AP®︎/College Art History
- Introduction to the middle ages
- Christianity, an introduction for the study of art history
- Architecture and liturgy
- The life of Christ in medieval and Renaissance art
- A New Pictorial Language: The Image in Early Medieval Art
- Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
- Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome
- Santa Sabina
- Jacob wrestling the angel, Vienna Genesis
- Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, Vienna Genesis
- A beginner's guide to Byzantine Art
- San Vitale, Ravenna
- Justinian Mosaic, San Vitale
- Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Theotokos mosaic, apse, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia as a mosque
- Deësis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George
- The Lindisfarne Gospels
- The Lindisfarne Gospels
- The Bayeux Tapestry
- The Bayeux Tapestry - Seven Ages of Britain - BBC One
- Church and Reliquary of Sainte‐Foy, France
- Chartres Cathedral
- Bible moralisée (moralized bibles)
- Saint Louis Bible (moralized bible)
- The Golden Haggadah
- Röttgen Pietà
- Röttgen Pietà
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 1)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 2)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 3)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 4)
By Rebecca Mir
Fibulae (singular: fibula) are brooches that were made popular by Roman soldiers, who wore them to hold a cloak or cape in place. Bow fibulae all consist of a body, a pin, and a catch—like safety pins. As a historian of the medieval period writes,
"A German archaeologist, Herbert Kuhn, first called the bow fibula an early medieval artifact par excellence. Textbooks and art history studies use it to illustrate sections dedicated to the Dark Ages. There are probably thousands and hundreds of thousands of bow fibulae in European museum collections. A still greater number of specimens come out of archaeological excavations and their incredible diversity defies any attempts to establish unequivocal typologies." 
Ornate fibulae became all the rage in the early middle ages (c. 500–800 C.E.), and are one of the most commonly found objects in barbarian grave sites. The word “barbarian” comes from the Greek word barbaros, meaning “foreign," so it is often used as a blanket term for the non-Roman groups who migrated into western Europe in the early middle ages (such as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Franks, and Lombards). This was the time when Europe was becoming Christianized and the Roman Empire split apart. The Roman Empire ceased to exist in the west, but continued in the east as the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).
This period is also sometimes referred to as the Migration Period. Sparse written documentation of these people survives, so grave goods like fibulae provide the most concrete cultural information available.
This gold fibula was made in Rome or Constantinople in the 5th century and is called a crossbow fibula because of its resemblance to the weapon. Unscrewing the left knob at the end of this “crossbow” would release the pin. This intricate object is typical of the Byzantine/Roman fibulae style. The detailed incising on the body is called pierced openwork.
At the top we see a cross, and below that, on either side, floral scrolls that appear to grow out of acanthus leaves and may symbolize paradise and the promise of salvation. In addition, the circular form around the cross is a victory wreath, which, in the Christian tradition, symbolizes victory over death (resurrection). One art historian has remarked that the brooch "evokes one of the most interesting epochs in antiquity, a period marked by the subtle, often elusive transition from Late Roman to Early Byzantine art."
This Lombardic fibula found in Kranj (modern day Slovenia) provides a good comparison, because it is a stylized variation of the crossbow fibula. It features at one end a semi-circle from which radiate nine rectangular incised forms topped with spheres (this type of fibula is called "radiate-headed" or "digitated"). It is gilded and inlaid with niello, a black metal alloy. The incisions are hatched lines—a popular decoration technique in Lombardic fibulae.
The Lombards (or Langobards, from the Latin Langobardi) are thought to be of Germanic origin, although their background is still contested. They established their kingdom in Italy in 558 and were defeated by Charlemagne, king of the Franks, in 774. Over the centuries the Lombards assimilated into Roman culture, adopting Christianity, and left their own administrative legal procedures behind. This piece shows the adoption of the crossbow fibula style, but with a small Lombardic “twist.” According to one historian, "everything points to the conclusion that 'Slavic' bow fibulae were not simply symbols of social status or gender, but badges of power. This was the power of those able to establish long-distance relations and thus to yield influence." 
This pair of fibulae is a good example of cloisonné, a technique that was popular in barbarian art. This technique is characterized by inlaid semi-precious stones. The word cloisonné literally means “partitioned” in French. The artisan would wires onto a metal base and fill the areas created with polished stones (this is different from cloisonné enamel, which has colored enamel baked within these partitions).
This example also shows a popular motif in barbarian art of the middle ages—eagles. The eagle was a symbol of the Roman empire and was adopted at this time because it still carried connotations of status and power. The top end of these fibulae are in the shape of eagle heads and a series of similarly stylized eagle heads can be seen creating the loops on the opposite end of each pin and on the sides. A small fish decorates the main body of each of the brooches. Garnets were used for the eyes of the eagles, and a wide range of gems were used in the rest of the fibulae. These stunning objects demonstrate the remarkable skill of barbarian metal workers during the early middle ages.
This pair of Visigothic fibulae in the form of eagles provide another good example of barbarian metalwork and cloisonné. They are decorated with garnets, amethyst, and colored glass and were found at a Visigothic grave site in Spain. They likely would have fastened a cloak at the shoulders and pendants may have hung from the loops at the bottom.
 Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500–700 (Cambridge University Press, reissue edition, 2007), p. 247.
 Barbara Deppert-Lippitz, “A Late Antique Crossbow Fibula in The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 35, p. 41.
 Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500–700 (Cambridge University Press, reissue edition, 2007), p. 274.
Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500–700 (Cambridge University Press, reissue edition, 2007).
Pete Dandridge, "Idiomatic and Mainstream: The Technical Vocabulary of a Late Roman Crossbow Fibula": Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 35 (2000).
Barbara Deppert-Lippitz, “A Late Antique Crossbow Fibula in The MetropolitanMuseum of Art,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 35, pp. 39–70.
Essay by Rebecca Mir
Want to join the conversation?
- How would people wear their fibulae? Are there any artworks showing that?(20 votes)
- There are surprisingly few portraits or statues from Roman classical times showing crossbow fibulae, which have been found almost everywhere where the Romans went. However, there are statues and busts and engravings of more elaborate brooches. http://world4.eu/paludamentum-septimus-severus/
The above link shows how the brooch was generally used by Romans.
Roman military cloaks were normally worn pinned together on one shoulder, and it seems the crossbow fibulae, which were often well suited to bunching up heavy fabrics, were popular. Quite likely the same type of brooch was worn by less affluent Romans. Both male and females could wear cloaks pinned on the shoulder.
In Northern Europe there is archeological evidence from graves for pairs of fibulae used on female clothing in the viking age, but there are very few images or statues surviving. I believe the person on the left in this picture from the Oseberg hoard is wearing two brooches, one beneath the other. This is in fact very much the way brooches were worn on traditional costumes in the 18th century in Norway to close the shirt.
How fibulae were worn by viking women is still controversial. Grave finds have often been disturbed. The typical image from viking books has the woman wearing fibulae on her chest, perhaps with a string of beads between them. Most reconstructions place the fibulae much higher than this one: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/02/080227-viking-picture.html
I think the only thing to be gleaned from this is that fibula fashion, both in how to wear them, and how they looked, changed between cultures and ages.(25 votes)
- How large were they? They don't look big, but there is nothing in the photographs that gives a sense of scale.(11 votes)
- If you follow the link to the Metropolitan Museum of Art you will see that the gold brooch is 5 cm long. Smaller brooches existed, but the middle range seems to be at around 10 cm and the large ones could be over 20 cm in length. I have not found measurements for the second fibula, but I've seen fibulae of the same shape that were around 10 cm tall. The third picture is also of a fibula that I have not been able to find the dimensions for.(9 votes)
- There are four fibulae described but only three pictured?(10 votes)
- I wonder if the last picture is supposed to be this object http://art.thewalters.org/detail/77441/pair-of-eagle-fibula/ - it appears to match the description in the text, as they are Gothic fibulae of eagles with inlaid stones and have the small loops on the bottom, and were found in Spain. They're really amazing looking - I recommend you zoom in!(1 vote)
- If the Romans wore fibulae, does the fibula like show off their social status or something? I've learned that silk being expensive in that period was worn on their togas to show that they were wealthy and a high class.(5 votes)
- Material wealth was not necessarily completely proportionate to social status, but I think it can definitely be said that patricians would be wearing these whereas plebians would not. Different decorations may symbolize various family groups or tribes, which would be more indicative of social statues than the fibula itself, but the main significance of a person wearing this would probably be their wealth rather than their position within the upper stretches of the social hierarchy.(2 votes)
- The article references Visigoth and Frankish fibulae, yet there is only one photo--the Frankish fibulae.(3 votes)
- fibula are brooches that were made popular by Roman military campaigns they all consist of a body, a pin and a catch.(2 votes)
- What were they used for and why?(1 vote)
- are the larger ones especially heavy to wear?(2 votes)