Visigothic—Merovingian—Lombardic—Extinction of classic art—Splendid reign of Dagobert—St. Eloy of Noyon—The Library of Laon—Natural History of Isidore of Seville—Elements of contemporary art—Details of ornament—Symbolism—Luxeuil and Monte Cassino—Sacramentary of Gellone—“Prudentius”—“Orosius”—Value of the Sacramentary of Gellone.

To reach the beginning's of these various degenerate and illiterate attempts at book-work we have only to watch the last expiring gleams of classic art beneath the ruthless footsteps of the barbarian invaders of the old Roman Empire.

In the sixth century the light of the old civilisation was fast fading away. Perhaps we may look upon the so-called splendour of the reign of Dagobert in France as the spasmodic scintillations of its latest moments of existence. The kingdom of Dagobert, after 631, was almost an empire. For the seven years preceding his death, in 638, he ruled from the Elbe and the Saxon frontier to that of Spain, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the confines of Hungary. It was during his reign that we read of the skill in metal-work of the celebrated St. Eloy of Noyon, the rival of our own St. Dunstan.

St. Eloy or Eligius (588-659) began his artistic career as the pupil of Abbo, the goldsmith and mint-master to Chlothaire II., and rose from the rank of a goldsmith to that of Bishop of Noyon. Among his handiwork were crowns, chalices, and crosiers, and he is reputed to have made the chair of bronze-gilt now in the National Library at Paris, called the fauteuil of Dagobert, and many other works, which disappeared either during the wars of Louis XV. or those of the Revolution of 1789. He founded the Abbey of Solignac, near Limoges, and it is not improbable that the reputation of this city for metal-work and enamelling may be dated from his foundation. With such works as those of Eloy before them, it is difficult to believe that the wretched and puerile attempts at ornamental penmanship and illumination which are shown at Laon and other places as the work of this period can possibly represent the highest efforts of the calligrapher. But we must remember that St. Eloy was an extraordinary genius in his art, and that the bulk of the clergy, not to mention ordinary workmen, were very ignorant and ill-taught. Very few, indeed, were men who could be considered cultured. Gregory of Tours, the historian, and Venantius Fortunatus, the hymn-writer, are among the few.

In the Library at Laon, M. Fleury describes a MS. of the Natural History of Isidore of Seville, which is looked upon as a work of reference both as regards art and learning. It was at one time a very popular book, being a Latin cyclopædia, dealing with the sciences and general knowledge of the time; yet the example referred to by M. Fleury shows us only a crowd of initials learnedly styled by the Benedictine authors and others “ichthio-morphiques” and “ornithoeides,” i.e. made up of fishes and birds, and about equal in quality and finish to the efforts of a very ordinary schoolboy.

These initials betray an utter decadence from the beautiful uncials of the fifth and sixth centuries, seen in the St. Germain's Psalter, for example, now in the National Library at Paris. The colours are coarse and badly applied, and even where brightest are utterly unrefined and without taste.

Notwithstanding, however, the apparently total eclipse or extinction of Roman art in Gaul, or, as it must henceforth be called, France, it is claimed by M. Fleury[13] that the interlacements which constitute the principal feature of these earlier Merovingian MSS. are derived from the remains of Roman mosaics found profusely at Blanzy, Bazoches, and Reims. This may be so, but those mosaics would not account for the same features in the Irish work, for the Romans never reached Ireland as occupants or colonists.

[13] See later.

Take another example from the Laon collection, the History of Orosius. The first page is a type of the species to which it belongs, and, moreover, a good sample of the earliest efforts of all pictorial art. An ordinary rectangular cross occupies the centre of the page. The centre shows us the Lamb of the Apocalypse and St. John. On the arms are the beasts which typify the Evangelists—their emblems, as they are sometimes called. We notice that they are all symbolic, and not intended to be natural imitations of reality. The various animals scattered about the page are all symbolic—all have a mystical interpretation andraison d'être. A border-frame, passing behind each extremity of the cross, contains a number of dog-like animals, some plain, others spotted, while the body of the cross itself is occupied with attempts at foliage ornaments. In the left upper corner are the letters “X P I,” in the right “I H V,” thick foliage springing from the “I” and “V” and falling back over the monogram. In the lower corners are two fishes and two doves, each pair hanging to a penwork chain.

The emblem of John, on the upper extremity of the cross, is an eagle-headed and winged man holding a book; its opposite one of Lucas at foot is a singularly conceived anthropoid and winged ox, also with a book. On the left Marcus, whose head is indescribable; and on the right Matthew, with human head, the rest of the figures being as before. The eye in all the figures is a most remarkable feature. Both in the pictures and the initials of this MS. the outline has been drawn in black ink, and the colours yellow, red, brown, and green applied afterwards.

As the new masters of the West were not so much interested in the artistic remains of the mangled civilisation they were endeavouring to destroy as in mastery and military success, it was left for the monasteries and the church to see to the welfare of books and monuments.

In the seventh century it was the monasteries that saved almost all we know of the preceding centuries. During the turmoil of the period from the fifth to the eighth century we find certain quiet corners where learning and the arts still breathed, grew, and dwelt in security. Lérins, founded by St. Honoratus of Aries; Luxeuil by Columbanus, Bobbio his last retreat; and, above all, Monte Cassino, the great pattern of monasticism, the Rule of whose founder was destined to become the basis of all later Orders, were each of them steadily labouring to rescue the civilisation daily threatened by the ravage of war, and to preserve it for the benefit of the ignorant hordes who, because of their ignorance, now only aimed at its entire destruction. We have seen how these monks and clerics, with more goodwill than ability, did their best to adorn the books which came into their hands. It is a poor show, but there is no better. It is absolutely our only record of how civilisation managed to struggle through the storm.

Let us, then, be thankful even for the Laon “Orosius,” for the Sacramentary of Gellone, and the Mozarabic Liturgies of Puy. They are among the links between ancient and mediæval art.

As already stated, the handwriting of Merovingian MSS. is mainly an adaptation of the Roman uncial, as it is in Irish and Lombardic, or, we might say, everywhere else. Abbreviations we still uncommon. Where minuscules are used, the writing is not quite so legible as in the larger hands, but we are not met by the singular difficulties of some of the Lombardic texts.

A few solitary texts of the earliest time are in capitals, such as the really handsome “Prudentius” of the Paris National Library, where the entire text of the great Christian poet is boldly inscribed in the centre of a large white page of vellum, like a series of separate inscriptions. The first few words are “rubrished” in the antique manner. The MS. is supposed to date previous to the year 527. A little later than this St. Columbanus founded the monastery of Luxeuil, and later still, viz. in 616, that of Bobbio.

If we turn to the Visigothic area, including the South of France and the entire peninsula of Spain, our first and typical example is the celebrated Sacramentary of Gellone. This MS. dates, it is said, from the eighth century. It is written throughout in Visigothic uncials, though executed in the South of France. Its ornamentation is frankly barbaric. The colours used are yellow, red, and green. The great initials are double lined, and the interlinear space filled in with a flat tint of colour and lines of red dots, as in the Book of Kells occasionally follow the contours. Here, also, are the fish or bird-form letters as in the Laon “Orosius.” Now and then occurs a tiny scene—perhaps a fight between two grotesque brutes, neither fish, nor fowl, nor beast known to the naturalist, but a horrible compound of the worst qualities of each. The human figure, when it occurs, is childishly shapeless. But the design and treatment, nevertheless, bear witness to a lively imagination and considerable knowledge of Christian symbolism. It is these mental qualities which, in spite of the manifest absence of manual skill, render the Gellone Evangeliary one of the most precious monuments of its time. Of the rest of the MSS. of this wretched period we will say nothing.

“Non ragioniam di lor', ma guard' e passa.”

We are glad to hurry on for another century or so, remembering that the leading idea now is the development of the initial letter.