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The 14th Century: Art & History

Steven Aiken, Matthew Helmer
  • Author
    Steven Aiken

    Steven has recently received his Bachelor's degree in English from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has spent the last 2 years working as a writer for educational content.

  • Instructor
    Matthew Helmer

    Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

Learn about 14th century art and its major themes and key figures. Look at some important examples of 14th century paintings and understand their meanings. Updated: 12/14/2021

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Frequently Asked Questions

What happened in the 14th century in Europe?

Much happened in the 14th century, from growing economies to advances in art and architecture. However, a notable event is the Black Death that swept over Europe in 1347-1350, wiping out over a third of Europe's population.

What art period was the 14th century?

There are many art periods and movements that took place during the 14th century, such as the Gothic movement and the Byzantine movement. However, each of these movements lead up to the Renaissance, one of the most important periods in art history.

What was the 14th century famous for?

One of the most important and unfortunate events is the Black Death, which occurred in 1347-50, which killed over 20 million people across Europe. However, many artists and sculptors created great works of art during this period as well.

Art in the 14th century (the 1300s) took on three distinct styles as Europe began to progress towards the Renaissance. Much happened during this time period, which informed the content and themes inherent in these artworks. Gothic art began to rise in prominence in the early 14th century, being used to decorate ornamental panels behind altars and other areas in churches and cathedrals. The Byzantine style was still being used throughout the 14th century until the 15th century. Later in the 14th century, Italian Renaissance art began to arise, being a culmination and a refinement of all the artistic discoveries made in the years prior.

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Introduction to 14th Century Art

When thinking about European art, it's easy overlook the art of the 14th century (the 1300s) because it usually gets overshadowed by the most famous art movement in European history, the Renaissance. But by tracing events that happened during the time leading up to the Renaissance, we get a fascinating look into the roots of what made the Renaissance so great.

The Middle Ages, which is also known as the medieval era, began in the 5th century, with the fall of the Roman Empire and lasted for a thousand years until the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the 15th century. It was a time of great political instability, religious fervor, and widespread disease and warfare. Some people think of this time as a period when art, knowledge, and innovation took a downturn. However, as you're about to see, little could be further from the truth.

There were many artistic movements; however, there are three major movements for 14th-century paintings, architecture, and sculpture. These movements overlapped and bled into one another, as themes and styles rose and fell in popularity thanks to historical events and advances in art and architecture.

Gothic Art

Gothic art began as early as the 12th century and borrowed from Romanesque and classical examples, featuring figures locked in rigid forms. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, sculptors and painters began to portray figures in a more relaxed way, allowing for curves, sweeping lines, and natural poses. Flowing drapery began to be realized in exquisite detail, further enhancing the relaxed yet elegant demeanor of figures. Paintings often featured scenes from the New Testament, painted in fine detail with soft, curving lines and an emphasis on decoration. Painters also began to incorporate spatial depth into their works, which would later lead to mastery of perspective in the Italian Renaissance.

At the end of the 14th century, a style known as International Gothic began to emerge, which aimed to soften the style of the Gothic art of the time and create something delicate and elegant, though as a result could at times appear artificial. Portraiture also became a popular style of painting during this time with the works of artists like Duccio di Buoninsegna and Antonio Pisanello.

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In order to get a better look at what kind of art came out of the 14th century, let's take a look at three different examples and discuss what styles they are and who made them, as well as the techniques used in their creation.

Example #1

This first example is a Byzantine-style painting called Madonna and Child by Duccio di Buoninsegna, painted ca. 1300. It features the Christ Child, gently pushing away the Madonna's veil to reveal her sorrowful expression. The painting utilizes the classic pictorial style of Byzantine art, avoiding realism in an effort to portray spirituality in these religious scenes.

Madonna and Child by Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1300.

Madonna and Child by Duccio di Buoninsegna.

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The 14th century was a time of great change for Europe. The Middle Ages were ending, and great thinkers and artists paved the way into the Renaissance, one of the most important times in history. The Holy Roman Empire still held a great deal of control over the continent as well. The Black Death swept over the continent in 1347-1350, wiping out over a third of its population. Because of these factors, art took on many distinct styles such as the Gothic style, known for portraiture, realism, and technology. The Byzantine style was an older style, utilizing pictorial representations of figures to convey spirituality, though was superseded by the Italian Renaissance style which embraced realism. Much of the art of the 14th century involves religious figures and scenes, as the devastation wrought by the Black Death inspired people to look to faith for guidance and absolution. The art of the 14th century and its shifts towards realism paved the way for the Renaissance, when artists would paint in stunning realism through the use of many new techniques.

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14th Century Art Themes: Precursors to the Renaissance

Medieval Byzantine Art
Byzantine art
Holy Roman EmpireByzantine Empire

While medieval art mixed a variety of classical, Greco-Roman, and Pagan motifs, Christianity was the primary artistic expression of the time. In churches, you would find sculptures, stained glass windows, mosaics, and painted murals. These artistic elements were used to tell the stories of the bible, as the vast majority of people at that time couldn't read. They were considered an important part of the worship itself.

Just as movies, photography, and music are often commentaries about our world today, what was going on around the people in the 1300s was reflected in their art as well. In the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death ravaged Western Europe, killing roughly a third of the population in just three years. The ideal of heaven and salvation from the terrors that surrounded them shows heavily in the art of this time. When Islamic invaders took advantage of the period's instability, their painted tiles, pointed archways, and domes began to show up in European artwork.

Secular, or non-religious art (which was still very limited at the time), focused on chivalry, knightly crusades, and courtly love. Woven tapestries and embroidery were also important media; the time and skill to make these were so extraordinary that woven artworks were likely even more valuable than paintings.

As you look at some of the examples of the art from this period, you'll notice the deep, rich colors that are used. Byzantine art, which came out of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey), in particular is known for the deep golden backgrounds and the colorful paints and mosaic glass tiles used in the icons of religious saints it is famous for. In general, the human form was represented rigidly and often without emotion, and artists were not necessarily concerned with creating realistic work. These are notable points of difference between medieval art and other genres.

Gothic Architecture
Gothic art
Gothic artrealismperspective

Additional Info

Introduction to 14th Century Art

When thinking about European art, it's easy overlook the art of the 14th century (the 1300s) because it usually gets overshadowed by the most famous art movement in European history, the Renaissance. But by tracing events that happened during the time leading up to the Renaissance, we get a fascinating look into the roots of what made the Renaissance so great.

The Middle Ages, which is also known as the medieval era, began in the 5th century, with the fall of the Roman Empire and lasted for a thousand years until the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the 15th century. It was a time of great political instability, religious fervor, and widespread disease and warfare. Some people think of this time as a period when art, knowledge, and innovation took a downturn. However, as you're about to see, little could be further from the truth.

14th Century Art Themes: Precursors to the Renaissance

Medieval Byzantine Art
Byzantine art
Holy Roman EmpireByzantine Empire

While medieval art mixed a variety of classical, Greco-Roman, and Pagan motifs, Christianity was the primary artistic expression of the time. In churches, you would find sculptures, stained glass windows, mosaics, and painted murals. These artistic elements were used to tell the stories of the bible, as the vast majority of people at that time couldn't read. They were considered an important part of the worship itself.

Just as movies, photography, and music are often commentaries about our world today, what was going on around the people in the 1300s was reflected in their art as well. In the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death ravaged Western Europe, killing roughly a third of the population in just three years. The ideal of heaven and salvation from the terrors that surrounded them shows heavily in the art of this time. When Islamic invaders took advantage of the period's instability, their painted tiles, pointed archways, and domes began to show up in European artwork.

Secular, or non-religious art (which was still very limited at the time), focused on chivalry, knightly crusades, and courtly love. Woven tapestries and embroidery were also important media; the time and skill to make these were so extraordinary that woven artworks were likely even more valuable than paintings.

As you look at some of the examples of the art from this period, you'll notice the deep, rich colors that are used. Byzantine art, which came out of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey), in particular is known for the deep golden backgrounds and the colorful paints and mosaic glass tiles used in the icons of religious saints it is famous for. In general, the human form was represented rigidly and often without emotion, and artists were not necessarily concerned with creating realistic work. These are notable points of difference between medieval art and other genres.

Gothic Architecture
Gothic art
Gothic artrealismperspective

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