Like those Celtic saints who confidently set sail for parts unknown on ships of millstones or cabbage leaves, I have accepted a strange mission and a challenge—the survey of over a thousand years in the history of western art and architecture, from ancient Rome to the age of exploration. The Celtic sailor-saints, beset by flying fish, giant cats, and deep-sea monsters, made their way to new lands, to the very mouth of Hell, to the Blessed Isles, and back home again, forever changed. This book, subject to a closer scrutiny than those ancient tales, suggests an intellectual voyage no less challenging and certainly just as enlightening.
Medieval Art, like most books by college professors, began as a set of notes, which changed over the years in response to the interests and background of students and the critiques of colleagues. My purpose in writing Medieval Art has always been to introduce the lay reader, the museum visitor, and the student to this period of extraordinary historical and geographical extent. To those art historians accustomed to concentrating on a single master or the cultural life of a single decade, Medieval Art may seem a mere survey of the territory. I recognize the difficulty, but my goal was to bring some sense of coherence to the history of this art—to find and demonstrate continuity, draw some parallels, all within the constraints of limited pages and illustrations. The diverse minor arts of the Middle Ages, as well as the monumental arts of architecture and sculpture, have to be studied within the social, religious, political, and intellectual framework of lands as varied as France and Denmark, Spain and Germany.
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. The old world view changed; values crumbled. Do not the Middle Ages, a period of cataclysmic changes— unsettling, terrifying, and challenging—speak more profoundly to the fears and hopes of people in the last years of the twentieth century than does the self‐ confident, optimistic, exuberant post-Medieval world?
Medieval Art includes the art and building of what is now Western Europe from the second to the fifteenth centuries. Although to Renaissance scholars the Middle Ages was a single dark period, a vast black hole in the triumphant development of western philosophy and science from the Greeks and Romans to their own enlightened days, the period is not one but many. It is diverse geographically and culturally, widespread in time and place. What do the painters of catacomb images have in common with artists of the imperial Byzantine court, or indeed with stone carvers in Ireland or builders of Gothic cathedrals? One would first say: a devotion to and sponsorship by the Christian church, whether the Latin church led by the Pope in Rome or the Orthodox church led by the Patriarch in Constantinople. However, even the supposed immutability of the Christian tradition was subject to constant revision and development, and the impact of non-Christian cultures influenced the form, if not the content, of the art. With all respect for the continuing influence of the pagan, Jewish, and