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Classical inspiration in medieval art by Walter Oakeshott

By Walter Oakeshott

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It is not simply the occasional details: columns decorated plaster made when fresh decorative schemes with bows of ribbon; architectural arcades and cornices of Pompeian in the solidity giving depth to the background; landscape which though picture of the Announcement to the Shepherds for example summarily sketched, is still very effective; but far more the treatment — — THE NORTHUMBRIAN RENAISSANCE 29 of the figures, the rounded forms, the light and shade in faces and hands, the effective use of high hghts, above all the masterly assurance of the whole, that take us back to antiquity.

With the descendants of the Northumbrian style in lona or Ireland, particularly in the Book of Kells, elaborate narrative is occasionally attempted, here no doubt also as a result of classical, or eastern influence, not as an indigenous growth; but that narrative becomes rather a posed tableau, hieratic and symbolic. It is not possible to show a precise original for the miniature of the Temptation (55a), though some details, like the flying angel with its straight square undercarriage and square wings, may descend ultimately from Codex Amiatinus or its source.

It is in fact hard to resist the argument, now widely accepted, that the Bewcastle cross, with its inscription to Alchfrith and his wife Cyneburg, must have been made before 710, and might have been made twenty years earlier. And if, in the Castel Seprio paintings (59a, b), classical painting seems to have come alive again, so in a sense does classical sculpture in the Ruthwell cross (50). The way in which this shows itself most notably is that the sculptor is not content to work simply on two planes, but works in the round.

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