Medieval Art

The art and architecture of Europe throughout the Middle Ages spans a period of more than 1000 years, beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire and ending with the start of the Renaissance. Although exact dates are subject to great debate, from an art history point of view medieval art can include anything dated between the 2nd to 15th centuries. Medieval art comprises many different styles and periods including Early Christian, Byzantine, Carolingian, Romanesque, and Gothic. Art historians tend to date the beginnings of medieval art from Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 312, when religious art began to be produced on a large scale. However, this is a significantly earlier period than historians argue mark the start of the Middle Ages on the whole. There is a similar problem trying to date its end.

Compared to the times of the Ancient Greeks and Romans before it and the lasting significance of the Renaissance that came after, the Middle Ages have been considered by some academics to have been a black hole of creativity and ideas. Its scholars passionately disagree. Art historian Marilyn Stokstad argues: "Great empires rose and fell; the arts flourished or decayed with them. Nevertheless, over the centuries, from the terrors and enthusiasms of humanity, the institutions of the modern world emerged." Throughout the Middle Ages, Frederick B. Artz agreed: "Western Europe is everywhere reaching out to create an original civilization of its own; it is no longer the stepchild of a decadent antiquity and of a barbaric German culture."

Some of the first examples of medieval art from its earliest period were artifacts such as catacomb frescoes and sarcophagus carvings, which led to the school of thought that the artistic emphasis of the time was on Christianity. Iconography of the Virgin Mary and the veneration of saints became a major aspect of art over the centuries. Indeed, church building is the definitive example of medieval art. It is not until much later on in the Middle Ages secular art and architecture was held in regard at all. The range of medieval art spans from huge, grandiose cathedrals and churches to work with stained glass, religious paintings, sculpture, mosaics and exquisitely detailed and illustrated manuscripts, of which Ireland's Book of Kells is a very famous example.

The Middle Ages were a time of huge upheaval and change. The early centuries involved a great deal of migration as various cultural groups settled throughout Europe. Thus, the Anglo-Saxons, Celts, Vikings and Visigoths can be seen to have put their own stamp on the art of the time, with elements such as carved stones, runes and the recognizable ‘animal style.'

Each established period of medieval art grew slowly out of the one that came before. One of the earliest periods was the Greek Byzantine, referred to as a "golden age" between 408 and 602. It was followed by the advent of the Carolingan style in the 8th and 9th centuries, spearheaded by Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. Ottonian art, which followed on, was similarly led by imperial desires, and like the others before it, was generally created by monks. It was not until much later on that art became an interest or trade of the general public. The vast majority of medieval artists remain anonymous, not simply because the information has not survived down the ages but because artists were not particularly regarded at the time. Modern day scholars have made up names for artists in some instances, to make identification and discussion of work easier.

The period from the 10th to the 15th centuries is known as the High Middle Ages, and was defined by two separate artistic movements: Romanesque and Gothic. Where other periods before then had been generally confined to the geographical areas where they were established, Romanesque was the first style to dominate the whole of Europe simultaneously, and is named primarily after its large-scale style of architecture inspired by Roman art. Its beginnings in France marked a resurgence in the arts after a period of political and societal turmoil. In these times, more churches and cathedrals were being built than ever before. Likewise, Gothic art, which also began in France, similarly became a popular style across the continent. Great Gothic cathedrals including St. Etienne at Beauvais and St. Denis in Paris, original parts of which can still be seen today, are important examples. As with all examples of medieval art, it was later considered unrefined in comparison to the works of the Renaissance, but has since had many revivals.

Medieval Art: Selected full-text books and articles

FREE! History of Mediaeval Art By Franz Von Reber; Joseph Thacher Clarke Harper and Brothers, 1887
Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary By Leslie Ross Greenwood Press, 1996
Classical Inspiration in Medieval Art By Walter Oakeshott Chapman & Hall, 1959
Death and Dying in the Middle Ages By Edelgard E. DuBruck; Barbara I. Gusick Peter Lang, 1999
Librarian's tip: Part 5 "The Art of Death: Late-Medieval Iconography"
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