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
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.
During this time, cities grew and universities were started for the studies of religion, law and medicine. These studies influenced the technical and natural emphases seen in Gothic artworks. As Gothic art developed and spread throughout Europe, the International Gothic Period began. The art of painting portraits (portraiture) arose, and painters endowed rulers with divine qualities. Increased realism and the focus on the human form and perspective helped to pave the way for the giants of the Renaissance, including Michelangelo, Jan van Eyck, and Leonardo Da Vinci.
Notable 14th Century Artists
Elsewhere, the abstract, spiritual nature of medieval artworks lived on through Byzantine artists such as Theophanes the Greek, who painted idealized religious scenes. Theophanes fled to Russia after the invasion of the Turks. He established a painting school, training some of the greatest Russian icon painters.
The 14th century was a time of transition from medieval art into the Renaissance. Churches were like the art galleries of the time, where the people could take in extraordinary artistic achievements, and be brought closer to God in a world that was filled with disease, war, and death.
Developments in Gothic art during this century helped to move toward realism, with an emphasis on nature, repetition, and form. This work ushered in the International Gothic Period. Important 14th Century artists include Giotto, who brought about increased realism in church works, and Theophanes the Greek, who continued traditions of Byzantine art and idealism. This mix of tradition and innovation paved the way for the Renaissance, the most significant period of artistic achievement in European history.