The Beautiful Art of Barbarians

Book of Kells, a. 800 AD, The Chi Rho Iota monogram. Scotland. Photo: Wikipedia. Trinity College Library Dublin.

The period which followed the early Christian era, the period after the collapse of the Roman Empire, is generally known by the title ´Dark Ages´. These Ages are called dark, partly to convey that people who lived during centuries  were plunged in darkness and had little knowledge to guide them, partly to imply that we know today little about this period. There are no fixed limits to the period, but it lasted until 800 or some even argue 1000 AD. It spans approximately 500 years of European history.

It is known today, however, that it was a patchy period, with tremendous differences among various peoples, cultures, religions and the emergence of a great many and different styles, which only began to fuse around 1000 AC. Leaving aside the great Byzantine culture in the East and Islamic civilization in the South of Europe, the European continent saw many little centres of learning, art and culture. Particularly the monasteries and convents in Ireland, Italy, Germany, France and Spain had a great admiration of the works of the ancient world and preserved, translated and worked on Latin classical texts, the knowledge of Greek was lost in the western part of Europe. Learned and educated monks or clergy sometimes held positions of power and influence at the courts of the Lords and tried to revive and promote culture.

The little we know about this time is even darkened by our perception of the barbarian Teutonic tribes, Goths, Vandals, Celts, Saxons and Vikings from Scandinavian countries who swept through Europe raiding and pillaging. From the point of view of those who valued the classical culture they certainly were barbarians, but this need not mean that they had no feeling and taste for beauty, harmony and what we call art nowadays. On the contrary, all this tribes and ‘barbarians’ had skilled craftsmen experienced in finely wrought metalwork and jewellery, excellent woodcarvers and they knew complicated patterns and motives.

One aspect of civilization they lacked indeed: writing. One reason we know so little is the absence of written sources. Only monks and some clerks at courts contributed to the written legacy. As a matter of fact, one of the oldest civilizations of Europe is the Celtic culture. When the Greeks fought the Persians around 490-480 BC, the Celts ( keltoi or galatai (brave people) in Greek) lived North of the Alps, moving South in the fourth and third centuries, plundering Rome for the first time in 387 BC and assimilated to Gallo-Romans after 52 BC.

Celtic art began around 700 BC and developed into an original art by exchange with Etruscan and Greek art. Magnificent jewellery and richly decorated utilitarian objects made from bronze, iron, silver, amber and gold, precious grave goods and cult objects with complex patterns or representations of fantastic beings testify to the masterly artistic creation achieved by the Celts. Trade with the Mediterranean world releases a fresh artistic impulse in North-Western Europe. Celtic artists and artefacts went ‘European’.

The Roman expansion encompassed the Celtic world. The Roman way of life gained in acceptance and was adopted in the provinces. This led to the development of a hybrid culture, which has been described as Gallo-Roman.  Celtic art experienced its heyday  in medieval illuminated manuscripts. A singular Celtic style did not exist, but the high culture is more and more recognised. (Source: E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (London 2008).