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Today we feature a masterpiece of Visigoth art.  This is a silver medallion from the Iberian Peninsula during the 5th-7th century A.D. which shows Bellerophon killing the Chimera with a lance.  The work is an anomaly:  it was made in early Medieval Christendom and has the style and workmanship of that time, yet its subject is entirely Greco-Roman in nature.   In ancient Greek myth, Bellerophon was a mythical Corinthian demigod who was the son of Poseidon.  With Athena’s help, he tamed Pegasus, a winged steed born of violence and ancient gods & monsters.  Bellerophon used this power of flight (and his own martial prowess) to kill the three headed chimera–part lion, part goat, and part snake–one of the most convoluted and confusing monsters of ancient mythology (and one of the children of Echidna, the great mother of monsters). Yet Bellerophon’s heroic deeds went to his head and he tried to fly up to the top of Mount Olympus and take a place among the Gods.  Because of his hubris, the gods cast him down.  They took Pegasus back, and the maimed Bellerophon was left as a crippled beggar.   Clearly the story appealed to somebody during the chaotic centuries after the Empire blew apart as different hordes fought their way back and forth across Spain, Gaul, and the Mediterranean. Pegasus has lost his wings in this version, but the long centuries of chaos and political and cultural upheaval have given it pathos. Look at the expression of fortitude and resignation on the warrior’s face!

Corona votiva de Recesvinto. Parte del Tesoro de Guarrazar. Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España, Madrid.

Behold! This is the votive crown of the Visigoth King Reccesuinth. It is the finest piece from the fabled “Treasure of Guarrazar” a collection of 27 votive crowns, numerous hanging crosses, and various gold buckles and brooches which was discovered in a Spanish orchard in the 1850s. The treasure was manufactured by master jewelers and goldsmiths of the Visigoths during the 7th century AD. The pieces display a breathtaking combination of Byzantine and Germanic style. Nobody knows how they ended up in the orchard (which may have once been a graveyard or a fallen Roman ruin), although some people have speculated they were hidden there from the Moors. Although much of the treasure has vanished over the years (including an almost equally fine votive crown of King Suinthila) what remains is extraordinary—even after many of the pieces have vanished, the Treasure of Guarrazar is still the finest collection of early medieval votive crowns.

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Speaking of which, a votive crown is not meant to be worn. It is a treasure in the shape of a crown given to the church by a sovereign (or some other entity rich enough to be handing out jeweled crowns). These were hung above the altar of a church. In a way I is a sort of hanging sculpture–as is further illustrated by the “pendilla” the dangling ornaments hanging beneath the crown (a style which was also used in the medieval Crown of Saint Stephen). The letters among the pendilla spell out “RECCESVINTHVS REX OFFERET“ (King Reccesuinth gave this). The dark blue stones are sapphires from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which illustrates that, even in the 7th century, trade was a global affair.

Cordovan Penny-loafers

Cordovan Penny-loafers

As is usual in New York’s wet cold winters, my favorite everyday shoes have disintegrated.  They were a pair of old fashioned cordovan penny-loafers and, as I discarded them, I wondered why the lovely maroon/burgundy color is called cordovan. It turns out that the simple question has a complicated answer which winds back to late antiquity when the city of Corduba was the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior (in fact the city was initially named Kartuba by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca).  When the Roman empire broke into pieces, Hispanica Ulterior was overrun by Vandals who were subsequently defeated and replaced by Visigoths (a sequence of internecine conquests and reconquests which lasted from the 5th through the 7th centuries).

Visigoth Brooches from Southwest Spain ca. 6th century AD (in the Walters Art Museum)

Visigoth Brooches from Southwest Spain ca. 6th century AD (in the Walters Art Museum)

The Visigoths were a branch of the Germanic tribe of Gothic people who converted to Arian Christianity (remember the heretic Arius from the story of St. Nikolaos—his theological survived in the Viisgoth kingdoms of Western Europe).  The Visigoths were evidently great leatherworkers/cobblers, and they reputedly created the original cordovan leather.  This did not initially refer to the color but was a special sort of extremely tough leather which was made from the flat muscle (“the shell”) of a horse’s rump. Cordovan leather was especially suited to boot toes, straps, and archery equipment—all of which had to be especially tough and thick.

Columns of the Great Mosque of Cordoba (now the Cathedral of Cordoba)

Columns of the Great Mosque of Cordoba (now the Cathedral of Cordoba)

Corduba was captured by new invaders in AD 711 and became part of the Umayyad Caliphate which was run from Dasmascus, however the region broke away and became an independent emirate in AD 766.  This state (named al-Andalus) subsequently grew into a powerful caliphate itself.  During the 10th century, Cordoba, then known as Qurṭubah, was one of the largest and most cultured cities on Earth.

The Flag of Córdoba

The Flag of Córdoba

In 1236, King Ferdinand III of Castile captured Qurtubah and renamed it Córdoba.  Although the city declined in the Renaissance era it evidently remained famous for its leatherworks.  The English first began to use the word “cordovan” to describe the oxblood color of cordovan-style leather goods in the 1920s.

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Anyway, so that’s the history behind the name of the color of the shoes I just threw away.  I guess they were named by Hamilcar Barca…

Hamilcar Crushing the Roman Navy and...wearing a Cordovan Color undertunic

Hamilcar Crushing the Roman Navy and…wearing a Cordovan Color undertunic

 

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