Stephen N. Fliegel Curator of Medieval Art
Disk Brooch with Central Boss 7th century. Frankish, late Merovingian. Gilt-silver, copper alloy, glass, almandine; diam. 4.2 cm. Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund 2007.163. Filigree disk brooches of this type represent characteristic female adornments of the Merovingians, a Salian Frankish dynasty that came to rule the Franks in a region largely corresponding to ancient Gaul from the middle of the fifth century.
The museum’s distinguished collection of medieval art, well known for its holdings of Byzantine art, Romanesque metalwork, International Gothic art, and late Gothic sculpture, has for much of its history been underrepresented in one key area: migration period Europe. Within the past decade the museum has redressed this gap by adding significant examples of Visigothic, Frankish, and Alemannic jewelry. Such objects offer an intriguing glimpse into an era that bridges the Roman world with the Middle Ages.
The migratory tribes that moved across Europe following the collapse of the western Roman provinces were never a homogeneous people or nation. They were composed of various distinctive groups, each with unique cultural and linguistic traditions. Yet certain fundamental characteristics bound them together. They were traditionally nomadic. Though they gradually adopted agriculture for sustenance, there continued a strong predilection for maritime trade and fishing. Their cultures generally exhibited a disinterest in the monumental arts of sculpture and architecture (but this would gradually change after they had long occupied an area). Instead the migratory tribes, very often comprising mounted warrior elites, favored art works that were both personal and portable. These included objects of personal adornment such as jewelry and an infinite variety of garment clasps. Also lavishly decorated were weapons, tools, and horse trappings. These objects were taken to the grave, from which many now survive archeologically. Many sumptuous aristocratic graves from the period contained all manner of objects wrought in gold, gemstones, cut glass, and enamel.
Brooch in the Form of a Six-Pointed Star late 8th or early 9th century. Frankish, Early Carolingian. Gold with repoussé and filigree decoration; diam. 7.7 cm. Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund 2009.344. Archaeological and pictorial evidence associates the brooch’s design with women who used them to fasten their veils or mantles just beneath the chin.
The migration period, spanning approximately ad 300 to 800, represents one of the major epochs of early medieval European art. It includes the art of the Germanic tribes on the continent and the Hiberno-Saxon art of the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic fusion in the British Isles. Generally a period of disorder and political uncertainty, these centuries saw the great westward migrations of the Germanic peoples of Europe whose original homelands stretched from the Black Sea northward into Scandinavia. During the fourth century the Germanic tribes faced protracted pressure from the east as the Huns, an especially fierce enemy from the steppes of Asia, advanced into the western Roman provinces. Thus displaced, the Goths, a Germanic people from the region of Ukraine and the Black Sea, spilled into the west. The Visigoths settled first in Italy, then Spain. They were followed into Italy by the Ostrogoths, who in turn were replaced by the Lombards, another Germanic people. Farther north, the Franks, a confederation of tribes from the west bank of the Rhine, traveled southward into western Germany and Gaul. In the fifth century, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded Britain. Such migrations placed tremendous pressure on the frontiers and infrastructure of the western Roman Empire, whose army, then composed largely of Germanic elements, steadily regressed and disintegrated during the fourth and fifth centuries. During the sixth century, the old western empire was fully occupied by migratory tribes from the north and east.
Three principal styles dominate and define the art of the migration period. The first of these, the polychrome style, is characterized by small, generally gold objects richly inlaid with colorful stones or cut glass. Highly chromatic, it exudes a love for the play of light on gold surfaces embellished with stones. The stones, chiefly garnets or almandines, are sometimes left rounded and raised above the object’s surface. In another variation, the stones are cut, highly polished, and mounted flat into closely fitted cells to create a mosaic or cloisonné effect. The polychrome style reached full maturity in the jewelry of the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. The second style, known as the animal style, consists of zoomorphic decoration such as birds, griffins, fish, animals, or human masks with foliate details that are applied as ornament to jewelry, weapons, and other personal items. The animal forms are sometimes ornamentally distorted, elongated, or intertwined into symmetrical shapes. The animal style has been divided into three phases, but it is largely observed in northern Europe, Scandinavia, and Britain. Finally, the Hiberno-Saxon style was confined to Great Britain and Ireland. It represents a fusion of Germanic artistic traditions imported through the Anglo-Saxons with native Celtic art (via Irish monks). The style, characterized by fantastic spirals, scrolls, and animal interlace ornament, first emerges during the seventh century and continues in Britain until the Viking invasions of the ninth century, following which we see the emergence of Anglo-Saxon art.
Belt Buckle c. 525–60. Visi-gothic (Iberian Peninsula). Bronze alloy with cut glass and mother-of-pearl; 14.1 x 8 cm. Gift of Joe Hatzenbeuhler 2007.227. This buckle is a classic example of the motifs and techniques the Goths brought to Spain from their fourth-century homeland in the Ukraine.
The Germanic art of the migration period was often highly adaptive, demonstrating a remarkable ability to absorb new influences and transform them into new designs and artistic styles. Though the various tribes exhibited distinctive styles and techniques unique to their territories, major artistic influences were derived from the east, principally from contact with the Huns as well as the Scythian and Sarmatian tribes from the steppes of south Russia. From such sources the Goths learned and transmitted a highly developed animal art and elaborate metalworking techniques. Another form of this “oriental” influence was manifested by the use of an increasing range of color and surface pattern used mainly in jewelry. Ultimately these decorative techniques found their genesis among the metalworkers of South Russia and Iran, from whom they were adapted and carried into western Europe. An additional artistic impulse was represented by exposure to the art of the Roman Empire. Many border tribes became familiar with this art through trade or gifts, and numerous products from the empire, especially glass, pottery, metalwork, even coins, were distributed beyond the frontiers. As a result, some migratory art exhibits a cognizance of, if not a conscious effort to imitate, Roman forms and patterns. This occasionally produced forms that were conflicted between abstract and representational art.
With the progressive Christianization of the Germanic peoples by the late seventh century, the Church provided a unifying element. It was also the only institution left that could preserve some vestige of Mediterranean civilization. As the need for ecclesiastical buildings, liturgical objects, and illuminated manuscripts increased, a pronounced influence of Mediterranean forms steadily encroached among many of the Germanic tribes during the eighth century.
Bow Fibula 6th century. Frankish. Gilt-silver with garnets; 9.1 x 5.7 cm. Gift of Joe Hatzenbeuhler 2007.224. Sartorial laws permitted only women of high rank to wear such brooches.
The migration period’s primary contribution to medieval art was the broad range of metalworking and jewelry techniques employed and perfected by its artists. Their products, the most substantial material remains of the epoch, were brilliantly crafted in finely wrought gold, silver, and iron and decorated in a multitude of techniques including filigree, granulation, niello, damascening, repoussé, and the highly skilled use of gemstones, glass, and enamel. For the men and women of the migration period, such exuberantly designed personal possessions constituted status symbols and signs of power of the highest order. They were worn conspicuously in daily life, finally accompanying their owners to the grave. Recent additions to the museum’s holdings of migration art are now on view in the newly opened medieval galleries.
Cleveland Art, July/August 2010