The light in the Dark Ages

While Europe floundered, the British Isles continued to create great art.
The Chi-Rho monogram from the Book of Kells, courtesy of Trinity College Library, Dublin
If you went to school back in the last millennium, you learned that western civilization fell off a precipice with the Sack of Rome. What followed were centuries of Germanic tribes overrunning, displacing and reshaping the former Roman Empire. This was the end of the Pax Romana and the beginning of a long period of unrest.
International trade and social ties across Europe collapsed rapidly. The many Roman industries that required cooperation and transportation ended. These included pottery, glass, olives, wine, African grain, Chinese silk, Indian spices and much more. Systematic agriculture vanished, along with most organized education. The military posts that had created cultured society on the outposts of Empire were gone.
We have ways of estimating the impact of these changes. One is population decline. In formerly-Roman Europe, there was a population drop of about one-third between 150 and 600 AD. Then came a series of plagues that knocked off another half of the population.
Ancient shipping is measured in shipwrecks. They fell off abruptly after the fall of Rome. Europe was extensively reforested as farming declined.
The Great Buckle from Sutton Hoo, courtesy of the British Museum
Britain always stood uneasily on the rim of the Roman Empire. It had less to lose. While the rest of Europe was floundering, “Britain lead the world in areas such as poetry, medicine, and organisation of land and taxes,” according to Dr. Claire Breay. She curated Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Words, War, now at the British Library. If I were in a mood to travel, I’d go.
Almost a thousand books written or owned in Medieval England have survived. These include the Domesday Book, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a hymn by England’s first poet, Cædmon, and the epic poem, Beowulf. In addition, written law codes, wills, and account books show a people who could, at minimum, keep their own affairs in order.
Th’ owd Man is an Anglo-Saxon carving in St Mary’s Church, Wirksworth, Derbyshire. It is the oldest-known depiction of a miner. Courtesy geograph.org.uk.
The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms did not convert to Christianity until the late 6th century. The missionary Augustine was invited by Bertha, the wife of King Æthelberht of Kent. Bertha was literate enough to exchange letters with Pope Gregory the Great. She had the influence to bring about the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England.
Christianity sparked a new literacy in Britain, both in English and Latin. At the forefront were abbesses, women of high status who presided over double monasterieswhere both men and women served. These were the major cultural, economic, and intellectual centers of their day. Anglo-Saxon women could inherit and bequeath property. Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, ruled Mercia in her own right, kicked the Vikings out of Mercia, and defended and fortified her cities. According to researcher Christine Fell, women were “near equal companions to the males in their lives, such as husbands and brothers, much more than in any other era before modern time.”
Hilda of Whitby (c. 614–680) was the most famous abbess of her day, a wise woman consulted by kings.  
We know Anglo-Saxon art mainly from manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiatinus, the oldest existing copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Christianity discouraged the burial of grave goods but their pagan predecessors had no such scruples. Both groups left a tremendous legacy of metalwork, textiles, ivory carvings, wall paintings, and monuments.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a massive embroidered wall-hanging commemorating the Battle of Hastings and Norman Conquest. It was designed and executed in England by Anglo-Saxon artists.
And then, in 1066 AD, it suddenly ended. The Norman Conquestmeant a massive plundering of the churches and courts by the new ruling class. They had little interest in the arts. Eventually, the Norman influence would create a new art—perhaps the greatest in British history—but for the moment, the light of the so-called Dark Ages was snuffed out.

On my bucket list

The superheated pyroclastic material from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD preserved Herculaneum, Pompeii, Stabiae, and Oplontis intact (including food, human bodies, and wooden superstructures). The historian Pliny the Younger wrote about the eruption to the historian Tacitus, so we even have an eyewitness description of the volcano. And they’re in the Campania, which is a fantastic tourist destination in its own right. No wonder so many students opt to learn about them.

One of three new mosaics unearthed this year at Muzalar House in the ancient city of Zeugma, in modern Turkey.
While they are famous and well-studied, they are by no means the only Roman mosaics in Europe, Asia Minor or the Middle East. Last week a Turkish news bureau announcedthat this year’s digs have unearthed three new Roman mosaics in the ancient city of Zeugma.

“Gypsy Girl,” a fragment of mosaic found in the ancient city of Zeugma, in modern Turkey.
Zeugma was formally settled around 300 BC by Alexander the Great’s infantry general, Seleucus I Nicator. It was named for the bridge of boats (zeugma) which crossed the Euphrates River there. Its location was unknown until a few years ago, when signs of archaeological looting combined with plans to dam the Euphrates led to its investigation. Only a small number of its mosaics have been located and preserved to date.

Detail from a mosaic from the ancient city of Zeugma, in modern Turkey.
In its heyday as a Roman city, Zeugma was home to more than 70,000 people. The get-rich-quick hangers-on of the Empire built their usual sumptuous villas, distinguished by mosaics. But Zeugma was also one of those “crossroads of the Ancient World” places where civilizations cross-pollinated. The site includes pre-Hellenistic, Greek and Roman ruins and artifacts.

One of three new mosaics unearthed this year at Muzalar House in the ancient city of Zeugma, in modern Turkey.
Pompeii and its environs have been explored since the end of the 16th century. There is nothing new we could possible say about them. In comparison, Zeugma has been studied for 25 years. Since the mosaics are being removed to the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, future students will never examine them in situ as they do at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Still, Zeugma’s mosaics are sophisticated, naturalistic, and well-preserved. They should attract any student of ancient art.

I will be teaching in Acadia National Park next August. Message me if you want information about the coming year’s 
classes or this workshop.

A true warrior queen

Zenobia in Chains, 1859, by Harriet Hosmer. The American sculptor Harriet Hosmer portrayed Zenobia twice. This version depicts Zenobia being paraded through Roman in Aurelian’s Triumph. It is impossible to read this statue retrospectively without considering it as a commentary on the dual American questions of the age: women’s rights and abolition. It just figures that when Hosmer showed it in Europe, many questioned whether a woman would have been capable of producing such a monumental work.
My friend K Dee recently put together a photostream of portraits of women to “help me remember, in case I ever start to forget, which sort of female image I find reflects a healthy civil society, and which I do not.” I’m not sure I’d call the collapsing Roman empire a ‘healthy civil society’ but Zenobia is certainly one of its heroines.
In the third century AD, the Roman Empire was coming unglued. Emperors were assassinated, a Persian revolt couldn’t be put down, generals were locked in power struggles, and the frontiers were open to attack. The governor of the eastern provinces chose to deploy his legions to defend his territory rather than fight with other Romans.
Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, modeled c. 1859; carved after 1859, by Harriet Hosmer. “I have tried to make her too proud to exhibit passion or emotion of any kind; not subdued, though a prisoner; but calm, grand, and strong within herself,” wrote Hosmer.
In the usual manner, he too was murdered.  His son, Vaballathus, was named rex consul imperator dux Romanorum and corrector totius orientis of the new Palmyrene Empire. That was a mouthful for a child who was barely walking, so the real power behind the throne was his mother Zenobia.
Zenobia was the daughter of a governor of Palmyra. While she claimed she was a descendent of the Ptolomies and Dido, Queen of Carthage, she was more likely a Romanized Syrian with some Egyptian and North African ancestry. She was well-educated and fluent in Greek, Aramaic, Egyptian and Latin. And of course—because she is a queen of legend—she was beautiful. It is probably true that she rode, hunted, fought, and drank like her male officers, or she could not have commanded them in the field.
Who knows how long the Romans might have ignored her had she contented herself with governing Syria and its surrounds? But by 269, Zenobia was on the move. She conquered Egypt and beheaded its Roman prefect. She proclaimed herself Queen of Egypt.
From that to the absurd: the Duchess of Devonshire dressed as Zenobia for her own Jubilee Costume Ball in 1897. Playing dress-up Zenobia has been popular forever, it seems.
Her victory was short-lived. By 273, Rome had reestablished enough equilibrium to challenge Zenobia. The Emperor Auralian arrived in Syria and crushed Zenobia’s army near Antioch. Zenobia and her son were captured along the Euphrades as they fled by camel.
Aurelian took Zenobia and Vaballathus as hostages to Rome, parading Zenobia in golden chains during his Triumph. Nobody knows whether Zenobia was executed or pardoned, for she disappeared from history at this point. Legend says she was married off and lived to bear several daughters.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!