European Art in the Sixth Century


James Batchelor, Dickson College 2008

The Hagia Sophia (constructed between 532 and 537 CE)
The Hagia Sophia (constructed between 532 and 537 CE)

The decline of the Western Roman Empire revolutionised art as a means of expression; epic changes gave rise to works and forms which are now considered archetypal to sixth century Europe. At a time when a paucity of learning saw few written sources, art was one of the only ways to reflect upon the monumental changes taking place. Christianity greatly influenced art; a commonplace subject for prominent works, demonstrating the sheer scale to which the fledgling religion was beginning to dominate Europe. With the disappearance of public and monumental works in consequence to Rome’s economic crisis, art took on a more private and personal form. Decorous biblical texts and narrative art works sustained learning in the Dark Ages through powerful use of imagery. Germanic invasions brought about a blend of cultures, Animal and Polychrome styles becoming a popular trend in Migration Period art of the west. The sixth century was a time of cultural change and political unrest, and so the art from this period is highly representative of these ambitious transformations.

Christus Ravenna Mosaic
Christus Ravenna Mosaic
Since the Edict of Tolerance [1] in 313 CE, Christian art and architecture flourished, greatly dominating and influencing the art of Europe to the modern day. Much of the surviving art of the sixth century is prominently Christian, for since the decline of the Western Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church was one of the few establishments wealthy enough to produce it.[2] This placed the church in an active position as it controlled the use of imagery, employing art as a tool to glorify and broadcast Christianity as an emerging power. A more abstract aesthetic replaced traditional Hellenistic realism, shifting in purpose from accurate portrayals to a purely religious context. Simplification in geometric forms and the general loss of colour, light and depth established an early stylistic deviation from classical times.[3] Fine examples of this change can be seen in the Christus Ravenna Mosaic, St. Catherines Monastery, and the Hagia Sophia, all of which can be accurately dated to the period and thereby serving as useful primary sources.[4] The strong biblical images presented in these works signify the prominence of Christianity in Europe and the way in which art took on a religious form both in purpose and in structure. The power, struggles and the triumphs are all justly recorded through the art of the sixth century, thereby defining Christianity’s place in history.

Mosaic of Santa Costanza
Mosaic of Santa Costanza
A shift from public to private works saw the loss of monumental art in the sixth century. As the wealth of the Roman Empire depleted, there was no longer money to craft and maintain art in public forms. Thus art became a personal luxury; intimate works enjoyed in a private setting by the patron or a very small gathering of people.[5] Many of the stylistic changes during the sixth century can therefore be attributed to personal taste of the patron, as is seen in the use of colour. The light and airy vault Mosaic of Santa Costanza really contrasts the vibrant use of colour in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia. [6]Meanwhile monumental art and public amenities such as the Parthenon or the mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore, other than those produced by the Roman Catholic Church, became that of the past. This somewhat abrupt change is very much symbolic of the economic troubles Rome was facing in the sixth century. Buildings and artworks of the old Roman Empire fell into disrepair, as Rome could no longer afford the upkeep.[7] Barbarian invasions along with the exponential growth during previous centuries led Rome into an economic crisis, the lack of public works in the sixth century indicative of this.

Catacomb of SS Pietro e Marcellino
Catacomb of SS Pietro e Marcellino
The lack of learning in the sixth century is one of the primary reasons why the era is often referred to as dark, however Christians maintained erudition both in writing and art. An emergence of Christian Narrative art and illuminated manuscripts signified a change, as recording history through art took on a new religious perspective. The suspension and illusion of lifelike scenes captured in two dimensions often drew from narratives of old and new testaments, unlike previous narratives which presented only a single authoritative text.[8] Lengthy connected narrative scenes can be seen in churches throughout Rome depicting events in chronological order, as opposed to the previous thematic method. An example lies on the ceiling in a large chamber from the catacomb of SS Pietro e Marcellino, where a sequence of episodes string together to convey a textual narrative.[9] There also remain many examples of illuminated manuscripts from the sixth century; highly decorated texts retelling literacy of the past with the evocative use of image and colour. The most decorative of these early texts are the Vienna Genesis, a picture book with stories from the Book of Genesis, and the Rossano Gospels, both transcribed in the 6th century on purple parchment.[10] These texts along with the Narrative art of churches and catacombs are some of the only examples of continued learning throughout the Dark Ages. This makes evident the total chaos and disorganisation of life outside the Christian church at this point in time.

'Eagle Fibula', a typical example of the Polychrome style.
'Eagle Fibula', a typical example of the Polychrome style.
The decline of the Western Roman Empire is often attributed to barbarian invasions; mass movement of tribal groups in constant battle for food, land and power. Hence the sixth century is often referred to as part of the Migration Period. During this time, motley groups of people from varied origins inhabited Rome and its surroundings; thus introducing foreign cultures and art forms. Because of this, the art from the sixth century grew ever different from classical times, influenced by barbarian culture. Originating from the Goths of Russia, Polychrome style became a major influence on art in the Migration Period. The style consisted of gold figurine objects inlaid with precious stones, brought to Rome during the Gothic Wars, 376 – 382 CE, and through several waves of migration into Italy and Spain.[11] An excellent example of the integration of Polychrome style is the eagle fibula CA.500AD, a typical gothic garnet from Cesena, Italy.[12] Animal style, also Zoomorphic style, also became quite prominent, being an intricate adornment of animalistic patterns. Originating from Scandinavia and northern Europe, the style was carried into the old Roman Empire through migration.[13] An elaborately decorated belt buckle was found in a grave in Saxony, thought to be made in a Roman workshop along the Rhine, is an example of the integration of Animal style into Roman art. The find is probably due to the barbarian right of being buried with weapons.[14] The art from the sixth century is therefore very much reflective of the barbarian movements sweeping across Europe, as these originally Germanic styles and customs are slowly integrated into Rome.


It remains a matter of speculation as to what exactly affected the immense changes in Roman art during the sixth century; one can only link them to the visible transformations of Western Europe that were taking place at the time. Christianity dominated the Roman Empire in the sixth century and so most of the surviving art from the era is seen in cathedrals, narratives and Christian texts. The decline of the Roman Empire and the economic crisis saw the downfall of monumental art, the introduction of private artworks and manipulations of styles and techniques. The Germanic invasions blended cultures, introducing new styles and customs. These monumental changes rapidly swept through Rome during the sixth century, disturbing life as was known in classical times. Yet remarkably these events are captured timelessly through art, as if shedding light on an era that is often referred to as dark.











[1] Lactantius, De Mort. Pers., ch. 48. opera, ed. 0. F. Fritzsche, II, p 288 sq. (Bibl Patr. Ecc. Lat. XI) Accessed from: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/edict-milan.html (1996) in 04/08.
[2] World Book Encylcopedia. (1996) Scott Fretzer Company. P.485
[3] Grabar, Andre (1968). Christian Iconography. Princeton University Press
[4] Universiy of Oklahoma. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. Accessed at: http://www.ou.edu/class/ahi4263/byzhtml/ch02.html in 04/08
[5] Henig, Martin. (1983). A Handbook Of Roman Art. Phaidon Press Limited. P. 248
[6] ibid p. 247
[7] Harrie. Jill. (1994). Sidonius Apollinaris and the Fall of Rome. Clarendon Press
[8] Backes.M , Dolling.R. (1969). Art of the Dark Ages. Harry N.Abrams Inc.
[9] Nees Lawrence. (2002). Early Medieval Art. Oxford University Press. Pp. 29-31
[11] Microsoft Encarta. (2008). Illuminated Manuscripts. [online]
[12] http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761567269_3/Illuminated_Manuscripts.html#howtocite 05/08
[13] Nees Lawrence. (2002). Early Medieval Art. Oxford University Press.
[14] Backes.M , Dolling.R. (1969). Art of the Dark Ages. Harry N.Abrams Inc. P.16
[15] Nees Lawrence. (2002). Early Medieval Art. Oxford University Press. P. 83 – 85