Early Medieval Art by Lawrence Nees (2002)

Part of the Oxford History of Art series, this large-format, glossily-printed book has 244 pages and 138 illustrations, many in colour, of late antique and early medieval art. The text is intended as an overview of the visual arts, excluding architecture, of the Early Middle Ages 300 to 1000. It proceeds in broadly chronological order, but is divided into general topics – The Roman Language of Art, Earliest Christian Art, Conversion, Art for Aristocrats, Endings and Beginnings, and so on.

Challenges

Nees faces a number of problems:

Art books are harder than history books A historian such as Peter Brown can range freely over words and ideas and be as general or specific as he likes. An art historian must be able to show us the works – the evidence – to back up his commentary, ideas, theory. General comments must be backed up by examples from the limited objects which have come down to us. Also, although he is covering (a very large) historical period, he doesn’t have the space to explore historical ideas in any depth – his brief is the art of the period, and so the historical introductions to each section tend to be brief and sketchy.

Patchy evidence Nees is doubly challenged in this respect because what survives of early medieval art is so patchy. He uses the word ‘class’ a lot to refer to a group of works which demonstrate the same style or craftsmanship or subject matter; but then routinely goes on to say that this or that work stands alone, in a class of one. This thing has survived; it’s beautiful but we don’t know who made it or where or what tradition it came out of or any background at all and, so far as we know, nothing really followed it. Frustrating.

Narrative helps us assimilate art Working through the book you begin to appreciate that a lot of art books (and exhibitions) work by making comparisons which allow the construction of interesting narratives. Take the recent massive exhibition at the Royal Academy about garden painting. The curators have gathered several hundred paintings of gardens from a 40 year period and this allows them to analyse the works on show in great detail, distinguishing different themes or ideas or presentation of the garden, showing how the garden was presented in the many late-19th century different styles, showing how the approach changed and evolved over time, specifically in the work of the core artist, Claude Monet, and so on. The garden exhibition is an example of the way that detailed stories – about ‘Monet the genius’ or ‘the garden in symbolist art’ or ‘the garden as personal haven’ etc – help us make sense of, assimilate, and enjoy the works on display. Having a lot of specimens a) makes complex stories possible b) allows comparisons and contrasts c) which then generate insights and so d) allow us to figure out what we like.

Bitty Early medieval art lacks this range; what has survived is fragmentary. So Nees can’t avoid his book often feeling patchy. Maybe this is why he chose chapters based on topics rather than a straight chronological structure, because pure chronology would reveal the big big gaps where we have no examples, whereas an arrangement by topic allows him to bring together the surviving works, no matter how distant in time or space.

Nees goes into great detail about most of the examples featured but this immersion in minutiae made it quite difficult sometimes to remember which topic we were meant to be considering, or to remember if there were any general points I was meant to be bearing in mind, supporting the individual examples (generally, no).

Detailed analysis The great strength of the book is Nees’s detailed analysis of the 120 or so pieces chosen for the book. The text mostly proceeds from close analysis of one artefact to close analysis of the next and time after time Nees brings an eagle eye to the clarification and explication of detail in what we’re looking at, whether it be an ivory carving, funeral stele, triumphal arch, chair, crown, coin or belt buckle. He makes comparisons (where they’re possible) and slowly we accumulate a sense of how Roman topoi were recycled by Christian and non-Roman artists as the centuries passed and European society changed out of all recognition from the days of the Empire.

The art

Nees is clearly an immensely knowledgeable enthusiast for the art from this neglected period, and his detailed analyses of the 120 or so artefacts illustrated in the book are always stimulating and insightful. But somehow it left me stone cold. Oddly, I felt much more enthusiasm for the art of this period from reading a book by the historian Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity. Brown was able to set the scene, explaining the big political picture for each distinct period in this long era, and then outlining the social trends and changes affecting it. Against this comprehensive background he could then select a handful of examples of art which embodied each period. A memorable instance was his reference to the rise in importance of eyes in art during the 4th century, giving the reader several illustrations – which then sensitises you to the vividness (or not) of eyes as they appear in all the remaining works.

Nees proceeds at a much more granular level, looking in detail at one painting, or stele, or fibula, before going on to compare it to another, very specific, one. The book amounts to a sequence of very specific exhibits and this eventually gives it an almost random feel, like offerings at a jumble sale: here are some old coins, a belt buckle, a damaged crown, some paintings from a catacomb, the arch over an early church.

There are themes here – the chapters are given thematic titles – but somehow the themes were hard to grasp and remember. Instead, like an exhibition at the British Museum, what you remember is the beauty of individual works. My highlights include:

  • Illustration from the Aachen Gospels made for Otto III about the year 996 – note the white eyes
  • Scene from Column of Marcus Aurelius Beheading prisoners, Rome 170-180 AD –  note the severed heads at the bottom
  • The Velletri sarcophagus – note the ‘figural’ ‘registers’, the main, upper one, showing the labours of Hercules, the pediments above it supported by female caryatids, the entire register supported by crouching Atlases, the lower register showing Bible scenes, starting on the left with Adam and Eve.
  • Ivory diptych of Rufius Probianus – around 400 AD. Nees points out the military standards in the background of each upper image, and the way the scribes are poised ready to take down his words.
  • Projecta casket – late 300s AD. A text engraved into the lid says ‘Secundus and Projecta, live in Christ’, yet all the iconography is pagan, from the winged cherubs or putti, to the scene of Venus rising from the waves.
  • Ivory diptych of Consul Boethius 487 AD – the consul holds the mappa, a kind of bean bag he throws to the ground to begin the Games; note the bags of money at his feet to be distributed to the people and the palm leaves ready to be awarded to victors in the Games.
  • Ivory diptych of Stilicho and Serena 400AD. As usual Nees is excellent at highlighting details like the prominent fibula or pin worn by father and son, the fact that the general, Stilicho, is wearing a military style cloak (a chlamys) covered with small medallions, and the tiny figures of the joint emperors Honorius and Arcadius in a medallion on his shield.
  • Sword and scabbard mounts from the tomb of Childeric AD 482, Childeric being one of the first kings of the Franks. Note the cloisonné work ie the silver-gilt partitions between embedded blood red garnets.
  • Basilica of San Apollinare Nuevo in Ravenna, built at the command of Theoderic king of the Ostrogoths (454-526) Note the three registers, with a parade of women then the three magi bringing gifts to the infant Jesus on the bottom, full length of saints between the clerestory windows, and scenes from Jesus’ life alternating with trompe l’oeil, painted alcoves in the uppermost register.
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore 430-440. Despite many later additions, this is the original impressive size of this huge church, built in the reign of Pope Sixtus III.
  • Icon of the Virgin and Child, Santa Maria in Trastavere 705-7AD. Graceful. The clarity of the eyes looking at you. Compare and contrast with…
  • Virgin and Child from the Book of Kells, the oldest image of Mary in a western manuscript. Bad, isn’t it? What worlds apart were late 7th century Rome and 8th century Ireland.

Anglo-Saxon art

Carefully reading Nees’s commentary, and taking the time to identify all the elements he analyses in each work, I began to develop a feel or taste for what – at first sight – sometimes seemed the rather amateurish-seeming paintings or carvings from the period.

But then these tentative likings were totally eclipsed when I came to the section about the works which seem to me head and shoulders above anything else from the period – the stunning pieces found in the Anglo-Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo. I was blown away by these as a student studying Anglo-Saxon culture and language, and have loved them ever since:

The clasps combine beautiful geometric cloisonné work, with northern pagan-style zoomorphic (ie animal-shaped) patterns. The belt buckle is a brilliant example of the use of interlocking decorated lines which appear to be an abstract pattern until you look closer and see eyes and maybe beaks at the end of some of them: they are highly stylised depictions of animals, turned into threads which can be infinitely interwoven.

Altogether these works seem complete, utterly confident, totally finished, in a way most of the other artefacts in this book don’t. They seem totally professional – they still bear up today in a world super-saturated with crafted objects – and, for me, completely outshine almost all the other, often rather amateurish, works of the period.


Nees’s prose style

Quotation marks

Nees is a great user of speech marks, using them for quotes (fair enough) but also extensively to call into question words and ideas, or to highlight that they are contested or debatable terms, or to emphasise that he is aware that they are debatable terms. The text is littered with the liberal use of quote marks including: ‘limitation’, ‘symbols’, ‘caught’, ‘natural symbolism’, ‘death’, ‘god’, ‘church’, ‘houses’, ‘borders’, ‘putti’, ‘new men’, ‘wedding hoard’, ‘tribe’, ‘age of the saints’, the ‘cult of images’, ‘desire’, ‘icons’, ‘iconic’, ‘portraits’, ‘individuals’, ‘likeness’, ‘true image’, the so-called ‘Shroud of Turin’, a ‘translation’, ‘diverged’, ‘narrative’, ‘innovation’, ‘ornaments’, ‘peoples of the book’, ‘illuminated’, ‘painted’…

After a while you realise that merely putting ‘speech marks’ around a ‘word’ as if to give it a sense of heightened ‘meaning’ or intellectual ‘rigour’ becomes pretty ‘tiresome’ and doesn’t, in the end, add anything at all to your understanding.

Nees is particularly keen to point out that he is not one of the old fuddy-duddies who think it is a ‘fact’ of history that Rome ‘declined’ and then ‘fell’ to the ‘barbarians’. He repeats that we must get away from this terrible old way of thinking in the introduction and regularly throughout the text. But

a) Any serious history of the period stopped thinking that thirty years ago
b) On the other hand, the Western Roman Empire was invaded repeatedly by armies of people who were illiterate and outside Roman civilisation: the Roman Empire did eventually collapse. No amount of fancy speech marks and attitudinising can really hide that fact.

The point comes to a head around page 80 where he refers to barbarians numerous times, sometimes as ‘barbarians’ (emphasising that he is aware that the very term is highly debatable) but lots of other times just as plain old barbarians, without the scare quotes. It is as if there are two texts or two authors at work, one who is highly attuned to the necessity for politically correct phraseology and keen to emphasise his sophisticated scepticism about the shocking old cliches about ‘barbarians’ and so-called ‘tribes’ and so-called ‘northern art’ — and one who just has to get on and describe the actual works of art before him, and discovers there is no adequate alternative terminology to describe the invasions of the Roman Empire by, er, barbarian tribes.

This schizophrenic attitude is, by itself, quite an interesting learning to take from the book.

Art critical jargon

At several points Nees writes dismissively of other authors’ shocking use of art historical jargon, as if it’s a terrible folly which he rises above.

That word ‘iconography’ is entirely appropriate here, and also contains a warning. The term is common art-historical jargon for the subject-matter represented in works of art, derived from the Greek for ‘writing in images’. (p.29)

Tut tut, whoever uses such awful jargon? But it’s an ironic comment because Nees himself uses the jargon of art criticism and, especially, of modish literary theory quite freely. Of a hunting scene on a painted plate:

Space and time are suspended in favour of a heroically signitive image. (p.65)

‘Signitive’? Describing the wonderful hinged clasps from Sutton Hoo, he writes:

The rectangular fields have a continuous over-all pattern that may be seen as interlocking addorsed step-pyramids in two different sizes. (p.112)

‘Addorsed’? He tells us that Theoderic built a ‘domical tomb’ for himself at Ravenna. ‘Domical’? As well as these specialist terms, Nees also uses buzzwords from post-structuralist literary theory, from the theories of Foucault and Barthes and Derrida, which were becoming widespread in the 1980s when I was a student and have gone on to become the common currency of various critical ‘discourses’. For example, pictures rarely show things, they ‘code’ and ‘encode’ messages which the viewer has to ‘decode’ (This refers to the structuralist and narratological theory of how meaning is created by language – but taken out of context, or presented to readers who are not familiar with post-structuralist theory, it just sounds grandiose and, ultimately unnecessary. What does ‘decode’ say that ‘read’ or ‘interpret’ doesn’t – except to emphasise that the priofessor is up on the latest continental theory.)

There’s regular use of the word ‘other’, one of the buzzwords of post-structuralist theory, originating, as I understand it, in the structuralist psycho-analytical theory of Jacques Lacan (1901-81). Here is an example of how Lacan uses it:

The analyst must be imbued with the difference between Other and other, so he can situate himself in the place of Other, and not the other.

In the hands of modish Anglo-Saxon academics or journalists, however, it is emptied of its highly specialist psychoanalytical meaning and just becomes a modish way of referring to groups or tribes or people who are outside the power structure or cultural context you’re describing. Instead of saying that so-and-so people, tribes, groups, cultures had different traits or practices or customs, it sound much grander, more ominous and impressive to say that the ‘barbarians’, the pagans (or whatever you like) are ‘the other’ or, grandest of all, ‘the Other’.

Monasteries were constructed as holy places, deliberately ‘other’ rather than normal… (p.129)

The development of what has long been termed ‘barbarian art’ needs to be seen in relation to Rome, not in the Romantic historiographical tradition in which the ‘barbarians’ (especially Germans) were entirely Other, and in some almost mystical way pure, untouched by Rome. (p.74)

You can see how that second sentence would be improved by removing ‘entirely Other, and in some almost mystical way pure’, or recasting the thought to make it clearer that so-called barbarian art, instead of representing a completely alien tradition, was often deeply influenced by Roman art.

Accompanying the tarting-up of really very banal statements goes Nees’s habit of explaining very obvious things – for example, he usefully tells us that Jesus was a Jew, that the area where Jesus was born and preached is known as ‘the Holy Land’, and that the word pope comes from the Latin papa, meaning father. Surely the kind of person who is reading the Oxford History of Early Medieval Art can be expected to know that. So in some places he is extraordinarily patronishing, yet in others leaves highly technical terminology entirely unexplained.

The combination of the art critical jargon, the unexplained technical terms, and his sometimes ponderously old-fashioned style (things aren’t shown, they are ‘put forth’, objects in paintings are never ‘on’ a table or altar, they are always ‘upon’) results in a rather effortful read. A shame, because his insights into all the works on display are always detailed and illuminating.


Terms of art

These are some of the technical terms I learned about:

  • adlocutio: An address by a general (usually the emperor) to his massed army and a general salute from the army to their leader. It is often portrayed in sculpture, either simply as a single, life-size contraposto figure of the general with his arm outstretched, or a relief scene of the general on a podium addressing the army. Such relief scenes also frequently appear on imperial coinage. (Wikipedia)
  • adventus: A ceremony in ancient Rome, in which an emperor was formally welcomed into a city either during a progress or after a military campaign, often (but not always) Rome. The term is also used to refer to artistic depictions (usually in relief sculpture, including coins) of such ceremonies. (Wikipedia)
  • Bracteate: A bracteate (Latin bractea, a thin piece of metal) is a flat, thin, single-sided gold medal worn as jewelry that was produced in Northern Europe predominantly during the Migration Period of the Germanic Iron Age. (Wikipedia)
  • Cloisonné: decorative work in which enamel, glass, or gemstones are separated by strips of flattened wire placed edgeways on a metal backing.
  • Diptych: Any object with two flat plates attached at a hinge. In Late Antiquity, ivory notebook diptychs with covers carved in low relief on the outer faces were a significant art-form. The ‘consular diptych’ was made to celebrate an individual’s becoming Roman consul, when they seem to have been made in sets and distributed by the new consul to friends and followers. Others might celebrate a wedding, and so on. We possess several dozen of these diptychs survive and they are among the most important surviving works of the Late Roman Empire. (Wikipedia)
  • Fastigium: in Architecture, the ridge or gable end of a roof.
  • Fibula: A brooch or pin for fastening garments, in a wide variety of patterns all based on the safety-pin principle
  • Medallion: a round or oval frame (often made of stucco) which contains a plastic or pictorial decoration of a façade, an interior, a piece of furniture or equipment. (Wikipedia)
  • Pyxis: a small round box made by carving the outside of a complete section of an elephant’s tusk.
  • Register: like the different storeys of a building, Nees uses register to refer to different levels of a frieze or painting divided into separate ‘floors’ or compartments.
  • Stele: A stele (Latin) is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected as a monument, very often for funerary or commemorative purposes. (Wikipedia)
  • Strigillation: Repeated closely spaced S-shaped flutes, commonly enriching the sides of Classical or Neo-Classical sarcophagi.
  • Tetrarchy: The Rule of Four; instituted by Roman Emperor Diocletian in 293, marking the end of the Crisis of the Third Century and the recovery of the Roman Empire, the Tetrarchy lasted until 313, when internecine conflict had eliminated most of the claimants to power, leaving Constantine in the East and Licinius in the West. (Wikipedia)

Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

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