Close your eyes and try to picture the Dark Ages. See nothing? Probably.
Few people are aware of the visual legacy of the Dark Ages -- roughly a period from the 4th to the 8th centuries A.D., ending before the Middle Ages began.
Thanks to a new exhibition at Ariadne Galleries in New York City and its catalog, both titled "Treasures of the Dark Ages in Europe," we now can see that the barbarian tribes who spread across Europe wore gleaming jewelry inlaid with precious stones, and their horses wore fancy trappings.
Ten years ago Torkom Demirjian, who owns Ariadne, acquired two tiny objects that were strikingly anti-classical in form and design: a Celtic coin from Spain and a silver gilt fibula (brooch) from a German tribe circa 5th century A.D. Curiosity about them started Mr. Demirjian on a quest to discover other relics of the Dark Ages. The result of his decade of collecting and research is the current exhibition of over 300 brooches, buckles, sword fittings and ornaments that illuminate the unfamiliar, brilliant world of the Dark Ages. The period is called "Dark" because it is not as well documented as those before and after.
Largely illiterate, the migratory tribes with somewhat familiar names -- the Huns, Celts, Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Anglo-Saxons and Lombards -- left few written records and no monuments. Like the Egyptians, they buried their dead with their most precious personal possessions. Thus, the visual records of life in the Dark Ages are adornments in various states of preservation found in graves.
As the barbarians swept across Europe from east of the Black Sea toward the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas and the Atlantic Ocean, conquering and intermarrying with many different peoples, they blended together disparate customs, skills and designs. Consequently, the invading barbarians spread a unified style and laid the groundwork for a common European artistic heritage.
The Goths and Huns learned in the South Russian region bordering the Black Sea the technique of cutting and polishing thin slices of garnet and fitting them into fretwork of gold and bronze. In Rome they learned how to set highly polished stones. Rosette-shaped fibula made in this manner suggest the origin of medieval stained-glass windows. Carrying these techniques with them in their migrations, they produced in different lands remarkably similar, yet clearly distinct decorations.
To aid viewers in understanding subtle tribal differences, Ariadne displays the fibula, buckles, pendants and other ornaments by tribe. Visigoth belt buckles paved with garnets and glass are among the most lavish of the surviving adornments and resemble the jewel-encrusted reliquaries of the Byzantine Empire. Openwork brooches composed of writhing monsters prefigure Romanesque capitals, Gothic tracery and the carpet pages of the Book of Kells. Fibula in the form of stylized cicada could be mistaken for Napoleon's emblematic bees, a thousand years later.
The abstract, energetic design vocabulary of the treasures of the Dark Ages is the antithesis of the naturalistic, humanistic, and classical universe of the Roman empire that was sacked by the Goths. Although the objects of the Dark Ages are unfamiliar, they are not strange, evoking parallels with some contemporary jewelry designs. Others, the annular and penannular (circular and broken ring) brooches found in Celtic-Iberian sites in Spain, appear to be precursors of 19th century Scottish folk jewelry, which is popular again today.
As in many societies, ancient and modern, jewelry and ornaments made and worn in the Dark Ages were expressions of status and wealth. One example is the large silver eagle-headed buckle made by the Goths in South Russia, where they settled in the 4th century. The piece shows that they mastered the art of setting colored stones in a grid-like armature, and it is clearly a symbol of rank and power, made of expensive silver and displaying fine craftsmanship. Moreover, it gave birth to the use of the eagle motif by other and later Germanic people.
Mr. Demirjian appears to have cornered a generally forgotten market. In the 1920s the legendary collectors J. P. Morgan and Henry Walters competed in this field. Mr. Demirjian claims that nowhere, not even in the Morgan collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, is there as large and varied a cache as his. "Not even in Spain is there as comprehensive a collection of Visigothic art," he insists.
It is unlikely that ornaments of the Dark Ages will become a popular area for private collecting, for their supply is limited and their prices are high. Nevertheless, they provide a missing link in understanding the artistic heritage of Western civilization.
Mr. Demirjian is offering the entire collection for sale for "between $5 and $10 million; the price is negotiable." He wants the collection to stay together and go to a museum. "A dozen museums have made inquiries," he said, "I think it will be sold before long."
* Treasures of the Dark Ages in Europe will run through Feb. 29 at Ariadne Galleries Inc., 970 Madison Ave. (at 76th Street) New York, N.Y. 10021. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is free. A 178-page catalog with more than 300 objects illustrated in color is $40 for the softbound and $65 for the hardbound edition, $5 more each by mail, prepaid. Call
Ariadne at (212) 772-3388 for further details.