The art normally known as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has, historiographically, been studied according to criteria established for engaging with so-called ‘classical art’, the tradition prioritised in art-historical scholarship across much of the globe. Although ‘classical art’ it is rarely defined, it is generally accepted to prioritise ‘naturalism’, the ‘representational’ and above all, the human figure – rather than the abstract, stylisation and pattern, which co-existed throughout antiquity with the representational and the focus on the human figure. This has meant that Anglo-Saxon art has been explained largely in terms of motif, style and technology as it is a visual tradition that is neither naturalistic nor representational, and certainly does not prioritise the human figure; it is easy to see how, within an art-historical narrative that favours such phenomena, the more formal aspects of motif, style and technology have come to dominate the discourse on Anglo-Saxon art.
Against this background of categorisation and definition, even where inaccurate and inappropriate, this paper will explore the results of more recent engagements with Anglo-Saxon art, focussing on its visual effects and the apparent primary concerns of those who made it: linearity, pattern, variegation, texture, materiality, abstraction, stylisation and ambiguity. These are, co-incidentally, features that dominate other artistic traditions – such as the Melanesian – that have long held sway beyond the confines of Europe and its historical ‘classicising’ tendencies; of course, no attempt has been made to shoehorn them in to the prescriptions governing the acceptable in western European art. In this way it will be suggested that it is possible to situate and understand Anglo-Saxon art within contexts never intended to conform to criteria identified as integral to the study of art produced within the western European, ‘classical’, tradition and as part of this process the complexities and sophistication of this early medieval art will be demonstrated – on its own terms.
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