In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Merovingian Period Art

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Art History Merovingian Period Art
Genevra Kornbluth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0095


Strictly understood, “Merovingian” refers to a ruling dynasty among the Franks, and some scholars use the term in this limited sense. But as the cohesiveness of various groups has been increasingly questioned over the past few decades, it has also come to have geographical import, referring to the many different cultures in central and western Europe from the mid-5th to the mid-8th century. Such cultures include people identified as Franks, Alamanni (Alemanni, Alemans), Burgundians, Goths, Visigoths, Lombards (Langobards), and others; terms used include the more generic “barbarians” and “Dark Ages” and, chronologically, the “Migration Period,” following and intersecting with Late Antiquity. The negative connotations of “barbarians” and “Dark Ages” reflect a common devaluation of Merovingian culture based on uncritical acceptance of Carolingian propaganda and the Renaissance paradigm. Most preserved art of this period comes from many thousands of burials. There are also large-scale survivals—sarcophagi and architectural sculpture—but outside Italy, little wall painting remains. Few objects have been studied by art historians, even among works long known, and excavators are constantly adding to the corpus. Most scholarship listed in this article is archaeological. The field is very ready for new art historical approaches. Potentially meaningful details of individual objects have been neglected in favor of the broad trends that interest archaeologists. Contemporary Anglo-Saxon art, though it has much in common with Merovingian art, is generally treated as a distinct field. Separation of the two areas is reinforced by language: Merovingian culture has been studied most often in the languages of the Continent, while Anglophone scholars have tended to look at the United Kingdom and Ireland. This article focuses on the territories of modern France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. It excludes Spain and Italy, the British Isles, Denmark, Scandinavia, and the large quantity of related material to the east, from Austria and Hungary to Russia. It also excludes architecture and epigraphy. Because simply finding objects is difficult and time consuming, it includes many catalogues and corpus publications. In order to focus on recent developments, it does not include material published prior to 1981, for which see Nees 1985, cited under Bibliographies.

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