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The Influence of Metalwork on Early Medieval Painting & Sculpture

The Influence of Metalwork on Early Medieval Painting & Sculpture
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  • 0:02 Early Medieval Metalwork
  • 2:01 Patterns & Motifs in Painting
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will discuss the metalwork of early medieval cultures. We will see how the designs on this metalwork influenced early medieval painting and sculpture.

Early Medieval Metalwork

In 1939, archaeologists in Britain found something amazing. While excavating at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, they literally discovered buried treasure. Many centuries before, probably in the early 600s CE, a group of Anglo-Saxons had buried a ship as the final resting place of their fallen warriors and nobles. Within this strange cemetery, the archaeologists found stunning examples of Anglo-Saxon weapons, armor and jewelry, all made of finely crafted metal and detailed with intricate and complex patterns.

Among the treasure trove are pieces that have come to characterize early medieval metalwork. An iron helmet, for instance, exhibits copper alloy reliefs of warriors and battle scenes on its forehead and cheek guards as well as complex interlacing knotwork patterns and animal motifs. The Great Buckle, made of fine gold, features serpentine patterns that twist and turn all over the piece. The warrior who wore this buckle may also have worn the gold and garnet shoulder clasps that feature figures of boars, which symbolized strength, and carried the purse with a gold and garnet lid decorated with interlacing patterns and images of wolves and eagles.

Anglo-Saxon iron helmet

The Great Buckle

Gold and garnet shoulder clasps

Pay special attention to the patterns on these pieces of metalwork. They are very abstract, intricate and visually interesting. They feature knotwork (patterns that weave in and out and over and under); serpentine ornaments, with their snake-like twists and turns; and stylized animals that serve more as symbols of qualities, like strength and courage, than images of real life beasts. The Anglo-Saxons and other Northern cultures used these patterns very frequently in their metalwork, and as we shall see, transferred them to other types of artwork as well.

Patterns and Motifs in Painting

When Christian missionaries arrived in the North, cultures like the Anglo-Saxons eventually chose to adopt Christianity, but they did not give up their artistic culture. In fact, the patterns and motifs of their art, especially their metalwork, transferred smoothly to new art forms, including illuminated manuscripts.

Illuminated manuscripts are 'hand-written and hand-painted books containing the text of the Christian Gospels and other Old and New Testament scriptures.' These manuscripts, however, are not comprised merely of words. They also feature images of scriptural scenes as well as elaborate decorations, and this is where Anglo-Saxon artists shined.

Take a look at a few images from the Book of Kells, which was created about 800 CE in Ireland. Notice the knotwork and serpentine patterns that appear on nearly every page. These are directly lifted from the metalwork art, like that discovered at Sutton Hoo.

Book of Kells

Page from the Book of Kells
Page from the Book of Kells

Let's view a couple more examples. The Lindisfarne Gospels were created about 700 CE. The manuscript's carpet pages, which are covered completely with abstract patterns and stylized animal images, are filled with designs that once appeared in early medieval metalwork. We see the same kind of knotwork, serpentine ornamentation and animal motifs in the pages of the Book of Durrow, which was drawn somewhere between 650 and 700 CE.

Lindsfarne Gospel page

Book of Durrow

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