A History of English Art in the Middle Ages

By O. Elfrida Saunders | Go to book overview
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AFTER the extinction of the early beacon of art in Northumbria by the inroads of the Danes during the eighth century, the north of England for a time lost its artistic importance, and in the next century it was the south which again took up the torch. The two hundred years which preceded the Conquest were not by any means a dark period in English culture; an important school of art flourished at Winchester in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, producing numerous illuminated manuscripts; and although in other branches of art only a few isolated examples remain from this period, there is enough to show that all forms of craftsmanship were cultivated in England, as, indeed, is clear from the enumeration in contemporary chronicles of the rich gifts which were presented to churches and monasteries at this time.

The Anglo-Saxon art of southern England took its inspiration chiefly from Carolingian art, i.e. from the work of the schools founded by Charlemagne in his Frankish Empire.I This great administrator, who had been crowned Emperor by the Pope in 800, had inaugurated a new period in the culture of western Europe. Since the sixth century the art of Italy had been rapidly degenerating, while the Merovingian art of France was merely barbaric. But Charlemagne had the wisdom to draw to his aid the most vital streams of culture then existing in Europe, namely the art of Byzantium, many of whose craftsmen, driven from the city by the iconoclastic controversy, had taken refuge in the western countries;

This view is opposed by some recent German critics, who hold, on the contrary, that it was England which inspired much of the Carolingian art, and especially the school of Reims, in the first instance: see W. Worringer , Ueber den Einfluss der angelsächsischen Buchmalerei auf die frühmittelalterliche Plastik des Kontinents, Halle, 1931.


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