Art at the Cultural Frontier in the Twelfth Century

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Art at the Cultural Frontier in the Twelfth Century

and Embroidery

Because they were so often damaged or destroyed through use, exposure, or some other calamity, medieval textiles have not survived in numbers indicative of their actual importance for medieval culture. Decorative woven and embroidered textiles were used most often in the creation of ceremonial vestments (for bishops or secular rulers) or for large wall-hangings and floor-coverings.

Weaving is a process used in the production of carpets, tapestries, and other textiles, and is carried out on a loom. The structure of vertical threads is known as the warp; the weft refers to the horizontal threads woven across to form the pattern or decoration. Different artisans were involved in the design and execution of a piece of artistic weaving. A famous example is the series of tapestries illustrating the Apocalypse commissioned in 1376 by Louis of Anjou for the decoration of his castle. A master weaver named Nicholas Bataille was commissioned to do the work, but he in turn ordered designs to be drawn up by the king's painter, Jean Bandol of Bruges.

Embroidery is a needlework technique in which designs are sewn in a fine material (like silk) onto a support made of another material, such as wool, cotton, or linen. The most famous example of a medieval embroidery is the improperly named "Bayeux Tapestry." It is a 70-meter long strip of linen embroidered in dyed wool with narrative scenes relating the story of the Norman conquest of England in 1066 in great detail—over 50 scenes with more than 600 human figures. This example is unique; more common were the many decorative textiles used for liturgical purposes by priests and bishops. English embroidery became well known throughout later medieval Europe as opus Anglicanum. An example is the Chichester-Constable Chasuble, a velvet vestment worn during performance of the Mass and probably made for Edward III (r. 1327–1377), whose family emblem appears in the top portion of the decoration. Embroidery on the back of the vestment, done in gold, silver, and silk threads adorned with seed pearls, depicts scenes from the Life of the Virgin.

A Multicultural Art.

Interregional trade in luxury and art objects helped make it possible for Romanesque art to synthesize many different visual languages. But there were also particular regions where Latin Christians from Europe coexisted or came into frequent contact with members of other cultures, and these points of contact were important in giving Romanesque art its international character. Spain continued to be a frontier region where Christians and Muslims intermingled, sometimes sharing in a common artistic culture. In southern Italy and Sicily, a dynasty of Norman rulers presided over "a kingdom of the Two Sicilies" in which Latin, Greek (Byzantine), and Islamic traditions all had a share in defining the local culture. The eastern Mediterranean—the Holy Land—was another crucible of cross-cultural interaction where Latin Christian crusaders, Byzantine Christians, and Muslims fought each other and yet gained knowledge of each other's traditions in the visual arts. Sometimes, art objects produced by one culture were taken and reused in a new context by another culture. Some hybrid art forms (Christian or Islamic? Latin or Greek?) carried across Europe through trade, war, or diplomacy were expressive of this medieval multiculturalism. With such a rich and cosmopolitan art scene in twelfth-century Europe, the stage was set for the advent of the more complex, intellectually sophisticated, and naturalistic visual art of the later Middle Ages.

Norman Sicily.

The Normans, who had recently invaded and conquered England, established dominion over Sicily in the early twelfth century and founded a state which became a major power in the Mediterranean basin. The mantle for the coronation of the Christian king Roger II, created between 1133 and 1134, is a work of Islamic art made by Muslims in the royal workshop in Palermo (as its Arabic inscription states). It features a central Tree of Life flanked by lions attacking camels, a common hunting motif that signified royal power and dominion. What is meant by the commissioning and ceremonial employment of Islamic art by a Christian king? A comparison with the Spanish situation is instructive. Christian kings of Spain brought back Islamic textiles or carved ivory caskets (often produced at the caliph's court in Córdoba) as spoils of war and then often incorporated them into Christian shrines (as in the Reliquary Shrine of San Isidoro). This sort of hybridization in the arts, however, must be seen in the light of the ongoing military struggle between the two communities and the practice of despoiling one's enemy and then neutralizing enemy symbols by re-contextualizing them. In Norman Sicily, Muslims were recognized subjects and even members of the royal administration; they were not the enemy. The coronation mantle, when worn by the king, visualized his claim to be ruler over a diverse ethnic constituency. His appeal to the visual tradition of his Muslim subjects demonstrates that rulers during this period could no longer assert their authority in the early medieval terms of absolute power. In multicultural contexts, they increasingly relied on a visual language of inclusiveness.

The Pisa Griffin.

Sometimes works of art from this period are not so easy to identify with one specific cultural group or another. This may be because of the fact that they were moved from region to region, or perhaps because many of the same techniques and visual motifs were often employed in different places. A long-celebrated enigma of Islamic craftsmanship in bronze, the so-called "Pisa Griffin" has been alternatively assigned to Ummayad Spain, Fatimid Egypt (the first two named for the dynasties of their Muslim rulers), Sicily, Italy, or Iran. Each of these places had bronze-working traditions as well as flourishing court cultures that produced luxury objects and engaged in trans-regional trade. For some 700 years the Griffin stood proudly atop Pisa Cathedral in Pisa, Italy; how it got there is something of a mystery. It is thought to have been made in the late eleventh or early twelfth century, but was it given as a gift, exchanged through channels of trade, or taken as booty during a military campaign? Standing just over three and a half feet tall, this majestic creature would have been understood by any number of Mediterranean communities as a symbol of power and victory (hence its placement as a trophy atop the cathedral). It is the circulation of such works from place to place that gives evidence for cross-cultural relations during the period. But surely these works also played a role in establishing pan-cultural identities and fostering knowledge of neighboring and distant peoples. In an era long before "globalization," individual works of art very often did the work of establishing connections between places or attesting to the existence of those connections.

Queen Melisende's Psalter.

One outpost of Latin Christendom that served as a crucible of cross-cultural exchange in the visual arts was the Holy Land during the period of the Crusades (from about 1100 to almost 1300). During this time, knights and adventurers from all over Western Europe established states along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, the most important of which was the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Here, rulers of Latin or sometimes mixed Latin-Byzantine ancestry asserted their sovereignty over a mixture of peoples, not unlike the rulers of Norman Sicily. One such ruler was Queen Melisende, who ruled alongside her husband Fulk until his death in 1143, after which she enjoyed exclusive sovereignty over the kingdom until 1152. One of the greatest monuments of visual art from the period of her reign is a deluxe psalter, or book of Psalms, currently preserved in the British Library. The psalter text itself, the first page (and the first letter, an historiated letter "B" for "Beatus vir," the first words of one of the Psalms), begins after a cycle of full-page New Testament illustrations and a calendar of the feasts of the saints. The golden script used throughout, as well as the overall sumptuousness of the book, indicates royal patronage and imitates the manner of imperial manuscripts from the Byzantine court in Constantinople. The text was copied by a scribe in a northern French style, and the figural work within the initial letter "B" imitates an English style. This mixture of influences can be found throughout the manuscript; the illustrations are largely Byzantine with some western touches, and the carved ivory covers recall textile motifs from the Near East. A work that truly synthesizes various cultural influences, the psalter expresses the queen's desire to establish royal authority over a mixture of peoples by accommodating their various traditions within the new visual culture of the royal court. Other strategies are employed as well, such as the propagandistic scenes of King David on the front ivory cover which suggest a biblical prototype for the crusader rulers of Jerusalem.

The Stavelot Triptych.

That a single work of art may express inter-regional connections by the literal incorporation of other works within it is clear from the example of the Stavelot Triptych, thought to have been commissioned by Wibald, the Benedictine abbot of Stavelot (in modern-day Belgium) sometime after 1155. It is a portable gilt copper altarpiece whose doors open to reveal scenes from the life of the Roman emperor Constantine in circular enamel panels, an assortment of gems and pearls, and two smaller triptychs in the central section. Wibald had just returned from a trip to Constantinople, and this altarpiece, executed by master metalsmiths in the Mosan region, emphasizes the abbot's regard for Byzantine traditions in the visual arts. The two small triptychs in the center are actually reliquary containers from Constantinople, given as gifts by the Emperor Manuel I. The fragment of the True Cross that each contains as well as the particular type of enamel-work used to decorate the small reliquaries are both decidedly Byzantine intrusions into a work from Western Europe. The pride of place they are given within the overall work suggests that Byzantine sacred objects were held in especially high regard in the West. Perhaps the patron is also making a statement about the interconnectedness of different Christian traditions or about his own enlightened cosmopolitanism. Regardless of the specific meaning, it is works such as this that tell us that twelfth-century Europeans were finding many ways to assimilate influences from neighboring and distant cultures in the forging of new works of visual art. It is this openness to the larger world, as much as any internal developments, that helped pave the way toward the magnificent visual arts of the later Middle Ages.


Jaroslav Folda, The Art of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, 1098–1187 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Eva R. Hoffman, "Pathways of Portability: Islamic and Christian Interchange from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century," Art History 24:1 (Feb. 2001): 17–50.

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Art at the Cultural Frontier in the Twelfth Century

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