Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons
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The name 'Mediterranean' means the center of the world, and for centuries, the Mediterranean earned this name. Western art, architecture, literature and culture all developed along the shores of the Mediterranean. This cultural complex, which we know today as classical civilization, reached its greatest extent within the Roman Empire, which spanned from Britain to Egypt and beyond. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, classical civilization retreated to the East, where it endured for another thousand years. As Germanic tribes poured into the West, the light of classical Mediterranean civilization was snuffed out, ushering in a new dark age.
Yet, much of Europe still found itself living in the shadow of its Roman past. When people thought of civilization, they thought of Rome. So when the barbarians of the West made their first steps toward civilization, they tried, with questionable success, to emulate their Roman predecessors. Kind of like a little girl trying on mommy's clothes and makeup. Yet, one little island, at the furthest northwest corner of Europe, had a different approach to civilization. That island was Ireland. Ireland was never a part of the Roman Empire. It is perhaps for this reason that the Irish did not slavishly copy Roman culture, but instead, invented a culture all their own. While the rest of Western Europe plunged into a dark age, Ireland experienced a golden age, creating a unique art and culture whose impacts can still be felt today. Art historians refer to the art of this Irish Golden Age as Insular art.
Ireland's Golden Age is closely tied with the spread of Christianity. As Angles and Saxons began colonizing the old Roman province of Brittania, Christians living in Britain fled to the relative safety of Ireland. These Christians found themselves isolated from their neighbors on the mainland and essentially cut off from the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. This isolation, combined with the mostly agrarian society of Ireland, resulted in a very different form of Christianity. Instead of establishing a centralized hierarchy, like the Roman Catholic Church, Irish Christians established monasteries. Monasticism got an early start in Ireland, and monasteries began springing up across the countryside. The Irish did not just build monasteries in Ireland. They sent missionaries to England to begin reconverting their heathen neighbors. From there they crossed the channels, accelerating the conversion of France, Germany and the Netherlands and establishing monasteries from Poitiers to Vienna. These monasteries became centers of art and learning, producing art of unprecedented complexity, like the Book of Kells, and great scholars, like the Venerable Bede. Over time, Ireland became the cultural and religious leader of Northwestern Europe. So let us look at some of the art of this Irish Golden Age.
Insular art has its roots in Anglo-Saxon metalwork. This art is easily identified by its characteristic interlacing bands. We can see examples of this style in the grave goods of Dark Age graveyards, like this helmet, this buckle and this lovely purse lid. During the Irish Golden Age, these interlacing bands found their way into new art forms, using mediums other than metal.
Perhaps the most famous of these new arts are the stone crosses that dot the British Isles. Standing stones were nothing new for these lands. People had been standing stones on end for thousands of years and carving them for at least a few centuries. The Picts of Scotland were big fans of carving stone, and it seems likely that Irish Christians drew inspiration from these Pictish stones.
With the spread of Irish Christianity, people began carving crosses into stone. The loose whorls and swirls of the Pictish stones were replaced with the tight interlacing bands of Anglo-Saxon metalwork. As techniques and tools improved, people started getting more ambitious. Instead of just carving a relief of a cross into stone, they would sculpt a cross out of stone. They called these stone crosses 'high crosses.' The most famous examples of these high crosses are the Bewcastle High Cross, sculpted sometime in the seventh century (which unfortunately has lost its crosspiece), and the Ruthwell High Cross, sculpted as much as a century later. This distinctive style of stone carving would spread across the channel, and its echoes can be seen in the rich architecture of the Gothic Age and the busy exuberance of Rococo.
As Irish sculptors were busy setting up stone crosses across the islands, Irish scribes were pioneering new advances in the art of illumination. Illumination, or the illustration of manuscripts, had been around for a while. Early Christian scribes used illumination to illustrate Bibles, like this scene from the Vienna Genesis. Manuscript illumination reached new levels of refinement in Ireland. The interlacing bands of Anglo-Saxon metalwork found breathtaking expression in the illuminations of the Irish Golden Age. We can see the development of this art form in three famous illuminated Bibles: the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.
The Book of Durrow was composed in the seventh century. In it, we see the establishment of the iconic Insular interlacing band style. We also begin to see standards of composition that would recur in later illuminations. Pretty much every illuminated Bible of this period has: carpet pages, with intricate designs in between books; incipit pages at the beginning of each book; a distinct Chi Rho, for the first initials of Christ; and icons representing the four evangelists. Each of the four gospels had its own unique page dedicated to the apostle who wrote it. You can identify the apostles by their Christian icon: Matthew is represented by an angel, Mark by a lion, Luke by an ox and John by an eagle.
These trends are refined in the later eighth-century Lindisfarne Gospels. Take a look at the incredible intricacy of this Carpet Page. See how complicated the initials on this Incipit Page have gotten. And the Chi Rho of Christ now takes up the better part of half a page. When we look at the gospels, we're in for a big surprise: We now have people instead of just animals! When you look at these people, you might notice that the figures are really, really primitive. It seems odd that the scribe would put such painstaking detail into these intricate overlapping patterns and then show such utter disregard for the human form. So how do we explain this disconnect? It's certainly not due to a lack of skill. Some art historians have posited that drawings of human figures were simply less important to the illuminators of the Irish Golden Age. This contrasts greatly with classical art, in which the figure takes the fore at all times.
By the time we get to the Book of Kells, created around 800 CE, manuscript illumination had reached its apex. The detail in this Carpet Page has gotten so fine, you need a magnifying glass to see it all. The Incipit Page has gotten so busy that there's barely room for any text. And the Chi Rho of Christ now has a page all to itself. The icons of the apostles of the four gospels have returned to highly stylized images of animals and angels, instead of figures of men. This strengthens the theory that the Irish weren't as concerned with figures of people as they were with their delicate interlacing patterns. The Book of Kells marks the apex of manuscript illumination. Nothing before or afterward compares with the incredible depth, intricacy and beauty of these illuminations.
To review, Ireland was unique among Western European countries in that it never fell under the control of the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire collapsed, much of Europe collapsed into a dark age. Yet the independent Irish did not miss Roman culture, since they barely knew it. Instead of pining for the lost glory of Roman days, the artists and scholars of Ireland started a glorious golden age of their own. This Irish Golden Age was heavily influenced by the spread of Christianity to Ireland. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Irish, in turn, set about spreading Christianity back toward the mainland, speeding the conversion of England, Scotland, France, Germany and the Netherlands. These Irish missionaries established monasteries across Northern Europe, from Poitiers to Vienna. These monasteries became centers of culture and art and established Ireland as the cultural and artistic leader of Northern Europe for several centuries.
Art of this Irish Golden Age, or Insular art as it is known, has its roots in the interlacing bands of Anglo-Saxon metalwork. Insular artists transferred these interlacing bands from metalwork to stonework and began erecting stone crosses across the British Isles. The most famous examples of these stone crosses are the Bewcastle and Ruthwell high crosses. Insular scribes applied the same interlacing band style to the illumination of manuscripts, establishing a style of illumination that only improved over the years. We can see the progress of this art over time by comparing the three most famous illuminated Bibles of the age: the Book of Durrow from the seventh century, the Lindisfarne Gospels of the eighth century and the ninth-century Book of Kells.
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Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons