AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIÆVAL ART VIII: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

 

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VIII: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

In 1939 excavations of several barrows, or burial mounds, were carried out on the grounds of a private estate near the village of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk. The owner of the property, Mrs Edith Pretty, had instigated the digs, which were led by a local archaeologist, Basil Brown. Inside one of the larger mounds the team discovered the grave of the East-Anglian King Raewald, who died around A.D. 638. His funeral rites consisted of placing his body, equipped with armour and a treasure, in a 150-foot long wooden ship, all of which was buried under a vast mound of earth and then forgotten for 1,300 years. Other barrows of the Dark Ages had been explored previously, but none had yielded a complete treasure of this quality, of this historical importance, or in such miraculous condition.

Arranged around the king’s body were a shield, sceptre, helmet, and sword and clothing accessories, including a purse, a belt buckle and clasps that held a cape in place, all fashioned of pure gold and finely-patterned cloisonné enamels decorated with intricate celtic interlace motifs and stylized representations of wild animals. At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum from Greco-Roman classicism, where the idealized human body is pervasive, northern taste valued precious materials and avoided the representation of humans, favoring instead abstract, decorative treatments of baffling complexity. The two legacies of southern classical and northern barbarian art will merge at the end of the Dark Ages, giving rise to medieval art.

Among the items placed in the Sutton Hoo hoard for the deceased king’s benefit in the afterlife were two silver chrism spoons, used in the Christian baptism rite, and several silver bowls decorated with crosses, all made in Constantinople. The king’s purse contained recently-minted Byzantine, imperial coinage. These objects, which seem out of place in an otherwise pagan, Viking-style ship burial, were placed in the hoard partly for their metallic value, but for religious reasons as well. In late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, converts to Christianity waited until the end of life to be baptized. Raewald, an active supporter of Pope Gregory the Great’s efforts to return Britain to Christianity, was probably baptized shortly before he died. The priest administering the sacrament would have used the silver spoons and bowls to anoint and cleanse the neophyte. The bowls and spoons were left on the ship as a precaution: not being sure of what he might need in the afterlife, Raewald took no chances and equipped with both Christian and pagan objects.

Edith Pretty received offers for the treasure from foreign museums and collectors, but, in an act of great magnanimity, she donated it to a grateful nation. The treasure was put into storage during World War II, and in 1945, after being conserved and catalogued, the Sutton Hoo treasure was put on permanent display in the British Museum. The British Museum conducted a second, more extensive, excavation of the Sutton Hoo site, led by Rupert Bruce-Mitford, in the 1960s; the complete findings of both campaigns were published in three volumes by the Society of Antiquaries in 1975, 1978, and 1983.

AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART:

I: Saint Denis and Gothic Art

II: The Carolingian Renovatio

III: The Monastic Scriptorium

IV: Grisaille, or The Abstention from Color

V: The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna

VI: Beauvais Cathedral and the Limits of Gothic Verticality

VII: The Harrowing of Hell

VIII: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

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