…but is it art?

We all know what happened in 1066. Guillaume won at Senlac. Oh come on, you did know that. Just the same way you didn’t really think Jesus had Palestinian friends called Timothy and Mark. Oh. Well, sorry to be the one to break it to you.

Anyway, arrows, battles, and the country lost by the same trick as at Maldon not even 70 years before. It always worked. Both times the invaders had got themselves bottled up where they could be dealt with, the Danes/Vikings at Maldon on an island in the Colne/Blackwater and the Normans, who were also Danes and Vikings who’d been kicked out of Denmark for being too violent (try to keep that one in mind. Vikings who were too violent for Viking sensibilities) cooped up at the bottom of a hill so they had to attack upwards. Which is N times more difficult when you’re wearing armour and can’t put your shield above your head and in front of you at the same time.


Both times the Saxons’ sense of honour screwed it for them. Both times the Danes/Vikings said ‘if you were real men you’d have a fight on the flat.’ Unbelievably stupidly, they did. And lost. Twice.

But arguably a bigger loss was to art. Like maybe a lot of people, I just assumed that until about 1400, artists just weren’t much good. I’ve seen Greek and Roman pottery where someone obviously knew how to make an image that actually looks like a person, but until deep in the Middle Ages all I’d seen were cartoonish two-dimensional finger-painting. I mean, look at the Bayeux Tapestry.

Now ok, it was made by the Bayeux W.I. but by any standards, the level of art isn’t exactly great.

Tring Tiles
The Tring Tiles: medieval funnies.

The Tring Tiles, 300 years later, weren’t much better. They’re fun and funny for quite other reasons. It isn’t just the fact they seem to have come from Tring church and ended up being sold in the antique shop there years and years ago, presumably sold off by the vicar. Funnier is the fact that the tiles show a series of not-very-Biblical stories. Or maybe they are. Either way, in each story the young Jesus acts like someone young. His teacher slaps him for either not paying attention or for Holy Smartmouth.

He makes little pools at the side of the river and a bigger kid comes along and smashes them up. So Jesus superpowers him dead until Mary comes along and makes him bring the bully back to life or no supper. Jesus’s friend’s dad reckons Jesus is a bad influence and locks his friend up so he can’t go and play with the Messiah, who promptly miracles him through the keyhole. If you think I’m making this stuff up, think again.

They’re fun. Bonkers, but fun. And the most believable, human, Man made God stories I’ve ever heard. Or seen. But there’s the issue. The artwork itself can’t really be called all that good.

I thought that was just the way it was. Dark Ages, the handy thing to blame for everything after Rome fell. They forgot how to draw? I can’t believe that and my walk around the British Museum yesterday told me it obviously wasn’t true. I can’t claim to have discovered Carolingian artwork (or can I? I’d never seen it before…..) and it was a revelation.

From the mid-800s.
From the mid-800s.

Accurate representational art from the 800s. And 200 years later we get the cartoon 2D of Bayeux and 300 years after that the same again from Tring. I can’t channel Brian Sewell, maybe unfortunately. But I’d really like to know how art became less realistic before it became more so. And why.


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