Society in the Time of King Egbert, Part 5

Society in King Egbert's Time

Part Five-
Art and Architecture

Art and Architecture

An example of the art of Wessex under Egbert’s dynasty is the carved stone shaft from Codford St. Peter’s, Wilts. The carving is unweathered and could have been done yesterday - yet it is more than a thousand years old (9th century). The figure of a man seems to be dancing beneath a fruit laden tree. In his hand he carries a mallet or perhaps a rattle, but no one has been able to understand just what he is doing. The folds of his clothes are deep and positive with no sign or wear. There is no carving now on the back. The stone was split lengthwise and just a small piece of a carved cross remains on the back. It dates from the early 9th century and was found when the Norman arch was demolished in 1864. It seems to show midsummer festivities. There are four young cones at the top and the man holds an alder branch while beneath his feet there are eels, fish and an otter. Also present are willow leaves and honeysuckle buds with one open flower. All of these plants and animals are wetland species suggesting midsummer in the extensive marshes of the Wylye valley. There is space for an inscription, but one was never made. This suggests that the carving was never finished and for some reason was kept for centuries until it was built into the Norman arch and hidden.

Another style is illustrated better by royal finger rings and by the ornaments from Trewhiddle. The chief feature is that the design is broken up into panels, each panel containing its own motif, such as a patinette, an animal, or some knot-work. The style is not strong, but may symbolize the England that emerged from the reign of Egbert, a country united but in separate kingdoms, with a sense of harmony but needing new vigor and unity in the design. From the art of the period three conclusions might be drawn. First, there was growing barbarism in Northumbria, but the degradation was local. Secondly, Mercia and Kent in the eighth century, each in their own way, flourished. And thirdly, ninth century Wessex inherited worthy artistic traditions.

In commonly accepted usage, the term “Celtic art” is applied both to the art produced between the fifth century BC and the first century AD by Iron Age peoples who are usually labeled “Celts,” and the art produced in Britain and Ireland between the fifth and the twelfth centuries AD, outside the areas of Anglo-Saxon settlement. There is not, and never has been, such a thing as a Celtic “race,” or a Celtic “nation.” Celtic art has borrowed or adapted elements from classical Greek, Oriental, Roman and Viking art at various times.

Celtic art differs from classical art, and therefore most Western art, in that it is not concerned either with the imitation of nature or with an ideal of beauty. The Celtic artist avoided straight lines, and only occasionally showed a concern for symmetry. The art appears to be mainly ornamental, but contained in the patterns are examples of symbolism which can be very complex. Celtic artists knew of the uses of “white space” and restraint in the selection of areas to be ornamented. It is also true that Celtic art enjoyed filling in spaces with ornamental details. The Celtic artist could produce larger works of art, but he excelled in decorating metalwork and manuscripts where limited space called for small detailed work. In curvilinear forms, intertwining lines, and in ornament which is often ambiguous Celtic art abound.  Similar motifs–triskeles, trumpets, scrolls and palmettes–were commonly used.

One type of Celtic art flourished in Ireland and to a lesser extent Britain between the fifth and twelfth centuries AD. This art borrowed heavily from Roman motifs. A new medium became the dominant interest in this time, the illuminated manuscript. Gold filigree and granular work and the technique of cloisonne inlay were developed and die-stamped foils, and new materials such as niello, were added to the skills and accomplishments of the Celtic artist.

The conversion of the Celts to Christianity was the beginning of a new phase of Celtic art, and from then, most of this artwork had Christian function or meaning. The relationship between Anglo-Saxon and Celtic art as the two cultures mixed during the fifth to eighth centuries was highly complex, and was tied to the spread of Christianity to both peoples. Both economic recovery and Christianity were factors which led to an enormous increase in markets for the artist. Metalwork became amazingly intricate, both in terms of execution and its creativity. Manuscript illumination offered new opportunities for reinterpreting classical or Christian art. Because of the increased production they experienced, a wealth of art has survived from the period. By the time the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were well established at the eighth century, Celtic artistry was both challenged and stimulated by the arrival of the Vikings who made their own contribution to the Celtic arts.

The Anglo-Saxon world was the provider of new metalworking techniques, such as filigree and granular work in gold and cloisonne jewelry. Although there are elements in the designs of metalwork that are distinctive to that medium, many of these designs were used in sculpture, and were applied to the new medium of manuscript illumination. It was said of scribes of the period that they adorned “little books with such elegant designs and so rendered life a pleasant kind of the highest ornaments.”

Designs for metalwork, manuscript illumination and other media were often worked out on slips of bone or thin pieces of stone. The manuscript illuminator used quill pens and, possibly, brushes. Pigments came from a variety of sources–lead gave white or red; orpiment, yellow; verdigris, green; lapis lazuli, blue; folium, blue and pink to purple; woad, blue, and kerme, red. Some of the pigments were very costly, and had to be imported from a great distance. Although it is not know where the monks obtained the lapis lazuli in the Dark Ages, later it came from Afghanistan and the Arab world.

Designs were laid out with compasses, rulers and templates. The perforations from the compass points can be seen on the pages of manuscripts. The art works were built up with intersecting arcs or circles. Manuscripts were executed on vellum–calf skin–which had a smooth and a “hair” side that, to some extent, decided the quality of the work. The vellum was precious, and imperfect sheets were sometimes used. The artist who decorated the pages was usually a scribe, but occasionally the artist and scribe were different people.

The similarity of the Gospel Books produced in the British Isles and on the continent is best accounted for by the travels of both monks and manuscripts between monasteries and countries. For example, Willibrord, a Saxon, went from Ripon to Ireland when he was twenty and stayed to study for twelve years before leaving with eleven companions (mostly Saxons) on a mission to Frisia, where he founded a monastery at Echternach in 698. A series of Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts were produced there, the most famous of which is the Echternach Gospels. Apart from evangelistic symbols, animal ornament is missing from this book, instead fine interlace and trumpet-spirals were precisely made. It dates from the end of the seventh century, and is the forerunner of a series of Echternach manuscripts in which animal heads and the occasional bird are added to the geometry of the main schemes.

The cult of venerating relics seems to have spread to Britain and Ireland from the Mediterranean, and artwork was developed for their containers. The bones of saints were seen to give grace to the living, and to the dead interred near a reliquary. Both corporeal relics (bones or other parts of the body) and incorporeal relics (objects closely associated with the saints) were venerated and believed to have miraculous properties. Such relics were carried in processions, used to solemnize important occasions and in the making vows and curses, and carried as talismans in battle. Shrines partook of the holiness of the relics they contained, and were re-embellished in successive periods, rather than remade. The reliquaries used to protect these relics became highly ornate, and furnish further examples of the art work of the period.

There are not many examples of Anglo-Saxon architecture since most of their buildings were built from wood. The Danes left very few of those buildings standing. The only Anglo-Saxon buildings made more permanently were their churches and monasteries.  They were generally small and simple, and when the Normans arrived they often built upon them. Many English churches have sections of earlier Saxon buildings. Some good examples of Anglo-Saxon churches still around today are Bradford-on-Avon (Wiltshire), Earls Barton (Northamptonshire), Escomb (Durham), and Bradwell-on-Sea (Essex). Of these, Bradwell is the oldest, having been founded by St.Cedd in 654.

stone shaft from Codford

ornaments from Trewhiddle

© The Trustees of the British Museum
The Fuller Brooch
Anglo-Saxon, late 9th century AD
The earliest known personification of the Five Senses

for larger image

© The Trustees of the British Museum
 Silver and Gold Buckle
decorated with a fish

Anglo-Saxon, mid-7th century AD,
from Crundale Down, Kent, England. 
A Christian symbol

for larger image

© The British Library Board

Lindisfarne Carpet Page
from the Lindisfarne Bible, by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, scribe and Aldred the glossator, made 710-721, in Latin with Anglo-Saxon glosses.

Earls Barton, Northants, All Saints

A late Saxon tower displaying characteristic openings, lesenes, and "long-and-short work"

go to  Lancaster Churches
where there are many more images
and information about Saxon architecture.

and also Britain Express
Historical Time Line
The Making of Kings- Kingship, The Army and Warfare
Events before King Egbert's Time- Beginning in Europe, The 7 Kingdoms and the ChurchLineage, Ancestors and Parentage
The Life of King Egbert- The Early Years (775-802)
The Kingship- Chronicle Excerpts, 802-824, 825-829, 830-839, Reasons for Success

The People and Places Important to King Egbert - The People, The Places
Society in King Egbert's Time- Part 1 (Government, Household, Allegiance, Finances) Part 2 (Great Hall, Cooking & Eating, Food, Feasts, Christmas)
Part 3
(Crafts & Trade, Clothing and Appearance, Hygiene, Medicine) Part 4 (Peasants, Farming, Gardens & Plants, Common Tasks, Home, Village) Part 5 (Art)
Sources and References