We still associate these tribes—the Vandals, the Visigoths, the Huns, and others—with the destruction of
classical civilization, but we should also recall that these tribes were the original occupants of the lands
seized by Greeks and Romans when the classical empires were built. With the rise of Christianity,
missionaries began to work with these tribal groups. The monasteries they established became centers of
a new culture that blended Christian imagery and religious practice with native traditions.
The works of art made by distinct tribes of northern Europe have many traits in common. Small metal
objects—useful items like cloak fasteners—are typical. They are made of fine metals and decorated with
patterns that often use an image of an animal as their starting point. The animal, however, may be
stretched, twisted, or interlaced with other patterns (or even its own legs or neck) so that it becomes
difficult to recognize.
Human beings are rarely depicted in this period, but when they are (for example on the Sutton Hoo purse
cover), they too are turned into patterns that may be flattened, distorted, or stretched in strange ways.
The idealization of the human form found in classical art is totally foreign to northern European art. What
matters instead is a rich surface texture composed of complex lines, whorls, and interlaced motifs. Color,
if it is used, is flat and rich and bound by lines, which may be made of gold. The Sutton Hoo purse cover is
again a good example of this technique, with areas of colored enamel held within gold wire edges (a
technique called cloisonné).
During periods of migration, people needed to carry their objects with them when they moved, and many
of them lived in simple structures like huts made of locally available reeds or wood. These structures may
have been supported by long poles lashed together in units, forming something like the bays that became
part of the medieval architectural vocabulary. The seafaring tribes, like the Vikings and Saxons, had their
ships, and entire vessels have survived because of the practice of burying kings in their ships. Carvings from
these ships use abstracted animals and interlace. The Vikings also left large, carved memorial stones with
interlace decoration surrounding narrative scenes.
Even before the fall of the Roman Empire, Christian missionaries brought their faith to present-day Ireland
(Hibernia) and then to Britain. They also brought the need for liturgical books and the skills for making
them. These books were all handwritten and hand-decorated manuscripts, produced in the scriptoria of
monasteries. Many of the artists who completed these time-consuming works were converts from the local
populations who were familiar with native artistic traditions.
The most spectacular examples of these illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells (c. 800), include
elaborate decorative pages like the Chi Rho page. Chi and rho are the first two letters in the Greek spelling
of Christ; this page begins the Gospel of Matthew. The letters (which look like an x and p) are immersed in
swirling designs, with an image of a man (his head is at the end of the rho letter) and cats with mice, which
may symbolize the struggle of good and evil. Although we marvel at the intricate beauty of pages like this,
we should recall that the monks themselves saw their activity as work that would help them gain salvation.
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