Illuminating the Dark Ages – A History Masterclass with Janina Ramirez

Illuminating the Dark Ages – A History Masterclass with Janina Ramirez

3 March 2017, New College of the Humanities, 19 Bedford Square, London.

In Janina Ramirez’s exuberant and fascinating class on Illuminating the Dark Ages, we discovered how much of a misnomer the expression ‘Dark Ages’ is. Dr. Ramirez took us through stunning examples of the art and craftsmanship of the period, taking us deep into the cultural and historical context in which they were produced.

Among the artworks we examined in detail were the carpet page and opening initial of St Luke’s Gospel, from the Lindisfarne Gospels, produced sometime between 687 and 721. There are 10,000 red dots on an illuminated initial in the opening page of St Luke’s Gospel alone – the work of devotion by one man. The carpet page of the Lindisfarne Gospels is reminiscent of the imagery of Islamic prayer rugs – non-figurative, the pattern as part of the meditative process. Dr Ramirez made us imagine the toil in producing an illuminated gospel like this – even finding enough light by which to write in age when there were no glass windows.

We spent some time with the Sutton Hoo ship burial, an extraordinary Anglo-Saxon archaeological site in Suffolk, which can truly be called the English Tutankhamen, and considered its links to Beowulf. We learnt the story of how its treasures were found – and how narrowly they were missed by grave robbers! The precious treasures from Sutton Hoo all date from the late 5th to the early 7th centuries: we examined the gold belt-buckle, and spotted the thirteen animals and birds cleverly intertwined within it (clue: look for the dots, which are eyes), and the exquisite gold shoulder-clasp inlaid with garnet cloisonné and glass, with its interlinked boars and other beasts. The boar was a symbol of ferocity, strength, and courage. These exquisite, precisely-wrought pieces speak of a lost world of high culture, heroism, and outstanding beauty.

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