British Museum blog

Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

silver-gilt brooch detailRosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th and 11th centuries, but puzzles and story-telling remained central. The early art style of the Anglo-Saxon period is known as Style I and was popular in the late 5th and 6th centuries. It is characterised by what seems to be a dizzying jumble of animal limbs and face masks, which has led some scholars to describe the style as an ‘animal salad’. Close scrutiny shows that Style I is not as abstract as first appears, and through carefully following the decoration in stages we can unpick the details and begin to get a sense for what the design might mean.

Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century AD

Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century AD

Decoding the great square-headed brooch from Chessel Down

Decoding the square-headed brooch. Click on the image for larger version.

One of the most exquisite examples of Style I animal art is a silver-gilt square-headed brooch from a female grave on the Isle of Wight. Its surface is covered with at least 24 different beasts: a mix of birds’ heads, human masks, animals and hybrids. Some of them are quite clear, like the faces in the circular lobes projecting from the bottom of the brooch. Others are harder to spot, such as the faces in profile that only emerge when the brooch is turned upside-down. Some of the images can be read in multiple ways, and this ambiguity is central to Style I art.

Turning the brooch upside-down reveals four heads in profile on the rectangular head of the brooch, highlighted in purple.

Turning the brooch upside-down reveals four heads in profile on the rectangular head of the brooch, highlighted in purple. Click on the image for larger version.

Once we have identified the creatures on the brooch, we can begin to decode its meaning. In the lozenge-shaped field at the foot of the brooch is a bearded face with a helmet underneath two birds that may represent the Germanic god Woden/Odin with his two companion ravens. The image of a god alongside other powerful animals may have offered symbolic protection to the wearer like a talisman or amulet.

Decoding the great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

Decoding the great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo. Click on the image for larger version.

Style I was superseded by Style II in the late 6th century. This later style has more fluid and graceful animals, but these still writhe and interlace together and require patient untangling. The great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo is decorated in this style. From the thicket of interlace that fills the buckle’s surface 13 different animals emerge. These animals are easier to spot: the ring-and-dot eyes, the birds’ hooked beaks, and the four-toed feet of the animals are good starting points. At the tip of the buckle, two animals grip a small dog-like creature in their jaws and on the circular plate, two snakes intertwine and bite their own bodies. Such designs reveal the importance of the natural world, and it is likely that different animals were thought to hold different properties and characteristics that could be transferred to the objects they decorated. The fearsome snakes, with their shape-shifting qualities, demand respect and confer authority, and were suitable symbols for a buckle that adorned a high-status man, or even an Anglo-Saxon king.

The five senses on the Fuller Brooch. Click on the image for a larger version

The five senses on the Fuller Brooch. Click on the image for a larger version

Animal art continued to be popular on Anglo-Saxon metalwork throughout the later period, when it went through further transformations into the Mercian Style (defined by sinuous animal interlace) in the 8th century and then into the lively Trewhiddle Style in the 9th century. Trewhiddle-style animals feature in the roundels of the Fuller Brooch, but all other aspects of its decoration are unique within Anglo-Saxon art. Again, through a careful unpicking of its complex imagery we can understand its visual messages. At the centre is a man with staring eyes holding two plants. Around him are four other men striking poses: one, with his hands behind his back, sniffs a leaf; another rubs his two hands together; the third holds his hand up to his ear; and the final one has his whole hand inserted into his mouth. Together these strange poses form the earliest personification of the five senses: Sight, Smell, Touch, Hearing, and Taste. Surrounding these central motifs are roundels depicting animals, humans, and plants that perhaps represent God’s Creation.

This iconography can best be understood in the context of the scholarly writings of King Alfred the Great (died AD 899), which emphasised sight and the ‘mind’s eye’ as the principal way in which wisdom was acquired along with the other senses. Given this connection, perhaps it was made at Alfred the Great’s court workshop and designed to be worn by one of his courtiers?

Throughout the period, the Anglo-Saxons expressed a love of riddles and puzzles in their metalwork. Behind the non-reflective glass in the newly opened Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300-1100, you can do like the Anglo-Saxons and get up close to these and many other objects to decode the messages yourself.

Click on the thumbnails below to view in a full-screen slideshow

The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300–1100 recently opened after a major redisplay in Room 41. Admission is free.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Room 41, Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. moxeyns says:

    Reblogged this on Eclectic pleasures and commented:
    A fascinating article from Rosie Weetch, curator of one of my favourite collections at the British Museum. I was admiring these very pieces just last week – I wish I’d read this article first, I would’ve appreciated them more deeply!


  2. This is very interesting and extremely helpful. I always have problems interpreting both of the Salin styles — I get so far & then can’t work out the last little bits. Many thanks!


  3. Mark Donahue says:

    This is absolutely fascinating! Sutton Hoo (and other sites) continue to illuminate the so called Dark Ages. Wonderful read!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Michael Brennan says:

    Any references to the literature on ambiguity, in Style II in particular, please?


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,508 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

These beautiful studies drawn from life are by artist Antoine Watteau, born #onthisday in 1684.
The drawing was intended for figures in one of Watteau's many scenes where men and women feast in the countryside, talking, flirting and making music. The costume is the main focus of Watteau's studies. The woman is seated on the ground so that her elaborate dress spreads out around her. This provides the artist with an excuse to study the movement of the drapery according to the different positions of her body. The play of light and shade, especially the strong shadows which the model casts, sets off the figure very clearly. Watteau, with red chalk alone, has studied the fall of light from the upper left on the complex drapery patterns. the drawing is remarkably detailed and controlled.
Antoine Watteau, Five studies of a seated woman seen from behind. Drawing, France, about AD 1712-15.
#drawing #art These beautiful studies drawn from life are by artist Antoine Watteau, born #onthisday in 1684.
This is a rare type of drawing by Watteau, who used black chalk to strengthen the shadows and the darker lines of the stronger contours. The hands themselves are cast into relief by their shadows on the paper. The red chalks, of course, suggests the real flesh of the model in front of him, and was a favoured technique, in combination with black and white chalks, of French eighteenth-century artists. The drawing's expression lies in the position of the hand and not so much in its details. Although the hands are fully modelled there is still a stark, bare quality to them. They are economical, almost abstracted.
Antoine Watteau, Three studies of open hands. Drawing, France, about AD 1717-1718.
#art #drawing These beautiful studies drawn from life are by artist Antoine Watteau, born #onthisday in 1684. Watteau has used his favourite combination of black, red and white chalks. This technique 'à trois crayons' became widely used by French artists of the eighteenth century. With all of the chalks Watteau made stronger lines alongside thinner ones to provide texture. He then shaded in between these lines or rubbed the chalk with his fingers. Like most of Watteau's drawings from a live model, this sheet possesses a great sense of fluency, immediacy and freshness.
Antoine Watteau, Four studies of a young woman's head. Drawing, France, about AD 1716-1717.
#drawing #art Room 95 includes some of the finest Chinese ceramics in the world dating from the 3rd to the 20th centuries, from the collection of Sir Percival David. Some of the ceramics are unique creations, while others were mass-produced in batches of several hundred at a time. Technological innovations and the use of regional raw materials mean that Chinese ceramics are visually diverse.
Porcelain was first produced in China around AD 600. The skilful transformation of ordinary clay into beautiful objects has captivated the imagination of people throughout history and across the globe. Chinese ceramics, by far the most advanced in the world, were made for the imperial court, the domestic market, or for export.
#China #ceramics These white wares date from the late Ming to Republic period (1600–1949). Potters in the late Ming, Qing and Republican periods made copies of Ding wares at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, Zhangzhou in Fujian province and in other southern kilns. Potters at Zhangzhou under-fired the clay, which resulted in a ‘rice-coloured’ body. They then covered the ceramics either with a white slip and thin clear glaze or with an opaque white glaze.
See these amazing ceramics alongside nearly 1,700 objects from the collection of Sir Percival David in Room 95.
#ceramics #China Collector of Chinese ceramics Sir Percival David died #onthisday in 1964. He built the finest private collection of Chinese ceramics in the world. His passion for China inspired him to learn Chinese well enough to translate 14th-century art texts and to give money towards establishing the first public display of Chinese ceramics at the Palace Museum in Beijing. He was determined to use his own collection to inform and inspire people and to keep it on public view in its entirety. His collection is on long-term loan to the British Museum and has been on display in Room 95 since 2009.
Explore nearly 1,700 objects from Sir Percival David’s incredible collection in Room 95, including some of the finest Chinese ceramics in the world, dating from the 3rd to the 20th centuries.
#China #ceramics

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,508 other followers

%d bloggers like this: