Anglo-Saxon Treasures

Today was spent in the British Museum.

It was an absolute pleasure, as always, and there are a million fascinating and beautiful objects that I could mention; I would like to briefly highlight one piece that I was disproportionately excited to see.

franks

The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket is a whale-bone chest from the 8th Century. It is an intricate piece of Anglo-Saxon art and to me represents the imagination and skill that can be found in art from that period. Anglo-Saxon art is often overlooked thanks to our modern perception that art is only worthwhile in the classical period or by fast-forwarding to the Renaissance. This is in no way true.

The casket is small – only 22cm in length, 19cm in width and 10cm in height – easily overlooked by passers-by in the Museum. It packs a surprising amount of history inside its modest frame.

Every side of the casket is intricately carved. They feature scenes from Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic tradition.

The inscriptions are hardly random, despite the seemingly disparate imagery. The point of these inscriptions was not to contrast the Pagan and the Christian, nor set one as more important than the other. It is thought to be a way to explain Christian teachings, newly introduced to the Anglo-Saxons, by putting them side by side with some legends more commonly recognised.

Weyland the Smith is side by side with the Adoration of the Magi on the front panel. The story of Weyland is brutal, a revenge tale against the King who wronged him, but in this case it is thought to represent, with the Magi, good and bad forms of kingship.

The left panel shows Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf, thought to be used as a symbol of the mother Church.

sidefrank

Some of the casket is damaged so the full complexity of the inscriptions is lost to us. The casket’s use and audience is debated but it is such a rich piece of art that it is thought to have been for a royal audience. It was perhaps used as a reliquary but once again the contents have been long lost to history.

Even so, it is an absolutely beautiful merging of imagery and so much can be gained from studying it. There is much more to the casket than I have time to speak about here and it is well worth checking out in more detail. The British Museum has a wonderful selection of Anglo-Saxon art right now, helping smash any illusions that the Dark Ages were filled with any less beauty and wonder than later periods.

I certainly recommend a trip to the Museum to take a look!

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