Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Creation of Christian Art; The Atlantic West meets the Mediterranean West

Arles was a great port city of Roman France. It was in constant rivalry with Marseilles, but managed to hold its own as a major port between heavily cultivated and densely populated Gaul and the rest of the Roman world.

In 476, the Roman legions went home forever. The last Roman Emperor abdicated and a German, Odoacer, became king of Italy. This left large cities like Arles suddenly vulnerable and exposed. Raids began almost immediately. The city of Arles petitioned the Ostrogothic King Theodoric of Italy for protection, but to no avail. The city went through wave after wave of raids, then full scale invasions, from land and sea; raids by Franks, Vandals, Huns, Lombards, and finally sea raids by Arabs and Vikings. These raids did not finally stop until the 9th century.

Arles was once large and important enough to have an arena to rival any other in the Roman Empire. After years of decimating raids, much of the city became ruined and depopulated. The remaining citizens turned the arena into a fortress. You can see a big square tower added to the arena above. The remaining population of the city moved into the fortified arena and built houses, shops, and 2 churches. The once great sprawling city of Arles shrank to the confines of its former arena.

It is very incorrect in academic circles to use the term "Dark Ages," now considered a vestige of Enlightenment era prejudices. But I think it is hard to describe otherwise a period that saw Western Europe dramatically depopulated. Once densely populated and cultivated areas of France and Germany reverted to wilderness in this period. The almost constant invasions and mass migrations, with all the famine, disruption, and disease that went with them, destroyed almost all the institutions of years of Roman rule, institutions once taken for granted. The rule of law and the judicial system, economic life, urban life, Christianity, and even literacy, disappeared from most of formerly Roman Europe.
Perhaps it is the memory of this catastrophic collapse that is behind the preoccupation with Apocalypse and End Times in Western Christianity.

Viking helmet, 6th to 9th centuries

Who were the people who finished off the vulnerable remnants of the vanished Roman Empire?
They were nomadic warrior societies held together, not so much by law as by mutual loyalties between lord and liege. They were the descendants of hunter-gatherers who wandered across Europe going back to the last Ice Age. They may not have been civilized in the sense of settled with cities (the word "civilization" has "civil," pertaining to cities, in it); but, they had a rich culture. It was primarily an oral culture of great epic tales repeated around camp fires and in chieftain's halls. It did have art, and some very great art. But, it was not in the form of monumental painting, sculpture, or architecture. It was in the form of very small very portable things; pins, brooches, buckles, armor, and weapons.

This is a saddle bag cover from the 8th century, found in England in 1939. It's made from brass, gold, and semiprecious stones. In the center are mirror emblems of a hawk attacking a duck. On the right and the left are identical plaques that show a man between 2 attacking bears. The imagery is from the wilderness, and like so much of their literature, their art is about the hero facing down monsters and other terrors of the wild unknown.

This gold and silver Anglo Saxon buckle from the 6th century at first looks Islamic, with all of its intricate patterns upon patterns. But a closer look reveals that we are not looking at the mathematical paradise of Allah. We are looking at knots of snakes, dragons, and other monsters. This pattern is not about natural order, but natural chaos, and the strength and power necessary to survive and prevail. Like a modern day tattoo, the pattern proclaims the danger and toughness of the wearer. There may well have been some protective magic involved in these patterns, as there still is in some tattoo patterns.

Some of these objects, though small, could be magnificent, like the famous Tara Brooch made of gold, silver, and precious stones.

Here is a detail of the Tara Brooch showing the amazing intricate pattern-work on all parts.

The wearers of these objects prayed to ancestors and to the gods of the forest and the sea for protection from monsters and enemies, for success, and for strength in battle.

These were the people who chased Christianity out of Roman Europe. They would eventually replace the urban civilization of Rome with the rural culture of Feudalism, a system not of law, but of mutual obligation.

Christianity and literacy survived by clinging to the rocks at the edge of the world, literally. They survived in what was then considered the outer limits of the universe, Ireland. The world ended after Ireland, so many believed at the time. For a long time, Ireland was considered too remote and poor to be worth the attention of raiders.
Above is a distant view of Skellig Michael, a rocky island that was home to a monastery for 4 centuries.

Its very remoteness and inaccessibility made this monastery, and others like it, safe from predation and interference. Here are the steps to the monastery on Skellig Michael.

In remote monasteries like this one on Skellig Michael, where the monks lived like seabirds in beehive shaped cells of stone, Christianity and literacy were preserved. It was from places like this that Christianity would return to Western and Central Europe.

Literacy survived in the monasteries for a simple reason, the Christian religion required it. The most basic requirements of Christian worship are the ability to read and to tell time. Keep in mind that for the monks of Ireland, literacy meant being able to read Latin, an alien tongue to them. It also meant being able to reckon time without the aid of clocks or calendars. A monk had to know which day of the week was Sunday, which day of the year was Christmas or Epiphany or a Saint's day, and how to reckon the date of Easter and all the days of Lent and Holy Week related to it.
Irish Christianity was very much monastic Christianity. In a largely nomadic country like ancient Ireland, monasteries were frequently the only permanent settlements, serving as markets, law courts, inns, hospitals as well as places of prayer.

For a long time, monasteries had the monopoly on the production and ownership of books. The scriptorium was a vital part of monastic life where books were made and stored. Keep in mind that the making of a book was no small matter. Pages were made of parchment, sheepskin. Livestock was precious, so acquiring the necessary pages was no small expense. Inks and pigments had to be made. Books, especially Gospel books, were frequently gilded, or "illuminated." A supply of gold had to be on hand. Then there was the design and layout of the book. There was the work of artists and calligraphers. And finally there was the work of bookbinders making covers in every kind of material from wood to gold and ivory. The labor and expense required for an important book could be comparable to that required for an important building. The most important works of art that survive from the Irish monasteries are Gospel books. There were once scores of these books. Now, barely a dozen survive.

This is a "carpet page" from the Book of Durrow, a Gospel book made sometime between 660 and 680. St. Patrick, like all effective missionaries, used the native beliefs of the Irish to guide them to the Gospel. As was the case with the Classical world, the old gods were not so much expelled as baptized into the new religion. A lot of pre-Christian belief survives in the ornament of these Gospel books. Each Gospel in the Book of Durrow opened with a purely ornamental "carpet page" (so called because they looked like oriental carpets to later connoisseurs), and the symbol of each Evangelist. Three of the four carpet pages survive in the Book of Durrow. Certainly this was a display of magnificent craft intended to glorify God, but these patterns also were believed to have magic power. As in Islam, the written word held a place of great awe in a still largely oral culture. It is not hard to imagine that these books, as bearers of the words of the Incarnate God, had a special power for the early Irish.

Here is a man, the sign for Matthew, from the Book of Durrow. It is hard to imagine anything further from the Mediterranean world of both Classical and Christian Rome than this image. A human figure is cobbled together out of a series of abstract patterns and shapes. It looks less like a figure than a kind of magical sign.

Here is another carpet page from the Book of Durrow covered with pre-Christian magical spirals and circles. The shrunken condition of this page reminds us that these books were thought to have magical powers for many centuries. The Book of Durrow was thought to have the power to purify polluted well water. Its shrunken condition is from being dipped repeatedly in water for many centuries.

The greatest and most famous of all the surviving Irish Gospel books is the Book of Kells, probably made at the great monastery at Iona toward the end of the 8th century. It was probably sent to the small monastery of Kells for safe-keeping during the Viking raids that destroyed the monastery at Iona in the 10th century. The Book was never finished.

Here are the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew. All the ornament in the larger letters (the opening letters B from each "Beati..." have been transformed into an ornamental border) are there to glorify and to enhance the magical power of the written words.

The Book of Kells has long been celebrated for its amazing ornamental pages. This is the opening of the Gospel of Matthew. It is just 3 words, "Christi autem generatio..." The bulk of the page is taken up with the opening two letters, Chi (X) and Rho (P) from "Christi." The Chi dances like a giant bejeweled starfish through a sea of ornament. It contrasts with the smaller more architectonic Rho.

Here is a detail of that same page showing the almost maniacally obsessive ornamentation. It was probably this book, or one like it, that inspired the 12th century Welsh historian Giraldus Cambrensis to write:
"Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid, that you might say that this was the work of an angel and not a man."

Here is the opening page of the Gospel of Mark, another example of an amazing range of ornamental design, securely contained in a larger architectonic format formed by the opening letters.

Here is a detail of the opening page of Mark. The art historian James Snyder notes that the ornamentation is constantly changing from geometric to biomorphic forms, from plants to animals, from animals to humans. He compares this to the transmutations, the magical metamorphoses that form a major part of ancient Irish poetry. He quotes St. Finian's boast:
"A hawk today, a boar yesterday, Wonderful instability!... Though today I am among bird flocks; I know what will become of it: I shall be in another shape."
Surviving in the ornament of this Gospel book is the ancient pre-Christian belief in that chaotic dangerous and vital nature that is the natural environment of heroes and magicians that probably goes back to prehistory.

In the midst of the ancient Celtic splendor of the Book of Kells is this page that shows a very Mediterranean Virgin and Child awkwardly incorporated into the Celtic patterns. The Book of Kells was made at a time when the long isolated and independent Celtic Christianity of Ireland was struggling to be reconciled with Roman Christianity. Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Kent on a mission from Pope Gregory to reform the Church in the British Isles, to conform it more to Roman usages and to the Benedictine rule. He brought in his wake numerous manuscripts and panel paintings from Rome that were intended to be used as models in the scriptoria.

One of the main centers of this effort to reconcile Celtic and Roman Christianity was the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria. Here in a monastery founded by St. Aidan, Irish and Northumbrian monks produced another masterpiece of what is now known as Hiberno-Saxon art, the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Lindisfarne Gospels contain carpet pages now regularized into Cross pages, but still filled end to end with that obsessive pre-Christian interlace of snakes and monsters. As magnificently Celtic as this page is, the text of the Lindisfarne Gospels is much closer to St. Jerome's Vulgate than to the old Latin text still retained by the Celtic Church.

This is another page from the Lindisfarne Gospels showing the Evangelist Matthew in a very Mediterranean format as interpreted by Celtic artists. The seated Evangelist writes while his symbol, the angel, hovers above him. A curtain is drawn so that we can look at him, a very old Classical device to transform a framing edge into a kind of window. The artist is struggling here with a foreign language of form. His handling of perspective is very shakey and uncertain. Hair and folds of cloth always hover on the brink of abstract pattern. There is no chiaroscuro. Writing appears within the picture frame just as it would on the pages of text. There is no effort to distinguish text from image.
The Celtic form sense struggles to become reconciled to the Mediterranean form sense.

On Christmas Day of the year 800, the cultures of northern and Mediterranean Europe became joined in a common effort to revive and rebuild the Roman Empire. A nomadic Frankish king named Charles arrived in Rome to pray at the shrine of St. Peter and was crowned Augustus by Pope Leo III. Whether through manipulation, or voluntarily, Charles became enlisted in the effort to bring back Rome. The Rome he was supposed to revive was Christian Rome, the Rome of Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian; not the Classical Rome of Augustus, Trajan, and Hadrian; and certainly not the Republic. Pope Leo would add to the noble succession of Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian the name of Charles, now Charles the Great or Charlemagne as he is known to English speakers (Gross Karl as he is known to German speakers).
Charlemagne was an illiterate nomadic chieftain who now found himself at the center of the most important political and cultural project of the age. At first, he had an itinerate court wandering about France and Germany. He then established a permanent court and palace at Aachen. He brought in legions of Irish and Irish trained clerics to run his government. He brought craftsmen and artists from Italy and Byzantine Greece to make that palace glorious.

The centerpiece of his palace city was his palace chapel which still stands and is now part of the Cathedral of Aachen in Germany.

Charlemagne's chapel is the domed octagonal structure in the center. It is still largely intact beneath many centuries worth of later accretions.

Charlemagne hired a Frankish master mason, Odo of Metz, to design and build the structure, and instructed him to look to Byzantine models for inspiration. One church in particular was used as a model for this chapel, the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, a church which Charlemagne knew. He even brought back columns and stonework from that church to be used at Aachen.
The ponderous geometric clarity of Charlemagne's tall octagon stands in contrast to the fluid complexity of San Vitale. San Vitale is built of lighter more flexible brick. The Chapel at Aachen is built from heavier quarried stone. There are passages of architecture that a Byzantine architect would find a little startling, such as the columns on the top level inexplicably supporting the arches in mid vault.

Here is a reconstruction of what Charlemagne's palace at Aachen might have looked like. The large building in the foreground was an Aula Regia or audience hall. The Chapel is the octagonal building on the upper right. The 2 towers attached to it form the first westwerk in German church architecture, a structure attached to the west ends of imperial churches to seat the Emperor. Behind that was an atrium court where the Emperor would appear to the public.

Here is Charlemagne's throne on the second level gallery. Behind this throne was once a window of appearances framed by a great arch. The Emperor would appear there in Byzantine fashion before the public assembled below in a large atrium courtyard. The throne and its place in the Chapel emphasize the sacral character of the Emperor, as Christ's secular vicar upon earth, as Defender of the Faith.

In the scriptoria of Charlemagne, the worlds of the Atlantic and Mediterranean clashed and melted together.

This is the Evangelist's portrait from the Gospel of Mark in the Coronation Gospels. This book was supposedly found by Emperor Otto III on Charlemagne's lap when he opened his tomb in 1000. This Gospel book was used in the coronation ceremonies of all the Holy Roman Emperors.
It is worlds different from the Hiberno-Saxon Gospel books. To my eye, this is almost certainly the work of Byzantine artists, perhaps unemployed by the Iconoclast regime in Constantinople. The page is dyed imperial purple (more like burgundy) in Late Roman fashion. The image is clearly set apart by a frame. Chiaroscuro is used to model light and dark in three dimensions, and very expertly. This is not to my eye the work of an imitator.

Here is the opening page of the Gospel of Mark from the Coronation Gospels. We see a very Classical distinction between text and image.
A little bit of the old Hiberno-Saxon ornament sneaks into ornamental "I" of "Initium."
The scribes and artists of the Palace School stayed very close to very Mediterranean models such as this.

Those away from the Palace felt not quite so strong an obligation to the officially sanctioned model.

Charlemagne's librarian had the good fortune to find himself appointed Bishop of Reims. Bishop Ebbo started one of the most creative and influential scriptoria in Europe there.

Here is the Evangelist Matthew from Bishop Ebbo's Gospel. At first glance, it looks like a labored imitation of the Roman style of the Coronation Gospels. But as we look at it further, it becomes extraordinary. It is as though a tremendous shock of electricity was passed through the old Coronation Gospel model. The smooth transitions of tone in the Coronation Gospel become nervous electric brush strokes in the Ebbo Gospel. The distinction between background and foreground collapses. The landscape forms in the background fall forward with the rush of a waterfall. Even the acanthus border in the frame becomes inflamed with nervous energy.

Hiberno-Saxon ornament as interlaced as anything in the Book of Kells appears on the opening page of Matthew in the Ebbo Gospels. Mediterranean clarity of form and Atlantic magical power have swallowed each other up and merged as full blown expressionism.

The most influential work from Bishop Ebbo's scriptorium in Reims was the Utrecht Psalter.

Here it is. It once belonged to the scriptorium at Canterbury which produced three surviving copies of it, and numerous variations that made their way into copies in craftsmen's pattern books around Europe.

This is the page of Psalm 12. Illustrated Psalters were nothing new. There are older Byzantine Psalters still around. The illustrations in the Byzantine Psalters tend to be more allusive. The illustrations in the Utrecht Psalter are usually very literal minded in comparison.
The Psalm is the complaint of the faithful poor of Israel feeling abandoned by God to the wicked oppressors. The artist shows the Psalmist pleading with Christ in the center while the oppressed cry out on the lower left. Some are shown working a treadmill in the lower center. On the upper right is a refiner's shop, "The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined from ore and purified seven times in the fire."
Those gathered around the circle on the left may be, "Everyone speaks falsely with his neighbor; with a smooth tongue they speak from a double heart."

"'Because the needy are oppressed, and the poor cry out in misery, I will rise up,' says the Lord, 'and give them what they long for."
The artist illustrates this in the most extraordinary way. He shows Christ, lead by St, Michael, stepping out of His mandorla of glory to come to the aid of the faithful.
These lively drawings are all gesture. The figures are hardly substantial at all. They are what they are doing in the most literal way. They are rendered in a kind of shorthand. The drawings crackle like an electric arc across the page of very clear and stable text. Their energy, inventiveness, and their ability to act out a story would have a great influence on so much art to come. The dramatic inventive gestural art of the Romanesque is foretold here.

The influence of Charlemagne's artists had to wait for many decades after his death. His empire fell apart in the hands of his squabbling heirs. It was dismembered by invading Magyars and Vikings.

Otto the Great defeated the Magyars and began the long history of the Holy Roman Empire. Otto and his 2 successors, both also named Otto, mostly remained in Rome, but actively encouraged the resumption of work on Charlemagne's cultural project to build a new Rome.
The tutor of Otto III, Bishop Bernward supervised the most ambitious project, the construction and decoration of the Imperial church of St. Michael at Hildesheim. Bernward was not only a serious scholar, but was an enthusiastic craftsman himself, and is recorded as working along side his artisans in their shops. He may have played more than a supervisory role in the creation of the most ambitious sculptural project of the early Middle Ages, the bronze doors for the new church at Hildesheim.

Each 16 foot high door was cast in a single piece of bronze, an amazing feat. They are modeled on the bronze doors of Roman temples, some of which may still have been in Rome to be seen in Bernward's time. The left door reads from top to bottom and shows the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. The right door reads from bottom to top and shows the life and death of Christ. There was almost certainly some deliberate parallelism intended between the panels on the 2 doors. The Fall of Adam and Eve is next to the Crucifixion. Adam Blaming Eve is next to Judas Betraying Christ.
For the first time we see fully realized what will be a central preoccupation of Western Christian art, salvation history. The art of the Christian East is contemplative. The art of the Christian West is narrative and didactic. It is about telling stories and teaching. The primary subject of all that story telling is not the Heavenly Hierarchy or the nature of Christ, but salvation. The stories are always about the saving power of Christ, either directly or indirectly.

The panels of the Hildesheim Doors take the gestural energetic forms of the Utrecht Psalter and invest them with drama and tragedy. The figures are in very high relief, almost fully in the round against the uneven back plane of each panel. God hammers away with an accusing finger while Adam and Even cower meekly, aware of their nakedness for the first time. Adam weakly tries to pass off the blame onto his wife, who in turn, points a finger of blame at the Serpent.

In this panel, God's accusing hand appears alone after Cain murders Abel. The sudden violence of the murder is vividly portrayed. Cain, still holding the murder weapon, cringes as God demands to know the whereabouts of his brother Abel. God's hand is in the gesture of blessing, because it is from this murderer that all humankind will descend.

Here is Bishop Bernward's great church at Hildesheim, much rebuilt after the Second World War. To the right is the large and prominent westwerk to accommodate the Emperor whenever he should visit the church. The nave terminates in the east with a T shaped transept modeled, like all churches since Charlemagne, on Constantine's great church of St. Peter's in Rome. The westwerk and the apse are highlighted with tall bell towers.

Here is the interior looking west. The blank walls below the clerestory once held murals that are now long lost.

Ottonian mural work does survive in a smaller imperial church, St. George at Reichenau-Oberzell.

Here is the interior looking west. So far as I know, these are the only large scale frescoes to survive from the 10th century Empire. Their subject is, once again, salvation.

They recall models in Roman churches, but they have some of the dramatic narrative inventiveness that we saw in the Utrecht Psalter and Bishop Bernward's Doors, if not their gestural energy.
This is Christ and the woman taken in adultery, a particularly dramatic interpretation. She is brought naked before Christ, who pardons her with a gesture of blessing.

This is a very rare subject in art, Christ and the Gerasene Demoniac. The legions of demons in a possessed man are driven into a herd of pigs who then charge into the Sea of Galilee and drown.

So much of early Christian art appears to be so triumphalist and remote. It will be in the art of Ottonian Europe that Christ will turn His gaze to earth, and not just heal the sufferings of humankind, but share in them in an image that will become central to the Christian faith, and appears surprisingly late in Christian art; the Crucifix.


Rick+ said...

     Such a wonderful post! I hope this means you're feeling better!

     Honestly, Doug, I really think you should turn all this into a book. I would stand in line to buy it! This is too incredible for just blog posting!

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Wow. This is a massively wonderful post. Practically a thesis in itself, and a whole treasure trove of art.

I keep coming back to "Wow!"

MadPriest said...

Wow. You must be feeling better, then.

Counterlight said...

"You must be feeling better, then."

I had nothing else to do all weekend, a long one due to the Jewish holiday. I was too sick to do anything else.

MadPriest said...

If I was a more selfish man I would wish you a long illness if the above is the result of your suffering.

rick allen said...

My wife was an art history major, and so was used to making fun of Kenneth Clark. Still, I have always enjoyed the man's writing, and will offer this in anticipation of your next (since I could lift it from another post at another place unchanged):

"We have grown so used to the idea that the Crucifixion is the supreme symbol of Christianity, that it is a shock to realize how late in the history of Christian art its power was recognized. In the first art of Christianity it hardly appears; and the earliest example, on the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome, is stuck away in a corner, almost out of sight. The simple fact is that the early Church needed converts, and from this point of view the crucifixion was not an encouraging subject. So, early Christian art is concerned with miracles, healings, and with hopeful aspects of the faith like the Ascension and the Resurrection. The Santa Sabina Crucifixion is not only obscure but unmoving. The few surviving Crucifixions of the early Church make no attempt to touch our emotions. It was the tenth century, that despised and rejected epoch of European history, that made the Crucifixion into a moving symbol of the Christian faith. In a figure like the one make for Archbishop Gero of Cologne it has become very much what it has been ever since--the upstretched arms, the sunken head, the poignant twist of the body....I am reminded of the most famous lines in Virgil, that great mediator between the antique and the medieval world. They come when Aeneas has been shipwrecked in a country that he fears in inhabited by barbarians. Then as he looks around he sees some figures carved in relief, and he says: 'These men know the pathos of life, and mortal things touch their hearts'."

--Kenneth Clark, Civilisation, 1969

Sorry to hear you've been feeling bad, and had it compounded by being ambushed by your insurance. You're not alone, bud. I can't help but think, though, as this continues to happen, it has to have some public effect. But the power of false guilt is strong as well.

Counterlight said...

rick allen,

I'm sorry your wife feels that way about Sir Kenneth. I suppose his television appearances made him an easy target for humor, but he was a very great writer on art. Even the great Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp concedes that no one has yet written a better book on Leonardo da Vinci than the one Clark wrote about 70 years ago. His book The Nude was always a favorite book of mine (anticipating a Madpriest snark here).

That passage from Civilization (which I watched religiously when I was a boy) does indeed anticipate what I plan to do. The Santa Sabina doors and the Gero Cross will be featured.

Counterlight said...

"I would wish you a long illness if the above is the result of your suffering."

MP, you can be just so amazingly nice sometimes.


And thanks for remembering me on your blog the other day.

Lapinbizarre said...

Minor point concerning Dark Ages monks and alien tongues, the descriptive text around the portrait of St Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels is in two alien languages, Latin and Greek - "imago hominis O Agios Mattheus". Continue to be bowled over and to enjoy. Glad you're on the mend.

Counterlight said...


Indeed, you are right; and Greek at a time when it is becoming forgotten in the West.


Lapinbizarre said...

ps I was bowled over by the Utrecht Psalter when I encountered it as a school boy. To this day I am still astonished every time I see it by the amazing sense of movement its drawings convey.

Lapinbizarre said...

pps And not forgetting, while I'm about it, the clear Carolingian book hands developed under his patronage - the clearest, most legible letter forms, to our eyes, between the Classical period and the Renaissance, whose "Roman" type-faces were largely based on Carolingian examples mistakenly believed to be of Classical date.