Monday, September 17, 2007

The Early Medieval Triad


As a rule triadic schemes are subtler and more revealing than dichotomies (“binaries”), a methodological principle brilliantly theorized by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Yet C. R. Morey’s scheme trichotomizing the sources of medieval art requires much adaptation and updating; as it is, it will not serve.

Clearly the racial explanation fails. If, in pharaonic Egypt, the collective DNA (so to speak) dictated the convention of fractional representation (in which heads appear in profile), how could a very similar DNA pool generate the opposite practice: heads presented frontally? In a different part of the world, scholarly attempts (e.g. by N. Pevsner) to stipulate regularities governing the volatile record of English art (“Englishness”) have failed, even though the population pool has changed very little.

Setting aside improbable theories of racial constants, we are on firmer ground with language and religion. In the ancient Middle East most of the dominant languages were Afro-Asiatic, as distinct from the Indo-European tongues of Greece and Rome. This difference tended to set those speakers apart from the Greco-Roman ruling circles. In the Early Christian period another contrast emerged, as the Syrians became Nestorians and the Egyptian Copts Monophysite, while Greek and Roman speakers remained orthodox Catholics. Yet what is the connection between these three elements—language, religion, and art? Taking a leaf from the study of modern ethnic groups, some contemporary historians have posited that these elements fused synergetically to make up a pattern of resistance. “Deviant” cultural expression served as a marker for group solidarity. Compare the role of hip-hop in today’s African American culture. Of course such phenomena are always subject to coopting, but that propensity helps to explain the spread of Middle Eastern artistic conventions through the whole panoply of medieval lands.

In examining our data, the form of the objects demands the closest scrutiny. We must dust off that often disparaged tool of study—style analysis. A side glance at modern youth, with its preferences for distinctive clothing and music, shows that for the participants style does indeed matter. It is style that sets “our crowd” off from the others, whether they be “lames” or “the man.”

In our situation, style analysis requires a constantly available fund of mental images—what is termed visual literacy. Thus a reference to the Junius Bassus sarcophagus or the mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna should conjure up a reliable image. Without this store of visual knowledge, one cannot travel very far.


At first glance it would seem that the adoption of Christianity obliterated Classicism for a thousand years. The Middle Ages was the anticlassical age par excellence, and Classicism, so long suppressed, revived only with the coming of the Italian Renaissance. This stereotype is much too simple

A closer look at representative monuments of the Late Antique period shows that Classicism was indeed menaced in the later 3d century and the early 4th (reliefs of the Arch of Constantine; 315). In ensuing decades, though, it revived, showing a vigorous, but somewhat coarse exuberance in the Junius Bassus sarcophagus, followed by a kind of dreamy elegance during the Theodosian period. There were of course many periods where a countertrend surged, latterly in the major works of Justinian’s maturity, such as the mosaics of San Vitale of ca. 547.

What are the grounds for this ebb and flow? Some have thought that the alternation might correlate with war and peace: the anticlassical trend comes to the fore in eras of turbulence, and the calmer classical mode resurge in peacetime. Be that as it may, what was the source of the countercurrent that challenged Classical hegemony? Undoubtedly it was mainly Middle Eastern, though that factor had become generalized, even cropping up in Roman Britain in what Ernst Kitzinger has termed the “subantique.” In the case of the Arch of Constantine reliefs some argue (especially R. Bianchi Bandinelli) that it drew upon a background of Plebeian Art in Roman Italy, a kind of “primitive” counterpoint to the idealistic official art. In this explanation class trumps ethnicity.

Resurgent classicism found a literary counterpart in the Latin writings of the pagan Claudian and the Christian Ausonius, among others.

With the age of Justinian (527-65) the first cycle, the continuing evolution of Late-Antique Classicism, characterized by a systole and diastole of prominence and recession, concluded. But that was not the end of the story. Scholars typically handle recurrences by positing a series of “renascences”: those of the Heraclian, Carolingian, 12th-century, Gothic, and trecento periods. (See Panofsky’s monograph on this topic.

The Middle Byzantine period (after the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy in 843) became a major reservoir of revived Classicism, bequeathing much to the West (see Demus monograph).

What are the major episodes of Classicism in Western Europe after 1000?
1) Reiner of Huy and the ensuing Mosan art, seen especially in manuscript illuminations;
2) Early Gothic sculpture as seen at Chartres and Paris, probably stimulated by Byzantine ivories.
3) The somewhat isolated case of the Reims Visitation.
4) Nicola Pisano and his nude Hercules; possible Giotto’s frescoes.


The geographical definition of the expression Middle Eastern is somewhat fluid. The core consists of Western Asia plus Egypt. Many though would annex the Maghreb (western North Africa). Older books use “Near Eastern,” and older ones still simply call it the Orient—hence the Orientalism castigated by Edward Said.

Major foci of development during the later Roman Empire and the late antique period were the “caravan cities,” border towns in the Syrian desert such as Hatra, Palmyra, and especially Dura, with its harvest of religious monuments. Some would extend the purview into Sassanian Persia. Coptic Egypt (the source of monasticism) was certainly a prime contributor. The Roman army, attracting many followers of Mithra, seems to have extended this manner to far-flung areas, such as Roman Britain (which witnessed bonding with native Celtic and Pictish trends).

In a nutshell, frontality, free manipulation of proportions, “stacking” instead of perspectival recession, erosion of the figure-ground contrast, and a tendency towards overall pattern characterize the Middle Eastern trend. Idealization and illusionism (a la Grec) went out. “In” were pattern, stylization, expressivity, and symbolism. These features have struck many observers as proto-medieval. Was there, though, a direct causal link, or simply a similarity of ethos based on a worldview centering on religion? Various salvational religious competed with Christianity in the Middle East, including Judaism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and Manicheanism, and their followers sought a distinctive art as the vehicle of their faith.

Eventually this Middle Eastern current struck up a certain coexistence with Classicism, as seen in the Mary Icon of Mt. Sinai, with its two illusionistic angels hovering in the background. The inherent capacity for blending and hybridization—metissage as some term it—was crucial for the creatively impure art of the later Middle Ages.


Concordant analysis by a number of specialists suggests a vast fund of art originating in the Eurasian steppes; this enormous zone stretches from the Ordos at China’s Mongolian frontier across the Urals to Ukraine with the Scythians and Sarmatians. Sometimes this art of nomads is termed the “Animal Style.” It is not so much a style as a preference—human figures are rare and animals (generally stylized in intricate patterns) are supreme. This art first came onto the radar screen with the Siberian treasury assembled by Peter the Great almost 300 years ago. This art and others like it stem from a nomadic (or “Migrations”) lifestyle, preferring small, precious objects because of their portability.

In this light, the Germanic, Viking, and Hiberno-Saxon arts (more familiar to us than the ones mentioned) represent offshoots of the great cauldron of creativity whose locus is in Inner Asia and Eastern Europe. Be that as it may, much scholarship has been devoted to deciphering characteristic motifs, such as the interlace, the lacertine, and the spiral-and- trumpet. Originally at home in pagan milieus, these Northern style components make their way into Christian art through Hiberno-Saxon manuscript illustration (the famous Books of Durrow and Kells), and then, especially on the continent, through metalwork (as in the lower cover of the Lindau gospels in the Morgan Library). Hiberno-Saxon art has engaged the attention of such scholars as Francoise Henry, and R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford. Continental Migrations art has been the province of Scandinavian (E. Salin) and German researchers.

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