Medieval art in Europe grew out of the artistic heritage of the
classical, early Christian and "barbarian" art. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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
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.
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. The major phases are covered in the following sections.
Early Christian and Late Antique art
Early Christian 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; the determination to find earlier "purer" classical models, was a key element in the art all'antica of the Renaissance.
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.
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
shares in more homely form the anti-realist style of Byzantine iconic art.
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,
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.
Book of Lindisfarne, Northumbria, c. 715; decoration invades the text of the beginning of Matthew
:"Liber generationis Jesu Christi filii David, filii Abraham".
Insular art refers to the distinct style found in Ireland and Britain from about the 7th century, to about the 10th century, lasting later in Ireland, and parts of Scotland. The style saw a fusion between the traditions of
—and these were crude, even when closely following Late Antique models.
The insular manuscript style was transmitted to the continent by the Hiberno-Scottish mission, and its anti-classical energy was extremely important in the formation of later medieval styles. In most Late Antique manuscripts text and decoration were kept clearly apart, though some initials began to be enlarged and elaborated, but major insular manuscripts sometimes take a whole page for a single initial or the first few words (see illustration) at beginnings of gospels or other sections in a book. Allowing decoration a "right to roam" was to be very influential on Romanesque and Gothic art in all media.
The buildings of the monasteries for which the insular gospel books were made were then small and could fairly be called primitive, especially in Ireland. There increasingly were other decorations to churches, where possible in precious metals, and a handful of these survive, like the
Ardagh Chalice, together with a larger number of extremely ornate and finely made pieces of secular high-status jewellery, the Celtic brooches probably worn mainly by men, of which the Tara Brooch
is the most spectacular.
"Franco-Saxon" is a term for a school of late Carolingian illumination in north-eastern France that used insular-style decoration, including super-large initials, sometimes in combination with figurative images typical of contemporary French styles. The "most tenacious of all the Carolingian styles", it continued until as late as the 11th century.
Carolingian version of Insular style—compare the "Liber generationis ..." above.
Franco-Saxon "In principio", 871-3.
, "inhabited" with figures, England, 1190–1200.
Typical Gothic pen flourishes in an unillustrated working copy of John's gospel in English, late 14th century.
The influence of Islamic art
The Romanesque portal at Moissac—see text. Detail of the tympanum here
Doge's Palace in Venice contains "three elements in exactly equal proportions — the Roman, the Lombard, and Arab. It is the central building of the world. ... the history of Gothic architecture is the history of the refinement and spiritualisation of Northern work under its influence".
Islamic rulers controlled at various points parts of Southern Italy and most of modern Spain and Portugal, as well as the
Al Andaluz seems to show considerable influence from Islamic art, though the results are little like contemporary Islamic works. Islamic influence can also be traced in the mainstream of Western medieval art, for example in the Romanesque portal at Moissac in southern France, where it shows in both decorative elements, like the scalloped edges to the doorway, the circular decorations on the lintel above, and also in having Christ in Majesty surrounded by musicians, which was to become a common feature of Western heavenly scenes, and probably derives from images of Islamic kings on their diwan.Calligraphy, ornament and the decorative arts generally were more important than in the West.
ornament, which made them easy to accept in the West, indeed by the late Middle Ages there was a fashion for pseudo-Kufic
imitations of Arabic script used decoratively in Western art.
Pre-Romanesque is a term for architecture and to some extent pictorial and portable art found initially in Southern Europe (Spain, Italy and Southern France) between the Late Antique period to the start of the Romanesque period in the 11th century. Northern European art gradually forms part of the movement after
Frankish Empire, especially modern France and Germany, from roughly 780-900 takes its name from Charlemagne and is an art of the court circle and a few monastic centres under Imperial patronage, that consciously sought to revive "Roman" styles and standards as befitted the new Empire of the West. Some centres of Carolingian production also pioneered expressive styles in works like the Utrecht Psalter and Ebbo Gospels. Christian monumental sculpture is recorded for the first time, and depiction of the human figure in narrative scenes became confident for the first time in Northern art. Carolingian architecture produced larger buildings than had been seen since Roman times, and the westwork and other innovations.
After the collapse of the dynasty there was a hiatus before a new dynasty brought a revival in Germany with
Reichenau School, such as the Pericopes of Henry II (1002–1012). Later Anglo-Saxon art in England, from about 900, was expressive in a very different way, with agitated figures and even drapery perhaps best shown in the many pen drawings in manuscripts. The Mozarabic art of Christian Spain had strong Islamic influence, and a complete lack of interest in realism in its brilliantly coloured miniatures, where figures are presented as entirely flat patterns. Both of these were to influence the formation in France of the Romanesque style.
Romanesque art developed in the period between about 1000 to the rise of Gothic art in the 12th century, in conjunction with the rise of monasticism in Western Europe. The style developed initially in France, but spread to Christian Spain, England, Flanders, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere to become the first medieval style found all over Europe, though with regional differences. The arrival of the style coincided with a great increase in church-building, and in the size of cathedrals and larger churches; many of these were rebuilt in subsequent periods, but often reached roughly their present size in the Romanesque period. Romanesque architecture is dominated by thick walls, massive structures conceived as a single organic form, with vaulted roofs and round-headed windows and arches.
Figurative sculpture, originally colourfully painted, plays an integral and important part in these buildings, in the
tomb monuments. Some churches had massive pairs of bronze doors decorated with narrative relief panels, like the Gniezno Doors or those at Hildesheim, "the first decorated bronze doors cast in one piece in the West since Roman times", and arguably the finest before the Renaissance.
Most churches were extensively frescoed; a typical scheme had
with men slaying a monster, from a theological manuscript. 1110–1115
Romanesque sculpture and painting is often vigorous and expressive, and inventive in terms of
heresies, art became more didactic, and the local church the "Poor Man's Bible". At the same time grotesque beasts and monsters, and fights with or between them, were popular themes, to which religious meanings might be loosely attached, although this did not impress St Bernard of Clairvaux, who famously denounced such distractions in monasteries:
But in the cloister, in the sight of the reading monks, what is the point of such ridiculous monstrosity, the strange kind of shapely shapelessness? Why these unsightly monkeys, why these fierce lions, why the monstrous centaurs, why semi-humans, why spotted tigers, why fighting soldiers, why trumpeting huntsmen? ... In short there is such a variety and such a diversity of strange shapes everywhere that we may prefer to read the marbles rather than the books.
He might well have known the miniature at left, which was produced at Cîteaux Abbey before the young Bernard was transferred from there in 1115.
During the period typology became the dominant approach in theological literature and art to interpreting the bible, with Old Testament incidents seen as pre-figurations of aspects of the life of Christ, and shown paired with their corresponding New Testament episode. Often the iconography of the New Testament scene was based on traditions and models originating in Late Antiquity, but the iconography of the Old Testament episode had to be invented in this period, for lack of precedents. New themes such as the Tree of Jesse were devised, and representations of God the Father became more acceptable. The vast majority of surviving art is religious. Mosan art was an especially refined regional style, with much superb metalwork surviving, often combined with enamel, and elements of classicism rare in Romanesque art, as in the Baptismal font at St Bartholomew's Church, Liège, or the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne, one of a number of surviving works by Nicholas of Verdun, whose services were sought across north-western Europe.
in theology, literature and so also art that was to reach its full extent in the Gothic period.
c. 1220; the best High Gothic sculpture had largely rediscovered the art of naturalistic figure representation.
Gothic art is a variable term depending on the craft, place and time. The term originated with the
Gothic painting did not appear until around 1200 (this date has many qualifications), when it diverged from Romanesque style. A Gothic style in sculpture
originates in France around 1144 and spread throughout Europe, becoming by the 13th century the international style, replacing Romanesque, though in sculpture and painting the transition was not as sharp as in architecture.
The majority of Romanesque cathedrals and large churches were replaced by Gothic buildings, at least in those places benefiting from the economic growth of the period—Romanesque architecture is now best seen in areas that were subsequently relatively depressed, like many southern regions of France and Italy, or northern Spain. The new architecture allowed for much larger windows, and stained glass of a quality never excelled is perhaps the type of art most associated in the popular mind with the Gothic, although churches with nearly all their original glass, like the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, are extremely rare anywhere, and unknown in Britain.
Most Gothic wall-paintings have also disappeared; these remained very common, though in parish churches often rather crudely executed. Secular buildings also often had wall-paintings, although royalty preferred the much more expensive tapestries, which were carried along as they travelled between their many palaces and castles, or taken with them on military campaigns—the finest collection of late-medieval textile art comes from the Swiss booty at the Battle of Nancy, when they defeated and killed Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and captured all his baggage train.
As mentioned in the previous section, the Gothic period coincided with a greatly increased emphasis on the Virgin Mary, and it was in this period that the
Virgin and Child became such a hallmark of Catholic art. Saints were also portrayed far more often, and many of the range of attributes
developed to identify them visually for a still largely illiterate public first appeared.
During this period panel painting for altarpieces, often polyptyches and smaller works became newly important. Previously icons on panels had been much more common in Byzantine art than in the West, although many now lost panel paintings made in the West are documented from much earlier periods, and initially Western painters on panel were very largely under the sway of Byzantine models, especially in Italy, from where most early Western panel paintings come. The process of establishing a distinct Western style was begun by Cimabue and Duccio, and completed by Giotto, who is traditionally regarded as the starting point for the development of Renaissance painting. Most panel painting remained more conservative than miniature painting however, partly because it was seen by a wide public.
Reconstruction of the temple of Jerusalem, Burgundian miniature, c. 1460.
often provided an end point for the Gothic tradition in areas that went Protestant, as it was associated with Catholicism.
The invention of a comprehensive mathematically based system of
, and further objects being higher than nearer ones, though the workmen at left do show finer adjustment of size. But this is abandoned on the right where the most important figure is much larger than the mason.
(Mirror of Human Salvation) were the most popular.
of the well-off.
Little Office, illustrated by the Annunciation to Joachim. The typical exuberantly decorated margins descend from insular art, and are unlike anything in the Byzantine tradition.
Guild of St Luke
in many places.
Secular works, often using subjects concerned with courtly love or knightly heroism, were produced as illuminated manuscripts, carved ivory mirror-cases, tapestries and elaborate gold table centrepieces like nefs. It begins to be possible to distinguish much greater numbers of individual artists, some of whom had international reputations. Art collectors begin to appear, of manuscripts among the great nobles, like John, Duke of Berry (1340–1416) and of prints and other works among those with moderate wealth. In the wealthier areas tiny cheap religious woodcuts brought art in an approximation of the latest style even into the homes of peasants by the late 15th century.
The Assault on the Castle of Love, attacked by knights
and defended by ladies, was a popular subject for Gothic ivory mirror-cases. Paris, 14th century.
Medieval art had little sense of its own art history, and this disinterest was continued in later periods. The Renaissance generally dismissed it as a "barbarous" product of the "Dark Ages", and the term "Gothic" was invented as a deliberately pejorative one, first used by the painter Raphael in a letter of 1519 to characterise all that had come between the demise of Classical art and its supposed 'rebirth' in the Renaissance. The term was subsequently adopted and popularised in the mid 16th century by the Florentine artist and historian, Giorgio Vasari, who used it to denigrate northern European architecture generally. Illuminated manuscripts continued to be collected by antiquarians, or sit unregarded in monastic or royal libraries, but paintings were mostly of interest if they had historical associations with royalty or others. The long period of mistreatment of the Westminster Retable by Westminster Abbey is an example; until the 19th century it was only regarded as a useful piece of timber. But their large portrait of Richard II of England was well looked after, like another portrait of Richard, the Wilton Diptych (illustrated above). As in the Middle Ages themselves, other objects have often survived mainly because they were considered to be relics.
There was no equivalent for pictorial art of the "
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831). Early collectors of the "Primitives", then still relatively cheap, included Prince Albert
Victoria & Albert Museum set up for this purpose. At the same time the new academic field of art history, dominated by Germany and France, concentrated heavily on medieval art and was soon very productive in cataloguing and dating the surviving works, and analysing the development of medieval styles and iconography; though the Late Antique and pre-Carolingian period remained a less explored "no-man's land" until the 20th century.
The great majority of narrative religious medieval art depicted events from the Bible, where the majority of persons shown had been Jewish. But the extent to which this was emphasized in their depictions varied greatly. During the Middle Ages some Christian art was used as a way to express prejudices and commonly held negative views.
In Medieval Europe between the 5th and 15th century many Christians viewed Jews as enemies and outsiders due to a variety of factors. They also tended to hate them for being both culturally and religiously different as well as because of religious teachings that held negative views of Jewish people such as portrayals of the Antichrist as Jewish. The Jewish people's economic position as moneylenders, coupled with royal protections that were given to them, created a strained relationship between Jews and Christians. This strain manifested itself in several ways, one of which was through the creation of antisemitic and anti-Judaism art and propaganda that served the purpose of discrediting both Jews and their religious beliefs as well as spreading these beliefs even further into society. Late medieval images of Ecclesia and Synagoga represented the Christian doctrine of supersessionism, whereby the Christian New Covenant had replaced the Jewish Mosaic covenant Sara Lipton has argued that some portrayals, such as depictions of Jewish blindness in the presence of Jesus, were meant to serve as a form of self-reflection rather than be explicitly anti-Semitic.
In her 2013 book Saracens, Demons, and Jews, Debra Higgs Strickland argues that negative portrayals of Jews in medieval art can be divided into three categories: art that focused on physical descriptions, art that featured signs of damnation, and images that depicted Jews as monsters. Physical depictions of Jewish people in medieval Christian art were often men with pointed Jewish hats and long beards, which was done as a derogatory symbol and to separate Jews from Christians in a clear manner. This portrayal would grow more virulent over time, however Jewish women lacked similar distinctive physical descriptions in high medieval Christian art. Art that depicted Jewish people in scenes that featured signs of damnation is believed to have stemmed from the Christian belief that Jews were responsible for the murder of Christ, which has led to some artistic representations featured Jews crucifying Christ.
Jewish people were sometimes seen as outsiders in Christian dominated societies, which Strickland states developed into the belief that Jews were barbarians, which eventually expanded into the idea that Jewish people were monsters that rejected the "True Faith". Some art from this time period combined these concepts and morphed the stereotypical Jewish beard and pointed hat imagery with that of monsters, creating art that made the Jew synonymous with a monster.
The reasons for these negative depictions of Jews can be traced back to many sources, but mainly stem from the Jews being charged with deicide, their religious and cultural differences from their cultural neighbors, and how the antichrist was often depicted as Jewish in medieval writings and texts. The Jews were recently blamed for the death of Christ and were thus negatively depicted by the Christians in both art and scripture alike.
Tensions between Jews and Christians were often high and this caused various stereotypes about Jews to form and become commonplace in their artistic depiction. Some of the attributes seen distinguishing Jews from their Christian counterparts in pieces of art are pointed hats, hooked and crooked noses, and long beards. By including these attributes in the portrayal of Jews in art, Christians succeeded in 'othering' Jews more than they already were and made them seem even more ostracized and segregated from the general population than they already were. Not only were these attributes added into depictions of Jewish People, they were generally portrayed as villainous and monstrous because of their supposed murder of Christ as well their rejection of Christ as the messiah. This, coupled with the fact that they lived in largely insular groups separated them greatly from their Christian neighbors and caused a lasting rift between the groups that are reflected in the medieval art.
^Honour 1982, pp. 277 & 284–288 harvnb error: no target: CITEREFHonour1982 (help). Beckwith 1964, p. 149, says the bronze column at Hildesheim of c. 1020 "cannot be said to be Romanesque ... It stands apart as a curious Ottonian pastiche of a Roman monument ... never to be repeated"
Hoffman, Eva R. (2007): Pathways of Portability: Islamic and Christian Interchange from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century, in: Hoffman, Eva R. (ed.): Late Antique and Medieval Art of the Mediterranean World, Blackwell Publishing,