Libmonster ID: RU-17192
Author(s) of the publication: Vladimir KULAKOV

Vladimir KULAKOV, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences

The material culture artefacts of a particular epoch may give some idea of its spiritual culture as well. It is hard indeed to decode such indirect evidence. Yet the very attempt to do that is laudable, for it makes it possible to look into this or that period of history in all its specifics. In our case, these are monuments of the decorative art of the Merovingian time.

During these last few years the author of the present article was lucky to work in the stocks of the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and study exhibits of a most interesting collection. Until 1941 they were kept in the Museum of Prehistory and Early History (Berlin). Thereafter, by order of Hitler, they were hidden first in bank safes and later on, for the purpose of protection from air raids, in basements of the Flakturm ZOO antiaircraft battery built in the form of a monumental tower (western part of Berlin). On May 5, 1945, the director of this museum Professor Wilhelm Unverzagt handed the rarities to the Soviet military authorities *. In such a way, the collection of ornamentals and other articles of the Merovingian epoch found

See: V. Kulakov, "The Treasure of the Last Vikings", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2010.--Ed.

Gold clasp from Reims (France), first half of the 5th century A.D.

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itself in the stocks of the Moscow museum. Before discussing particular exhibits, let us look back into a very distant history.

The Merovingian power, which in the years 420-623 embraced a part of the Roman province Gallia (Gaul) and a number of ancient tribal areas of the western Teutons (first of all, Franks and Alemanni, or Swabians), was a major barbarian state in Europe in the early Middle Ages. The key feature of the policy pursued by the first rulers of this dynasty was Christianity as an established religion. In 496 King Clovis I was baptized together with three thousand of his soldiers and adopted Orthodoxy that rose to pre-eminence in the Western Roman Empire. This ground-breaking event put the Gallian rulers on a par with the Ostrogothic king of Italy Theodoric the Great (circa 454-526) and the Byzantine emperors. The Merovingians' ambition, their desire to turn their barbarian kingdom into a Western (Hyperborean) empire and, finally, attain to the spiritual legitimacy of their power (or its semblance at least) by adopting Christianity were reflected in the decorative art of the epoch. According to archeological evidence, Roman tradition was enforced in men's and women's wear, accessories of military apparel and caparison. But to what extent were they intrinsic, and how did they interact with traditions of the Germanic decorative art? Did the classical heritage in the context of culture of early mediaeval Western Europe mean a revival of the world of Roman images? Or was it politically charged? We shall try to answer these questions (or at least delineate them).

At the beginning of their rule representatives of the Frankish dynasty were in alliance with the Roman administrators and generals (Aegidius and Syagrius) against attacks of the Visigoths on the Gallia province. Like other barbarian kings, Clovis I, the actual founder of the Merovingian power in what is now France, in his struggle against the German tribes surrounding his lands, tried to stress in every possible way the imperial succession of his power. The idea "imitate the Empire" (Latin "Imitatio Imperii"), accepted officially later by Charlemagne (742-814) and realized politically, was seen under the Merovingians in many political actions of West European rulers. As the Franks penetrated deep into Gallia, they came to be Romanized both through direct contacts with the autochthons (native Romanized Galli or Gauls) and through the enforcement of Old Roman social customs by the Merovingians. Active service in the auxiliares*; foisting the Roman Empire administrative and economic system on the captured provinces; reforming urban and social life; the language of legions; and finally, Christianity brought to Gallia from the south--all that contributed to the introduction of Roman norms and traditions, which eroded the social motivation of the Teutons, namely, war as the meaning of a Teuton's life. Roman mass culture on the threshold of the Middle Ages already could let "the wild barbarians" feel, even to a small extent, the beauty of classical artifacts and use them knowingly in daily life. Owing to this phenomenon, not recorded yet by archeologists, hundreds of classical objects d'art, they have survived to this day--they found their second life among Franks under Clovis I.

At the dawn of the Merovingian culture (in the 4th-5th centuries A.D.) gold bracelets and grivnas with flask-shaped ends became material evidence of the idea of military power of a king and his retinue. This is confirmed by a chance discovery at Velp in 1851 of a hoard of such grivnas (neck ornaments) decorated with

* Auxiliares, support forces of the Roman army composed of barbarians (aliens).--Ed.

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an engraved pattern in what is now the Netherlands. Judging by their dimensions and the Roman standards of weight, these grivnas were Roman military awards, manufactured in Roman provinces in the late 4th century A.D. Only one of them must have been manufactured by barbarian craftsmen, as a modest decoration of a thick wire was, probably, a personal property of the recipient of the award. Apart from the grivnas, the Velp findings include two rings with faceplates (by some assumptions, one of them bears a profile image of the Roman Emperor), a spiral ring and a wire loop made of gold. These rings (as well as the obviously barbarian spiral ring) could hardly be regarded as awards.

It can be expected that the anonymous barbarian soldier accomplished some feat in the Roman army and took an award purposely made by the Romans in the barbarian style. Thus, the classical and barbarian pictorial traditions blended, as seen in the statutory decoration regalia at the start of the Great Migration of Peoples even in the provincial sphere of the border legions. It should be noted that in the territory of the present Netherlands and the borderlands of Germany several hoards of grivnas were found, which were similar to those discovered at Velp and were probably the last military awards of Rome.

The techniques and images used by craftsmen of the western Roman provinces at the decline of the Empire are known, in particular, from the inventory of the Frankish burials of the 5th century. It appears that the Frankish groups, being a part of the Roman military formations, had articles made by Roman craftsmen. By the way, thanks to this fact the ornamentals of all sorts have survived, escaping the crucibles of jewelers of the 5th-6th centuries. They demonstrate a wide range of pictorial and technological skills of Roman provincial goldsmiths, who could cast articles against die and wax single - and double-side patterns, cover a bronze surface with gold and silver foil, braze plate bezels for semi-precious stones and garnet glass, make the finest wire, and do many other things.

Judging by the clasps related to the second third of the 5th century, the Roman jewellery made use of the Hun tradition of the polychrome style dated to decorative standards of the late Hellenistic period. The Rhine workshops, which supplied military equipment to the legions stationed on a limes* and later on came to include also the future lieges of the first Merovingians, used the so-called flat technique of mounting stones or glass on a substrate of gold (seldom silver) embossed foil. All of this geometrically ordered structure was fastened along the perimeter by a brazed gold rim, while foil and stones were secured by light-gray mastic resin. This Merovingian art pattern, in particular up until the 7th century, was realized on round fibulas of the Rhine type. Their decoration carries no meaningful effect, it only demonstrates the splendor of precious metal and the glitter of many-colored stones. If Hellenistic and late Roman craftsmen used carbuncles (red garnets) from India, Ceylon and Ethiopia, the Merovingian jewellers made use of garnets of the Black Sea and Scandinavian regions of the Viking age. The Merovingian craftsmen mastered not only the techniques of making polychrome ornamentals, but also their imitation. In such fibulas stone mountings were replaced with metal rivets.

But not all of the techniques and types of production were adopted by the Franks from the Roman toreutae (chasers) and developed in the Merovingian time. For example, earrings with openwork or filigree-covered faceplate, with carbuncles in the form of cabochons*,

* Limes (limitis), a fortified borderline (rampart, or wall) with watch-towers constructed on the frontiers of the Roman Empire.--Ed.

* Cabochon, a method of dressing a precious or semi-precious stone, when it acquires a flat convex polished surface without facets.--Ed.

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pendants in the shape of miniature perfume vessels (sometimes as amphoras) proved to be too complex for imitation. As a rule, in the center of their faceplates was a cavity to be filled with aromatic oils by the old ancient tradition. The barbarian craftsmen failed to repeat this technique. Besides, such fragrances probably ceased to be delivered to West Europe from Arabia in the post-Hun time. The Franks and Alemanni did not reproduce either the Roman-Byzantine earrings with microscopic pendants well known to Roman ladies of the 3rd century A.D.

The manufacturing difficulties hindered the Franks from duplicating some of the miniature fibulas of the West-Roman ladies' outfit. For example, the following articles look like graceful and rare specimens of the Roman toreutics among the exhibits of the collection at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts: miniature fibulas in the form of a proud horseman with a streaming sagum; a breastpin with a griffon atop as a mystic habitant of the air and water oceans, an image totally alien to the German world of fabled beings; a small spoon for scooping fragrances; a fibula in the form of a galloping horse with a horseman and a lying dog. All these figures served as charms, or amulets, to their bearers in everyday life. However, formally they had nothing to do with the Christian ideology of the Merovingian state. The famous Frankish aquiline fibulas and breastpins have undoubtedly ancient prototypes. Such clasps appeared in the ancient world as accessories of the ladies' outfit in the 2nd century A.D. In the Merovingian workshops the image of these clasps was restored, but the former figures of amulets in the form of small birds were replaced with birds of prey, ravens in particular.

The specific images of the Roman apotropaic animals (sacral guardians) gained no popularity among the Christianized, even superficially, Franks. But, on the whole, the theriologic (with images of animals) compositions of the Roman provincial craftsmen became in the 5th-century German decorative art a base for the Germanic "animal" style characteristic also of the early Merovingian time.

The Roman decorative traditions made their way to the creative technique of the German chisellers of the Merovingian epoch in no simple fashion. It was noted above that the early Merovingian nobility as a part of the Roman legions tried to stress the succession of its social status and, therefore, used Roman prestige accessories of the Roman origin in many cases. As Dr. Hermann Fyodorov-Davydov, Professor of the Chair of Archeology at the Department of History of Moscow State University (a scholar in the Early Middle Ages), noted in 1988, "the chiefs of the barbarian troops wanted to dazzle everybody with a display of wealth and splendor... Ordinary free people considered themselves formally on the same social level as all of them were free. But wealth created an elite, and there could be no equality. Therefore, the poor free members of society strived for this wealth or sought at least to

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create its semblance by getting illusory splendid items... Cheap forgeries came to be on a par with jewellery in their artistic design." Indeed, some types of Roman ornamentals were duplicated on a wide scale by Frankish and Alemannic craftsmen. Perhaps the round and quatrefoil (in the form of a cross of the intricate shape) fibulas rank first among them. In many cases, only vaguely preserving the outlines of their late classical prototypes, the rather primitive barbarian fibulas have a bronze base covered (often roughly enough) with gold foil and also have cabochon insets, embossing and even filigree. The deliberate primitivism in design and the lack of clasp mechanisms allow to suggest a solely funeral decorative function for at least some of them.

The Merovingian finds include also the original Roman-Byzantine samples for round fibulas decorated with cabochon insets and also standards for clasps of the hemispherical or conical form. Several ornamented fibulas are so well made that it is impossible to determine whether they are of the Roman (though the Roman prototypes of such clasps are unknown) or Frankish make.

Obviously, Roman craftsmen and their traditions had a role to play in the development of the barbarian decorative art. In particular, the design of elements in some of the palmate fibulas shows that the craftsman was familiar with the ancient techniques of metalwork. And yet the form of the clasp is pure German. Thousands of miles from Gallia, on the Kerch Peninsula, in the days of Attila*; craftsmen livened up double-plate fibulas with acanthus (ornament in the form of leaves). The shackle of fibulas with images in the form of animal heads solely characteristic of the Teutons is emphasized by the exquisite ancient meander (geometric pattern).

Now and then a barbarian set of ornamentals included an item of Roman work (for example, intaglio** pendants in necklaces of women of fashion in the Merovingian epoch). A similar technique for dignifying ornamentals, at least, by a small but ancient inset existed in Western Europe up to the Ottonian epoch (10th-11th centuries), even on articles of the Christian religion.

As it appears, the Pushkin Museum collection provides answers to the questions raised at the beginning of this paper. The attempt to renovate the Merovingian empire in full measure, in the appearance and outfit of the European citizens, too, was not possible at all. Being acquainted only with the rudiments of the Roman civilization, often in the smoke of fires, the

* Attila (?-453), king of the Huns in 433-453 A.D. He headed the devastating invasions of the Eastern Roman Empire, Gallia and North Italy.--Ed.

** Intaglio, a piece of jewelry made by the cavo-relievo technique on precious or semiprecious stones.--Ed.

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combatants of Clovis I could never become Roman soldiers even in the Roman apparel. This outfit could not give them what is acquired for centuries, the spiritual and social culture as one of the engines of social progress. The extinction of the late ancient traditions in the decorative art of the Merovingian epoch as seen in the collected articles proves that the Frankish attempt to revive the Roman Empire by the wish of the long-haired kings (traditionally the Frankish nobility, first of all its kings, never had their hair cut) failed.

The fate of the ancient heritage in Western Europe was quite satisfactory thanks to stable quasi-Roman standards of the Merovingian decorative art even after the kings of the Merovingian dynasty had lost their power. Through the agency of the Carolingian workshops of the Lower Rhine the basically Roman pictorial techniques were passed on to Scandinavian jewelers. As early as the 9th century, both in Western and then in Northern Europe, there appeared trefoil fibulas and elements of belt sets with vegetative ornaments, which regenerated the Roman heritage on a wide scale. Such artifacts penetrated the world of the Western Slavs (Great Moravia) and Southeastern Baltia, though experiencing a direct Byzantine influence as well. The final stage in the development of the Roman traditions in the European medieval imitation jewellery set in between the 11th and 12th centuries, when the young feudal kingdoms were consolidating themselves in Scandinavia, and the quasi-Roman forms of ornamentals and décor became called up again. The Roman, or, rather, Merovingian round (disk-shaped) fibulas suited this role. Like the earlier Scandinavian clasps, these ones adorned with a filigree vegetative and/or geometric ornament were of impressive dimensions. As a rule, such clasps were an accessory to the ladies' outfit. With these truly splendid artifacts the Roman tradition in the West European imitation jewellery came to an end; it survived in the Western Roman Empire by 700 years. Such long conservation and even development of the ancient traditions in the Merovingian, Carolingian and Viking decorative art shows an immense authority inherent to any (even jeweled) element of the Roman Empire heritage in the eyes of the medieval Europeans. The magic spell of Roman grandeur did not leave cool our direct ancestors either. In less than four centuries after the extinction of Roman traditions in European culture (in decorative art anyway), the ancient Roman world outlook staged a comeback in Western Europe duing the Renaissance, and "Third Rome" idea surfaced in Russia as well, an idea vital even up until recently.


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Vladimir KULAKOV, CLASSICAL TRADITION IN THE ART OF THE MEROVINGIAN EPOCH // Moscow: Russian Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.RU). Updated: 27.09.2021. URL: https://libmonster.ru/m/articles/view/CLASSICAL-TRADITION-IN-THE-ART-OF-THE-MEROVINGIAN-EPOCH (date of access: 08.12.2021).

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