14th Century Art: Overview & Themes

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

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

In this lesson, we'll discuss 14th century art and artists, and take a look at what was going on in the world at that time. We'll see how art from this time period impacted and shaped the Renaissance.

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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