Northern European Art during the Early Medieval Period

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  • 0:06 Religious Influences on Art
  • 0:54 Ireland and Britain
  • 3:01 Scandinavia
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Jackson

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

In this lesson, we explore the art produced in northern Europe during the Early Medieval period, from 500 AD to 1000 AD. The countries of Northern Europe include Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Religious Influences on Art

Religion was an important inspiration for art during the Early Medieval Period. Before the arrival of Christianity, most of this region practiced paganism or non-Christian worship. Some religions centered on the Roman gods, some around Celtic gods or Druidry, and others on the Norse gods, so naturally, the art of this time also centered around those deities. During the later part of the Early Medieval Period, Christianity spread to Northern Europe. Pagans converted as missionaries moved east from the Mediterranean. St. Patrick, one of the first missionaries, visited Ireland and later on, in 597 AD, Pope Gregory I sent missionaries to England. The pope believed that if kings converted to Christianity, their people would also. It wasn't until the 8th century that Christian missionaries reached Scandinavia.

Ireland and Britain

The people of northern Europe frequently traveled between countries for battle or for trade, so it is common to find Viking influences on art produced by the British and Celts. The British and Celts, in turn, influenced Swedish and Norweigan art. The Celts were in Britain prior to the Roman conquest, while the Anglo-Saxons didn't arrive until after the fall of Rome.

The Celts were among the first to discover how to smelt iron and create decorative ornamentation with metal. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, much of the art of Ireland was worked into metal for weapons and functional items. Weaponry was highly valued by the Celts, and the swordsmith was a highly regarded member of the assorted clans. Swords had intricate designs on them and may have had hilts decorated with amber or gold leaf. When St. Patrick first introduced Christianity in Ireland, in the early 5th century, monasteries, which are communities of people dedicated to religious life, were established.

After the fall of Rome, Anglo-Saxon people began migrating to Britain from the Germanic countries to the east, bringing their influence to the arts. Britain and Ireland, due to their proximity to one another, shared similar pre-Christian religions, traditions, and art. Pope Gregory I, sent missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxons around 597 AD, almost 100 years after St. Patrick arrived in Ireland.

Some of the finest examples of medieval painting come from Britain and Ireland in the form of illuminated manuscripts. Monastery scribes in Ireland and northern England would copy books, illustrating the pages with Celtic art. Celtic designs adorned the metal covers. Gold and silver leaf and precious stones were added for decoration. Wood and stone carvings, like the metal-worked art, were interwoven with vines and imagery.

The largest find of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver was found in Staffordshire, England in 2009, and gives us a glimpse into the metalworking of the Early Medieval period. Over 3,500 pieces of gold and silver worked in intricate designs in the Viking and Celtic styles. The hoard is made up of military type pieces showing the importance of the warrior in the Early Medieval Anglo-Saxon world.

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