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The Visigoth Kings (AD 418–711)

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A Germanic people who originally came from the Balkans, the Visigoths invaded Italy under the leadership of Alaric I (reigned 395–410) before settling in southern Gaul in 412. In 418, the Visigoths—under the leadership of Theodoric I, who ruled from 418 to 451—were settled by the Roman emperor Constantius III in Aquitaine. The Visigoths quickly extended their kingdom, which stretched from the Loire to the Pyrenees with Toulouse and Bordeaux as their capitals. The arrival of the Franks in Gaul forced the Visigoths into Spain. They lost all their possessions in Gaul apart from Septimania—now Languedoc-Roussillon—,  settled in Old Castile under the leadership of Euric (reigned 466–484), and made Toledo (which is right in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula) their capital. Athanagild I lost Andalusia to the Byzantines in around 556.

Integrated in a Western Europe that was still dominated by the Romans, the Visigoths were influenced by the culture of classical antiquity. There are very few archaeological remains from the three centuries of occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, but what mark did the Visigoths leave? What were their relations with the Mediterranean?

Initially, the Visigoths reused and transformed the existing Roman civil monuments. After a long period in which there was a search for points of reference and unity, king Leovigild (reigned 567–586) re-established royal authority in the Peninsula, and established his legitimacy by building Reccopolis in 568, of which some traces remain today.

King Reccared I officially ended any religious disputes in 589 by recognizing the notion of consubstantiality. The Visigoth kingdom remained faithful to the Church until 672. In the period that followed there was an attempt to reconcile old Arian traditions and the new ‘Creed’.

The most striking examples of Visigoth buildings are the rural churches. The architecture is simple and canonical, and horseshoe arches were characteristic. Also known as the ‘Byzantine arch’, it was in fact used later by the Muslims. They were no doubt influenced by the Byzantine buildings in the south-west of the Peninsula.

The Visigoth churches contain other treasures that provide some enlightenment about how artists were influenced by foreign and Classical works. The most impressive example of architectural sculpture is to be found in the church of San Pedro de la Nave (in the province of Zamora), which dates from the seventh century. This consists of hieratic bas-reliefs sculpted with a drill, bevelled, and stylized, in accordance with the new styles of representation, which make consistent use of a Classical vocabulary—rows of palmettes, foliage, vine-leaves, and birds pecking at grapes—to depict scenes from the Old Testament, such as the Sacrifice of Abraham and Daniel in the Lion's Den.

The ritual of clothed burials—a custom that may have been adopted by the Visigoths and Ostrogoths, who lived in the Peninsula between 472 and 474—tells us about the  metalworking techniques. The custom of placing objects in tombs was common in the rural necropolises, which provides information about the material culture of the peasantry, and especially the clothing and goldsmithing. Cloisonné techniques and gem encrustation, highly prized by the barbarian kingdoms, resulted from contact with Germans from the East and were introduced in the West in the fifth and sixth centuries. There was no funeral furniture in the Trinitarian ritual, but the few pieces found in the tombs after the conversion of Reccared I indicate that vegetal, animal, and Christian motifs from the Mediterranean and Eastern traditions were used.

Information about goldsmithing in the royal courts only became available with the discovery of the treasure of Guarrazar in 1858, a gift from the Visigoth kings to the Cathedral of Toledo, whose most noteworthy object is the votive crown of king Recceswinth (reigned 653–672). Currently kept in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain (Madrid), this crown in gold repoussé openwork shows a great mastery of these techniques. The Byzantines first introduced votive crowns into churches. This practice was also adopted by the Muslims in their princely architecture: in the court in the palace complex of Khirbat al-Mafjar (Syria) there is an exedra in which is suspended a huge crown, under which sat the king.

Germanic in origin, the Visigoth culture comprises omnipresent elements of Roman Antiquity, to which is added Christian symbolism and strong Byzantine influences. The Byzantine trading posts in the peninsula were probably the only links with the Mediterranean. The Visigoths were primarily a land-based people.

The Visigoth kingdom ended in 711 when Muslims from North Africa invaded Spain, then under the leadership of king Roderic (reigned 709–711). He died in the battle of Jerez de la Frontera under the onslaught of the armies of Tāriq ibn Ziyād.

E. D. –P.


Collectif, Moyen Age : Chrétienté et Islam, Paris, 1996, Flammarion

Durliat, M., Des Barbares a l’an Mil, Paris, 1985, Citadelles-Mazenod, coll. « L’art et les grandes civilisations »

The Art of Medieval Spain (a.d. 500-1200), (cat. exp., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993-1994), New York, 1993, The Metropolitan Museum of Art