Medieval art

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Byzantine monumental Church mosaics are one of the great achievements of medieval art. These are from Monreale in Sicily
, late 12th century

The medieval art of the

Northern Africa
. It includes major art movements and periods, national and regional art, genres, revivals, the artists' crafts, and the artists themselves.

Art historians attempt to classify medieval art into major periods and styles, often with some difficulty. A generally accepted scheme includes the later phases of

Early Christian art, Migration Period art, Byzantine art, Insular art, Pre-Romanesque, Romanesque art, and Gothic art, as well as many other periods within these central styles. In addition, each region, mostly during the period in the process of becoming nations or cultures, had its own distinct artistic style, such as Anglo-Saxon art or Viking art

Medieval art was produced in many media, and works survive in large numbers in

metalwork and mosaics, all of which have had a higher survival rate than other media such as fresco wall-paintings, work in precious metals or textiles, including tapestry. Especially in the early part of the period, works in the so-called "minor arts" or decorative arts, such as metalwork, ivory carving, vitreous enamel and embroidery using precious metals, were probably more highly valued than paintings or monumental sculpture.[1]

Medieval art in Europe grew out of the artistic heritage of the

classical, early Christian and "barbarian" art.[2] Apart from the formal aspects of classicism, there was a continuous tradition of realistic depiction of objects that survived in Byzantine art throughout the period, while in the West it appears intermittently, combining and sometimes competing with new expressionist possibilities developed in Western Europe and the Northern legacy of energetic decorative elements. The period ended with the self-perceived Renaissance recovery of the skills and values of classical art, and the artistic legacy of the Middle Ages was then disparaged
for some centuries. Since a revival of interest and understanding in the 19th century it has been seen as a period of enormous achievement that underlies the development of later Western art.


Detail of The Effects of Good Government, a fresco in the City Hall of Siena by Ambrogio Lorenzetti
, 1338.

The first several centuries of the

population of Europe is estimated to have reached a low point of about 18 million in 650, to have doubled around the year 1000, and to have reached over 70 million by 1340, just before the Black Death. In 1450 it was still only 50 million. To these figures, Northern Europe, especially Britain, contributed a lower proportion than today, and Southern Europe, including France, a higher one.[3] The increase in prosperity, for those who survived, was much less affected by the Black Death. Until about the 11th century most of Europe was short of agricultural labour, with large amounts of unused land, and the Medieval Warm Period benefited agriculture until about 1315.[4]

The medieval period eventually saw the falling away of the invasions and incursions from outside the area that characterized the first millennium. The Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries suddenly and permanently removed all of North Africa from the Western world, and over the rest of the period Islamic peoples gradually took over the Byzantine Empire, until the end of the Middle Ages when Catholic Europe, having regained the Iberian peninsula in the southwest, was once again under Muslim threat from the southeast.

At the start of the medieval period most significant works of art were very rare and costly objects associated with secular elites, monasteries or major churches and, if religious, largely produced by monks. By the end of the Middle Ages works of considerable artistic interest could be found in small villages and significant numbers of

Rule of St Benedict permitted the sale of works of art by monasteries, and it is clear that throughout the period monks might produce art, including secular works, commercially for a lay market, and monasteries would equally hire lay specialists where necessary.[5]

The impression may be left by the surviving works that almost all medieval art was religious. This is far from the case; though the church became very wealthy over the Middle Ages and was prepared at times to spend lavishly on art, there was also much secular art of equivalent quality which has suffered from a far higher rate of wear and tear, loss and destruction. The Middle Ages generally lacked the concept of preserving older works for their artistic merit, as opposed to their association with a saint or founder figure, and the following periods of the Renaissance and Baroque tended to disparage medieval art. Most luxury illuminated manuscripts of the Early Middle Ages had lavish treasure binding book-covers in precious metal, ivory and jewels; the re-bound pages and ivory reliefs for the covers have survived in far greater numbers than complete covers, which have mostly been stripped off for their valuable materials at some point.

Gospel book

Most churches have been rebuilt, often several times, but medieval palaces and large houses have been lost at a far greater rate, which is also true of their fittings and decoration. In England, churches survive largely intact from every century since the 7th, and in considerable numbers for the later ones—the city of Norwich alone has 40 medieval churches—but of the dozens of royal palaces none survive from earlier than the 11th century, and only a handful of remnants from the rest of the period.[6] The situation is similar in most of Europe, though the 14th century Palais des Papes in Avignon survives largely intact. Many of the longest running scholarly disputes over the date and origin of individual works relate to secular pieces, because they are so much rarer - the Anglo-Saxon Fuller Brooch was refused by the British Museum as an implausible fake, and small free-standing secular bronze sculptures are so rare that the date, origin and even authenticity of both of the two best examples has been argued over for decades.[7]

The use of valuable materials is a constant in medieval art; until the end of the period, far more was typically spent on buying them than on paying the artists, even if these were not monks performing their duties.

tesserae—as a solid background for mosaics, or applied as gold leaf to miniatures in manuscripts and panel paintings. Many objects using precious metals were made in the knowledge that their bullion value might be realized at a future point—only near the end of the period could money be invested other than in real estate, except at great risk or by committing usury

The small private Wilton Diptych for Richard II of England, c. 1400, with stamped gold backgrounds and much ultramarine

The even more expensive

croziers, but in the Gothic period secular mirror-cases, caskets and decorated combs become common among the well-off. As thin ivory panels carved in relief could rarely be recycled for another work, the number of survivals is relatively high—the same is true of manuscript pages, although these were often re-cycled by scraping, whereupon they become palimpsests

Even these basic materials were costly: when the Anglo-Saxon

Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey planned to create three copies of the bible in 692—of which one survives as the Codex Amiatinus—the first step necessary was to plan to breed the cattle to supply the 1,600 calves to give the skin for the vellum required.[8]

Paper became available in the last centuries of the period, but was also extremely expensive by today's standards; woodcuts sold to ordinary pilgrims at shrines were often matchbook size or smaller. Modern dendrochronology has revealed that most of the oak for panels used in Early Netherlandish painting of the 15th century was felled in the Vistula basin in Poland, from where it was shipped down the river and across the Baltic and North Seas to Flemish ports, before being seasoned for several years.[9]

Art in the Middle Ages is a broad subject and art historians traditionally divide it in several large-scale phases, styles or periods. The period of the Middle Ages neither begins nor ends neatly at any particular date, nor at the same time in all regions, and the same is true for the major phases of art within the period.[10] The major phases are covered in the following sections.

Early Christian and Late Antique art

are taken from a monument of nearly 200 years earlier, which maintains a classical style.

Early Christian art, more generally described as

Late Antique art, covers the period from about 200 (before which no distinct Christian art survives), until the onset of a fully Byzantine style in about 500. There continue to be different views as to when the medieval period begins during this time, both in terms of general history and specifically art history, but it is most often placed late in the period. In the course of the 4th century Christianity went from being a persecuted popular sect to the official religion of the Empire, adapting existing Roman styles and often iconography, from both popular and Imperial art. From the start of the period the main survivals of Christian art are the tomb-paintings in popular styles of the catacombs of Rome
, but by the end there were a number of lavish mosaics in churches built under Imperial patronage.

Over this period imperial Late Roman art went through a strikingly "baroque" phase, and then largely abandoned classical style and Greek realism in favour of a more mystical and hieratic style—a process that was well underway before Christianity became a major influence on imperial art. Influences from Eastern parts of the Empire—Egypt, Syria and beyond, and also a robust "Italic" vernacular tradition, contributed to this process.

Figures are mostly seen frontally staring out at the viewer, where classical art tended to show a profile view - the change was eventually seen even on coins. The individuality of portraits, a great strength of Roman art, declines sharply, and the anatomy and drapery of figures is shown with much less realism. The models from which medieval Northern Europe in particular formed its idea of "Roman" style were nearly all portable Late Antique works, and the Late Antique carved

sarcophagi found all over the former Roman Empire;[11] the determination to find earlier "purer" classical models, was a key element in the art all'antica of the Renaissance.[12]

Ivory reliefs

Byzantine art

Byzantine art is the art of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire formed after the division of the Roman Empire between Eastern and Western halves, and sometimes of parts of Italy under Byzantine rule. It emerges from Late Antiquity in about 500 CE and soon formed a tradition distinct from that of Catholic Europe but with great influence over it. In the early medieval period the best Byzantine art, often from the large Imperial workshops, represented an ideal of sophistication and technique which European patrons tried to emulate. During the period of

Byzantine iconoclasm in 730-843 the vast majority of icons (sacred images usually painted on wood) were destroyed; so little remains that today any discovery sheds new understanding, and most remaining works are in Italy (Rome and Ravenna etc.), or Egypt at Saint Catherine's Monastery

Byzantine art was extremely conservative, for religious and cultural reasons, but retained a continuous tradition of Greek realism, which contended with a strong anti-realist and hieratic impulse. After the resumption of icon production in 843 until 1453 the Byzantine art tradition continued with relatively few changes, despite, or because of, the slow decline of the Empire. There was a notable revival of classical style in works of 10th century court art like the Paris Psalter, and throughout the period manuscript illumination shows parallel styles, often used by the same artist, for iconic figures in framed miniatures and more informal small scenes or figures added unframed in the margins of the text in a much more realist style.[13]

Monumental sculpture with figures remained a taboo in Byzantine art; hardly any exceptions are known. But small ivory reliefs, almost all in the iconic mode (the Harbaville Triptych is of similar date to the Paris Psalter, but very different in style), were a speciality, as was relief decoration on bowls and other metal objects.

The Byzantine Empire produced much of the finest art of the Middle Ages in terms of quality of material and workmanship, with court production centred on


Byzantine art exercised a continuous trickle of influence on Western European art, and the splendours of the Byzantine court and monasteries, even at the end of the Empire, provided a model for Western rulers and secular and clerical patrons. For example,

İznik wares
and other types of pottery.


Coptic Church separated in the mid-5th century it was never again supported by the state, and native Egyptian influences dominated to produce a completely non-realist and somewhat naive style of large-eyed figures floating in blank space. This was capable of great expressiveness, and took the "Eastern" component of Byzantine art to its logical conclusions. Coptic decoration used intricate geometric designs, often anticipating Islamic art. Because of the exceptionally good preservation of Egyptian burials, we know more about the textiles used by the less well-off in Egypt than anywhere else. These were often elaborately decorated with figurative and patterned designs. Other local traditions in Armenia, Syria, Georgia and elsewhere showed generally less sophistication, but often more vigour than the art of Constantinople, and sometimes, especially in architecture, seem to have had influence even in Western Europe. For example, figurative monumental sculpture on the outside of churches appears here some centuries before it is seen in the West.[14]

Migration Period through Christianization

(end sections) are depicted entirely schematically.