England and the Vikings

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England and the Vikings

The Rise of English Unity.

The empire of the Carolingians began to decline after the monarchy of Louis the Pious (814–840), but its artistic influence was felt for centuries to come, often far outside its borders. England, settled by the Germanic tribes known as Angles and Saxons, developed a political model of sacred kingship that was based on Old Testament precedents and that was dependent upon the official sanction of Christian churchmen, just as Carolingian kingship had been. This early medieval notion of sacred kingship implied that the authority of the church was exercised through the person of the king or emperor, whose claim to both political and religious authority was based on the precedent of the Old Testament kings and, more recently, the Frankish (or Carolingian) emperors of Rome. It was an accommodation between spiritual and temporal authority that served the interests of both, as each sought to gain legitimacy and power by association with the other. The "golden age" in early medieval English culture is usually associated with the reign of King Alfred the Great (871–899) of the royal house of Wessex, the unifier of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in their defense against the invasions of the Vikings. A Scandinavian people not yet converted to Christianity, the Vikings raided and looted all over western Europe in the ninth century, destroying many wealthy monastic houses but invigorating interregional trade in early medieval Europe through their establishment of routes along which their precious booty (slaves as well as gold and silver) was exchanged for goods from the East. The Vikings, and in particular their technically accomplished and decorative metalwork, had an important impact upon the visual arts in Western Europe.

The Alfred Jewel.

The Alfred Jewel, made from gold and enamel and probably intended to be the top of a royal scepter, reveals quite a bit about the state of the visual arts in England around 900. First, there is the connection of this object to a king. The arts would not have flourished as they did in the early Middle Ages were it not for the sponsorship of rulers, who saw the propaganda value of art and often lavished great resources upon the royal and monastic workshops that produced all sorts of luxury objects. Second, an inscription around the edge of the Alfred Jewel reads "Alfred ordered me to be made," an attribution that demonstrates the general anonymity of the early medieval artist in contrast to the all-importance of the (royal) patron. Additionally, the style and craftsmanship of the jewel shows the way that different cultural traditions were often combined in the creation of works of art: the goldwork resembles that of the Vikings, who specialized in small-scale portable objects in metal, stone, and wood and were especially known for detailed and decorative metalwork, while the half-length enameled figure of the ruler is based on earlier English indigenous traditions of semi-abstract figure drawing. The Carolingian (and more Roman) impact on the visual arts in England is not yet evident in the Alfred Jewel, but would appear soon in the illuminated manuscripts of the tenth century.

Monastic Centers of Illumination.

King Alfred presided over a flourishing and vibrant court culture, and in the manner of Charlemagne he invited scholars from all over the continent to come to his court and work under his patronage. Because monasteries were the preservers of the intellectual heritage and many of these had recently been destroyed or looted by the Vikings in the ninth century, Alfred and some of his successors helped to rebuild monastic libraries in England in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Illuminated manuscripts, therefore, constitute an important part of the artistic legacy from England in the early Middle Ages. Important schools of manuscript illumination sprang up in cathedral centers like those of Canterbury and Winchester, thanks to the efforts and patronage of church leaders like St. Dunstan (d. 988), the abbot of Glastonbury and later the archbishop of Canterbury, and St. Aethelwold (d. 984), a monk at Glastonbury who was made bishop of Winchester.

The New Minster Charter and Benedictional of Aethelwold.

The first known work of the new Winchester school of manuscript decoration shows the close relationship between pictorial imagery and accompanying text. The book called today the New Minster Charter was commissioned by Bishop Aethelwold in 966 to commemorate the introduction of Carolingian-style monastic reform (focused on eliminating "worldly" behavior) into a Winchester monastery. The frontispiece of the charter depicts King Edgar between the Virgin Mary and the Apostle Peter, the two patron saints of the abbey. Edgar is shown extending the charter—a document outlining and confirming the royally granted holdings and privileges of a monastery—up to the enthroned Christ, visualizing the royal donations made to the abbey by the king on this occasion. The accompanying text says, "Thus resides on his heavenly throne he who created the stars. The devout King Edgar humbly adores him. King Edgar issued this privilege to the new monastery and, with praise, granted gifts to the almighty Lord and his mother Mary." Just as monastic reform was introduced to England from France, so too were later Carolingian traditions in manuscript illustration brought to England and adapted to local tastes, as shown by this image. In the 970s Aethelwold ordered a lavishly decorated benedictional (a book containing blessings spoken by the bishop during the Mass) in which each major feast is accompanied by a pair of full-page illustrations. The illustration of the Baptism of Christ demonstrates further how Carolingian traditions in manuscript illumination found new life in the vibrant monastic houses of Anglo-Saxon England. The figures of Christ, John, and the angels, as well as some of the narrative details (like the water), are rendered in a linear style reminiscent of the French "Reims Cathedral" school, but the complex color scheme and the profusion of leafy ornament that literally bursts out of the frame indicate a rising interest in decorative embellishment and a new artistic complexity.


Janet Backhouse, et al., The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art, 966–1066 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

David Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Art: From the Seventh Century to the Norman Conquest (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1984).

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