This fine square headed brooch dates to around 525 - 550 AD, a period we know as the “Dark Ages”. It is an era traditionally associated with economic, social and artistic deterioration. Yet the quality and sheer ingenious inventiveness of this and other pieces of early Anglo-Saxon art belies the idea of a “Dark Age” entirely.
The quality of craftsmanship suggests this remarkable object would have belonged to an individual of some importance. It would have been worn as one of a pair at the shoulders, fastening a cloak or dress in place. Importantly though, the metalwork of the Anglo-Saxons was not produced purely for practical purposes. Look long enough and a seemingly endless dance of human faces and animals (both real and mythical) begin to emerge. Produced by chip carving, this dense mix of imagery was interlaced with symbolism. It speaks in a visual language that we can now only guess at - but it is likely that in this largely pre-literate society, it told stories and fables.
Inspecting the surface of this brooch carefully, we can see a series of moustached faces, grappling beasts and birds flowing into one another. At first it might seem like a tangled mess, but with closer examination we can begin to decipher some of the meaning. The face at the foot of the brooch, staring out at us with his upturned moustache, is flanked by a bird either side. Figures such as this have been widely interpreted as representing Odin (or Woden as he would’ve been known to the Anglo-Saxons). The birds are his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who would fly around the world each day to bring the god news. This image of the preeminent Germanic god would have been believed to offer special protection, so that the brooch, rather than being purely decorative, took on magical qualities.
It is also important to remember that this object was a status symbol and would only have been worn at special events. One of these would have been the large winter feasts where the chiefs gathered the community into their halls in a statement of power & largesse. At such events, one can imagine how the metal would glitter in the light of the fire, whilst the recesses would’ve remained cast in shadow. Not only would this enhance the aesthetic qualities, the brooch also mirrored the essential duality of early Anglo-Saxon thought, a world of dark and light. The hall was a place of light, warmth, and joy, contrasting with the dark and cold of the winter night.
By rotating the brooch we can begin to see the true genius of the anonymous artist who created it. Every image is transformed into something else; a ravens beak becomes the leg of a quadruped, a grappling arm becomes a flying bird. No matter which angle you view the piece from, it makes visual sense. This is one of the most characteristic elements of early Anglo-Saxon art, a love of puzzles and riddles that is also reflected in the heroic poetry of the time. It also hints at something deeper, a belief in a world in which the “supernatural” was very real, mythical animals and gods which could change shape at will.
It is interesting that as the brooch would only ever be worn in one way (with the square head facing down), many of the hidden images would only ever be known to the artist & the wearer. It is therefore a wonderful and very personal connection to a very distant past that we are able to share in them.
Caption: Anglo Saxon Square Headed Brooch, c. 525 AD | £7,000 - £9,000 (plus fees)
Entries are invited for this specialist auction until 09 February 2018. For a complimentary valuation or to find out more about the market in general contact our specialist.
Alexander Tweedy | 0131 557 8844 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Auction | African & Oceanic Art and Antiquities | 22 March in Edinburgh