AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIÆVAL ART IX: Art of the Dark Ages

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THE ART OF THE DARK AGES

In 330 AD, Constantine the Great moved the capitol of the Roman Empire from Rome to the newly-founded city named after himself, Constantinople, leaving the western empire to be gradually overrun by barbarian tribes. The ensuing chaos culminated in the sack of Rome itself by the Ostrogoths in AD 410. When the last emperor in the west retired in AD 476, the office of the emperor quietly vanished. The forsaken west, no longer unified by one government, language, currency, law and culture, fragmented into many petty kingdoms, constantly at war with each other. Knowledge of Roman building methods and engineering faded quickly, the temples and roads fell into ruin and architecture ceased to exist for over 200 years. The classical traditions in painting and sculpture disappeared, taking with them the ability to represent the human body and observed world.

Given the scarcity of materials, and lack of technical ability, such artistic production as there was during the Dark Ages was limited to small-scale objects of personal adornment, including jewelry, ceremonial weapons and armour, and some vessels, all made for rulers. Making the best of their restricted circumstances, the barbarian craftsmen made up for lost surface area by obsessively elaborating what little they had with intricate decorative patterns. The Tara Brooch, for example, a Hiberno-Saxon pin for holding fur cloaks closed in the frigid northern winters, was made of just two Roman gold coins which yielded very little space for decoration. Nevertheless, dozens of very fine, interlinked trumpet and whirl patterns, all precisely executed, covered the available surface. When one recalls that the designs were executed by hammering the soft metal and scoring it with what tools were available, the achievement is staggering.

Along with precious metals, barbarian taste also favored uncut semi-precious gemstones, such as agate, amethyst, garnet and cabochon rubies and emeralds, which were fitted into gold settings. Cloisonné enamel (made by slicing very small pieces of colored glass, almost all made from melted-down Roman objects, and fitting them into gold-wire compartments) was employed to create richly-coloured pattern on wristbands, clasps and rings. The more complex the pattern and the finer its execution reflected well on the ruler, who had resources to expend on such things. The display of precious metals and the conspicuous registration of artistic skill were the hallmarks of the northern barbarian aesthetic, which, and the models of classical antiquity rediscovered by the Carolingians and imported from Byzantium, will fuse around the year 1000 to create the art of the High Middle Ages.

Avoiding or ignoring the human body and naturalistic renderings of real objects, the Hiberno-Saxon artists put abstract, geometric patterning at the center of their practice. Whether this represents a positive choice of one mode over another or is the result of lack of skill will never be known. It should be noted, however, that the interlace is not, strictly speaking, an abstract mode. Inhabited interlace of the type seen at Sutton Hoo and in the great insular gospel books, teems with life, as ribbons terminate in animal heads and reptiles that pursue and bite each other and, later on, humans, in an endless, labyrinthine hunt and chase. It is important to recall that throughout the Dark Ages the land was depopulated„ there were no cities of any appreciable size and three quarters of Europe was covered in dense, at times impenetrable, ancient forests (almost all of which were later cut down for timber and the land brought under cultivation, as populations grew). These forests are the wasteland of the medieval quest romances, desolate and fearful places inhabited by dangerous, semi-mythical creatures that were much closer to hand and much more of a threat to humans than was the case the urban centers of the Mediterranean. This reality gave raise to poems like Beowulf, in which a stark distinction is made between the pitch-black outdoors, where monsters like Grendel lay waiting for bragging, drunk humans who stupidly step out of the safety of the warm, well-lit, mead hall. The inhabited interlace registers that reality, and symbolically tames it by reducing it to a controlled pattern—for a moment.

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