Chapter 7: Art of the Migration Period

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Due to invading forces, the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 CE. The resulting mixture of previously distinct cultures created a melting pot of artistic styles. Though far from a period of generally unified aesthetic preference, the establishment of certain courts or rulers resulted in the periodic flourishing of distinct styles or artistic approaches. Let's explore a few of these styles. 

Video Transcript

The Migration Period

The term Migration Period refers to the influx of cultural influence from Scandinavia and northern Europe into western Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE. The artistic tradition from these northern regions was completely separate from the classical style of the Greeks and Romans and is characterized by

  • A preference for small, complex, and intricate designs.
  • The use of linear patterns and interlacing.
  • Abstracted forms and patterns.

As the cultures of northern and western Europe intermixed, attributes of the northern artistic style and the classical Greco-Roman tradition combined.

Carolingian Art

The Carolingian period was defined by the reign of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, and the first Holy Roman Emperor. He united western Europe for the first time since the fall of the Western Roman Empire and modeled his reign after the Christian emperors of Rome. Charlemagne made his capital city, Aachen, a center of the arts and revived the classical style associated with Roman and art and architecture. As a result, Carolingian art incorporates classical imagery and has a sense of three-dimensionality.

Romanesque Art

The term Romanesque means Roman-like and refers to the revival of Roman building techniques, including the use of rounded Roman arches, vaulting, and domes. The impact of Roman art is also found in the classical influence seen in the sculpture of the period. This period is characterized by an increase in the construction of large cathedrals and churches, which was driven by the practice of pilgrimage, or a sacred journey to visit the various sacred sites and relics. The transmission of ideas that resulted from pilgrimage travel helped the Romanesque become the first international style in Western Europe.

Anglo-Saxon England

In the fifth century CE, people from tribes called Angles, Saxons, and Jutes left their homelands in northern Europe to look for a new home. They knew that the Romans had recently left the green land of Britain unguarded, so they sailed across the channel in small wooden boats. The Britons did not give in without a fight, but after many years, the invaders managed to overcome them, driving them to the west of the country. The Anglo-Saxons were to rule for over 500 years.

Anglo-Saxon England was divided into the five main kingdoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, and Kent, each with its own king. Kings often died early and violent deaths. As well as fighting against each other for power, they had to keep their own nobles happy, or they might rise up against them. One way that did this was to give them expensive presents, such as works of crafted jewelry or other works of art, such as the Purse Lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

Figure 7.1 Purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, early seventh century, gold, garnet, and millefiori, 19 x 8.3 cm (excluding hinges). The British Museum (Photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.)

The Book of Kells

One of these works is the Book of Kells, an illuminated (meaning that there is artwork intermixed with the text) manuscript containing the four Gospels. 

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Two days ago, we went to see the Book of Kells in the magnificent library at Trinity College. Then we drove to the town of Kells itself to look at the monastic community where this important book was housed for 800 years.

The Book of Kells is one of the most exceptional books from the early Middle Ages. When we were standing in front of the book, you noticed how many folios formed the book itself.

The book is made out of fine vellum, and the skin of more than 100 young calves were used to produce this book. So many of those pages are filled with full-page illustrations. They're not only vibrantly colored, but there is so much intricacy and delicate details to each drawing. It's impressive to think of the time that it would've taken to complete even just a single page. It would've been produced in a building that is known as a scriptorium. We can imagine scribes sitting at desks for long hours, writing and painting.

So the Book of Kells is a gospel book that includes the writings of each of the four gospel authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And there are both author portrait pages and pages that show the symbols associated with each of the gospel authors. Books of this era are not structured the way that modern books are with title pages, et cetera, but there are efforts to help the reader, and one of the mechanisms that books of this era often include is a canon table, that is a kind of concordance that allows you to find the passages that you're interested in. But in this case, the canon tables are extraordinarily elaborate in their decoration and are almost architectural with colonnades and Roman arches.

And shortly after the canon table pages, we find, by some accounts, the earliest representation of the Virgin and Child in a manuscript in Western Europe. And it reminds me of imagery of the Virgin and Child that you might find in Byzantium and even Ethiopia. 

What's common to these images is the frontal nature of the Virgin Mary, and the schematic rendering of the face and elaboration of the clothing that she wears, of the wealth of those textiles.

Other stunning pages in the Book of Kells include things like the carpet page. And there we see a cross so elaborate that it almost ceases to be a cross, because it's got two cross beams and these delicate circles with intricate interlacing in each of them. But the circles are so large that they almost overwhelm the cross itself. And carpet pages are not unique to the Book of Kells. We see them in other books like the Lindisfarne Gospels. It's likely that the Book of Kells was started, if not completed, in Iona, in what is today's Scotland.

Iona was a monastic community that had been founded by a very important Irish saint, a man named Columba. Now in Irish, Columba is Colmcille, and he is one of the most important saints and figures in the early Christian period in Ireland. The illumination that is best known from the Book of Kells is the Chi Rho page. It is dense with decoration. The Chi Rho is the first letters in Christ's name in Greek. You see it frequently in early Christian art as a way of marking Christ's presence. And here, what looks like an X for the Chi, stretches in this swooping diagonal from right to left, taking up a good portion of the page, but really what grabs your attention is the very intricate interlacing and spirals and what looks like filigree work that we find in metalworking of this era in Ireland.

What I'm always struck by when I look at the Chi Rho page is how incredibly difficult it is to make out the forms. Every time I look, I see something new. There are human heads, there are angels. We see animals, birds, some of them as part of the interlace or these interwoven designs. Some of them very clearly articulated, such as my favorite detail, which is two cats that have caught mice who are biting a eucharistic host, the wafer that miraculously trans substantiates into the body of Christ during mass. And so it seems miraculous that a scribe was able to define such intricate details at such a minute scale, and to do it so precisely, knowing that the parchment itself was precious, that the materials were precious, and that there was little room for error.

To create a page like this would have required the utmost focus. We could think of it as an act of devotion. But on the day that we visited the Book of Kells, it was open to another magnificent page. Every few days, the pages have to be changed. And it has a typically elaborate border, which is defining a serpent or a dragon who's biting its own tail. And in that border, we see the characteristic interlace with beasts and birds, all intertwined together. And then within the decorative border, we see four angels surrounding the word una, and we even see interlaced birds that have been described as peacocks inside the middle of the U. 

Look at that beautiful teal blue, which was used by mixing a white with lapis lazuli, a color that was imported all the way from Afghanistan. 

The use of lavish materials added to the importance of this book. The text on this page, as well as the pages that are primarily filled solely with text, is using a Irish form of writing called insular majuscule. 

Insular refers to something that was made in the British Isles, and majuscule refers to the use of capital letters, but there is this distinctly beautiful rounded form and regularization of those letter forms. 

This is an era where manuscript production is so vital to early Christianity and its spread in Ireland. If it was made in Iona, one of the reasons that it would've been transported all the way to Kells is to protect it. So in 793, Iona is attacked by the Vikings. And so that's when monks at Iona would have brought the Book of Kells to Kells Abbey for safekeeping, or possibly have finished it there.

Questions to Consider

  1. What was the purpose of the Book of Kells? 
  2. How do the images in the Book of Kells relate to other early Christian artworks?

France and the Carolingian Renaissance

Charlemagne, King of the Franks and later Holy Roman Emperor, instigated a cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance. This revival used Constantine’s Christian empire as its model, which flourished between 306 and 337. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity and left behind an impressive legacy of military strength and artistic patronage.

Charlemagne saw himself as the new Constantine and instigated this revival by writing his Admonitio generalis (789) and Epistola de litteris colendis (ca. 794–797). In the Admonitio generalis, Charlemagne legislates church reform, which he believes will make his subjects more moral, and in the Epistola de litteris colendis, a letter to Abbot Baugulf of Fulda, he outlines his intentions for cultural reform. Most importantly, he invited the greatest scholars from all over Europe to come to court and give advice for his renewal of politics, church, art, and literature.

Carolingian art survives in manuscripts, sculpture, architecture, and other religious artifacts produced during 780–900. These artists worked exclusively for the emperor, members of his court, and the bishops and abbots associated with the court. Geographically, the revival extended through present-day France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria.

Figurative art from this period is easy to recognize. Unlike the flat, two-dimensional work of early Christian and early Byzantine artists, Carolingian artists sought to restore the third dimension. They used classical drawings as their models and tried to create more convincing illusions of space. The illuminations in the Coronation and Ebbo Gospels are excellent examples of these features. 

The Coronation and Ebbo Gospels

According to legend, the Vienna Coronation Gospels (ca. 795) were discovered in Charlemagne’s tomb within the Palatine Chapel in the year 1000 by Otto III; the emperor had apparently been buried enthroned, that is, sitting up, with the Gospels in his lap. A gospel book is a book containing the books of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who each offer their story of Christ’s life and death.
Saint Matthew, folio 15 recto of the Coronation Gospels (Gospel Book of Charlemagne), from Aachen, Germany, c. 800-810, ink and tempera on vellum (Schatzkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Figure 7.2: Saint Matthew, folio 15 recto of the Coronation Gospels (Gospel Book of Charlemagne), from Aachen, Germany, ca. 800–810, ink and tempera on vellum. Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The manuscript is clearly a luxury object, written in gold ink on purple-dyed vellum. Characteristic of the Carolingian Renaissance, the artists of the Coronation Gospels were interested in the revival of classical styles, which effectively linked Charlemagne’s rule to that of the fourth-century ancient Roman emperor Constantine. The classical style is evident in the poses and clothing of the four evangelists, or Gospel writers, who recall images of ancient Roman philosophers. Charlemagne probably had this Gospel book made before he was crowned emperor. It is such an impressive book that it was used in imperial coronation services from about the 12th to the 16th century.

Questions to Consider

  1. What features of the Saint Matthew illumination in the Coronation Gospels make it different from early Christian or Byzantine art? 
  2. What attributes did the artists of the Coronation Gospels borrow from Ancient Greece and Rome? 

Following the creation of the Coronation Gospels, the Ebbo Gospels (ca. 816–35) are most famous for their distinctive style in contrast to contemporary Carolingian illuminated manuscripts. The Ebbo Gospels were made for Ebbo, the Archbishop of Rheims, which was one of the major sites for manuscript production at the time.

Figure 7.3 Saint Matthew, folio 18 verso of the Ebbo Gospels (Gospel Book of the Archbishop of Reims) from Hautvillers, France, ca. 816–35, ink and tempera on vellum, 10 1/4 x 8 1/4. Bibliothèque Municipale, Épernay.

While the author portraits in the Ebbo Gospels (images of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are consistent with the elements of classical revival (e.g., modeling of figures to make them appear three-dimensional, gradation of the sky, the architecture and furnishings), the style in which the images of the Ebbo Gospels are executed is a notable departure. 

Left: Saint Matthew, folio 15 recto of the Coronation Gospels (Gospel Book of Charlemagne), from Aachen, Germany, c. 800-810, ink and tempera on vellum (Schatzkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna); right: Saint Matthew, folio 18 verso of the Ebbo Gospels (Gospel Book of the Archbishop of Reims) from Hautvillers, France, c. 816-35, ink and tempera on vellum, 10 1/4 x 8 1/4 (Bibliothèque Municipale, Épernay)

Figure 7.4

Left: Saint Matthew from the Coronation Gospels (Gospel Book of Charlemagne), ca. 800–810, ink and tempera on vellum. Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

 Right: Saint Matthew from the Ebbo Gospels (Gospel Book of the Archbishop of Reims), ca. 816–35, ink and tempera on vellum. Bibliothèque Municipale, Épernay.

Tier 1: Content--St. Matthew from the Coronation and Ebbo Gospels

Like all artwork, the content of this work contains elements worth exploring. As you consider this work, refer to the elements of art listed in Tier 1: Content.

While the artists of these two works approach certain artistic elements similarly, their means of accomplishing their tasks are quite different in the use of texture, form, and composition. The brushwork of the author portraits can be described as energetic, expressionistic, and even frenzied. The artist remains attentive to the use of highlighting and shadow to create three-dimensional forms, but does so with textured rather than smooth modeling, which creates an effect of movement.

This energy is conveyed not only in the brushwork but also in the depiction of form. In the Ebbo Gospels, Matthew is hunched over as if frantically writing on his (still blank) codex, while Matthew’s posture in the Coronation Gospels is more upright and relaxed; his pen grazes his chin as if he is pausing in thought.

The composition of these works is also notable. The furniture of the two portraits is very similar in appearance—though the seat in the Coronation Gospels seems to be a folding chair, while that of the Ebbo is a more sturdy stool. However, the posture of the Coronation Matthew is stable in contrast to that of Ebbo. For example, his right foot rests on the frame of the miniature and his left is flat on the base of his book stand. This miniature is composed of several 45- and 90-degree angles that create a sense of stability and balance. In contrast, the lines in the Ebbo Gospels’ Matthew are dynamic and lack the same sense of equilibrium. For instance, Matthew’s right foot is positioned on the steep, almost vertical, angle of his footrest. Furthermore, the book stand is tipped at such a drastic angle that it seems his book will slide right into the viewer’s lap. The energy is also expressed in Matthew’s face, which is drawn up in a furrowed brow. While the Coronation Matthew seems to take a peaceful moment of reflection, theEbbo Matthew appears to be in anguish over his writing, which is directed by his evangelist symbol, the winged man, who instructs him from the upper right-hand corner of the image.

The Romanesque Style

The term Romanesque, meaning in the manner of the Romans, was first coined in the early 19th century. Today it is used to refer to the period of European art from the second half of the 11th century throughout the 12th (with the exception of the region around Paris where the Gothic style emerged in the mid-12th century). In certain regions, such as central Italy, the Romanesque continued to survive into the 30th century. The Romanesque is the first international style in western Europe since antiquity—extending across the Mediterranean and as far north as Scandinavia. The transmission of ideas was facilitated by increased travel along the pilgrimage routes to shrines such as Santiago de Compostela in Spain (a pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place) or as a consequence of the Crusades, which passed through the territories of the Byzantine Empire. There are, however, distinctive regional variants—Tuscan Romanesque art (in Italy), for example, is very different from that produced in northern Europe. Romanesque art is, for the most part, religious in its imagery, but this is partly a matter of what has survived, and there are examples of secular art from the period. 

Virgin and Child in Majesty

One example of this metropolitan style in sculpture is the Virgin and Child in Majesty, produced in France. Let's explore this in detail.

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As 21st-century viewers, we tend to look at the face. But for a Medieval sculpture, what you really need to do is to look at the rest of the body and, in particular, the hands. If you look at the hands of this sculpture, you can see they're outsized; they're out of proportion. They may even seem a little clown-like to us, but that's really because they are serving as super-obvious arrows as to what is happening and what is important here. They're really kind of directing you to God, to Jesus sitting right there. That's the precious and regal figure that she is framing with her body. How can we interpret the figure's static facial features? 

For a medieval sculpture, for a divine figure, it's unseemly for a face to have a highly expressive countenance. That's really reserved for devils and monsters and the sinful and the hell-bound. You know, the divine is meant to be serene and impassive. From a distance, the sculpture communicates something more. 

The most important thing here is the relationship between the two bodies: the body of the Christ Child, who represents wisdom, seated on the lap of the Virgin Mary. And in this instance, that carries a symbolic message: Mary is serving as the throne of the Christ Child.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why are the facial features of this statue so static or passive? 
  2. In what ways do the forms of this statue transmit meaning to the viewer?

Last Judgment Tympanum of the Cathedral of St. Lazare

Another excellent example of this international style is in the tympanum of the Cathedral of St. Lazare. The work is a dynamic representation of the last judgment, a reminder for all that enter the Cathedral of the significance of messages shared within.

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The prospect of spending an eternity in hell is terrifying even in the abstract, but to be confronted with images that depict this must have really scared the medieval mind.

We're looking up at the doorway of the Cathedral of Autun, which represents, I think, the most terrifying image of The Last Judgement, of the damned in hell that exists in art history. 

Of course, it also includes heaven, but I think people were probably spending much more time looking and fearing hell. This is a sculpture that is one of the first monumental sculptures to be made in the medieval period. There had been, of course, monumental sculpture in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, but after the fifth century or so, monumental sculpture really fell away, and this has been part because of the economic and political chaos of the medieval period. But it's at this time, around 1000 or just after that things begin to stabilize. There's an enormous building boom of churches in Europe during this time, and we begin to see monumental sculpture on the doorways of churches and inside the churches on the capitals.

We have this magnificent new cathedral at Autun and it's important to remember that this was because of the relics that were here. Pilgrims were traveling all over Europe during this period to visit the relics, the parts of saints, in this case, here at Autun, the bones of St. Lazarus; each church had relics. 

The relics were extremely important. It was believed that they could heal the sick, that could offer blessings that might even shorten one's time in purgatory if you came and paid homage to them, if you prayed to them. Often, churches were refurbished, or special reliquaries were made to house those relics, but in the case of Autun, this church was built specifically to house the relics of St. Lazarus. They built a whole church for their relics.

Of course, there's the spiritual dimension, but there's also an economic dimension. These relics were economic engines for a community because you had these pilgrims come in; they needed to stay in inns. They needed to eat. There was a real economic prosperity that surrounded important relics. That's certainly the case here.

If you think about Lazarus, the person whose bones are within the church, this is the brother of Mary Magdalene who Christ brought back to life, according to the New Testament. This is about rebirth, about a kind of hope after death. Of course, that is the subject of The Last Judgement. 

So we imagine the faithful looking up at this doorway reading the sermon in stone, as Bernard of Clairvaux said, the story of The Last Judgement. People were illiterate. This was how they learned these stories.

The images really were text and we are meant to read them, so let's go ahead and do exactly that. 

So, we have the most obvious figure, Christ, in the center. He's bigger than everybody else. 

This is a kind of hieratic organization. The most important figure is largest by far. He's so flat, he's so linear, and there's no concern with the proportions of his body. He's elongated, and we see lines that are carved into the stones to indicate these repeated folds of drapery. 

There's real concern with the decorative.

 He's frontal, he's symmetrical, he's this divine figure who stares out in judgment.

He stares out past us as if he's on a plane that is completely different from ours. He sits on a throne that is the city of heaven, and you can make out the little arched windows both below his feet and as if it was actually the furniture that he sits upon. Of course, that's a sort of literal reading and this is meant to be metaphoric. His hands and his halo and his feet break the mandorla. This almond shape that completely encloses his body and is meant to function as almost a kind of a full body halo, a representation of his divinity.

There are four angels that surround him that seem to be ushering him forward. They also are literally holding up the mandorla as if this divine light that surrounds Christ has weight. And like Christ, those angels are also elongated, their bodies move and twist in these wonderful ways. There is this incredible expressiveness.

We read images of The Last Judgement thinking about Christ's left and Christ's right. On Christ's left are the damned, going to hell, and on his right are the blessed who've been selected for heaven. On Christ's right, at the top, we see the Virgin Mary, who's enthroned in heaven. There's an angel next to her.

Blowing a trumpet to awaken the dead and to announce the coming of Christ. 

We can see the architecture of heaven itself with some blessed souls within it. We can see angels as well, assisting the blessed into heaven. It's interesting to note that souls are represented as nude figures.

One of the most famous parts of this tympanum is the figure of St. Michael, who is weighing souls. A demon seems to be trying to tip the scales in favor of those who have sinned so they can get more souls for hell. It's so interesting to think about this literal representation of the weighing of souls, that morality has gravity in some way. Look at that figure who hides in the drapery, those curling, lovely swirls of drapery of St. Michael. That figure is so different from the figures to the right who are being pulled up by hooks, by a demon, into the fires of hell who have realized that they're going to spend eternity being tortured. 

It's pretty bad. 

It's terrifying. 

I find the demons much more interesting. Their mouths are gaping open, they look just ravenous, as if they're ready to eat those souls. They've got claws. There's a three-headed serpent wrapping around the legs of one of the devils. There really are images of horror here. 

There's an inscription right below the figures that makes this point exactly. It reads, "May this terror terrify those whom earthly error bind, for the horror of these images here in this manor truly depicts what will be." In the medieval mind there is no doubt this will happen, and where will you be when this happens?

And don't look to Christ, because Christ is looking past us. It's too late. So, let's move down then to the area that's closest to us, that speaks to this issue of which side will we be on. The tympanum itself is that lunette, it's that half circle, but it's supported by a long cross beam, which is called a lintel. This is the moment when the dead are lifted out of their graves, are resurrected to be judged. This is kind of a line, waiting for the judgement. 

They're literally, at this moment, emerging from their tombs. 

You can see the sarcophagi at their feet. 

I see an angel that is clearly helping one soul, but on either side, there are two other souls who seem to desperately clutch at that angel, hoping that he'll bring them along as well. As we move to the center, things almost seem to become a little less certain. You can see two people with purses, one with a cross, one with a scalloped shell. This would be a reference to pilgrims who had perhaps gone to Jerusalem, who had perhaps gone to Spain, trying to visit important relics so that they might be among the blessed. 

Right, to improve their chances of getting into heaven. And if you didn’t, things would not always work out well. And so we see exactly that. Directly below Christ, we see an angel wielding a sword toward a terrified figure, who, with his eyes bulging, seems to try to move away from the angel. And in fact, everybody who's in front of the angel looks absolutely terrified. Look at the figure that is kneeling, clutching the sides of his head, almost as if he's saying, "How could this be true? How can it have come to this?" If you continue to bring your eye toward the right we see figures who are contorted in this recognition of their fate in hell. They bend their knees, they form angular shapes with their bodies, compressed as though they're being crushed into hell. It's incredibly expressive in their bodies. Dramatic, absolutely, but probably nothing is more dramatic than the realization on the face of the soul whose head is being clutched by two enormous claws; the hands presumably of a devil who's being plucked up into hell. 

You can see that the sculptor carved the eyes deeply, carved the open mouth deeply, so that we get a sense of his almost primal scream. Our historians have interpreted an inscription on the doorway, which reads, "Gislebertus hoc fecit" “Gislebertus made this,” being an inscription referring to the sculptor himself. 

That would be extremely unusual. In the modern era, we associate artwork with the genius of the individual, but in the medieval period, artists were craftsmen. Artists were not seen as individual geniuses. So these objects were not signed. 

But it was so nice to imagine that we knew the name of the artist who did this. 

There has been some new scholarship that suggests that perhaps we have been misled and that Gislebertus is not actually the name of the artist. 

The recent scholarship suggests that Gislebertus is actually the name of a duke who was associated with bringing the bones of St. Lazarus to Autun, so in a way, legitimizing this church as the rightful place for the bones of Lazarus.

But even if we don't know the name of the artist, we do know the power of his work. 

There's no doubt about that.

Questions to Consider

  1. What are the features of this work that identify it with the Romanesque style? 
  2. How do you "read" the images in this work? 
Previous Citation(s)
On Anglo-Saxon history: The British Museum, "Anglo-Saxon England," in Smarthistory, February 28, 2017, accessed July 3, 2023, On the Book of Kells: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Book of Kells," in Smarthistory, June 25, 2022, accessed July 3, 2023, On the Carolingian Renaissance: Dr. Nancy Ross, "Carolingian art, an introduction," in Smarthistory, July 6, 2018, accessed July 3, 2023, On the Coronation and Ebbo Gospels: Dr. Jennifer Awes Freeman, "Matthew in the Coronation Gospels and Ebbo Gospels," in Smarthistory, September 15, 2016, accessed July 3, 2023,

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