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.

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We love this brilliant sketch of the Great Court by @simoneridyard! It captures the subtle blues and greys of the inside of the space. The Museum has always played host to artists throughout its history, and we still see people sketching their favourite objects or views inside the Museum (although most people take a photo with their phones now!). Have you made drawings while visiting any museums or galleries? We’d love to see any art made in the Museum – tag your photos with the location and we’ll regram our favourites! #BritishMuseum #London #regram #repost #museum #art #sketch #sketchingfromlife The Lion of Knidos looks very regal in this super photo by @nin_uiu. The Lion is named after the place where it used to stand, an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey. A colossal statue weighing six tons, it was part of a funerary monument that stood on a headland above a cliff. The lion’s eyes were probably inlaid with glass, and this may have aided sailors navigating the rugged coastline – they could use the reflection of the eyes to determine where the coast was. The sculpture is made from one piece of marble, but it’s not known exactly when it was made and estimates range from 394 BC to 175 BC. #BritishMuseum #history #AncientGreece #AncientGreek #lion #sculpture #statue #London There have been some beautiful sunsets in London recently – we love the way @wiserain23 has captured the streaks in the sky over the Museum in this shot. The orange and peach colours in the sky have been spectacular during this spell of cold, crisp but sunny weather. You can see the Museum lit up like this if you visit during our Friday late opening – you can browse the galleries until 20.30. Remember to share your photos with us by using the British Museum location tag – we love seeing our visitors’ photos, so get snapping! #BritishMuseum #London #sunset #sky #lights #evening #regram #repost Don’t forget to look up! ☝🏼 The triangular feature above the columns of the Museum’s main entrance is called a pediment. Originally it had a bright blue background and the statues were all painted white. 
The sculptures in the pediment show the development of ‘mankind’ in eight stages – a very old-fashioned idea now, but it was designed and built in the 1850s. The left side shows the creation of man as he emerges from a rock as an ignorant being. He meets the next character, the Angel of Enlightenment who is holding the Lamp of Knowledge. From the lamp, man learns basic skills such as cultivating land and taming animals.

The next step in the progress of civilisation is for man to expand his knowledge and understanding. The following eight figures represent the subjects he must learn to do this – architecture and sculpture, painting and science, geometry and drama, and music and poetry. The final human figure, on the right, represents ‘educated man’. Learn more about the Museum’s architecture and its fascinating history in our new blog – follow the link in our bio! We’d love to hear what you think. 258 years ago we opened our doors to the public for the first time! The British Museum is the world’s oldest national public museum, founded in 1753. It was created to be free to all ‘studious and curious persons’ and it’s still free today, but a few things have changed…

Did you know that the @natural_history_museum used to be part of the British Museum? The Museum’s founder Sir Hans Sloane had collected a vast number of natural history specimens, and these were part of the Museum’s collection for over a hundred years. In the 1880s, with space in Bloomsbury at a premium, it was agreed that these collections should move to a new site in South Kensington.

This photograph by Frederick York shows a mastodon skeleton on display here in Bloomsbury, before it moved to South Kensington in the 1880s.

Explore more of the Museum’s history on our new blog – follow the link in our bio and let us know what you think! The British Museum opened to the public #onthisday in 1759, the first national public museum in the world! 🎉

The Museum was founded on the death of Sir Hans Sloane, who bequeathed his collection of 71,000 objects to the nation. The British Museum Act gained royal assent in June 1753 (which makes us older than the USA!). The original collection featured 1,125 ‘things relating to the customs of ancient times’, 5,447 insects, a herbarium (a collection of dried plants), 23,000 coins and medals and 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts.

This photograph of the front of the Museum was taken in 1857 by Roger Fenton, the Museum’s first official photographer.

To mark this anniversary, the Museum is launching a blog where you can find all kinds of interesting articles – things you didn’t know about the Museum, curators’ insights, behind-the-scenes stories and more. Follow the link in our bio – we’d love to know what you think!
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