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Arts of the Middle Ages - Sacred Words and Sacred Pictures

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A medieval wooden statue of Mary and Jesus

In the 4th Century AD, the Huns invaded Europe and the Western Roman Empire fell apart in chaos and civil wars. The Migration Period defined the following centuries, when warlike bands of Germanic and other tribes wandered through Europe and settled on Roman territory. Slowly more and more power moved from Rome to newly-formed kingdoms.

The end of the Migration Period came in the 6th Century, which is the beginning of the Middle Ages. During this time the Lombards conquered Italy and the Franks established a large empire north of the Alps, Francia covered most of Western Europe and stayed the most important kingdom for many centuries. Antique arts and culture declined and Christianity was spread to former pagan1 lands. New kingdoms, like England, emerged.

In the year 800 Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by the Pope; he was the first Western Emperor after the fall of Western Rome. State and Church formed an inseparable alliance. Charlemagne himself became a patron of arts and science in the spirit of Roman antiquity. Latin became an important language again, and a new system of letters was developed. Charlemagne also supported the spread of Benedictine monasteries, which went on to have a great influence on science and arts, the cultivation of the land and education, and all in all were an important factor of power and economy.

Society was defined by feudalism, where all the land was owned by nobility who loaned parts of it to other nobility for services in war. The peasants were bound to the land they lived on and were therefore also owned by the nobility they had to work for. In return (at least in theory) the nobles were responsible for their wellbeing. The third part of feudal society was the clergy, which in itself also had a strict hierarchy. Religion played an important part in all people's lives, especially as it was believed that judgement day was near. As most people were not able to read, they had to rely on the information they received from the Church. Only the rise of the cities brought a way for the peasants to flee from the strict system and become free people.

Romanesque and Gothic

Around the year 900, Charlemagne's Empire was divided into three parts: France, Germany and Italy. Central Europe was under pressure from Vikings and Huns. The Holy Roman Empire was established, with Otto I as the first German Emperor. Cities gained in importance and wealth. Education was no longer reserved for nobility. The Church and non-religious leaders began a struggle for power. The First Crusade took place at the end of the 11th Century, but also long distance trade was restored. Craftsmen started to organise themselves in guilds.

From 1000 to the late 12th Century the Romanesque style prevailed in Europe. Artists looked back to the arts of the Roman Empire and hence to Byzantium, which was seen as its direct successor. From about the 12th Century onwards the Gothic2 period spread from France to Central Europe and parts of Southern Europe; north of the Alps it remained the prevailing style until the 16th Century. In the southern countries like Italy, Romanesque was used for a longer time, so it almost smoothly led to the Renaissance, with only a very short Gothic period in between.

The Gothic style was more naturalistic and refined than Romanesque arts and, instead of stoic postures, depicted figures showing more human emotions. Most of the art of the Middle Ages was done in the service of Christianity, so most known artworks can be found in a religious context.

For many Medieval techniques in art there are written records giving, for instance, recipes for paint and detailed descriptions of the techniques. The development of printing let artworks be known to many people at a great distance, and fellow craftsmen would often be inspired by, or even copy, the works.

Paintings

In the early Middle Ages, stylised figures with strong contours were painted on backgrounds of single, bold colours. The draped folds of their clothing are even more stylised than those of their Byzantine archetypes. They are surrounded by frames of ornamental leaves. During the Gothic period the style became less strict and more and more realistic, while in some regions murals were almost completely replaced by glass windows.

In the late Middle Ages, aristocratic clients who wanted to decorate their homes gained in importance. Slowly landscapes, emotions and perspective paintings found their way back into the arts. Murals lost their importance in favour of panel paintings, which until then were mostly used on altars.

Illuminated Books

A medieval illuminated manuscript scripture

During the reign of Charlemagne, antique texts were copied and studied in writing schools. These copies were illustrated with miniature pictures, often detailed copies of original antique works. On detailed preparatory drawings, contours - like letters - were drawn with a quill and then painted in many colours with paint brushes. Most of the time pigments were bound with egg white or yolk. Many more elaborate books were also decorated with gold and silver (which blackened over time).

Monasteries became one of the main producers of illuminated books, because they had the money as well as the knowledge to do so. Gifted artists would move between different monasteries. Very often different people worked on the text, sketches, painting and other aspects of the books' designs. Contrary to Byzantium, the Western Church never hesitated to use pictures and saw them as a way to educate those who were not able to read.

The motifs of the illustrations did not always do justice to the texts, which shows that painters did not always have a deeper understanding of the subject. Very often older books were copied, although slight variations in the pictures were possible, as tastes and interpretations varied over time. Generally the style was not naturalistic but depicted a more spiritual truth. The first letters of a text were often used as a means of decoration, either containing abstract ornaments or rather generic symbols, or being part of an illustration for the text. A very special style of illustration developed in the British Isles.

From about the 12th Century onwards, craftsmen produced books in larger numbers outside of monasteries. More and more artists became known by name. They made religious books, as well as works used by the newly founded universities or rich collectors, not only in Latin but also in local languages.

The style of the illustrations became increasingly naturalistic and elegant. Owning a book was no longer uncommon among ordinary people and even the simplest books were illustrated – but of course the quality was not the same as the illustrations of more expensive works.

Gems and Gold

A lot of different objects have been made for Christian churches, be it goblets, textiles, furniture, candle holders or reliquaries. They were made only from the most expensive materials: gold, silver, ivory (from elephants or walrus) and gemstones. Since pre-Christian times these seemed to have magical attributes - maybe they even came from paradise, but they were definitely a decoration worthy of the House of God on Earth. The craftsmanship needed to create such costly items was also quite high and even more valued than the experience needed to create paintings or statues. Inspiration came from the Bible itself: some objects were crafted directly from the descriptions, while others were decorated with scenes from the Christians' holy book. Often pieces like gems in a fitting that were given to the Church were incorporated into larger artworks, for instance chalices, monstrances or reliquary caskets.

A new technique was the creation of enamel, in which coloured glass was poured into depressions in a metal surface. Textiles were woven with silk and silver and gold threads, or bore luxurious embroideries of different motifs made from gold and silver threads with applications of gems and enamel.

Not only the Church but also kings and earthly rulers had expensive treasures, which they took with them while travelling between their houses.

Sculpture

After the fall of the Roman Empire, sculptures and reliefs were not made in large numbers and the art of sculpting was almost lost. They can only be found in few regions of Europe – notably the British Isles and Spain – mainly as ornamental reliefs rather than full statues. These, however, do not show the same depths as Roman works. Only the Celtic Crosses in Great Britain and Ireland were a reminder of the former glory of sculptures.

From the 11th Century onwards, many new churches were built and new technologies for carving stones were developed. Sculptures became popular again all over Europe to serve as a decoration for architecture. Soon prominent places on buildings – especially portals - were decorated with reliefs of figures as well as geometric and floral ornaments. They helped to underline features of the architecture. Complex systems of decorations were developed, often telling stories from the Bible. Setting the doorways of churches deeper into the wall gave even more space for more and more sculptures. Additionally another portal or two could be added and decorated. Often sculptures were even put where nobody could see them from the ground. In the 13th Century reliefs became more and more naturalistic in all respects, be it in proportions or depicting emotions. It always has to be remembered that, just like the decorations on Greek temples, most of these sculptures and reliefs were painted, which made them seem much more alive.

With the rising importance of cities, sculptures were also used to decorate town squares and important buildings.

Glass

Glass was a known material in antiquity, but only few craftsmen were still able to work with it at the beginning of the Middle Ages, and it is only thanks to the Church that the art was not lost completely. Because of technological restraints in the production of glass, only small panes could be produced. To cover a window, a number of small pieces had to be combined with a thin lead frame. The partitions followed the decoration of the windows. At first, only geometric patterns were made from glass of different colours to cover small windows. Later - between 500 and 700 AD – the glass was also painted. Maybe at first painting was simply attached to the finished glass, while later it was fused with the glass with heat, which made it much more durable. Detailed preparatory drawings were made on wooden plates and traced on the glass. Most of the preserved windows are parts of churches, but also expensive private houses could be decorated with them.

By the 12th Century, painting glass and making colourful windows was already a fully developed form of art. The pictures on the windows could show a great variety of images and soon were used to tell whole stories. Different pictures on one window were often parted with ornamental borders. Gothic architecture, and the resulting larger windows, especially boosted the development of more complex designs on window glass.

In later times, windows were often donated to the Church by various groups of people or rich personages who then also decided about the subjects to be depicted – quite often they would want their own portraits included. A great number of different styles developed. Colourful pictures were combined with black ornaments painted on white glass and complex pictures of architecture could frame different scenes. Over time, glass painters even came to ignore the partitions of windows and created large artworks spanning whole sides of a building.

Dawn of a New Age

The Middle Ages ended with the plague that greatly reduced the population of Europe. Rebellions as well as larger conflicts led to a change in the social structures and the rise of the Bourgeoisie while the Church on the other hand lost some of its influence. The economy flourished. Many ancient scientists and philosophers were rediscovered, and knowledge could now easily be spread since Gutenberg's breakthrough in printing.

All these advances sooner or later caused all of Europe to transition from the Middle Ages to the new age of the Renaissance. After roughly 1,000 years the Middle Ages ended in the 15th Century - the exact times depend on location as well as definition.

Image credit: US Metropolitan Museum of Art

1The word 'pagan' comes from the Latin word paganus, meaning 'someone who lives in the country'. Christianity was originally an urban religion, passed from city to city.2'Gotico' was a term used since the 15th Century for a style that seemed barbaric, just like the Goths.

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