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The period from the late 5th through to the 11th century C.E. Is often called the Dark Ages, a term coined by the 14th century Italian scholar Petrach as a criticism of the late Latin scholarship, with the end of the Roman empire in 476. Southern Europe had been overrun by Germanic tribes from the north. …
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Discuss the use of non ical forms, ideas and motifs in Early Medieval Art in the West including sculpture, manuscripts, ivories and metalwork. The period from the late 5th through to the 11th century C.E. Is often called the Dark Ages, a term coined by the 14th century Italian scholar Petrach as a criticism of the late Latin scholarship, with the end of the Roman empire in 476. Southern Europe had been overrun by Germanic tribes from the north. Among these invaders were craftsmen who excelled in metalwork, jewelry and stone. It was a period of transition. The Romans had gone and a new civilization was being born. The Romans had a well established means of communication and trade, but these links were gradually lost and life became, for some 500 years, much more localized. Major industries such as large scale pottery production all but vanished. Such items were still needed, but theor production became a local affair. In this essay I will be looking at the art of this interesting period. Modern historians dismiss the previously prevalent idea of a lack of culture, but rather blame this idea on the ignorance of the period in the minds of those who came later.
The classical period did not come to an end with the decline of the Greek and Roman empires. This can be evidenced by various pieces of art still with us today, much of it ecclesiastical in nature such as altar pieces, however much of the art of the period broke away from classical forms to a greater or lesser degree. In early times mythology, such as that of the Nordic sagas, is prominent. Animal head for instance were thought to ward off evil and so were often found on brooches and bed heads, but as the church increased in its influence Christian themes also appear more often.
The illustration from the Lindisfarne gospels ( 7th century), now in the British Museum, has lost ideas of perspective, the figures are not all of the same size and are somewhat stylized and so would be classed as non-classical, but the artists point was to proclaim a religious, rather than an artistic one. It proclaims the power of the word of God during a very turbulent period of history. Other pages in the same work are even more stylized. The production of this book was costly both in terms of materials and in time taken, but the subject was so important that it was worth it to its creators, even in a time of such disturbance and possible poverty due to the frequent raiding parties from Northern Europe. An artist doesn’t produce food or care for animals or home for instance and he is unlikely to be a warrior.
From Rome and the first century we have what is presumably a true likeness of the emperor Tiberius from the first century. In contrast look at the very stylized animal from the Kentish quoit brooch. It is almost abstract in form, later examples became even more stylized, often the creatures have arched and ribbon like bodies. so much so that it is difficult sometimes to decide which animal is being portrayed, even though their faces are usually portrayed from the front, often in biting mode. Frequently the parts of the animal are filled in with decoration such as ladder patterns or dots, but by the end of the period the styles were plainer and the filling in had disappeared. Although this is a brooch similar styles were used to illustrate manuscripts.
So that we see that the art of this period covered a huge variety of forms. The artist who created the Roman bust was trying to portray a historical figure in 3 D and so his form is that of the classical statues of ancient Greece. The illustrator of the gospel however is concerned only with the idea of Matthew writing his gospel , so how real he looks is of lesser importance. The maker of the brooch is concerned with creating something beautiful and useful and so the shape is somewhat distorted to fit its purpose. So we see that the form art takes affects the style and form that it takes. One style is not better or worse than another. Just different according to what it is trying to do.
The final illustration is on ivory and depicts a consul with Roma and with the Roman circus at his feet. This Theodosian style is almost classical as far as the carving of the figures is concerned, but again there is no attempt at perspective or sizing. It is presumably meant to show the power of the consul over events. In style it represents the Lindisfarne picture more than any other. This illustrates the way in which very different materials could be used in similar ways, even when the message they were meant to portray was very different.
The artists of the period combined elements from many sources, from Italy, Greece and the East. The way in which pairs of figures are often set as symmetrical duos facing each other was common in the art of Persia. The artists used these different sources with such originality that they created a new and more vigorous style of their own. It often became an almost abstract expression of man’s ideas about himself and environment.
The period has been described as ‘stagnant in thought’ , but modern scholarship, usually using the term early medieval , rather than dark ages, tends to think of the period as ‘blank’ or ‘silent’, these terms referring to the comparative lack of written records, before the rise of the Normans and their clerks. Yet there is much evidence of culture in the many artifacts that have been preserved or discovered. This includes the texts that have been preserved, which reveal a complex society, structured, but in a constant state of flux due to the pressures upon it. The book of Kells for instance, now preserved in Trinity College, Dublin, has a huge variety of decorated initials and interlinear drawings. There was a period of iconoclasm, a reaction to the increasing power of the church, when much was destroyed, but that which remains is so vibrant that it cuts that so called darkness into shreds. The artists sought to draw the viewer into the work, and so point them towards its spiritual significance. In religious circles the values of that time rejected the importance of the body and so man and woman were not represented as physical perfections as they were during the classical period. Their function was simply to represent.
Conclusion
So the question must be asked were skills totally lost, or were they simply used in a different way, built upon, expanded, made to fit a different mindscape? The Romans had been citizens of an urban empire, while the majority of those who followed knew little of cities or writing and so they expressed themselves in other ways. These ways were often practical rather than merely artistic, but that does not make them of less worth or less artistic in value.
Head of Emperor Tiberius from 1st century Rome

Pages from the Lindisfarne gospels
Kentish Quoit Brooch
Metal Strap End in Trewhiddle Style,

Ivory Diptych leaf from Rome 6th century.
Books
Arnold, Bruce, Irish Art, Thames and Hudson, London 1969
Osbourne, Harold, editor, The Oxford Companion to Art, Oxford University Press, 1970
Electronic Sources
Ivory diptych, Images from world history, found at http://www.hp.uab.edu/image_archive/ulh/ulhg.html
Kentish quoit brooch, and strap end, Dark Ages Society, found at http://darkagessociety.co.uk9art.html and retrieved 27th November, 2006
Priests with censers , art.co.uk, found at http://www.art.co.uk/asp/sp-asp/_/AFF—CONF/CTID—329200644/RFID—784500/TKID—0/pd12060357/posters.htm
“St Matthew” Illustration from Lindisfarne gospels, Western Art History found at http://en.wilkipedia.org/wilki/Western_Art and retrieved 27th November, 2006
http://www.turkeytravel.org/history/byzance/dark.html Read More
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