Merovingian Symbols, Art & Architecture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Long flowing hair, abstract art and golden bees. What do these things have in common? In this lesson, explore early European leaders called the Merovingians. Learn about their symbols, art and architecture.

Who Were the Merovingians?

Who ruled Europe after the Romans left in the 5th century? It's possible you've never heard of them -

the people who took over were the Merovingians.

The Merovingians were kings and leader of the Franks, a Germanic tribe from Northern Europe, who lived during the beginning of the medieval period. The term 'Merovingian' comes from the name of a shadowy figure named Merovech, or Meroveus, whose son, Childric I, was an early Frankish leader. The Merovingians ruled early in European history, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and when Christianity was spreading into all corners of Europe. In terms of time period, we're speaking roughly from 476 - 750 AD. Eventually, the Merovingians ruled over what is today parts of France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Merovingian Symbols

The Merovingians were very powerful and had some unusual beliefs about what gave them their power. They were written of by contemporaries and known as the 'long haired kings' because they had long, flowing and uncut hair. Some scholars believe they viewed their long hair as sacred. It would have been a huge sign of disrespect and defeat to have one's hair chopped off.

Other symbols that had meaning to the Merovingians included the bee. Yes, as in the insect. The bee was considered a symbol of wisdom. The bee's home, the honeycomb, included interlocking hexagons and was thought to represent divine harmony in nature. Other symbols with significance to the Merovingians included the crescent moon and stars and the fleur-de-lis, a symbol with two curved side petals and a central straight petal. It was considered to be a masculine symbol and reflected French blood lines among the Merovingians.

Merovingian Art

Merovingian art tends toward abstraction, which means it doesn't look quite like anything in the real world. It includes geometric shapes and patterns, and sometimes elaborate surface decoration.

Merovingian metalwork that shows abstraction
metalwork with abstraction

At this point in Europe's history, these people were still a bit nomadic. They tended to make items they could carry with them, including metalwork like jewelry, belt buckles and religious objects. In fact, many of the Merovingian art objects we have today were found in burials. Remember the symbolism of the bee? In the tomb of Childric I, archaeologists found beautiful, small, golden bee figures with red garnet wings, possibly to be included on royal coats and horse harnesses.

Merovingian gold ring
Merovingian gold ring

Other Merovingian art includes carefully handwritten manuscripts done by Merovingian monks. They feature a few bright colors, like red, green and yellow, and include a decorative type of writing called majuscule. These manuscripts also include animal motifs and figures incorporated into letters, especially birds and fishes.

Merovingian manuscript written in majuscule.
Merovingian manuscript

Merovingian Architecture

Not much Merovingian architecture remains, because some of their structures were made of wood (which long ago were lost to time) and others have been rebuilt repeatedly over the years. But we know the Merovingians built churches that mixed elements of earlier Roman architecture, including the basilica form with its rounded arches and central nave, with architectural features from other places like Syria and Armenia. We also know that, by the 7th century, they had developed skills in glass-making and masonry, because they were sought out for these abilities in other parts of Europe.

For example, the Basilica of Saint Martin at Tours combines Roman forms with elements not seen before in church architecture, including an interior sarcophagus and a reliquary for Saint Martin. A reliquary is a structure or enclosed space where a piece of a saint's body or objects connected to them are housed and venerated. Unfortunately, today this church bears little resemblance to its Merovingian roots.

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