Table of Contents
- Early Medieval Art
- Types of Medieval Art
- Medieval Art Characteristics
- Medieval Art Examples
- Lesson Summary
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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.
Another type of art prevalent in the Middle Ages is a type of medieval illustration. Before the advent of the printing press, books were considered pieces of art on their own. In the early part of the medieval period, nuns and monks of monasteries would copy the Bible or other religious texts by hand and paint decorative designs on the pages. These books are now called illuminated manuscripts, likely because of the shiny silver and gold paints often used to decorate them. During the later third of the Middle Ages, these books became popular forms of art for the nobility to add to personal libraries.
Also popular during the medieval period were high cross sculptures. Because this period represents an evolution of the Classical arts, sculptures during this period were nonrealistic and served a purpose other than representation of a single figure. There are two main types of cross sculptures, also called 'Celtic crosses.' The type most commonly found in Europe during the Middle Ages was carved from stone and stood to represent stories from the Bible or the lives of the saints.
These high cross sculptures would have been used for a variety of reasons, some of which are listed here:
Despite having lasted for around 1000 years, the medieval period does contain a recognizable era of art. Some of the most common medieval art characteristics are as follows:
During the medieval period, most of human life revolved around the Church. There were Christian holidays, laws, and services. The Christian Church provided the blueprint of the everyday citizen's calendar and dictated the lives of nearly everyone. It follows, then, that most art would represent these religious figures and the stories around them. Bright colors and ornate designs were influenced by the Pagan north and served as a decorative break to the otherwise stone and wood buildings of the time. Iconography was a simple and effective way to represent a belief through painting or sculpture.
Famous medieval art is often depicted in museums today as 'dark ages art,' but there are, indeed, some bright pieces from the period that stand out. The following are some medieval art examples.
The Book of Kells is an example of an illuminated manuscript from around the year 800. The book is a religious text, likely created by a nun or monk, which exhibits bright blocks of color and intricate details of design throughout. Decorative letters compose the subject matter of the book, and the brilliant silver and gold used on some of the pages perfectly represent the style of books during this time.
Also known as Muiredach's Cross, this high cross sculpture was likely created during the 9th or 10th century. The cross stands in County Louth, Ireland at the medieval monastic grounds of Monasterboice. Each face of the cross depicts a different scene of saints or other religious figures in the traditional flat stone carving style of the medieval period. Some of the scenes depicted include Moses at Mount Sinai and the Crucifixion of Christ, which both appear on the west face of the cross.
A diptych is two panels of either painted or carved depictions connected to one another. This style of presentation was very common during the medieval period, and the Wilton Diptych is a great example of this method. The paintings represent Richard II of England surrounded by saints and kneeling before the Virgin Mary and her son. The gold stamp and bright blue are common traits of medieval painting, as well as the regal and religious subject matter.
Art from the time period between the fall of Rome in 476 CE and the European Renaissance in the 14th century is generally referred to as medieval art or Middle Ages art. Early medieval art mixed techniques from ancient Rome and Greece with the decorative style of the Pagan north and includes all types of art from medieval paintings to metalwork and sculpture. Metalworkers were at an all-time high during this time, creating book covers, battle helmets, jewelry, chalices, and much more.
Characteristics of medieval art include elaborately decorative patterns, bright colors, iconography, and Christian subject matter. Artworks such as mosaics, frescoes, and relief sculptures were often found inside churches and monasteries to assist monks in the teachings of the Christian Bible. Illuminated manuscripts were created in these monasteries and were hand-written copies of religious texts with intricate designs. Often including various forms of art within its walls, medieval architecture is known for its immense westworks. These were usually western facing front entrances to larger churches and included high towers and many slightly pointed arches.
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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.
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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