ART 115 HCCC Hiberno Saxon Illuminated Manuscripts and Islamic Art Essay


Hiberno-Saxon illuminated manuscripts have a resemblance to the geometric and organic ornamentation found in Islamic art. Coincidence? Propose an explanation based on an intelligent interpretation of the text and write a 300-500 essay on it.

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Early Medieval and Romanesque Art
Early Medieval art visually underscores the cultural condition of Europe at the tail end of the 5th
century, and it changes as time’s arrow moves toward the 11th century and the Romanesque style
takes hold. Much happened in between, of course, and if the 11th and 12th centuries could be
described as generally “stable,” early medieval times were decidedly not. After the fall of Rome
in 476, those groups partly responsible for toppling that giant vied for power, fought, and
eventually mixed and shared cultural traditions. Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Saxons, Angles,
Celts, Burgundians, Vikings, and others were all raiding or being raided (and thus pushed in
another direction). A constant state of migration and upheaval pervaded the continent. If your
mental picture of the
medieval era summons the phrase “dark ages,” this is the reason why. Such a broad picture,
however, doesn’t do justice to the culture and cultural artifacts of these many people on the
The “animal style” refers to a form of small-scale metal work whose aesthetics is a hybrid of
Celtic and (northern) Germanic styles. When Angles and Saxons from Denmark invaded the
British Isles in the fifth century, bloodshed was not all they brought. A tradition of weaving,
woodcarving, and metalwork—all small-scale and portable—mixed with the local Celtic
metalwork tradition. What came out of this stylistic union was incredible jewelry, made of gold
and often precious stones, who are intricately designed patterns had animal and vegetal motifs
spread out across a geometric matrix.
Hiberno-Saxon illuminated manuscripts carried to the page what had been seen only in
metalwork prior to the fifth century. By the late seventh and early eighth centuries, when the
Christian conversion of the Hibernian population was complete, Irish scriptoria were producing a
voluminous quantity of handsomely illustrated copies of the Bible for export, making them
known throughout Europe. The Chi Ro Iota page from The Book of Kells and the Cross Page
from the Lindisfarne Gospels show a stylistic affinity with “animal style” intricacy of pattern and
flora/ fauna motif. Much like the rationale behind Islamic design of the same period, the
complexity was supposed to symbolize that of the natural world as well as provide a “sacred
riddle” on which a viewer could meditate.
Figurative examples from these same books owe a debt to Roman wall painting (typically by
way of Byzantine examples) in that a clumsy perspective is attempted and garments portrayed
are of a Roman origin. The scenes are more “modern,” however, in their figures’ highly stylized
poses, spatial compression, and flat, abstracted shapes in garments and hair. Carolingian and
Ottonian examples from later in the chapter show both how artists became bolder in their
attempts at greater naturalism (Gospel Book of Charlemagne) and at creating the very opposite.
Jesus Washing the Feet of St. Peter from the Gospel Book of Otto III is a feast of abstraction,
showing references to Early Christian use of stacked
figures to show spatial depth and use of flat gold grounds reminiscent of early mosaics. Highly
stylized garments that are indiscriminately affected by gravity are painted alongside architectural
elements that barely hint at their
three-dimensionality, looking like small toys resting on top of the columns as opposed to the
Heavenly City it actually symbolizes.
In an effort to segue from the Medieval to the Romanesque chapters, one noteworthy, large-scale
work should be highlighted. The Gero Crucifix (from the Ottonian period) makes a case for how
far artists had come in depicting sculptural representations of biblical subjects. If early Christian
and Byzantine artists (or really, their patrons) had seen life-size work as a threat to either good
taste or religious “rules,” they made their peace with them by the last few decades before the
millennium. Though the crucifix commissioned by Archbishop Gero is made of oak—not stone,
the defining sculptural material of the Romanesque—it was one of the largest figurative
sculptures made in the medieval era. That a work of this size could be made is nothing special,
but it says volumes about how attitudes changed in regards to depicting realistic suffering. This
was no small Byzantine icon for personal devotion but a public statement made to be seen from a
distance. That it mimics in wood the actual body and actual cross in life- size scale must have
been jaw-dropping at the time.
The term Romanesque refers to much of the religious art made in Europe during the 11th and
12th centuries. Sculpture and architecture are the chief showcases for references to antiquity. A
millennium had passed since the birth of Jesus. The Roman Empire was long gone, and its
influence had all but disappeared…. or had it? What did artists and architects seek in the ancient
To be fair, Early Christian art, Byzantine, and early Medieval art all cribbed design elements
from the Roman playbook. It was all but impossible not to see styles and techniques worth
saving and re-contextualizing from the antique past. The two centuries in question are different
though. The year 1000 thought to portend the end of the world and final Christian judgment
came and went without the fire and brimstone. Throughout Europe, cities were actually growing
and prospering, thanks in part to technological advances in farming and construction machinery,
the stability of the feudal system, and a robust monastic network. These were boom times.
Religious enthusiasm was thrown into this mix, creating a climate conducive to bringing back
monumental stone sculpture—missing since the
5th century—and a startling number of new churches to showcase it.
These churches were said to be built “in the Roman manner” because of two things: 1) the
complexity and sheer size of their sculptural programs and 2) their massive, vaulted interior
spaces that created a more harmonious flow from one part of the structure to another. The barrel
vault (and later groin vault) and compound pier were the architectural elements that made these
new towering heights possible. Stone barrel vaulting was stronger, more acoustically enhancing,
and certainly more fireproof than older flat, wooden roofs. As groin and ribbed groin vaults
replaced the simpler barrel vaults in the mature Romanesque style, three story elevations could
be pierced with clerestory windows without the problem of weakening the structure. More light
could enter the structure, making these spiritual spaces ever more so.
A unified religious spirit across the continent was also responsible for the rapid growth of
monastic orders (especially the powerful Cluniac order) as well as ordinary laypeople
undertaking religious pilgrimages. Thus, was born the “pilgrimage plan” church with its
uninterrupted side aisles that gave passers through the space to circumnavigate the interior
perimeter of these impressive structures without bothering local parishioners. The religious
pilgrimage was an epic adventure for devout, poor travelers to escape the drudgery of their
workaday existences and trade them in for “meaningful” hardships on the road that could be
shared and celebrated. Undertaken in the same spirit as the military Crusades into the Holy Land,
pilgrimages were often much shorter journeys, often into the Muslim controlled Iberian
Peninsula (the “lite” version of the Muslim- controlled Holy Land) and Rome, the city where
both St. Peter and St. Paul were buried.
The Cluniac sponsored church of Saint-Pierre in Moisaac and the nearby cathedral of Saint
Lazare are both stunning examples of the aforementioned sculptural programs that did so much
to define the Romanesque style. Dwarfing the early Romanesque lintel piece from Saint Genisdes-Fontaines (mentioned earlier in the chapter), both
Saint-Pierre and Saint Lazare share enormous deep-relief narrative sculptures on tympana above
main entrances and other niches, elaborately carved trumeaux and other load-bearing columns,
and an emotionally intense symbolism throughout the various depictions. Beasts of hell are
harnessed to support the heavy lintel pieces above entrances. Christ is symbolized as judge,
either accepting souls or dispensing divine retribution to those who have not made the grade.
These sculptural columns and reliefs provided a “public service message” and were taken quite
literally in their day. One entered through these church doors in a contemplative mood!
Two-dimensional work is best exemplified by illuminated manuscripts. Whether done by
Cluniac, Cistercian, or other Benedictine scriptoria, most retain some but consciously eschew
other Byzantine aesthetics. The St. Matthew page from the Codex Colbertinus seems to be a 2-D
version of a sculpted Romanesque trumeau, and it shares with the St. Mark page from the Corbie
Gospel Book monumentality due to scale relationships between the figure and page. Both works,
as well as the exquisite St. John the Evangelist page from the Gospel Book of Abbot Wedricus,
pay attention to the sculptural folds of garments but trade the modeling of form found in
Byzantine examples for flat color and flat, compartmentalized space inspired by early medieval
enamel work.

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medieval era

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Saxon style

organic ornamentation

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