Medieval art  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
medieval culture, medieval worldview

The medieval art of the Western world covers a vast scope of time and place, over 1000 years of art history in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. It includes major art movements and periods, national and regional art, genres, revivals, the artists crafts, and the artists themselves.

Art historians classify Medieval art into major periods and movements. They are Early Christian art, Migration Period art, Celtic art, Pre-Romanesque and Romanesque art, Gothic art, Byzantine art and Islamic art. In addition each "nation" or culture in the Middle Ages had its own distinct artistic style and these are looked at individually, such as Anglo-Saxon art or Viking art. Medieval art includes many mediums, and was especially strong in sculpture, Illuminated manuscripts and mosaics. There were many unique genres of art, such as Crusade art or animal style.



The Middle Ages saw a decrease in prosperity, stability and population in the first centuries of the period - to about 800, and then a fairly steady and general increase until the massive setback of the Black Death around 1350, which is estimated to have killed about half of the overall population in Europe, with generally higher rates in the south and lower in the north. Many regions did not regain their former population levels until the 17th century. The population of Europe is estimated to have reached a low point of about 18 million in 650, doubling by 1000, and reaching over 70 million in 1340, just before the Black Death. In 1450 it was still only 50 million. Of these figures, Northern Europe, especially Britain, was 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 benefiting 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 millenium. The Islamic conquests of the 6th and 7th century 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 by the end of the Middle Ages Catholic Europe was once again under Muslim threat from the south-east.

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 bourgeois homes in towns, and their production was in many places an important local industry, with artists from the clergy now the exception.

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 loss and destruction. The Middle Ages generally lacked the concept of preserving older medieval 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 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 both of the two best examples have 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. Gold was used for objects for churches and palaces, personal jewelery and the fittings of clothes, and as a solid background for mosaics (fixed to glass tesserae), miniatures in manuscripts and panel paintings. Many objects using precious metals were made in the knowledge that their 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 commiting usury.

The even more expensive pigment ultramarine, made from ground lapis lazuli obtainable only from Afghanistan, was used lavishly in the Gothic period, more often for the traditional blue outer mantle of the Virgin Mary than for skies. Ivory was an important material until the very end of the period, and as thin 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, when 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.

Paper was 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.

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.

Subsequent reputation

Medieval art had little sense of its own art history, and this ignorance 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, apparently in the 1530s by Giorgio Vasari. That the Goths had ceased to feature in European history some 600 years before the style named after them appears is an indication of the vagueness as to the chronology of medieval art of the leading art historian of the day, and one relatively interested in the origins of the styles of his day. 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.

There was no equivalent for pictorial art of the "Gothic survival" found in architecture, once the style had finally died off in Germany, England and Scandinavia, and the Gothic Revival long focused on Gothic Architecture rather than art. The understanding of the succession of styles was still very weak, as suggested by the title of Thomas Rickman's pioneering book on English architecture: An Attempt to discriminate the Styles of English Architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation (1817). This began to change with a vengeance by the mid-19th century, as appreciation of medieval sculpture and its painting, known as Italian or Flemish "Primitives", became fashionable under the influence of writers including John Ruskin, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, and Pugin, as well as the romantic medievalism of literary works like Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819) and Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831). Early collectors of the "Primitives", then still relatively cheap, included Prince Albert.

Among artists the German Nazarene movement from 1809 and English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from 1848 both rejected the values of at least the later Renaissance, but in practice, and despite sometimes depicting medieval scenes, their work draws its influences mostly from the Early Renaissance rather than the Gothic or earlier periods - the early graphic work of John Millais being something of an exception. William Morris, also a discriminating collector of medieval art, absorbed medieval style more thoroughly into his work, as did William Burges.

By the later 19th century many book-illustrators and producers of decorative art of various kinds had learned to use medieval styles successfully from the new museums like the 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. Franz Theodor Kugler was the first to name and describe Carolingian art in 1837; like many art historians of the period he sought to find and promote the national spirit of his own nation in art history, a search begun by Johann Gottfried Herder in the 18th century. Kugler's pupil, the great Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt, though he could not be called a specialist in medieval art, was an important figure in developing the understanding of it. Medieval art was now heavily collected, both by museums and private collectors like George Salting, the Rothschild family and John Pierpoint Morgan.

After the decline of the Gothic Revival, the anti-realist and expressive elements of medieval art have proved an inspiration for many modern artists.

German-speaking art historians continued to dominate medieval art history, despite figures like Émile Mâle (1862-1954) and Henri Focillon (1881-1943), until the Nazi period, when a large number of important figures emigrated, mostly to Britain or America, where the academic study of art history was still developing. These included the elderly Adolph Goldschmidt and younger figures including Nikolaus Pevsner, Ernst Kitzinger, Erwin Panofsky, Kurt Weitzmann, Richard Krautheimer and many others. Meyer Schapiro had immigrated as a child in 1907.

Gothic art

Gothic art is a variable term depending on the craft, place and time. The term originated with the Gothic architecture which developed in France from about 1137 with the rebuilding of the Abbey Church of St Denis. As with Romanesque architecture, this included sculpture as an integral part of the style, with even larger portals and other figures on the facades of churches the location of the most important sculpture, until the late period, when large carved altarpieces and reredos, usually in painted and gilded wood, became an important focus in many churches. Gothic painting did not appear until around 1200 (this date has many qualifications), when it diverged from Romanesque style. Gothic sculpture was born in France in 1144 and spread throughout Europe, by the 13th century it had become 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 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.

International Gothic describes courtly Gothic art from about 1360 to 1430, after which Gothic art begins to merge into the Renaissance art that had begun to form itself in Italy during the Trecento, with a return to classical principles of composition and realism, with the sculptor Nicola Pisano and the painter Giotto as especially formative figures. The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is one of the best known works of International Gothic. The transition to the Renaissance occurred at different times in different places - Early Netherlandish painting is poised between the two, as is the Italian painter Pisanello.

The invention of a comprehensive mathmatically based system of linear perspective is a defining achievement of the early 15th century Italian Renaissance in Florence, but Gothic painting had already made great progress in the naturalistic depiction of distance and volume, though it did not usually regard them as essential features of a work if other aims conflicted with them, and late Gothic sculpture was increasingly naturalistic. In the mid-15th century Burgundian miniature (right) the artist seems keen to show his skill at representing buildings and blocks of stone obliquely, and managing scenes at different distances. But his general attempt to reduce the size of more distant elements is unsystematic. Sections of the composition are at a similar scale, with relative distance shown by overlapping, foreshortening, 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.

The end of the period includes new media such as prints; along with small panel paintings these were frequently used for the emotive andachtsbilder ("devotional images") influenced by new religious trends of the period. These were images of moments detached from the narrative of the Passion of Christ designed for meditation on his sufferings, or those of the Virgin: the Man of Sorrows, Pietá, Veil of Veronica or Arma Christi. The trauma of the Black Death in the mid-14th century was at least partly responsible for the popularity of themes such as the Dance of Death and Memento mori. In the cheap blockbooks with text (often in the vernacular) and images cut in a single woodcut, works such as that illustrated (left), the Ars Moriendi (Art of Dying) and typological verse summaries of the bible like the Speculum Humanae Salvationis (Mirror of Human Salvation) were the most popular.

Renaissance Humanism and the rise of a wealthy urban middle class, led by merchants, began to transform the old social context of art, with the revival of realistic portraiture and the appearance of printmaking and the self-portrait, together with the decline of forms like stained glass and the illuminated manuscript. Donor portraits, in the Early Medieval period largely the preserve of popes, kings and abbots, now showed businessmen and their families, and churches were becoming crowded with the tomb monuments of the well-off.

The book of hours, a type of manuscript normally owned by laymen, or even more often, laywomen, became the type of manuscript most often heavily illustrated from the 14th century onwards, and also by this period, the lead in producing miniatures had passed to lay artists, also very often women. In the most important centres of illumination, Paris and in the 15th century the cities of Flanders, there were large workshops, exporting to other parts of Europe. Other forms of art, such as small ivory reliefs, stained glass, tapestries and Nottingham alabasters (cheap carved panels for altarpieces) were produced in similar conditions, and artists and craftsmen in cities were usually covered by the guild system—the goldsmith's guild was typically among the richest in a city, and painters were members of a special 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.

See also

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