Medieval Art &Architecture: Examples and Characteristics

Kenli Doss, Amy Troolin
  • Author
    Kenli Doss

    Kenli Doss has years of experience teaching acting, writing, and drama. She has a BA in English and a BA in Drama from Jacksonville State University. She also has more than five years' experience as a tutor in subjects like English, Science, and Math.

  • 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.

How does academia define early medieval art? What are some characteristics of medieval art? What famous medieval art examples are important in defining medieval art? Updated: 08/26/2021

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Early Medieval Art

To understand medieval art, it is important to first define the term 'medieval.' The medieval period, otherwise known as the 'dark ages' or 'Middle Ages,' is generally defined as the period of time between 476 CE and the 14th century. This means the medieval period is encased in a timeline between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe. Medieval art often combines the techniques of the ancient Greeks and Romans with the decoration of the Pagan north.

The term 'Middle Ages' is often noted as being problematic by historians due to the implication that the long stretch of time exists as a transition between two important periods. Because of this, the time period is more often referred to as the 'medieval period'. This also means that 'Middle Ages art' and 'medieval European art' are two terms to describe the same general period of art in Europe. Because the time covered by what is known as the 'medieval era' is so vast, it can be hard to pinpoint any one technique or style of art and architecture for the time period. For the purposes of this lesson, only European art will be covered.

Early medieval art in Europe is easily recognizable by its use of the following artworks to depict Christian figures and stories:

  • sculpture
  • painting
  • metalwork
  • mosaics
  • illuminated manuscripts

The architecture of this time period is easily recognizable for its use of large, semi-pointed arches in stone cathedrals. The architecture, specifically of the famous medieval cathedrals in Europe, began as massive stone buildings supported by wooden beams and slowly became more ornate over the years. By the middle of the period, cathedrals were highly decorated with carved wooden or bronze doors and stone sculptures depicting religious stories, a direct reflection of the time period's reservation of ornament for religion. Many medieval churches included what is known as a westwork, which was a monumental, western-facing entrance to the church including towers and many open arches.

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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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Types of Medieval Art

Middle Ages architecture is not the only type of art from the medieval period, but many of the remaining artforms were created for the sole use of the church. As nearly all European citizens were illiterate at the time, art was often used in cathedrals and smaller churches to represent the stories of the Christian Bible as the priests told them. The types of art used to remind citizens of those religious stories included the following:

  • relief sculptures
  • frescoes
  • mosaics
  • metalwork
  • paintings
  • illuminations

While some of these artforms existed long before the time period known as the medieval period, they were all influenced during this time by the teachings of the Church as well as the many tectological advances in technique and color science.

Relief Sculptures

Because the medieval period began with the fall of Rome, its art style is often in direct contrast with Classical art. This can be seen in the flat and stylized relief sculptures. Relief sculptures were scenes and figures from the teachings of the Church carved out of flat stone to present a scene emerging from a flat altar, wall, or panel.

relief sculpture on a diptych

picture of a French diptych relief sculpture

These relief sculptures were almost completely reserved for the use of cathedrals and monasteries. They served as reminders of the Christian religion's general teachings and were often used in the form of panels to aid in priests' sermons. The artform can be seen throughout the entirety of the medieval period, falling out of use during the European Renaissance due to a resurgence of Greek and Roman influence in art.

Frescoes

Though popularized in the Italian Renaissance, fresco paintings were used during the medieval period as a way to depict popular religious scenes and symbols. Frescoes were created during the late Middle Ages by applying dry pigments to wet lime plaster on walls and ceilings. The plaster dried with pigment set into it, creating an image on the surface of a wall or ceiling.

piece of fresco from St. Agatha church in the 13th century

fresco from 13th century

These fresco paintings were common around the late Middle Ages in churches, monasteries, and some private houses of the nobility. In addition to religious subject matter, some frescoes depicted popular nobility and artists.

Mosaics

Also used to depict religious scenes and symbols were mosaics. A mosaic is created by combining small pieces of stone, glass, or other medium to create a larger image. This artform was popular in medieval Europe because of its highly decorative nature and flexibility of media.

Church of Saint Pudenziana mosaic

picture of mosaic from Saint Pudenziana church

People have been creating mosaics around the world since the beginnings of civilization. During the medieval period, mosaics often depicted religious figures like Christ or popular saints and served as decorative reminders of the Church's teachings, as is the case with most medieval art. Like frescoes, these mosaics could be found in cathedrals, monasteries, and the homes and palaces of the rich and powerful.

Metalworking

Metalworking is another ancient artform which saw a transformation during the late medieval period in Europe. Metalwork is exactly what it sounds like: the working of metal. It was generally achieved by heating various metals, usually bronze, and molding them into specific designs. This mode of art was popular with the Church because it was long-lasting and sturdy.

chalice depicting scenes from Christ

The metalwork in the medieval period often served to house religious relics like the bones of saints and priests postmortem. Many of these metal bone-houses included small designs of animals and plants, paying great attention to detail and ornament. In addition to these small boxes, metalworkers also made whole cathedral doors from bronze. Some of the common commissions for metalworkers included the following:

  • chalices
  • jewelry
  • utensils
  • casts of religious figures
  • book covers
  • battle helmets

Painting

Medieval paintings, especially those from the early medieval period, were very different from the later paintings of the Renaissance. Some of the differences between these styles are lain out here:

Medieval painting Renaissance painting
flat, simple figures shaded and three dimensional figures/scenes
religious and noble subjects Classical figures and emphasis on the individual
simple lighting great attention to light and dimension

Early medieval paintings did not show any great mastery of composition or dimension, but they served to represent Christian figures and stories. Paintings were often found in the cathedrals, churches, and chapels as well as some more decorated monasteries and noble houses.

medieval painting of the zodiac season Capricorn

medieval painting of the zodiac season Capricorn

The painting of a butcher working under the Capricorn zodiac uses intense color and flat imagery to tell its story. While the subject matter is not necessarily religious, this painting does depict some of the most recognizable aspects of medieval painting in its use of color and simple form with little focus on perspective and dimension.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are 4 characteristics of medieval art?

Medieval art lasts for around 1000 years, so finding likenesses to span the whole of what is known as the medieval period can be a challenge. That said, four of the most common aspects of medieval art are the inclusion of religious subject matter, decorative designs, bright colors, and iconography.

What are the 3 periods of medieval art?

There are three main periods of medieval art which separate the beginning, middle, and end of the period known as the medieval period. These are the Early Christian, Romanesque, and Gothic eras of art.

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