Art History for Normal People: Monasteries after the Fall of Rome

How the West was saved: some guys on a rock, basically.

Art History for Normal People
IntroductionMesopotamia • Egypt • Ancient Greece (Part I) • Ancient Greece (Part II) • Ancient Rome

As we discussed in our last post, Christianity flourished in Rome after it was legalized in 313. Just 17 years later, the capital of the empire was moved from Rome to Constantinople (which is now Istanbul, Turkey).

Art and Liturgy - Modern Istanbul Turkey Constantinople Byzantium
Panorama of modern-day Istanbul

The Byzantine Empire, as it was called after 330, survived mostly intact for about 1,000 years until it fell to the Ottomans in 1453.

In any case, although the capital had moved, life must have proceeded more or less normally for Joe Roman until the 470s, when Rome was conquered by various Germanic tribes. Wikipedia tells us this delightful tale about the end of negotiations after all the fighting:

After several indecisive campaigns, in 493 Theoderic and Odoacer agreed to rule jointly. They celebrated their agreement with a banquet of reconciliation, at which Theoderic’s men murdered Odoacer’s, and Theoderic personally cut Odoacer in half.

After the fall of Rome, the Mediterranean world more or less resembled today’s Middle East, lacking the stability formerly guaranteed by Roman hegemony. Various tribes — Saxons, Franks, Goths, and others — roamed across Europe, fighting with each other and committing the usual abuses that come with war.

With stability comes leisure, and with leisure culture. This period is what we colloquially call the Dark Ages, though we all know at least one historian who insists these ages were, in fact, not dark at all.


What we do know is that during these Possibly Dark Times, as many Roman officials fled to escape the onrushing barbarians, one important guy hung around: the Bishop of Rome. It was then left to the Church of Rome to educate and Christianize these tribes, which she did with remarkable success, given the circumstances. You have heard many of these stories: Saint Patrick converted Ireland and drove the snakes into the sea; Saint Boniface went to Germany and cut down the pagans’ sacred tree; and so on.

Because of its solidity amidst the chaos in Rome and the Mediterranean world, the Church became a secular world power for the first time.

Art and Liturgy - Columbas Bay Iona
Columba’s Bay, Iona

On the periphery of Europe, many monastic communities fled to little islands or mountain enclaves where they could avoid the scourge of the barbarians and vikings. One such group was led by Saint Columba, an Irishman, who led a band of monks to Iona, an island off the coast of Scotland in 563. These monasteries were constantly getting raided by vikings and pirates, though they managed to survive and, therefore, so did Western civilization.

Inside the monasteries, monks would write and illuminate Bibles and other works. These writing workshops, called scriptoria, were critical for the preservation of many ancient Roman documents, as well as religious works. The most famous by far are the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Illuminations like these are beautiful in an abstract sort of way. Certainly they are better than anything I could do, but anyone with eyes can see they’re not exactly Michelangelo-quality works of art.

Here’s Sir Kenneth Clark on these manuscripts:

The strange thing is how little consciousness of classical or Christian culture these decorations reveal. They are all gospel books but they are almost devoid of Christian symbols, except for the fierce, oriental-looking beasts who symbolise the four Evangelists. When a man appears he cuts a very poor figure. In one case the scribe has thought it best to write IMAGO HOMINIS, the image of a man.

Art and Liturgy - Imago Hominis Echternach Gospels Luxembourg
“Image of a man” from the Gospel of Matthew, Echternach Gospels, Luxembourg

Most of the images in these manuscripts are comical in their crudeness. This is explained by the lack of opportunities for real artistic training for monks in the Belgian hinterlands or marooned on the Hebrides. Nevertheless, we can still marvel at the intricate knotwork that borders the pages of these gospels.

The unsteady political situation in Europe continued for a couple hundred years. During this time, the Benedictines and other orders held manuscript-writing as a vital part of their rule (thus the recent production of the Saint John’s Bible). Just like us moderns, sometimes the monks got a little burned out.

This activity was more important to world history than those complainers may have realized. Let’s go back to Sir Kenneth Clark:

Insofar as [we Westerners] are the heirs of Greece and Rome, we got through by the skin of our teeth. We survived because, although circumstances and opportunities may vary, human intelligence seems to remain fairly constant, and for centuries practically all men of intellect joined the church. …

When Irish monks came to Europe in about the year 600 they found Roman manuscripts in places like Tours and Toulouse [France]. But the monasteries couldn’t have become the guardians of civilization unless there had been a minimum of stability: and this, in Western Europe, was first achieved in the Kingdom of the Franks. 

It would be a Frank — Carolus Magnus, Charlemagne, Charles the Great — who would almost singlehandedly pull the West out of its post-Roman milieu and on the course toward a revival of civilization, led chiefly by the Church.

Art and Liturgy - Sir Kenneth Clark
Sir Kenneth Clark, who was happily received into the Catholic faith on his deathbed

If you have liked this post, and particularly the excerpts from Sir Kenneth Clark, I highly recommend his BBC series, Civilisation, viewable on YouTube. It is really well-done and delightfully British.

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