Early Medieval Art & Architecture: Characteristics, Techniques & Famous Works

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  • 00:00 The Early Medieval Period
  • 00:51 Adopted Forms and Techniques
  • 2:47 New Forms and Techniques
  • 5:00 Defining Characteristics
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study some of the major forms, techniques, and characteristics of early medieval art and architecture. We will also meet some of the most famous works of art from this period.

The Early Medieval Period

Quick! What do an Anglo-Saxon helmet, a page from an illuminated manuscript, an ivory-carved panel, and a Celtic High Cross have in common? If you said that they are all examples of early medieval art, then you are right!

Early medieval art is quite a mixed bag, really. It includes works from the 5th century CE all the way through 1000 CE, and creations from cultures as diverse as the pagan Anglo-Saxons, Celts, and Norse and the Christian kingdoms of Charlemagne and his successors. These works blend Classical Greek and Roman elements with Christian subject matter and decorative patterns from the pagan North.

In this lesson, we're going to take a look at some of the forms and techniques of early medieval art and architecture as well as a few overriding characteristics that help define the period.

Adopted Forms & Techniques

Early medieval art retained some of its forms and techniques from the past, especially from the Classical world, but it also developed new forms and techniques that changed the art world forever. First, we'll take a look at some of the major forms and techniques that early medieval artists adopted and developed to suit their own purposes.

Like their artistic predecessors, early medieval artists enjoyed creating relief sculptures, carvings that stand out from a background like 3-D pictures. Using ivory as a medium, they carefully sculpted intricate designs on panels, book covers, caskets, devotional items, and even doors. Their subject matter was nearly always Christian and depicted Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, scenes from the Old Testament, and Christian symbolism.

Early medieval artists also worked with old forms like frescoes and mosaics, especially in decorating churches and palaces. Frescoes are watercolor paintings done on wet plaster, and mosaics are elaborate images created from thousands of pieces of colored stone and glass. These artworks typically portray Christian saints and scenes, including the Blessed Virgin Mary and the ascension of Jesus.

The churches and palaces decorated with this kind of art reveal the blending of influences so common in the early medieval world. Architecturally, these buildings exhibit Roman elements like columns, arches, and floor plans but add new features like towers, specialized ceiling vaults, and crypts (or burial chambers). The Carolingian period, under the rule of Charlemagne, also saw the introduction of the westwork, a tall section on the western facade of a church that included two symmetrical towers and many arched doors and windows on the outside, and often a chapel, a vestibule, and some galleries just inside. Corvey Abbey in Germany features a prime example of a westwork.

New Forms & Techniques

Early medieval artists also created and cultivated new artistic forms and techniques. Metalworking, for instance, was one of their specialties. The Anglo-Saxons and Celts of the British Isles worked on gold and other precious metals, creating everything from fine jewelry and belts to battle helmets and weapons, many examples of which were discovered at a burial site called Sutton Hoo. These objects are highly decorative and covered with intricate patterns and animal motifs. When these groups became Christian, they used their metalworking skills to create everything from book covers and book shrines to crosses, chalices, and patens (small plates) used in Christian worship. Many of these items feature delicate relief sculptures of Christian subjects as well as traditional patterns and precious jewels.

Another early medieval specialty was illuminated manuscripts. These hand-lettered copies of the gospels and other books of the bible were written on parchment made from animal skins using a combination of ink and paint. Manuscript artists were usually Christian monks, first in the British Isles and later on the European continent, and they embellished their work with miniature scenes from the scriptures, Christian symbols, and intricate abstract patterns similar to those found on Anglo-Saxon metalwork. These manuscripts are colorful and lavish and are often covered in gold, ivory, and precious gems. Examples of early medieval illuminated manuscripts include the Book of Durrow, the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Charlemagne's Coronation Gospels, and the Lindau Gospels.

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