The following page, from a late 8th century manuscript in the St Gallen Archive, illustrates quite nicely most people's perception of pre-14th century medieval art in general. There is no denying that it is rather naive and primitive in appearance. The "barbaric"/Celtic forms of art are here in their most vivid form, therefore, proof of a standard much lower than what came before...or is it?
|A medieval scribe is illustrated in this|
civil document from the early stage of
St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 731, zt. 234
|St Luke Composing his Gospel from the|
Gospels of St Medard of Soissons
BNF Lat 8850 fol 11v
It may surprise some readers, but in reading the 6th through 9th century contemporary writings of persons living in the regions formerly under the control of the Roman Empire, such as Gaul and Germania, the writers spoke of themselves as "Roman" and distinguished themselves from the "Barbarians", who were, by their definition, "not Romanised" Thus, while modern scholars consider the Roman world to have "collapsed" about 500 AD, no one bothered to tell the people living at that time about it, and they went right on considering themselves Roman. The whole bit about Charlemagne being crowned in Rome was to give legitimacy to him as a "western" Roman ruler, as opposed to the "Roman" rulers of the eastern realm, known in English as the Byzantine Empire, but in German as the Oströmische Reich, which translates to English as, the Eastern Roman Empire; this is precisely how it was viewed by contemporary peoples of both regions. (Of course the eastern half also wanted to, and did try, to re-unite the two halves under their control.)
Back to the above illustrations, I can imagine hearing many readers, familiar with the time of Charlemagne, saying, "but just a minute, that second illustration is from the 'Carolingian Renaissance School' also known as the 'Court School' and thus is an exceptional example from a brief bright spot in an otherwise dark age." Well, thank you, I am glad you brought that up, because again, like the first notion which we are discussing, this is a mixture of truth and rubbish...read on.
This next Illustration is another one of those Canon Tables which I mentioned a minute ago; however, in this case, someone never got 'round to filling in the appropriate text. This table is from "some time between 736 and 760", and thus earlier than Charlemagne's ascension as king of France, (768) and at the very least least, forty years before his coronation as Emperor in 800 AD. It is true that after he became Ruler, he did set up a "Court School" to promote the dissemination of learning and the arts throughout his realm, but in order to set up such a school, there must have been available talent, willing and able to come and teach at said school. The blind cannot lead the blind. Charlemagne went throughout the known (to him) world and recruited people (actually his agents did) from nearly every country, thus, there already was an established 'pool' of skilled craftsmen to pick from, before his school was begun. Given politics being what they are, and have always been, this does not even mean to say that the best were necessarily selected, as opposed to the brother's cousin, or the prime minister's best friend etc. etc.who was good at one craft or another and, some favour or other was either given or gotten in the deal. This canon table shows nearly the same level of craftsmanship to that executed by the creator of the second illustration above, yet whomever produced it would, in all likelihood, have been dead and gone before that famed school was ever conceived of . In a world in which students learn from their masters, under a system of apprenticeship, it is actually quite hard to completely erase a skill or craft.
|BL Add. MS 5463 fol 1v|
|This clay model of a chest comes from the 14th or 15th century BC|
(that is 3500 years ago) and clearly shows one of the same forms
used until at least the 13th century AD in Europe.
|A "primitive, medieval" chest; except it comes from the|
Renaissance; the "age of enlightenment". It is contemporary
with some of the finest furnishings in the top museums.
None of these tables sound anything to me like planks set up on tree trunks! There is, in the 8th century biography of St Eligius, a brief story of him having constructed two chairs of gold and precious stones for the king, these, also were obviously sumptuously made, and had nothing to do with the general image most people have of early medieval furnishings. No one, today, knows exactly what those chairs looked like, because they have long since succumbed to the ravages of time, but there is a chair, from roughly the same time period as those made by St Eligius, which is now housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale, in Paris, and is said to have belonged to Dagobert. It has no jewels or precious stones, but it is still a very well crafted and beautiful chair.
So far, we have looked at objects from the end of the first third of the Middle ages, what about the 10th,11th and 12th centuries? Surely they were the bleakest of times, and the superb skill and exquisite craftsmanship had vanished by then, right? Wrong.
Detail of the Dagobert Chair from the end
of the first third of the 7th century
Ivory reliquary in the V&A
mid 11th century
|Heinrichskreuz from the Quedlinburg treasury|
early 11th century
|Meister des Registrum Gregorii|
Years ago, when I first saw an image of this painting, I thought it was a fake, because, I too, had been fed the same notion of the primitiveness of medieval art and could not believe this was produced slap bang in the middle of the "darkest" period of the Middle Ages. On doing more research, I discovered what I am sharing with you now, and continue to discover more of, to this day. These discoveries are, as I said, that there were, in fact, times and places during the course of the Middle Ages, in which primitive, naive, and crude objects were produced; however, at the same time, there were always craftsmen of superb talent who produced impeccable objects demonstrating skill and craftsmanship.
Please look carefully at the five pieces of furniture depicted in this painting and tell me which one of them looks like it was hewn from a log. The desk alone should dispel anyone's lingering doubts about the existence of finely made medieval furniture.
From the 12th century, we find, in the Minden Cathedral, an altar or pulpit, which at one time was the back panel of a chair, probably belonging to one of the bishops of the cathedral. There is a book (which seems to be out of print), which is titled, Schatz der Staufers, or something of the sort (not the children's comic book by that name in print now) which featured several beautiful 12th and 13th century carved pieces of furniture, This panel is featured among them in an old photograph, dating from some time in the 19th century; it is depicted with its legs still attached. It is instructive to consider, when viewing such items as any of those which I have featured, that though these might be isolated objects and very rare in terms of their survival, that they did not just appear out of thin air; someone made them, and he did not just make one such object. Each of these pieces is testament to an entire career of a craftsman and his work.
|Former Throne, now as a pulpit front in the Minden Cathedral|
Mindener Dom Altar, Ehemaliger Thron des Kaisers um 1170
In future blog postings, I will be examining other aspects which influenced the quality of items produced during the medieval period, including addressing such questions as to how two manuscripts, from the same country, and at the same time, such as the first two illustrations in this blog, wound up having such a marked difference in quality of workmanship.