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Art of the Migration and the Dark Ages

Updated on June 9, 2008

A Synopsis

The gothic tribes migrated in waves throughout Western Europe starting around the year 350 AD; specifically, the Visigoths eventually to Spain and Portugal, the Ostrogoths in 487 to France and Italy, and the Lombards to southern Italy in 568. Also involved in these movements were the Angles, Saxons, and the Frankish tribes. While initially pagans of the Norse variety, during the course of their migrations into Western Europe these groups had converted to the Arian sect of Christianity almost completely by the fifth century. The gothic tribes came out of Asia and did not derive their ancestry from the Greco-Romans, having therefore a different religion and culture, unknown to the people already living in Europe at that time. They were considered barbarians by the Romans because they did not speak Latin, although they were not necessarily inferior. They moved in waves, looking for areas to establish a stable civilization, intermingling and intermarrying with the people already settled in their new territories, rather than killing them off and starting over. This resulted in an intermixing of language, culture and tradition that over time resulted in the emergence of modern European culture.

The artistic tradition of the migration tribes was therefore completely unrelated to that of the Romans and their classical artistic forms. It was predominately an abstracted animal style that did not attempt to be completely realistic, unlike in the case of classical art. As the people creating and owning this art were migratory, everything had to be portable, so no large-scale artwork or architecture existed, although many weapons, personal adornments, and decorated functional items have been found. They were excellent metalworkers, and large amounts of energy were expended in the creation of this art. Their style of abstracted animals, interlace patterns and symmetrical representations reflect observations of life (such as animals, hunting, and scenes of warfare) and natural forces, although the significance of some of the designs is a mystery that has been lost to time, as the cultural information we have about them comes from a much later date. Migration art is often found in burial places, often richly filled with many treasures, indicating a strong belief in an afterlife in which people needed to bring their belongings.

A strong example of the migration style is the gold stag from Kostromskaya, an area in Russia north of the Black Sea, from the 7th to 6th century BC. The form of the body of the stag has been reduced to several rounded, almost abstracted planes, and the only details are found in the hooves and facial features, all of which have been simplified. It is still, however recognizable as a skilled piece of craftsmanship, completely finished and ready for use. The top half of the piece showing the antlers of the stag resembles the intricate interlacing found in many other pieces in this style. This piece is Scythian, from which the northern European arts are derived.

The bronze mirror from Desborough, of Celtic origins, from the first century is an even more abstracted interlace style, consisting of enamel inlays of symmetrical abstract spirals. It is another example of the level of sophistication in Migration metalwork. While the Celtic interlace designs could have been derived from similar designs sometimes found in classical art, it becomes its own unique style closely related to the northern arts of the Migration as well.

The Crown of Recceswinth from the 7th century AD in Spain shows the degree of intricacy typical of Migration metalwork and jewelry. Borders around the top and bottom edges feature the interlace style in tiny detail, and the decoration of the rest of the crown and its dangling letters also reflect that intricacy. While this crown clearly shows the advanced artistic ability of the metalworkers in the Migration period, the liberal use of pearls and gemstones also showcases the riches that were available at the time, and the proficiency the artists had with such materials.

From around the year 700 AD is the Tara Brooch in Ireland, which involves several elements of the Migration style. The metalwork is extremely detailed, with tiny, intricate abstract interlacings throughout the piece in several layers. Abstracted, but still recognizable animal figures, mostly what seem to be birds, emerge from the designs at the corners and ends.

The Migration style was very different from the classical forms against which the artists of the Early Christian Church were rebelling. Classical works were generally beautiful, realistic forms which reflected Greco-roman culture. In contrast to this, Early Christian art moved away from that style by placing less emphasis on aestheticism and more on the symbolism and concept behind the work. Accurate representation of body proportions were not considered the highest aim of the art; drapery of clothing hid most of the bodies from view. The more abstracted forms of Migration Art thus appealed to the Christians, who adopted it as the predominant decorative motif. It immediately became accepted as a substitute for the Greco-roman style, which soon disappeared. The abstracted style appealed to the church, as it coincided with the tendency in early Christian art to reject realistic representation. Objects intrinsically not realistic were considered to be more spiritual, so the style was applied to the making of religious objects, which became very high quality, spiritualized, and complex. The creation of this art, with its hypnotic complexity, soon became a spiritual exercise for monks in monasteries.

An effect of the influence of Migration art on early Christian art can be seen in the Maiestas Domini altar from 731-744 AD in Italy. No longer in the a antique or classical style, the figures are truncated with more abstracted bodies, while the detail in the drapery of the clothing and the wings of the angels, along with the border along three sides, echo the detail of the interlace style, and seem more like the ribbonlike metalwork seen in the Tara Brooch and the Crown of Recceswinth. The picture plane lacks depth; although it is a relief carved in marble, all the figures seem to be on the same plane, with no background details.

Scythian gold stag from Kostromskaya

Bronze mirror from Desborough

Crown of Recceswinth

Tara Brooch


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      Austin Collins 6 years ago

      Goths did not come out of Asia! They descended from Scandinavia as did Celts, Slavs, Vinlanders,Solutreans,etc.

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      Multiman 6 years ago

      I liked your article and photos. Good article.

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