Barbarian treasures in Munich

Bavarian National Museum with its grand façade and vast collections remains one of the most popular Munich attractions. However, many visitors tend to skip seemingly plain collection of Early Medieval artifacts. Instead, they hurry to the upper floors, to more sophisticated centuries: to the gilded furniture and elegant portraits of Bavarian kings.

In doing so, they skip a rare glimpse into mostly forgotten eras. Years after the fall of Rome and before the first Crusade (or, in the case of Britain, before the Norman invasion) are often shrouded in darkness – at least, in the popular imagination. This long era lasted for more, than six centuries – the same amount of time, which separates us from geniuses of the Renaissance. Such a long period couldn’t have been filled with stagnation, hopelessness, general decay and perpetual hunger. And it wasn’t.

…Ivory reliefs, dotted through the exhibition, astound with their sublimity. Clear, intricate and radiant, they were forged in Rome long after the fall of the last emperor. This fact is not as surprising, as it may sound at first. Barbarian kings, who ruled Italy for centuries, weren’t as barbarian as we often think. In fact, they often went to great lengths to protect and spread the traditions of antiquity – including its art.  On the more practical level, new aqueducts were built, new public baths opened. Roman Senate was still in existence, dutifully yawning through the sessions; bureaucratic officials continued to fill out the same forms and collect the same salaries.  The tradition of public grain distribution, a sort of antique welfare, was abandoned by late emperors, but revived by Gothic rulers.

"Women at the tomb of Christ", 5th century, Rome. Ivory.

“Women at the tomb of Christ”, 5th century, Rome. Ivory.

No less impressive, as well as distinctly classical, is the art from Spain. This sunlit land was occupied by Romans for centuries, supplying the Empire with gold and oil. And the Empire itself, in turn, couldn’t help but put down deep roots there. Goths, who invaded Spain later and created a kingdom with a capital in Toledo, couldn’t destroy these traditions overnight – nor did they want too. In fact, they adopted these practices for themselves quite eagerly. The Goths wrote their laws down, just like the Romans did; they used Latin titles; they organized pompous triumphal processions after each major victory. Not that all Goths were overjoyed by this cultural mixing. Many fought fiercely to retain their own identity and, for example, continued to wear long hair and traditional heavy furs. Given the Spanish climate, this is quite an astounding sacrifice in the name of ethnic culture. But, as the years passed, impractical clothing was abandoned and anti-intermarriage law dispelled (not that it hadn’t become a dead letter long before official repealing). Later, the Goths even abandoned their native language, starting to use Latin instead. They forged coins with Roman symbols and slogans.

By the way, do you recall those countless quasi-medieval RPGs, that have monetary system with gold, silver and bronze/copper coins? This system is actually Roman through and through. Later medieval kingdoms had either forged only silver coins, or, as in Saxon England, abandoned their use altogether.

Unfortunately, Saxon England isn’t very well represented in the museum collection. This is understandable, of course. Unlike in the Southern lands, in England the decline of urban life and metropolitan culture was sharp and swift. The mercantile capital of Londinium turned into haunted ruins; classical villas in the countryside crumbled to dust. It took centuries for the Saxons to grow future London into a burgeoning port once more.

 Bavarian National Museum with its grand façade and vast collections remains one of the most popular Munich attractions.

Casket of St. Kunigunde, circa 1,000.

But, on the other hand, you can see fabulous artifacts from another Northern civilization: the Vikings. This name inevitably conjures up the images of battles and pillage. However, these seafarers were also prosperous merchants, who created sophisticated trade networks. Their famous ships could be seen as far, as Baghdad. Silk and jewels, ivory and bright dyes flew through these routes into the Northern lands. As a result, local artisans produced such things of unparalleled beauty, as, for example, the Casket of St. Kunigunde. Intricate and mesmerizing, it is a creation of ivory and gild.

Like many other artifacts from the museum collection, the Casket allows us a glimpse into largely forgotten world. It gives us a chance to see vibrant trade now forgotten, mighty rulers long gone, cults now abandoned.

Bavarian National Museum is open every day of the week except Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s located on Prinzregentenstraße 3.


P. Daileader, Early Middle Ages

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