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Migration Period art is the artwork of Germanic peoples during the Migration period of 300 to 900. It includes the Migration art of the Germanic tribes on the continent, as well the Hiberno-Saxon art (or Insular art) of the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic fusion in the British Islesmarker. It covers many different styles of art including the polychrome style and the animal style.

Migration Period art is one of the major periods of medieval art.


In the 3rd century the Roman Empire almost collapsed and its army was becoming increasingly Germanic in make-up, so that in the 4th century when Huns pushed nomadic German tribes westward, they spilled across the Empire's borders and began to settle there. The Visigoths settled in Italy and then Spain, in the north the Franks settled in to Gaul and western Germany, and in the 5th century Scandinavians such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded Britain. By the close of the 6th century the Western Roman Empire was almost completely replaced with smaller less politically organized, but vigorous, Germanic kingdoms.

Although these kingdoms were never homogeneous, they shared certain common cultural features. Traditionally nomadic, they began to settle and become farmers and fishermen. Archaeological evidence shows no tradition of monumental artwork, such as architecture or large sculpture, preferring instead "mobile" art with a utilitarian function, such as weapons, tools and jewelry. The art of the Germanic peoples is almost entirely personal adornment, portable, and taken to the grave where it would act as an appeasement to dead spirits to protect the living.

Three styles dominate Germanic art. The polychrome style originated with the Goths who had settled in the Black Sea area; and the animal style, found in Scandinavia, north Germany and Anglo-Saxon England. Finally there was Hiberno-Saxon style, a brief but prosperous period that saw the fusion of animal style, Celtic and other motifs and techniques.

Migration art

Polychrome style

During the 2nd century the Goths of southern Russia discovered a new found taste for gold figurines and objects inlaid with precious stones. This style was borrowed from Scythians and the Sarmatians, had some Roman influences, and was also popular with the Huns. Perhaps the most famous examples are found in the fourth century Pietroasele treasure (Romaniamarker), which includes a great gold eagle brooch ( picture). The eagle motif derives from East Asia and results from the participation of the forebears of the Goths in the Hunnic Empire, as in the fourth-century Gothic polychrome eagle-head belt buckle ( picture) from South Russia.

The Goths carried this style to Italy, southern France and Spain. One well known example is the Ostrogothic eagle fibula from Cesenamarker, Italy, now at the museum in Nurembergmarker (see picture). Another is the Visigothic polychrome votive crown ( picture) of Recceswinth, King of Toledo, found in a votive crown hoard of c. 670 at Fuente de Guarrazarmarker, near Toledomarker. The popularity of the style can be attested to by the discovery of a polychrome sword ( picture) in the tomb of Frankish king Childeric I, well north of the Alps, in the 5th century.

Animal style

The study of zoomorphic decorations was pioneered by Bernhard Salin in the early 20th century. He classified animal art of the 400-900 period into three phases: Scandinavian styles I, II and III. For the Migration Period, the first two styles are of importance.

Style I. First appears in northwest Europe, probably originating from the traditions of nomadic Asiatic steppes peoples, it became a noticeable new style with the introduction of chip carving applied to bronze and silver in the 5th century. Characterized by animals in the margins of works that are twisted, exaggerated, surreal, fragmented body parts filling every available space, creating an intense detailed energetic feel. It can be clearly seen in the Norwegian Vendel sword hilt from Grave V, Snartemo Hägebostad, Vest Agder, Norway (see picture). Also in this fibula ( picture) from Öland Island, ca. 400-450 A.D.

Style II. After about 600 Style I was in decline and Salin's Style II rose in popularity. Displacing the surreal and fragmented animals of Style I, Style II's animals are whole beasts, elongated and intertwined into symmetrical shapes. Thus two bears are facing each other in perfect symmetry, forming the shape of a heart. Examples of Style II can be found on the gold purse lid ( picture) from Sutton Hoomarker (ca. 625).

Christian influence

The Church in the early Migration period emerged as the only supranational force in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. It provided a unifying element and was the only institution left that could preserve classical civilization. As the conversion of Germanic peoples by the end of the 7th centuries in western Europe neared completion, the church became the prime patron for art, commissioning illuminated manuscripts and other litergurical objects. The record shows a steady decline in Germanic forms and increasing Mediterranean influence. This process occurred quickly with the Goths of Italy and Spain and more slowly the further north one looked. This change can be observed in the 8th century Merovingian codex Gelasian Sacramentary, it contained no Style II elements, instead showing Mediterranean examples of fish used to construct large letters at the start of chapters.

Hiberno-Saxon art

Hiberno-Saxon art (often also known as Insular art, especially in relation to illuminated manuscripts) was confined to Great Britain and Ireland and was the fusion of Germanic traditions (via the Anglo-Saxons) with Celtic traditions (via Irish monks). It can first be seen in the late 7th century and the style would continue in Britain for about 150 years until the Viking invasions of the 9th century (after which we see the emergence of Anglo-Saxon art), and in Ireland up until the 12th century (after which see Romanesque art).


Germanic, 2nd half of 4th century C.E.
Ireland was converted to Christianity by missions from Britain and the continent, beginning in the mid-fifth century, while simultaneously pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes were settling in England. The extreme political fragmentation of Ireland and its total lack of urban development prevented the emergence of a strong episcopal structure. Monasticism consequently emerged as the dominant force in Irish Christianity, and thus in Irish Christian art.

Irish Christianity also developed a strong emphasis on missionary activity. Around 563 Saint Columba founded a base on the Scottish island of Ionamarker, from which to convert Pictish pagans in Scotlandmarker; this monastic settlement became long remained a key centre of Christian culture in northern Britain. Columban monks then went to Northumbriamarker in 635 and founded a monastery on the island of Lindisfarnemarker, from which to convert the north of England. However Rome had already begun the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons from the south with a mission to Kentmarker in 597. Conflict arose between the Irish monks and Rome on the date to celebrate Easter, leading to withdrawal of the Irish mission from Lindisfarne to Iona. However, the widespread use of Irish decorative forms in art produced in England, and vice versa, attests to the continuing importance of interaction between the two cultures. England would come under increasing Mediterranean influence, but not before Irish Celtic and Anglo-Saxon art had profitably fused.

The first major work that can be called purely Hiberno-Saxon is the Book of Durrow in the late 7th century. There followed a golden age in metalworking, manuscripts and stone sculpture. In the 9th century the heyday of the Hiberno-Saxon style neared its end, with the disruptions of Viking raids and the increasing dominance of Mediterranean forms (see Anglo-Saxon art).

Illuminated manuscripts

Irish Celtic art had from the Iron Age period always been characterized by La Tène culturemarker metalworking. Celtic hanging bowls such as those found at Sutton Hoomarker are among some of the most important of these crafts. As Irish missionaries began to spread the word of the Gospels they needed books, and almost from the start, they began to embellish their texts with artwork drawing from the designs of these metalworking traditions. The spirals and scrolls in the enlarged opening letters—found in the earliest manuscripts such as the 7th century Cathach of St. Columba manuscript—borrows in style directly from Celtic enamels and La Tene metalworking motifs.

After the Cathach of St. Columba, book decoration became increasingly more complex and new styles from other cultures were introduced. Carpet pages—entire pages of ornamentation with no text—were inserted, usually at the start of each Gospel. The geometric motifs and interlaced patterns may have been influences from Coptic Egypt or elsewhere in the Byzantine Middle East. The increasing use of animal ornamentation was an Anglo-Saxon contribution of its animal style. All of these influences and traditions combined into what could be called a new Hiberno-Saxon style, with the Book of Durrow in the later 7th century being the first of its type. The Lindisfarne Gospels is another famous example.

The Book of Kells was probably created in Iona in the 8th century. When the monks fled to Ireland in the face of Viking raids in 807, they probably brought it with them to Kells in Ireland. It is the most richly decorated of the Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts and represents a large array of techniques and motifs created during the 8th century.


In the 7th century there emerged a resurgence of metalworking with new techniques such as gold filigree that allowed ever smaller and more detailed ornamentations. The Tara Brooch and Ardagh Chalice are the most magnificent Insular examples, whilst the 7th century royal jewellery from the Sutton Hoomarker ship burial shows a Pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon style. They brought together all of the available skills of the goldsmith in one piece: ornamentation applied to a variety of materials, chip carving, filigree, cloisonne and rock crystal.

Stone sculpture

The skills displayed in metalworking can be seen in stone sculptures. For many centuries it had been Irish custom to display a large wooden cross inside the monastic building enclosure. These were then translated in to stone crosses called high crosses and covered with the same intricate patterns used by goldsmiths, and often figure sculptures.

See also



Further reading

  • Boltin, Lee, ed.: Treasures of Early Irish Art, 1500 B.C. to 1500 A.D.: From the Collections of the National Museum of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, Trinity College, Dublin, Metropolitan Museum of Artmarker, 1977, ISBN 0-8709-9164-7.

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