrast to his straightforward portrait page. Here Eadfrith seats the curly-haired, bearded evangelist on a red-cushioned stool against an unornamented background. Luke holds a quill in his right hand, poised to write words on a scroll unfurling from his lap. His feet hover above a tray supported by red legs. He wears a purple robe streaked with red, one that we can easily imagine on a late fourth or fifth century Roman philosopher. The gold halo behind Luke’s head indicates his divinity. Above his halo flies a blue-winged calf, its two eyes turned toward the viewer with its body in profile. The bovine clasps a green parallelogram between two forelegs, a reference to the Gospel.

    According to the historian Bede from the nearby monastery in Monkwearmouth (d. 735), this calf, or ox, symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Bede assigns symbols for the other three evangelists as well, which Eadfrith duly includes in their respective portraits: Matthew’s is a man, suggesting the human aspect of Christ; Mark’s the lion, symbolizing the triumphant and divine Christ of the Resurrection; and John’s the eagle, referring to Christ’s second coming.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Lindisfarne Gospels, John’s cross-carpet page, folio 210v. (Photo: British Library, via Smarthistory)

    A dense interplay of stacked birds teem underneath the crosses of the carpet page that opens John’s Gospel. One bird, situated in the upper left-hand quadrant, has blue-and-pink stripes in contrast to others that sport registers of feathers. Stripes had a negative association to the medieval mind, appearing chaotic and disordered. The insane wore stripes, as did prostitutes, criminals, jugglers, sorcerers, and hangmen. Might Eadfrith be warning his viewers that evil lurks hidden in the most unlikely of places? Or was Eadfrith himself practicing humility in avoiding perfection?

    All in all, the variety and splendor of the Lindisfarne Gospels are such that even in reproduction, its images astound. Artistic expression and inspired execution make this codex a high point of early medieval art.

    For more: check out high-resolution images of many illuminations from the Lindisfarne Gospels at the British Library.

    Online Resource: “Making Manuscripts” Video

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    The Getty Museum, Making Manuscripts (

    Insular Art in Illustrated Books

    by Lumen Learning

    Deriving from the Latin word for island (insula), Insular art is characterized by detailed geometric designs, interlace, and stylized animal decoration spread boldly across illuminated manuscripts. Insular manuscripts sometimes take a whole page for a single initial or the first few words at beginnings of gospels. The technique of allowing decoration the right to roam was later influential on Romanesque and Gothic art. From the seventh through ninth centuries, Celtic missionaries traveled to Britain and brought the Irish tradition of manuscript illumination, which came into contact with Anglo-Saxon metalworking. New techniques employed were filigree and chip-carving, while new motifs included interlace patterns and animal ornamentation.

    The Book of Kells (Irish: Leabhar Cheanannais), created by Celtic monks in 800, is an illustrated manuscript considered the pinnacle of Insular art. Also known as the Book of Columba, The Book of Kells is considered a masterwork of Western calligraphy, with its illustrations and ornamentation surpassing that of other Insular Gospel books in extravagance and complexity. The Book of Kells‘s decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art. Figures of humans, animals, and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colors, enliven the manuscript’s pages. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism . The manuscript comprises 340 folios made of high-quality vellum and unprecedentedly elaborate ornamentation including 10 full-page illustrations and text pages vibrant with decorated initials and interlinear miniatures. These mark the furthest extension of the anti- classical and energetic qualities of Insular art.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Book of Kells, probably from Iona, Scotland, c. 800. Folio 27v contains the symbols of the Four Evangelists (clockwise from top left): a man (Matthew), a lion (Mark), an eagle (John), and an ox (Luke). The Evangelists are placed in a grid and enclosed in an arcade, as is common in the Mediterranean tradition. However, notice the elaborate geometric and stylized ornamentation in the arcade that highlights the Insular aesthetic. (Photo: public domain)

    The Insular majuscule script of the text itself in the Book of Kells appears to be the work of at least three different scribes. The lettering is in iron gall ink with colors derived from a wide range of substances, many of which were imported from distant lands. The text is accompanied by many full-page miniatures, while smaller painted decorations appear throughout the text in unprecedented quantities. The decoration of the book is famous for combining intricate detail with bold and energetic compositions . The illustrations feature a broad range of colors, most often purple, lilac, red, pink, green, and yellow. As typical with Insular work, there was neither gold nor silver leaf in the manuscript. However, the pigments for the illustrations, which included red and yellow ochre, green copper pigment (sometimes called verdigris), indigo , and lapis lazuli , were very costly and precious. They were imported from the Mediterranean region and, in the case of the lapis lazuli, from northeast Afghanistan.

    The decoration of the first eight pages of the canon tables is heavily influenced by early Gospel Books from the Mediterranean, where it was traditional to enclose the tables within an arcade . Although influenced by this Mediterranean tradition, the Kells manuscript presents this motif in an Insular spirit, where the arcades are not seen as architectural elements but rather become stylized geometric patterns with Insular ornamentation. Further, the complicated knot work and interweaving found in the Kells manuscript echo the metalwork and stone carving works that characterized the artistic legacy of the Insular period.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Book of Kells: This example from the manuscript (folio 292r) shows the lavishly decorated section that opens the Gospel of John. (Photo: public domain)

    Carolingian art, an introduction


    ​Charlemagne, King of the Franks and later Holy Roman Emperor, instigated a cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance. This revival used Constantine’s Christian empire as its model, which flourished between 306 and 337. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity and left behind an impressive legacy of military strength and artistic patronage.

    Charlemagne saw himself as the new Constantine and instigated this revival by writing his Admonitio generalis (789) and Epistola de litteris colendis (c.794-797). In the Admonitio generalis, Charlemagne legislates church reform, which he believes will make his subjects more moral and in the Epistola de litteris colendis, a letter to Abbot Baugulf of Fulda, he outlines his intentions for cultural reform. Most importantly, he invited the greatest scholars from all over Europe to come to court and give advice for his renewal of politics, church, art and literature.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Odo of Metz, Palatine Chapel Interior, Aachen, Germany, 805. (Photo: Holly Hayes, CC BY-NC 2.0))

    Carolingian art survives in manuscripts, sculpture, architecture and other religious artifacts produced during the period 780-900. These artists worked exclusively for the emperor, members of his court, and the bishops and abbots associated with the court. Geographically, the revival extended through present-day France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria.

    Charlemagne commissioned the architect Odo of Metz to construct a palace and chapel in Aachen, Germany. The chapel was consecrated in 805 and is known as the Palatine Chapel. This space served as the seat of Charlemagne’s power and still houses his throne today.

    The Palatine Chapel is octagonal with a dome, recalling the shape of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy (completed in 548), but was built with barrel and groin vaults, which are distinctively late Roman methods of construction. The chapel is perhaps the best surviving example of Carolingian architecture and probably influenced the design of later European palace chapels.

    Charlemagne had his own scriptorium, or center for copying and illuminating manuscripts, at Aachen. Under the direction of Alcuin of York, this scriptorium produced a new script known as Carolingian miniscule. Prior to this development, writing styles or scripts in Europe were localized and difficult to read. A book written in one part of Europe could not be easily read in another, even when the scribe and reader were both fluent in Latin. Knowledge of Carolingian miniscule spread from Aachen was universally adopted, allowing for clearer written communication within Charlemagne’s empire. Carolingian miniscule was the most widely used script in Europe for about 400 years.

    Figurative art from this period is easy to recognize. Unlike the flat, two-dimensional work of Early Christian and Early Byzantine artists, Carolingian artists sought to restore the third dimension. They used classical drawings as their models and tried to create more convincing illusions of space.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): St. Mark from the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary, folio 1v., c. 781-83. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    This development is evident in tracing author portraits in illuminated manuscripts. The Godescalc Gospel Lectionary, commissioned by Charlemagne and his wife Hildegard, was made circa 781-83 during his reign as King of the Franks and before the beginning of the Carolingian Renaissance. In the portrait of St. Mark, the artist employs typical Early Byzantine artistic conventions. The face is heavily modeled in brown, the drapery folds fall in stylized patterns and there is little or no shading. The seated position of the evangelist would be difficult to reproduce in real life, as there are spatial inconsistencies. The left leg is shown in profile and the other leg is show straight on. This author portrait is typical of its time.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): St. Mark from the Ebbo Gospels, folio 18v., c. 816-35. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    The Ebbo Gospels were made c. 816-35 in the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers for Ebbo, Archbishop of Rheims. The author portrait of St. Mark is characteristic of Carolingian art and the Carolingian Renaissance. The artist used distinctive frenzied lines to create the illusion of the evangelist’s body shape and position. The footstool sits at an awkward unrealistic angle, but there are numerous attempts by the artist to show the body as a three-dimensional object in space. The right leg is tucked under the chair and the artist tries to show his viewer, through the use of curved lines and shading, that the leg has form. There is shading and consistency of perspective. The evangelist sitting on the chair strikes a believable pose.

    Charlemagne, like Constantine before him, left behind an almost mythic legacy. The Carolingian Renaissance marked the last great effort to revive classical culture before the Late Middle Ages. Charlemagne’s empire was led by his successors until the late ninth century. In early tenth century, the Ottonians rose to power and espoused different artistic ideals.

    Palatine Chapel, Aachen



    A link to an interactive elements can be found at the bottom of this page.

    Carolingian art and the classical revival

    The Palatine Chapel at Aachen is the most well-known and best-preserved Carolingian building. It is also an excellent example of the classical revival style that characterized the architecture of Charlemagne’s reign. The exact dates of the chapel’s construction are unclear, but we do know that this palace chapel was dedicated to Christ and the Virgin Mary by Pope Leo III in a ceremony in 805, five years after Leo promoted Charlemagne from king to Holy Roman Emperor. The dedication took place about twenty years after Charlemagne moved the capital of the Frankish kingdom from Ravenna, in what is now Italy, to Aachen, in what is now Germany.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map with present day nations. (Image via Smarthistory)

    In the construction of his chapel, Charlemagne made several strategic choices that linked his building to the legacies of ancient Rome and the fourth-century emperor Constantine. The Emperor Constantine was important because he was the first Christian emperor of Rome. The location for the new building was selected because it was an historic Roman site with hot springs that were used for bathing. The materials used for the chapel also invoked Rome; among them were columns and marble stones that Pope Hadrian permitted Charlemagne to transfer from Rome and Ravenna to Aachen around the year 798. A relic of the cloak of St. Martin was installed in the church at its consecration—the choice of a fourth-century Roman soldier who had a vision of Jesus after sharing his cloak with a beggar was another way to reinforce the link of Charlemagne’s rule with Rome.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Comparison of floorplans between the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, begun 325 CE; Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, consecrated 547 CE; and the Palatine Chapel, Aachen, Germany, consecrated 804 CE. (Image via Smarthistory)

    Two important models (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and San Vitale in Ravenna)

    The chapel’s classical style also referenced its Roman imperial lineage, particularly in its imitation of two significant Christian buildings: the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and San Vitale in Ravenna. The Holy Sepulchre’s building program was started in 325 CE by Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, and completed in 335. The centralized plan and surrounding ambulatory and upper gallery is echoed in the plan of the Palatine Chapel. However, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is composed of two main buildings—in addition to the rotunda that covers the tomb is a similar structure over the traditionally-accepted location of the crucifixion. The Holy Sepulchre may also have been the inspiration for the lion-head knockers of the chapel’s bronze doors (below).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Detail of door, Palatine Chapel, Aachen. (Photo: Bojin CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Because it didn’t receive extensive additions like the Holy Sepulchre, the San Vitale Chapel at Ravenna is probably the best comparison for what the Palatine Chapel would have looked like before its Gothic renovations. San Vitale is a small octagonal church, with a centralized plan and a two-story ambulatory (below).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): View with ambulatory, gallery, chancel, and apse, San Vitale, Ravenna, begun in 526 or 527 under Ostrogothic rule, consecrated in 547 and completed 548, mosaics date between 546 and 556. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    The octagonal plan of the Palatine Chapel (see plans above) not only recalled that of its two most significant models, but also participated in the tradition of early Christian mausoleums and baptisteries, where the eight sides were understood to be symbolic of regeneration—referencing Christ’s resurrection eight days after Palm Sunday. Its original dome was also based on classical models and bore an apocalyptic mosaic program, consisting of the agnus dei, or Lamb of God (which is, symbolically, Jesus Christ), surrounded by the tetramorph (symbols of the four Gospel writers) and the twenty-four elders described in Revelation 4:4. The agnus dei image was later obstructed by the installation of a chandelier.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Palatine Chapel interior. (Photo: Velvet CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The octagonal centralized plan of the Palatine Chapel is unique among Carolingian chapels; this may have been because, unlike a longitudinal plan which created a sense of processional direction toward the apse and altar, a centralized plan did not place special emphasis on the altar (and therefore may not have been as effective liturgically for the purpose of a chapel). That said, it does seem to have established an association of Charlemagne with Christ; some scholars believe that Charlemagne’s marble throne (below) was originally located in the center of the octagon on the first floor, that is, directly below the image of the agnus dei, thereby creating a kind of visual link between the emperor and the Christ.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Charlemagne’s throne, Palatine Chapel. (Photo: Berthold Werner CC BY-SA 3.0)

    By presenting his capital at Aachen as a new Rome and himself as a new Constantine through the careful appropriation of late antique artwork and architecture, Charlemagne was not simply making a positive assertion about himself as ruler; he was also implicitly contrasting his reign with that of the Eastern Empire (the Byzantines), a negative stance that was also expressed around the same time in the Opus Caroli Regis contra Synodum (i.e., “The Work of King Charles against the Synod), a detailed response to the Second Council of Nicaea , written on his behalf by Theodulf of Orléans.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Europe before 774. (Image via Smarthistory)

    Charlemagne’s body was interred in the Palatine Chapel after his death in 814. The building would continue to be used for coronation ceremonies for another 700 years—well into the sixteenth century.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Palatine Chapel exterior, Carolingian structure visible (lower two stories). (Photo: CaS2000, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Smarthistory)

    Major additions to the chapel began in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, significantly changing the building’s profile and footprint with exterior chapels. After several fires in the seventeenth century, the dome was rebuilt and heightened.

    Matthew in the Coronation Gospels and Ebbo Gospels


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Saint Matthew, folio 15 recto of the Coronation Gospels (Gospel Book of Charlemagne), from Aachen, Germany, c. 800-810. Ink and tempera on vellum. Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    According to legend, the Vienna Coronation Gospels (c. 795) were discovered in Charlemagne’s tomb within the Palatine Chapel in the year 1000 by Otto III; the emperor had apparently been buried enthroned, that is, sitting up, with the Gospels in his lap. A gospel book is a book containing the books of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who each offer their story of Christ’s life and death.

    The manuscript is clearly a luxury object, written in gold ink on purple-dyed vellum. Characteristic of the Carolingian Renaissance, the artists of the Coronation Gospels were interested in the revival of classical styles, which effectively linked Charlemagne’s rule to that of the 4th century ancient Roman emperor Constantine. The classical style is evident in the poses and clothing of the four evangelists, or Gospel writers, who recall images of ancient Roman philosophers (for example, this one from The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Charlemagne probably had this Gospel book made before he was crowned emperor. It is such an impressive book that it was used in imperial coronation services from about the twelfth to the sixteenth century.

    Following the creation of the Coronation Gospels, the Ebbo Gospels (c. 816-35) are most famous for their distinctive style in contrast to contemporary Carolingian illuminated manuscripts. The Ebbo Gospels were made for Ebbo the Archbishop of Rheims, which was one of the major sites for manuscript production at the time.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Saint Matthew, folio 18 verso of the Ebbo Gospels (Gospel Book of the Archbishop of Reims) from Hautvillers, France, c. 816-35. Ink and tempera on vellum, 10 1/4" x 8 1/4". Bibliothèque Municipale, Épernay, France. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    While the author portraits in the Ebbo Gospels (images of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are consistent with the elements of classical revival (e.g., modeling of figures to make them appear three-dimensional, gradation of the sky, the architecture and furnishings), the style in which the images of the Ebbo Gospels are executed is a notable departure. The brushwork of the author portraits can be described as energetic, expressionistic, even frenzied. The artist remains attentive to the use of highlighting and shadow to create three-dimensional forms, but does so with textured rather than smooth modeling, which creates an effect of movement.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Left: Saint Matthew from the Coronation Gospels, c. 800-810; right: Saint Matthew from the Ebbo Gospels, c. 816-35. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    This energy is conveyed not only in the brushwork, but also in the composition itself. In the Ebbo Gospels, Matthew is hunched over as if frantically writing on his (still blank) codex, while Matthew’s posture in the Coronation Gospels is more upright and relaxed; his pen grazes his chin, as if he is pausing in thought.

    The furniture of the two portraits is very similar in appearance—though the seat in the Coronation Gospels seems to be a folding chair, while that of the Ebbo is a more-sturdy stool. However, the posture of the Coronation Matthew is stable in contrast to that of Ebbo. For example, his right foot rests on the frame of the miniature and his left is flat on the base of his book stand. This miniature is composed of several 45- and 90-degree angles that create a sense of stability and balance. In contrast, the lines in the Ebbo Gospels’ Matthew are dynamic and lack the same sense of equilibrium. For instance, Matthew’s right foot in particular is positioned on the steep, almost vertical, angle of his footrest. Furthermore the book stand is tipped at such a drastic angle that it seems his book will slide right into the viewer’s lap. The energy is also expressed in Matthew’s face, which is drawn up in a furrowed brow. While the Coronation Matthew seems to take a peaceful moment of reflection, the Ebbo Matthew appears to be in anguish over his writing (image below), which is directed by his evangelist symbol, the winged man, who instructs him from the upper right hand corner of the image.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Detail, Saint Matthew, folio 18 verso of the Ebbo Gospels. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    Lastly, it should be noted that the Ebbo Gospels bear some similarities to the infamous Utrecht Psalter (below), which was also made in Rheims at the Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers around the same time (a psalter is a volume containing the Biblical Book of Psalms, often with other devotional material bound in). The images of the Utrecht Psalter are unpainted drawings in brown ink, which are also clearly meant to invoke the style of Late Antiquity. While the sketchy character of the Utrecht Psalter is not quite as dramatic as that of the Ebbo Gospels, the similarity in style can be seen especially in the classical architecture and the rendering of the winged man at the top of the evangelist’s portrait.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Psalm 44, detail of folio 25 recto of the Utrecht Psalter, from Hautviller (near Reims), France, c. 820-835. University Library, Utrecht, Netherlands. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    Lindau Gospels Cover

    By Dr. Nancy Ross and Dr. Steven Zucker

    This is a conversation between Dr. Nancy Ross and Dr. Steven Zucker at the Morgan Library in New York. To watch the video:

    Steven: We’re in the Morgan Library in New York. We’re looking at one of its real treasures. This is the Lindau Gospel cover.

    Nancy: This is old.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Jeweled upper cover of the Lindau Gospels, Court School of Charles the Bald, cover may have been made in the Royal Abbey of St. Denis, c. 880. 350 x 275 mm. Morgan Library and Museum, New York. (Photo: Dr. Steven Zucker, CC BY-NA 2.0)

    Steven: It is. It’s really old. This is from the 9th century. That is from the 800s. This was a moment when there was an attempt to reestablish the kind of empire that the Romans had once known under Charlemagne.

    Nancy: Charlemagne was looking to Constatine as his model and was trying to recreate the empire of Constantine, and also to try and recreate the artistic styles that were present in that early Christian period.

    Steven: It’s interesting that Constantine, a great Roman emperor, but also the first emperor to have legalized, or had decriminalized Christianity. It’s a really interesting choice by Charlemagne to focus on that particular emperor, because he’s so much a bridge between the power of the older pagan Roman empire and the new Christian world.

    Nancy: That’s correct.

    Steven: We don’t usually think of the cover as the work of art itself.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Jeweled upper cover of the Lindau Gospels, c. 880. (Photo: Dr. Steven Zucker, CC BY-NA 2.0)

    Nancy: That’s right. Really, there are so very few Medieval book covers that survive, so when we get a good one like this it is really something that is very special. What we’re looking at is the cover of the Lindau Gospels. A Gospel book contains Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, together with some extra material. It might have a calendar or a litany on the inside. Clearly all of the emphasis here is on the outside. We see an image of the crucifixion. It’s a very Carolingian representation that follows the Triumphant Christ.

    Steven: Later representations of Christ on the cross see his body responding to gravity. We might see a real sense of pain. But here, we don’t.

    Nancy: No, not at all. We see an emphasis of the divine nature of Christ; the Christ who is God who doesn’t suffer. The only sense of suffering that we can see is a little bit of blood dripping from the hands. Other than that, he is tall and proud and in no way responding to the pain he is suffering.

    Steven: We call this Carolingian. It comes from the workshop of Charlemagne, actually. This was probably made for Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bold. Especially in the representation in gold of the cloth, you can really get a sense of the way that these artists were looking back to the Classical tradition.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Jeweled upper cover of the Lindau Gospels, c. 880. (Photo: Dr. Steven Zucker, CC BY-NA 2.0)

    Nancy: That’s correct. They’re looking back to the Classical tradition and, of course, Classical art is really concerned with drapery and drapery folds and artists are trying at this time, in the Carolingian period, to revive that style and they’re trying to look at Classical models, at earlier Classical models, and emulate that in their art. I think we can especially see that in these bottom two figures that are mourning Christ.

    Steven: This idea of reviving the Classical tradition is not just the system of representation. It has to do with reforming language, setting down a set of common laws.

    Nancy: That’s correct. There’s political reform that’s going on at this time. There is education reform and there is also church reform that’s happening to try and standardize and modernize the church and society at this time.

    Steven: This is an unbelievably glorious object. Look at the amount of gold, the amount of jewels. It is almost architectural.

    Nancy: Scooting down, we can see all of the arches that help to make up the shape of the cross as thought the cross itself is like a building. If we think to later church plans, this is the kind of shape of a church building that we would expect to see.

    Steven: Ah, so the kind of basilica structure?

    Nancy: Absolutely. With a long nave and a transept.

    Steven: It’s not only a representation, then, of Christ on the cross, but it actually has a deeper symbolic meaning.

    Nancy: Absolutely. The jewels are very sumptuous and there are pearls and other sparkly things that make this appear very attractive.

    Steven: I see emeralds and I see rubies.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Jeweled upper cover of the Lindau Gospels, c. 880. (Photo: Dr. Steven Zucker, CC BY-NA 2.0)

    Nancy: All in this wonderful gold setting. What we want to see is that those have particular reference to the heavenly Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. In chapters 21, 22, there is a lot of description of the gates in the city. And effectively how to get to Heaven, how to arrive in the heavenly Jerusalem. This book takes you there. This book leads you to salvation.

    Steven: This is a very precious object, obviously. It’s just a tour de force of the jeweler’s art. It’s using a technique which is called repoussé, which is to say that the sculptural figures, Christ and the other mourning figures that surround Christ, are actually hammered from the inside to create that positive image.

    Nancy: If we look at the figure of Christ, artists have really tried to bring out that Classicism; that we don’t have strange muscles appearing and that the artist has tried to smooth over the body of Christ in a way that is very un-Medieval.

    Steven: So, this is a stepping back from the abstraction of the human body that had been so pervasive in the years before the Carolingian revival. This is an attempt, then, to look back. It’s interesting to think what kinds of sources would these artisans have had available to them from ancient Rome, from ancient Greece.

    Nancy: Well, they would have had books and drawings hidden away in monastic libraries. They would have had drawings from earlier versions of illustrated Gospel books. So they’re looking back in their libraries to these earlier Christian books which retain more of a flavor of pagan drawing and pagan illustration from the Classical world.

    Steven: It’s just such a marvelous illustration of the complex relationship which the Medieval Christians had with the Classical tradition that had come before them.

    Ottonian Architecture

    by Lumen Learning

    Originally a ducal family from Saxony, the Ottonians (named after their first king Otto I the Great) seized power after the collapse of Carolingian rule in Europe and re-established the Holy Roman Empire. Ottonian architecture first developed during the reign of Otto the Great (936–975) and lasted until the mid-11th century. Surviving examples of this style of architecture are found today in Germany and Belgium.

    Ottonian architecture chiefly drew its inspiration from Carolingian and Byzantine architecture and represents the absorption of classical Mediterranean and Christian architectural forms with Germanic styles. Some features, including a western entrance, or westwork, flanked by two towers, foreshadow the development of Romanesque architecture, which emerged in the mid-11th century. Its balance and harmony are a remarkable reflection of the high regard in which the Ottonians held the mathematical sciences. This is evident in the modular planning, which bases the measurements of each component of the interior on a single square unit multiplied or divided accordingly.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Plan of a typical Western basilican church: The arrow at the left marks the entrance to the church. Main seating for worshipers is located in the nave, while the aisles were originally used to accommodate large crowds on feast days. As churches began collecting relics (housed in the chapels) that attracted pilgrims, churches added the ambulatory. This connects the aisles to the chapels behind the choir, where clergy members perform their rituals. (Image via Lumen Learning)

    Barring a few examples influenced by the octagonal Palatine Chapel built by Charlemagne in Aachen, Ottonian religious architecture tends to diverge from the model of the central-plan church, drawing inspiration instead from the Roman (Western) basilica. This typically consisted of a long central nave with an aisle at each side and an apse at one end. When adopted by early Christians, the basilica plan assumed a transept perpendicular to the nave, forming a cruciform shape to commemorate the Crucifixion.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Plan of St. Cyriakus at Gernrode: This plan shows the apse at both the west and east ends of the church, with a single transept dividing the nave from the east apse. The black circles and rectangles between the nave and each aisle mark the alternating columns (circles) and piers (rectangles). (Image: public domain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Church of St. Cyriakus, Gernrode, exterior: St. Cyriakus is one of the few surviving examples of Ottonian architecture and combines Carolingian elements with innovations that anticipated Romanesque architecture. (Photo: Sailko, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)

    The Ottonians adopted the Carolingian double-ended variation on the Roman basilica, featuring apses at the east and west ends of the church rather than just the east. Most Ottonian churches make generous use of the round arch, have flat ceilings, and insert massive rectangular piers between columns in regular patterns, as seen in St. Cyriakus at Gernrode and St. Michael’s at Hildesheim.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): St. Cyriakus, interior : The painted ceilings were added during the 19th-century renovation, which also lined most of the walls with cut stone panels. The original Ottonian walls featured rough quarry stone masonry. (Photo: RomkeHoekstra, CC BY-SA 3.0) 

    One of the finest surviving examples of Ottonian architecture is St. Cyriakus Church (960-965) in Gernrode, Germany. The central body of the church has a nave with two aisles flanked by two towers, characteristic of Carolingian architecture . However, it also displays novelties anticipating Romanesque architecture, including the alternation of pillars and columns (a common feature in later Saxon churches), semi-blind arcades in galleries on the nave, and column capitals decorated with stylized acanthus leaves and human heads.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): St. Michael’s Church at Hildesheim, 1010-1031: Unlike the Romanesque churches that would follow, Ottonian churches like St. Michael’s had two apses (visible at the right and left ends of this photograph) and two transepts that divided each apse from the central nave area. (Photo: public domain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): St. Michael’s at Hildesheim, interior facing east.: Major differences between St. Michael’s and St. Cyriakus are the clerestory windows in place of galleries and one pier placed after each pair of columns. The round arches at the east end of the divide the nave from the crossing and the crossing from the apse. (Photo: public domain)

    St. Michael’s at Hildesheim (1010-1031) is one of the most important Ottonian churches, a double-choir basilica with two transepts and a square tower at each crossing . This layout can be seen from the exterior of the building. The west choir is emphasized by an ambulatory and a crypt . Adhering to the Ottonian appreciation for mathematics, the ground plan of the building follows a geometric concept in which the square of the transept crossing in the ground plan constitutes the key measuring unit for the entire church. The square units are defined by the alternation of columns and piers. Unlike St. Cyriakus, St. Michael’s lacks a second-story gallery. However, ample light enters through a row of clerestory windows placed above the arcades dividing the nave from the aisles.

    Gospel Book of Otto III


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Double page opening: Provinces Bringing Tribute (f.23v.) and Ruler Portrait of Otto III (f.24) Gospels of Otto III, c. 1000. Ink, gold, paint, parchment, each page 33.4 x 24.2 cm. Bayerische Stattsbibliothek, Clm.4453, Munich, Germany. (Photo via Smarthistory)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): St. Luke, Gospels of Otto III. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    The double page opening of the ruler portrait of Otto III (f.24, above right) and the accompanying image of provinces bringing tribute (f.23v, above left) is taken from the Gospels of Otto III (Munich, Bayerische Stattsbibliothek, Clm.4453), one of the most magnificent manuscripts to have come down to us from the early medieval period. It is thought to have been made about the year 1000 at the Benedictine monastery of Reichenau on Lake Constance where Austria, Switzerland and Germany converge and belongs to a group of stylistically related manuscripts from the monastery known as the Liuthar group. The monk Liuthar is represented in another gospel-book made for Otto III that is now in the cathedral treasury at Aachen (Aachen, Domschatzkammer, G25). Liuthar is now thought to have been a scribe rather than an artist but the scribe was usually the main coordinating figure for a manuscript project.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Charles (detail), Ruler portrait of Charles the Bald, Codex Aureus of Saint Emmeram, 9th century. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm.14000, f. 5 v., Munich, Germany. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    The pages of the Gospels of Otto III manuscript measure 334 by 242 millimeters and are made of parchment. The script is written in ink, with gold initials, and the manuscript is extensively illustrated with portraits of the four evangelists (the authors of the four gospels), and scenes from the life of Christ as well as the ruler portrait. The front cover is decorated with precious jewels and inset with a Byzantine ivory representing the dormition or death of the Virgin Mary. The double-page is near the beginning of the manuscript before the gospel texts.

    We do not know the name of the artist (as is the case for most of the painters from this period) but he most likely belonged to a team of craftsmen working on the manuscript. In devising the double opening, he appears not to have worked from his imagination but to have followed an earlier source such as the ruler portrait of Charles the Bald in the ninth century manuscript known as the Codex Aureus of Saint Emmeram (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm.14000, f. 5 v.).

    On the right side of the double page, emperor Otto III is shown seated frontally, crowned, and holding a golden orb and a sceptre surmounted by an eagle. Otto III was the Holy Roman Emperor and nominally ruled over territories corresponding to modern day Germany, France and northern Italy. The title Holy Roman Emperor dates back to Charlemagne and like this earlier emperor, Otto III was crowned by the Pope in Rome where Otto III spent most of his reign. Otto III was Holy Roman Emperor from 996 to 1002, when he died at the age of 21.

    Otto III looks out at us with hypnotic eyes, and is dressed in green and the imperial purple. He was the son of Otto II, who died when he was three, and a Byzantine Princess called Theophanu, and we know that he was an educated man.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Ruler portrait of Otto III (f.24), Gospels of Otto III. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    He is flanked on either side by members of his court: on the right by those who fight (two members of the nobility who carry a sword, a lance and shield) and, on the left, by those who pray (two members of the clergy who hold books).

    The pendant image depicts four personifications of the territories over which Otto ruled and who are shown bringing him tribute. They are identified as: Sclavinia (Slavic east), Germania (roughly Germany), Gallia (roughly France), and Roma (Rome). The device of the personification (whereby an abstract idea is represented by a human figure, usually a female one) goes back to classical art. There is a parallel between this scene and that of the adoration of the three magi (represented as crowned kings, a tenth century innovation) bringing gifts to the infant Christ (represented on f.29 of the manuscript), which underlines the quasi-divine nature of the Emperor.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Provinces Bringing Tribute (f.23v.), Gospels of Otto III. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    This is not a portrait in the conventional sense of a likeness and gives us very little idea of what Otto III must have looked like. Otto III is represented out of proportion with the much smaller figures that flank him—indicating his status. The opening pages probably represent an ideal of Otto III’s rule rather than the reality of his situation as his rule was fraught with division. The style of the opening looks back to late antique illusionism (note, for example, the lozenge-shaped ornament in the borders, and the atmospheric backgrounds which recall, for example, such manuscripts as the Vatican Vergil made in about 400) but has an extraordinary flatness to it as if the scene has been pressed between two panes of glass.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Detail of ruler portrait of Otto III (f.24), Gospels of Otto III. (Photo via Smarthistory)

    This style is known as Ottonian, a period style concept that covers both the reigns of the three emperors bearing the name Otto and of their immediate successors through the late eleventh century. It both precedes and anticipates the Romanesque style.

    After Otto’s death, the manuscript passed to his cousin and heir, Henry II, who gave it to the cathedral of Bamberg which he founded, where it remained until 1803 when during the secularisation of the church it was transferred to the Bavarian State Library. The manuscript is rarely exhibited but a facsimile of it has been made.

    12.4: Early Medieval Europe is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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