Scientists can date some ancient works of art as far back as cavemen. Surviving works of art on paper or parchment, however, are more recent than the caveman era. Entire manuscripts of gold-embossed illuminated illustrations still exist from as early as the Middle Ages, some dated as early as AD 400.
Recently, researchers re-examined two Ethiopian manuscripts, known as the Garima Gospels (named after the monastery in northern Ethiopia that houses them.) Through carbon-dating the parchment, the researchers determined that these works might date as early as AD 330. This new discovery means that the artists created these works over 1500 years ago!
Illuminated Manuscripts: Art of the Middle Ages
Illuminated manuscripts, or those with text and elaborate decoration and miniature illustrations, were portable works of art that documented and shared ideas and stories, often religious in nature. Illuminated manuscripts were very popular in the Middle Ages.
The term “illumination” actually refers to the decorative features of these handwritten, illustrated books. Gold and sometimes (though more rarely) silver would be added to each page and each illustration to give it the appearance of being illuminated by light. In the Middle Ages, there were actually artists who specialized in either “historiating” the text , or illustrating it with relevant paintings, or “illuminating” it by adding decorative features such as embellished initial capital letters that often wove around the page into the margins and borders.
The illuminated manuscripts in the Middle Ages and after strongly influenced the development of art as a whole. The finished manuscript was very portable, and became a simple means of carrying ideas, artistic and otherwise, from one region to another. These ideas carried into different artistic eras, influencing later artistic developments. In effect, illuminated manuscripts paralleled, promoted and, in some cases, almost dictated the development of artistic styles throughout the centuries.
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Johannes Gutenberg developed the technology of printing in Europe in the middle of the fifteenth century. With the ability to mass-produce, as it were, the unique art of individually-illuminated manuscripts gave way to printed illustrations which were not always as decorative, nor, quite simply, as “illuminated.”
Dating and Preserving the Garima Gospels
Researches initially believed the Garima Gospels dated from around AD 1100. As such, they were not considered as really early examples of illuminated manuscripts. They reasoned that no known earlier manuscripts survived from Ethiopia.
“These illustrations, which include a set of the Evangelists, are evidence of an Aksumite School of painting,” Jacques Mercier, a specialist in Ethiopian art at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris told The Art Newspaper. “Aksum lies in present-day Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. If Mercier’s theory is correct, it sheds new light on the development of early Christian art.”
In 2010, scientists carbon-dated the parchment leaves to between AD 300 and 650. The University of Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art took a second set of parchment and ran their own tests, confirming the research done in 2010. In November, 2013, the Ethiopian Heritage Fund organized a conference in Oxford on the Garima Gospels, and confirmed that the dates ranged from AD 390 to 570 on the first book of Gospels and AD 530 and 630 for the second book.
Added to the carbon-dating evidence, researchers now argue that the artist used Ge-ez text (local Ethiopian language) to inscribe the text, setting the location as being Ethiopia and not the Middle East. This evidence weighs heavily in proving that these works, now considered the earliest examples of illumination, were actually made in Ethiopia long before the Rabbula Gospels created in Beth Zagba in Syria in AD 586. It also suggests that the Garima Gospels are actually some of the earliest examples of Christian paintings (other than wall paintings.)
Christian Manuscripts Through Time
Studying and dating art, including Christian and other religious works of art as well as secular art, is in a constant state of change as new techniques become available to more accurately pinpoint the date of a work. This recent discovery of the actual time period when artists created the Garima Gospels changes how the art world perceives and interprets the development of art, both Christian and other art, in the western world, for it is the artistic styles from the Middle East that first strongly influenced western art.