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!

    Like

  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!

    Like

  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?

    Like

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

Join 16,359 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

To mark the birthday of Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) this week, we’re featuring paintings from his ‘Flower Book’ – a sketchbook full of watercolours and drawings that contained fantasy artworks inspired by the names of flowers. This painting is titled ‘Love in a tangle’ – a name sometimes used for the climbing plant clematis. The scene suggests the story of Ariadne, who gave Greek hero Theseus a ball of golden thread to unwind as he wandered through the labyrinth in search of the minotaur (a mythological creature – half-man and half-bull). Here she waits anxiously for her lover to follow the thread back out of the maze. The clematis and its maze of tangled foliage inspired Burne-Jones to represent this story from ancient Greek mythology in his Flower Book.
#EdwardBurneJones #BurneJones #PreRaphaelite #flowers #mythology Here’s a #regram from @mrapachekat. Doesn’t this lion look majestic? The Museum’s Montague Place entrance is just as grand as the more-visited Main entrance on Great Russell Street. This part of the Museum contains the King Edward VII galleries, and the foundation stone was laid by the King in 1907. This side of the building was designed in the Roman style rather than the Greek Revival of Great Russell Street. It features numerous imperial references, including the coat of arms above the door, and sculptures of lions’ heads and crowns. The architect Sir John James Burnet was knighted for his work designing these galleries, and the building was opened by King George V and Queen Mary in 1914 (Edward VII had died in 1910). #regram #repost #architecture #BritishMuseum #lion Another brilliant photo of the Museum’s Main entrance on Great Russell Street – this time by @violenceor. The perspective gives a good sense of the huge scale of the columns. The Museum has two rows of columns at the main entrance, with each being around 14 metres tall and 1.5 metres wide. Designer Sir Robert Smirke used 44 columns along the front elevation. This design of putting columns in front of an entrance is called a ‘portico’, and was used extensively in ancient Greek and Roman buildings. #regram #repost #architecture #neoclassical #BritishMuseum The Museum looks spectacular with a blue sky overhead – especially in this great shot by @whatrajwants. You can see the beautiful gold flashes shining in the sun. This triangular area above the columns is called a ‘pediment’, and was a common feature in ancient Greek architecture. The copying of classical designs was fashionable during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and was known as the Greek Revival. The sculptures in the pediment were designed in 1847 by Sir Richard Westmacott and installed in 1851. The pediment originally had a bright blue background, with the statues painted white. #regram #repost #architecture #neoclassical #sculpture #gold #BritishMuseum Concluding our short series of gold objects from the Museum’s collection is this group of items found in the Fishpool hoard. The hoard was buried in Nottinghamshire sometime during the War of the Roses (1455–1485), and contains some outstanding pieces of jewellery. 1,237 objects were found in this hoard in total. At the time it was deposited, its value would have been around £400, which is around £300,000 in today’s money! The variety of this collection of objects includes brilliant examples of fine craftsmanship. The turquoise ring in the centre was highly valued as it was believed that turquoise would protect the wearer from poisoning, drowning or falling off a horse.
#hoard #gold #jewellery #turquoise #treasure Continuing our exploration of the golden objects in the Museum, this amazing inlaid plaque is from 15th-century China. Lined with semi-precious stones, this piece would have formed part of a pair sewn into a robe. We can tell this belonged to an emperor of the Ming dynasty because only he would have been allowed to use items decorated with five-clawed dragons.
#Ming #gold #jewellery #China #BritishMuseum
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 16,359 other followers

%d bloggers like this: