The Character of Early Medieval Art
In a letter written in the year 600, Pope Gregory the Great declared, "[W]hat writing offers to those who read, a picture offers to those who look; in it they read who do not know letters."1 Gregory's text marks the chronological beginning of this book, an essay on the nature of visual art in Europe north of the Alps from 600 to 1050. More important, Gregory's letter also provides the book's conceptual foundation, the relationship between word and image in early medieval art. That theme is a telling entrée to my subject because, in the early Middle Ages, writing and pictures were inextricably linked. The understanding of the word/image relationship was continually shifting, and it will take the entire book to explore it in a nuanced way.
For now, I simply want to warn the reader that this book's very premise may seem strange; the modern tendency is to separate the verbal and the visual rather than to link them (many people today, for example, believe that the visual arts come from a hemisphere of the brain entirely distinct from that responsible for words and thoughts). In many ways I hope that this book's subject seems unfamiliar, for as much as early medieval art has resonated and continues to resonate with important currents in twentieth-century artistic production, much about it is odd, even bizarre, for the modern viewer; this is much of its appeal. The early medieval conception of art was strange, as were its forms. By the end of this book I will have given that