Migration Period Art: History & Examples

Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

The Migration Period in art runs from approximately 300 to 900 CE and is one stage of medieval art. Barbarian invasions in Europe pushed nomadic tribes into the Roman Empire ultimately resulting in the removal of Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus by Odovacar, a Germanic prince. This lesson will discuss the artwork of this period.

Setting the scene

The cultures of this period include the Germanic cultures of the Franks, Gauls, Goths, Saxons, and Jutes. These nomadic cultures were invaded by the Huns, a nomadic warrior tribe from eastern Asia. The hostile invasions caused each of these cultures to spread westward to escape invasion, resettling in various parts of Europe, even into the outskirts of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire, already weakened by a lack of military personnel, began recruiting these barbarians into the military as mercenaries. This migration period is considered one of the key reasons for the downfall of the Roman Empire.

Migration art, also referred to as Barbarian art, includes art of the Germanic nomads of Europe as well as Anglo-Saxon and Celtic art of Britain. The term Migration art is used to designate art during the mass westward migration of peoples. Because the people of the Migration period were nomadic, their art was portable and they left no architecture or large-scale sculpture. Most of the art is in the form of wearable pieces. The Migration art period includes three main styles: polychrome style, animal style, and Hiberno-Saxon.

Polychrome style

The Polychrome style of migration art began with the Goths. The Polychrome style used gold inset with precious stones and glass. The best examples of this style are found in Romania. Assumed to have been buried by the Visigoth tribes during the later part of the fifth century, the group of gold artifacts was found in 1837 by two men from Pietroasele, Romania while cutting limestone. Even though twenty-two pieces were found, only twelve survived and are on exhibit in the National Museum of Romanian History. The polychrome style was carried to France and Spain as the Goths migrated west from Russia.

Pair of eagle fibulae inlaid with precious stones
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Animal style

Introduced by the Anglo-Saxons, the animal style was prominent during the fifth century in Scandinavia, Germany, and England, and is sometimes divided into phases. Style I uses the chip-carving method where chisels are used to remove small pieces of the metal creating designs in bronze and silver. Zoomorphic, or stylized, designs included segmented animals that appear to frame more detailed, abstract designs. This method was used to decorate belt buckle, brooches, and as fittings for various utensils. Style II, appearing in the mid fifth century, shows the images of animals with whole bodies that are longer than normal and turned into ribbons that intertwine symmetrically. Christianity became a significant influence for decoration toward the end of the seventh century.

Purse lid from Sutton Hoo
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Hiberno-Saxon

Also called insular art, Hiberno-Saxon art was limited to Britain and Ireland and is traditionally tied to illuminated manuscripts. Hiberno-Saxon art is a fusion of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon art. First seen in the late 600s, this style continued until the Viking invasions of the ninth century. With the pagan to Christian conversions of the sixth century the bulk of illuminated manuscripts are biblical in nature.

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