The growth of Catholicism coincided with the decline of the Roman Empire. The time of dissolution up to 1000 years after the foundation of early medieval art was established. Great inventions, supported by a higher degree of imagination, have become the formative force of the western world. Such a transition has led to early medieval painting.
The early medieval era is represented by a fusion of artistic heritage in Europe, influenced by the surviving barbarous pagan culture of the North and the rising early Christian church. Early medieval artistic ages typically contain costly materials such as gold, high-priced pigments and rare goods. The art in the said era are usually forms of expression established due to the rise of illiteracy during that time. Symbolisms and stories are usually conveyed in creative works. At the same time, the creative works of the era are characterized as status symbols (Kleiner 429) For most parts of the Middle Ages in which early medieval art is present, more stylized forms are used, in which classical naturalism from the Roman times faded.
Early Medieval art started during start of the Romanesque period. Historians classified the major periods through the dominant styles of that era. Thus, this gave rise to the terms Anglo-Saxon, Byzantine, Insular, Romanesque, and Gothic which are the age wherein the unique stylization appeared.
The chosen artworks of this paper would are mostly depicted from Christian themes. It includes Doors of Bishop Bernward, Westwork, Abbey Church, Lindau Gospels, Purse cover from the Sutton Hoo ship Burial, and Jesus Washing the Feet of St Peter. Despite similarity in their themes, each one are unique from the other. All of them would be further discussed and analyzed in this paper.
The artwork Jesus washing Peter’s feet, Book of Otto III was created at around the years 997- 1000 (Kleiner 428). It belongs to an era in the mid-10th century that saw the rise of Ottonian art that belongs to the rule of Emperor Otto. Creations were usually sculptures, basilican churches and paintings that are inspired by the golden background of the Byzantine (Kleiner 429). During such time, a lot of connections to Roman painting have disappeared in a Gospel Book by Otto III. Aside from the Byzantine connection, the painting featured symbolisms that signifies emphasis on a Godly world instead of the more material world that modern people lives in.
The purse cover from the Sutton Hoo ship burial was considered as one of the more remarkable art in the Early Medieval period as it features not only expensive materials but also an intricate design (Adams 1). It was excavated on an Anglo-Saxon burial place so it can be considered as a relic of that era. It symbolized great wealth and high social status. Each part of the design symbolizes significant motifs of Anglo-Saxon origins.
The Lindau gospels is a manuscript that is revered for its illuminated text and book binding. While the metalworks and covers depict different periods, it is mostly considered as part of the Carolingian age. Each part of the book have important symbolisms and history. The lower cover depicts designs and alterations from different periods. The style resembles and Anglo-Saxon origin. The upper cover is studded with gems. Some figures were also identified and some scholars connect them to various prominent Christian women like Mary Magdalene (Lasko, 66). The main texts are also decorated with different patterns and styles.
Westwork Abbey was one of the more prominent churches built during the early medieval period. It is a monumental basilica with an entrance facing west. The term westwork refers to a design that features a structure that is broader than the aisles and nave. While its interior features some good looking works of art, it is mostly known for its outside appearance (Stokstad and Cothren 259). This work of art is a combination of the style of Ottonian and Carolingian. It is also considered as a Romanesque church.
Doors of Bishop Bernward are two pairs of a single door that was created in Germany for the Hildesheim Cathedral. It features a style that is Ottonian or Romanesque in origin. It was commissioned by Bishop Bernward and features scenes from the Book of Genesis on the left and the life of Jesus Christ on the right. It is one of the oldest known image cycle monument in Germany and is largely considered as a masterpiece of the Ottonian era (Hans 115).
While the early medieval art is characterized by different scattered styles that are brought about by the immediate changes at that time, the creative works feature similarities that can be considered as the main theme and motif of that era. It can be pointed out that the rise of Catholicism has made an important impact in the artworks. This can be obviously seen in the design and origin of Westwork Abbey, the Lindau Gospels, Jesus Washing the feet of St Peter painting, and the sculptured doors of Bishop Bernward. On the other hand, the purse cover form the Sutton Hoo ship burial may be related to Christianity through the symbolisms in the designs that depict the presence of a god. Another common features of all the artworks above is the use of gold and other expensive materials in their creation. This is especially evident in the Purse cover form the Sutton Hoo ship burial, the Lindau gospels book cover, and the background of the painting Jesus washing the feet of St Peter. The Bernward Doors features bronze, another expensive material during its time of creation. Westwork Abbey involved a lot of financial investments as well just because of its sheer size and significance. Through the rise of Christianity and the use of expensive materials, the scattered style of the early medieval art has been united to the common theme of holiness and value through wealth and status symbols, which is ironic in the modern period but was viewed as significant during that time.
Review of Literature
Each of the sources used for this paper specifically corresponds to one of the five artworks featured in this paper. Aside from that, they also give a general overview of the early medieval art as related to the creative work.
Adams’ Reading the Sutton Hoo Purse Lid talks about the various symbolisms included in the design of the popular purse cover. It relates all the visual inclusions in the artwork to various possible ways of reading its significance through the different figures engraved on it. It shows the Byzantine prototype of man versus beast as mostly depicted in similar creations (Adams 1). The author goes as far as analyzing the intention of the jewelers who inscribed the various symbolisms. A detailed explanation of each parts of the artwork were done, including possible scenarios and thoughts involved in its creation. It went as far as immersing the readers through the various related historical events and items.
Hanz’s Ottonische Kunst gives us a glimpse of the Bernward Doors, especially as it relates to its German origin. While the author gave emphasis on general Ottonian Art, the book discussed the artwork in more details. According to Hanz, such work is one of the oldest cycle in the whole Germany in terms of images that were cast in metal (Hanz 115). While the motivation of Bishop Bernward may vary with different sources, the book specifically connected such intention to cultural ascendancy and the existing historical background at that time. The author also discusses the effectivity and usage of the themes associated with such art. This is evident in that artist’s avoidance of richly decorated designs on the doors. Simple styles were used to present the narratives depicted on the doors.
Gardner’s book is actually a resource that can provide a little bit of everything in terms of early medieval art. However it didn’t discuss some of the selected artworks in detail. In fact, it provided a rich background regarding the painting Jesus washing St Peter’s feet while only briefly summarizing some facts related to the artwork. The author provided historical details to explain the whereabouts of the creative work. The author’s insights summarize a lot of artworks in the early medieval era while connecting them to one another. It could be noted that the painting actually invokes the rise of Christianity as well as the worldly desire of people as symbolized by the gold background (Kleiner 428).
Lasko provides a detailed overview of the Lindau Gospels from its physical origin to the meanings of some texts. While some are made through the author’s observed assumptions, it provides educational value to people who are not familiar with such work of art. The discussion includes the cover of the book and its possible origins as well as the possible intentions and motivations written in its texts (Lasko 68). The author have more knowledge regarding the upper cover of the book. However, Lasko could also provide some basic information regrding the lower parts, as well as its content. Detailed accounts like the picture of the dish in the upper cover gives people more insights regarding the artwork.
Stokstad and Cothren’s book provides massive information regarding the history of art. From the origins of artworks to the surrounding background of each, Art History provides a refreshing outlook of the different creative works of various eras. It is especially a good source of information regarding the Westwork Abbey. It does not only provide basic knowledge regarding the church but also a more in depth analysis regarding its origins and technical explanations regarding its name and design. In fact, it specifically discussed why it is called Westwork. Aside from the outside design of the church, it also gives insights regarding the materials inside it.
Early medieval art presented some ironic themes with regards to the motivation and intention of people in the era. This is especially true with regards to the way in which the artworks were created. It could be noted that a lot of such works were created with the theme of Christianity and God in mind. However, there were also some hints of wealth and status symbols as evident by the materials used. Today’s teaching of the Catholic Church highly deviate from this kind of attitude and perspective. In fact, most modern priests emphasize the importance of living in poverty instead of a lavish and luxurious lifestyle. It seems like the depiction of Christianity and holiness in the early medieval era is different as it promotes the usage of expensive materials to express their art.
While the painting Jesus washing the feet of St Peter seem to depict an innocent scenario of the same name. One could imply a lot of things with the design of the artwork. It should be noted that the background of Jesus is specifically covered in gold (Kleiner 428). Despite the humility imbibed in the scene, it seems like the golden part of it have deviated with such theme. It would be hard to decipher the real motivation and intention of the creator during such time. However, it could be noted that the artist is trying to show value. This is the reason why he used gold in the presentation of the painting.
The purse cover from the Sutton Hoo ship burial seem to be one of the selected artworks that does not share the common theme of Christianity among the selected ones. However, it should be noted that the presentation and symbolisms in the artwork depict that of man and beasts, as well as god. By presenting it in such a way, the concept of the divine creator was also put into the purse. Another important factor in its creation is the usage of gold. Again, this depicts a common theme in the artwork of the early medieval era. While it is ironic nowadays that Christianity and God is presented through expensive materials, it is actually a standard during that time.
The Lindon Gospels is another work of art in the early medieval period that provided a luxurious design for a book related to Christianity. Its covers are filled with gold and jewels. This might have been done again to depict value on the religious content of the item. Again, this might be ironic to modern beliefs but it is how the people of that time perceive the presentation of such artwork.
The Westwork Abbey Church also depicts a grand way of creating. It seems like its creators wanted to provide all the best materials and craftsmanship in making such structure. It could be noted that this once again shows a luxurious presentation, which may be contrary to modern Catholic beliefs. However, the rise of Christianity at that time might have seen the need of such luxurious creations. It should be noted that the early medieval era is a transition from paganism to Christianity in most parts of Europe. Through the creation of such artworks as Bishop Bernward’s Doors religious leaders conveyed the message that Catholicism has more value than old pagan beliefs.
Adams, Noel. Reading the Sutton Hoo Purse Lid. Saxon, 2004.
Hans, Jantzen. Ottonische Kunst. 2nd ed., Rowohlt, 1959.
Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History, vol. 1, Cengage, 2009.
Lasko, Peter. Ars Sacra, 800- 1200. 2nd ed., Yale University Press, 1995.
Stokstad, Marilyn and Michael W. Cothren. Art History. Prentice Hall, 2011.
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