Anglo-Saxon art and architecture

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Anglo-Saxon art and architecture now only survives fragmentarily and even what remains is not necessarily representative of what once existed. Our view of architecture, for example, is distorted by the near-total loss of all wooden buildings and by the Norman destruction of all pre-Conquest cathedrals. Similarly art in wood and fabric is now rare and whilst 5th- and 6th-cent. metalwork has been well preserved by burial in pagan graves, Christian material remained above ground and thus vulnerable to the destructive forces of changing taste, Viking and Norman looting, or the zealous cleansing of the Reformation.

Wood was the medium of almost all secular architecture and our information consequently has to rely on the excavated post-holes and foundation-trenches of structures which have otherwise totally vanished. Essentially two types of building are represented in the archaeological record. One was the so-called ‘sunken-featured building’ with a half-subterranean floor or cellar. These seem largely to have functioned as workshops alongside a second type of structure, the rectangular ‘hall’. These halls vary in their size and their constructional techniques, but at the royal level represented by palaces at Yeavering (Northd.) and Cheddar (Som.) they were obviously impressive structures reaching up to 100 feet in length.

Wood was also the natural medium for churches built in the Irish tradition brought to Northumbria by St Aidan and his followers in the 7th cent., and it continued to be an important medium throughout the period. Only Greenstead (Essex), however, now remains as an example of this once-widespread form. The alternative tradition of masonry architecture survives much more extensively. It was this tradition which was reintroduced to lowland Britain by the Augustinian mission to Kent in the late 6th cent. and enthusiastically exploited by Northumbrians such as Wilfrid and Benedict Biscop later in the following century. For such early ecclesiastics it is clear that the use of stone represented a statement of their identity with the rest of the Christian world and it is the same identification which is reflected in the fact that their early churches, such as Reculver (Kent) or Hexham (Northd.), show links in their plans, technology, and ornament to buildings in Gaul and Italy.

The great cultural renaissance of the late 8th and early 9th cents. under the Carolingian monarchy brought with it an attempt to emulate the scale and forms of classical antiquity; churches at Brixworth (Northants), Wareham (Dorset), and Cirencester (Glos.) seem to represent English responses to these continental movements, particularly in the form of their crypts. Despite the disruptions of Viking activity ambitious churches incorporating Carolingian features were still being erected or modified in the later 9th cent. Deerhurst (Glos.) and Repton (Derbys.) provide two well-dated examples and early in the following century the new minster at Winchester, with its great aisled nave and projecting transepts, clearly echoes continental types. More typical, however, of a persistent characteristic of English architectural taste is a work which is broadly contemporary with the new minster, the church of St Oswald at Gloucester whose earliest phases lie between c.880 and 918. It has a crypt and western apse of Carolingian type but its basic unaisled form is highly conservative and could be paralleled as far back as King Cenwalh's 7th-cent. church at Winchester. The excavated sequence of the old minster at Winchester, indeed, shows that same conservatism persisting through into the period of the Benedictine reform movement: the building was extensively altered at both its east and west ends in 980 and 993–4 to give a total length exceeding 240 feet, but at its core, preserved like a relic, remained the building erected by Cenwalh in c.648.

Anglo-Saxon art mirrors the characteristics of ecclesiastical architecture; it responds creatively to foreign models but remains highly conservative in its tastes. In the pagan period, where our information now depends largely on surviving metalwork, it is essentially a non-representational art whose effects rely upon contrasts of line and colour and on the ambiguities of stylized animal motifs. This Germanic art found its most striking expression in the gold and garnet jewellery of Sutton Hoo. The Christian conversion brought with it both new media for Anglo-Saxon artists, such as books and stone carving, and an alien Late Antique aesthetic from the Mediterranean world. 7th- and 8th-cent. artists developed a fascinating range of responses to these imported concepts and their native inherited traditions. The range is well exemplified by two contemporary works of c.700, the Codex Amiatinus and the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Codex, written and illuminated at Jarrow, meticulously reproduced the art of its Italian model, whilst the Lindisfarne Gospels reinterpreted similar models in a more linear style and combined them with zoomorphic forms which reach back to Sutton Hoo. Analogous combinations of eclectic borrowing and conservative traditionalism characterize later English art of the 9th cent. and beyond.

The Viking invasions and settlements of the later 9th cent. divided the artistic culture of the country in two. In the north we see Scandinavian animal ornament and mythology grafted onto native Anglo-Saxon monuments like the crosses and grave-slabs of York minster, Leeds, and Gosforth (Cumbria). In the south, building upon the cultural realignments encouraged by King Alfred and his immediate successors, there was an artistic revival in the later years of the 10th cent. associated with the Benedictine reform movement which cautiously fused Carolingian and Ottonian motifs with long-established insular forms. By the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, in work like the Romsey Rood, Romanesque art was already emerging.

Richard N. Bailey


Backhouse, J., et al. , The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art (1984);
Fernie, E. , The Architecture of the Anglo-Saxons (1983);
Webster, L., et al. , The Making of England (1991);
Wilson, D. M. , Anglo-Saxon Art (1984).

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Anglo-Saxon architecture. English architecture from the end of C6 to the Norman Conquest (1066), also called Saxon. Much Anglo-Saxon building was of timber, but from c.672 the more significant structures were of masonry, usually rag or rubble. Later, freestone dressings, including quoins set alternately horizontally and on end (known as long-and-short work), raised lesenes (as at Earl's Barton Church, Northants.), horizontal string-courses, blind arcades on vertical strips, paired semicircular headed openings separated by baluster-like colonnettes in towers, triangular-topped openings, and roughly carved outsized elements framing doorways, were common motifs. The raised lesenes, strings, and long-and-short work suggest that the rubble panels thus created were originally intended to be rendered with plaster or some kind of stucco. Occasionally, rubble was laid in a herring-bone pattern. Window-openings were usually small. Churches consisted of a nave (often with a storey over (e.g. Deerhurst, Glos.)) and a chancel divided from the nave by an arch (e.g. Wittering, Soke of Peterborough) or by three arches (e.g. Bradwell-juxta-Mare, Essex). Northern chancels were usually square-ended, but in the South were sometimes apsidal. All Saints Church, Brixworth, Northants., has nave-arcades partly made of recycled Roman bricks and tiles: this suggests a basilica, but it appears the ‘aisles’ were subdivided by walls to form chambers, called porticus, although there seems to have been an apse at one end and a two-storeyed porch at the other, with chambers on each side. Thus Brixworth is one of the grandest surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon architecture, although certain structures, such as the New Minster at Winchester, Hants. (begun 903–destroyed), seem to have been more ambitious, owing much to Carolingian precedent.


Cruickshank (ed.) (1996);
Stoll (1967)

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Anglo-Saxon art and architecture Art and architecture produced in Britain from the 5th to the 11th centuries, following the invasions by the Anglo-Saxons. The most famous archaeological find is the pagan ship-burial at Sutton Hoo. Anglo-Saxon art is predominantly Christian, consisting of stone crosses, ivory carvings and illuminated manuscripts (the most important are the Lindisfarne Gospels). Anglo-Saxon churches are characterized by square apses, aisles or side chambers (porticus), pilaster strips and distinctive timber work.

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