PARIS.- The exhibition tackles the question of permanence and of artistic development observed in the northern margins of Europe during the spread of Christianity between the 7th and 12th centuries. For the first time in almost fifteen years, a large exhibition on the art of this period in northern Europe gives us the opportunity to discover, or rediscover, some of the most spectacular pieces from the Celtic and Scandinavian countries.
Although Europe bears the Greek name of a Phoenician princess, it was not until the Middle Ages that the concept and the geographical space were defined. Within the context of the French Presidency of the European Union, this exhibition is exceptional in its originality, and in the richness of its content.
As Christianity expanded beyond the limits of the Roman Empire from the 5th century onwards, the Church was obliged to take many cultural influences into account. Unlike regions which had converted to Christianity, under Roman administration, the evangelising ecclesiastics did not have the benefit of strong political support. So, faced with the challenges presented by the diversity of civilisations and beliefs, the Church sought to use art to integrate cultural differences.
Far from claiming to offer an exhaustive view of the art and the archaeology of medieval Celtic and Scandinavian civilisations, this exhibition aims to shed new light on the way institutions that had become all-powerful in the western world, like the Church of Rome, used artistic creation to establish themselves and transmit their message to populations being converted. A selection of about 80 works (sculpture, gold and silverwork, illuminations), mainly from collections in Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, illustrate this theme. The exhibition is laid out geographically and chronologically in the first two rooms of the museum, and is divided into two sections: the British Isles and Scandinavia.
The British Isles
Ireland converted to Christianity very early on and put all its own artistic resources at the service of the Christian Church. Some of the most remarkable illuminated works demonstrate the key role of the Irish monks in the artistic syncretism and spread of aesthetic models throughout the British Isles. Welsh and Scottish works reveal the importance of this Irish heritage while maintaining the distinctive features of these countries. It is a special event to have these Scottish works of art in France, on loan from the National Museums of Scotland. Through these one can see the major archaeological discoveries in Scotland, like the fibulas of Rogart, the stelae and cross of Monifieth, and the impressive Pictish chain of Whitecleugh. The Evangelistary of the College of Arms and the reliquary cross from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London confirm Englands role as the hub of the Celtic and Scandinavian worlds.
Far from just being bloodthirsty pirates, commonly associated with the Vikings, the Scandinavians were also a nation of traders and explorers, with an open view of the world, of the civilisations and religions of Europe and those of the Middle East. They very quickly came into contact with typical objects of Christianity. Crosses were used as pendants for bracelets or necklaces. From the beginning of the 9th century, Christianity spread further, and gradually Christians and pagans were living as part of the same family. Alongside imported objects, the Scandinavian Christians made objects such as the Crucifix of Birka from the Museum of the History of Stockholm and the Croix d'Oro from the National Museum of Copenhagen, which demonstrate how Christian forms were adapted to local practices. Having seen the crucifix worn by the Christians, the Scandinavians developed a strong, pagan sign of membership, the Hammer of Thor of Erikstrop. For a long time the two religions existed side by side, and after the year one thousand, objects became monumental in size, with pagan and Christian scenes mixed together as in the Vegusdal Gate from the University of Oslo and the baptismal fonts of Ardre from the Museum of Stockholm.