Those not so Dark Ages
The New York Times today has an enthusiastic story about the “newly restored and reinstalled Gallery for Western European Medieval Art from 1050 to 1300.” Three key paragraphs:
The brimming, light-flooded presentation has been orchestrated by Peter Barnet, curator in chief of the museum’s medieval art department and the Cloisters, his curators and the museum’s designers. They seem to have wanted to mount a final assault on the notion of the medieval period as backward, antiquated or benighted. This misconception started in the full-of-itself Renaissance, which condescendingly christened the previous era the Dark or Middle Ages. Medieval, as the Enlightenment tagged it, only sharpened the bite.
With an effect that is at once artistic, archaeological and devotional, this gallery recasts medieval art as a mammoth, busy and fast-moving project translating the Holy Scriptures into visual form, making them accessible to largely illiterate populations. It resulted in a free-for-all of constant themes and boundless variations. The stories recur again and again: Jonah and the Whale, Adam and Eve, the Annunciation, the Virgin and Child, the Crucifixion, the Entombment. (If your knowledge of the Bible is scant, medieval art is an excellent makeup option.)
But there is nothing fixed about the techniques, styles and materials of medieval art. Painting had not yet established its dominance; every medium had its storytelling role. Classicism was not yet the Ideal, but only one of many influences, which included barbaric ornamentation and Persian motifs. And space, not yet locked into one-point perspective, was subject to individual skill and imagination, regardless of medium; ingenious stabs at it abounded.
One wonders why, then, the Times gave this headline to the story: “Illuminating the Dark Ages”!
While on the subject, you shouldn’t miss the article in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books on the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the great wonders of medieval art. . The article ends with interesting comments on the influence of Coptic and Eastern Christian traditions upon Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Christianity, which is perhaps surprising enough, but also upon nascent Islam:
What makes this link so intriguing is that Michelle Brown demonstrates convincingly how the same Coptic and Eastern Christian manuscripts that influenced the Lindisfarne Gospels also influenced the work of early Islamic painters and calligraphers. The fascinating point that emerges from her book is that, to a considerable extent, both the art and sacred calligraphy of Anglo-Saxon England and that of early Ummayad Islam grew at the same time out of the same East Mediterranean culture compost and common Coptic models.
I for one had no idea until I read Brown’s book that Northumbrian, Celtic, and Byzantine monks all used to pray on decorated prayer carpets, known as oratorii, just as Muslim and certain Eastern Christian churches have always done, and still do. She also demonstrates how these prayer mats influenced the “carpet pages” of abstract geometric ornament which are such a feature both of Insular and early Islamic sacred texts.
All of this is a reminder of just how much early Islam drew from ascetic forms of Christianity that originated in the Byzantine Levant but whose influence spread both to the Celtic north and the Arabian south. The theology of the Desert Fathers was deeply austere, with much concentration on judgment and damnation, a concern that they passed on to the Irish monks…
There is much in the Koran—notably its graphic hell scenes and emphasis on Godly Judgment—that, though off-putting to many modern Western readers, would have been quite familiar both to a Desert Father and a monk on Iona. Today many commentators in the US and Europe view Islam as a religion very different from and indeed hostile to Christianity. Yet in their roots the two are closely connected, the former growing directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodying many early Christian practices lost in Christianity’s modern Western incarnation.
Just as the Celtic monks used prayer carpets for their devotions, so the Muslim form of prayer with its prostrations derives from the older Eastern Christian tradition that is still practiced today in pewless churches across the Levant. The Sufi Muslim tradition carried on directly from the point at which the Desert Fathers left off, while Ramadan is in fact nothing more than an Islamicization of Lent, which in the Eastern Christian churches still involves a grueling all-day fast. Likewise, the recent outbreak of iconoclasm seen in Taliban Afghanistan had many counterparts in Christian history: the Ruthwell Cross was itself broken down and briefly buried as recently as the seventeenth century after the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed an Act ordering “the demolishing of Idolatrous Monuments.”
Certainly if a monk from seventh-century Lindisfarne or Egypt were to come back today it is probable that he would find much more that was familiar in the practices and beliefs of a modern Muslim Sufi than he would with, say, a contemporary American evangelical. Yet this simple truth has been lost by our tendency to think of Christianity as a Western religion, rather than the thoroughly Oriental faith it actually is. Because of this, we are apt to place Celtic monks, Coptic Desert Fathers, and Muslim Sufis in very different categories. But as the art of this period so clearly demonstrates, we are wrong to do so. These apparently different worlds were all surprisingly closely interlinked; indeed in intellectual terms perhaps more so in the eighth century than in today’s nominally globalized world.