Anglo Saxon Art
Celtic and Anglo-Saxon art display similar aesthetic qualities and media, including architecture and metalwork.
By the end of this module you will be able to:
- Describe the form, content, and context of Anglo Saxon Art
- Define critical terms related to Anglo Saxon Art
- Compare elements of Anglo-Saxon and Hiberno-Saxon art
- Describe the history and characteristics of illuminated manuscripts in Insular art
Anglo-Saxon art emerged when the Anglo-Saxons migrated from the continent in the fifth century and ended in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. Anglo-Saxon art, which favoured brightness and colour, survives mostly in architecture and metalwork.
Anglo-Saxon metalwork consisted of Germanic-style jewelry and armour, which was commonly placed in burials. After the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the seventh century, the fusion of Germanic Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Early Christian techniques created the Hiberno-Saxon style (or Insular art) in the form of sculpted crosses and liturgical metalwork. Insular art is characterized by detailed geometric designs, interlace, and stylized animal decoration.
Anglo-Saxon metalwork initially used the Germanic Animal Style decoration that would be expected from recent immigrants, but gradually developed a distinctive Anglo-Saxon character. For instance, round disk brooches were preferred for the grandest Anglo-Saxon pieces, over continental styles of fibulae and Romano-British penannular brooches. Decoration included cloisonné (“cell work”) in gold and garnet for high-status pieces. Despite a considerable number of other finds, the discovery of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo transformed the history of Anglo-Saxon art, showing a level of sophistication and quality that was wholly unexpected at this date. Among the most famous finds from Sutton Hoo are a helmet and an ornamental purse lid.
Anglo-Saxon secular buildings in Britain were generally simple, constructed mainly using timber with thatch for roofing. No universally accepted example survives aboveground. There are, however, many remains of Anglo-Saxon church architecture. At least fifty churches of Anglo-Saxon origin display the culture’s major architectural features, although in some cases these aspects are small and significantly altered. The round-tower church and tower-nave church are distinctive Anglo-Saxon types. All surviving churches, except one timber church, are built of stone or brick, and in some cases show evidence of reused Roman work.
The architectural character of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical buildings ranges from influence from Celtic and Early Christian styles. Later Anglo-Saxon architecture is characterized by pilasters, blank arcading, baluster shafts and triangular-headed openings. In the final decades of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, a more general Romanesque style was introduced from the Continent, as in the additions to Westminster Abbey made from 1050 onwards.
“Celtic art” refers to the art of people who spoke Celtic languages in Europe and those with uncertain language but cultural and stylistic similarities with Celtic speakers. Typically, Celtic art is ornamental, avoiding straight lines, only occasionally using symmetry, and often involving complex symbolism. Celtic art has used a variety of styles and has shown influences from other cultures in knotwork, spirals, key patterns, lettering, and human figures.
Around 500 BCE, the La Tène style appeared rather suddenly, coinciding with some kind of societal upheaval that involved a shift of the major centers to the northwest. La Tène was especially prominent in northern France and western Germany, but over the next three centuries, the style spread as far as Ireland, Italy, and modern Hungary. Early La Tène style adapted ornamental motifs from foreign cultures, including Scythian, Greek, and Etruscan arts. La Tène is a highly stylized curvilinear art based mainly on classical vegetable and foliage motifs such as leafy palmette forms, vines, tendrils, and lotus flowers together with spirals, S-scrolls, lyre, and trumpet shapes. It remains uncertain whether some of the most notable objects found from the La Tène period were made in Ireland or elsewhere (as far away as Egypt in some cases). But in Scotland and the western parts of Britain, versions of the La Tène style remained in use until it became an important component of the Insular style that developed to meet the needs of newly Christian populations.
Celtic art in the medieval period was produced by the people of Ireland and parts of Britain over the course of 700 years. With the arrival of Christianity, Celtic art was influenced by both Mediterranean and Germanic traditions, primarily through Irish contact with Anglo-Saxons, which resulted in the Insular style. The interlace patterns that are regarded as typical of Celtic art were in fact introduced from the Mediterranean and Migration Period artistic traditions. Specific examples of Celtic Insular art include the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice.
Catholic Celtic sculpture began to flourish in the form of the large stone crosses that held biblical scenes in carved relief. This art form reached its apex in the early 10th century, with Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice and the Ahenny High Cross.
Illustrated Books in the Early Middle Ages
Insular art is often characterized by detailed geometric designs, interlace, and stylized animal decorations in illuminated manuscripts. An illuminated manuscript contains text supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders (marginalia), and miniature illustrations. In the strict definition of the term, an illuminated manuscript indicates only those manuscripts decorated with gold or silver. However, the term is now used to refer to any decorated manuscript from the Western tradition. The earliest surviving substantive illuminated manuscripts are from the period 400 to 600 CE and were initially produced in Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire. The significance of these works lies not only in their inherent art historical value but also in the maintenance of literacy offered by non-illuminated texts as well. Had it not been for the monastic scribes of Late Antiquity who produced both illuminated and non-illuminated manuscripts, most literature of ancient Greece and Rome would have perished in Europe.
The majority of surviving are from the Middle Ages, and hence most are of a religious nature. Illuminated manuscripts were written on the best quality of parchment, called vellum. By the sixteenth century, the introduction of printing and paper rapidly led to the decline of illumination, although illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced in much smaller numbers for the very wealthy. Early medieval illuminated manuscripts are the best examples of medieval painting, and indeed, for many areas and time periods, they are the only surviving examples of pre-Renaissance painting.
Insular Art in Illustrated Books
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 the 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 travelled 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 colours, 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.
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 colours 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 colours, 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 knotwork and interweaving found in the Kells manuscript echo the metalwork and stone carving works that characterized the artistic legacy of the Insular period.
Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts form a significant part of Insular art and reflect a combination of influences from the Celtic styles that arose when the Anglo-Saxons encountered Irish missionary activity. A different mixture is seen in the opening from the Stockholm Codex Aureus, where the evangelist portrait reflects an adaptation of classical Italian style, while the text page is mainly in Insular style, especially the first line with its vigorous Celtic spirals and interlace. This is one of the so-called “Tiberius Group” of manuscripts with influence from the Italian style. It is the last English manuscript in which trumpet spiral patterns are found.
The Beatus Manuscripts
The Commentary on the Apocalypse was originally a Mozabaric eighth-century work by the Spanish monk and theologian Beatus of Liébana. Often referred to simply as the Beatus, it is used today to reference any of the extant manuscript copies of this work, especially any of the 26 illuminated copies that have survived. The historical significance of the Commentary is even more pronounced since it included a world map, offering a rare insight into the geographical understanding of the post-Roman world. Considered together, the Beatus codices are among the most important Spanish and Mozarabic medieval manuscripts and have been the subject of extensive scholarly and antiquarian inquiry.
Though Beatus might have written these commentaries as a response to Adoptionism in the Hispania of the late 700s, many scholars believe that the book’s popularity in monasteries stemmed from the Arabic-Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula, which some Iberian Christians took as a sign of the Antichrist. Not all of the Beatus manuscripts are complete, and some exist only in fragmentary form. However, the surviving manuscripts are lavishly decorated in the Mozarabic, Romanesque, or Gothic style of illumination.
Mozarabic art refers to the art of Mozarabs, Iberian Christians living in Al-Andalus who adopted Arab customs without converting to Islam during the Islamic invasion of the Iberian peninsula (from the eighth through the 11th centuries). Mozarabic art features a combination of (Hispano) Visigothic and Islamic art styles, as in the Beatus manuscripts, which combine Insular art illumination forms with Arabic-influenced geometric designs.
A book in which the text is supplemented by decoration, such as initials, borders (marginalia), and miniature illustrations.