Medieval Art: Characteristics and Influences

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Mosaic of Jesus Christ in Istanbul, Turkey.
Mosaic of Jesus Christ in Istanbul, Turkey.

Medieval art—which includes a wide variety of art and architecture—refers to a period also known as the Middle Ages, which roughly spanned from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. to the early stages of the Renaissance in the 14th century. Work produced during this era emerged from the artistic heritage of the Roman Empire and the iconographic style of the early Christian church, fused with the “barbarian” culture of Northern Europe.

What developed over the course of these ten centuries yielded a diverse range of artistic styles and periods, some of which include the early Christian and Byzantine, Anglo-Saxon and Viking, Romanesque, and Gothic. Grand monuments and architectural masterpieces such as the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, celebrated mosaics in Ravenna, and illuminated manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels all emerged from the medieval period. Because the period produced a high volume of art bearing historical significance, it remains a rich area of study for scholars and collectors, and is viewed as an enormous achievement that later influenced the development of modern genres of Western art.

History and Characteristics of Medieval Art

The history of medieval art is expansive and covers a wide range of centuries and genres. Medieval art was prominent in European regions, the Middle East and North Africa, and some of the most precious examples of art from the Middle Ages can be found in churches, cathedrals, and other religious doctrines. Also prominent was the use of valuable materials such as gold for objects in churches, personal jewelry, backgrounds for mosaics, and applied as gold leaf in manuscripts.

Though the Middle Ages neither begin nor end neatly at any particular date, art historians generally classify medieval art into the following periods: Early Medieval Art, Romanesque Art, and Gothic Art.

Early Medieval Art

Mosaics on the floor of The Torcello Cathedral in Venice, Italy.
Mosaics on the floor of The Torcello Cathedral in Venice, Italy.

Art from this period was created between the fourth century and 1050 A.D. During this time, the Catholic Church and wealthy oligarchs commissioned projects for specific social and religious rituals. Many of the oldest examples of Christian art survive in the Roman catacombs or burial crypts beneath the city. Artists were commissioned for works featuring Biblical tales and classical themes for churches, while interiors were elaborately decorated with Roman mosaics, ornate paintings, and marble incrustations.

A large part of the art created during this time was also related to Byzantine work of the Eastern Mediterranean. It included a variety of media including glass mosaic, wall painting, metalwork, and carved relief in precious materials. Byzantine art was conservative in nature, primarily featuring religious subject matter, and much of it was characterized by a lack of realism. Paintings in particular were flat with little to no shadows or hint of three-dimensionality, and the subjects were typically more serious and somber.

Romanesque Art

Vita Christi Illuminated Manuscript. Sold for £1,700,500 via Sotheby’s (December 2007).

Romanesque art took shape in the eleventh century, initially developing in France then spreading to Spain, England, Flanders, Germany, Italy, and other regions. As the first style to spread across Europe, it symbolized the growing wealth of European cities and the power of church monasteries.

Romanesque buildings were characterized by semi-circular arches, thick stone walls, and durable construction. Sculptures were also prevalent during this time, where stone was used to represent biblical subject matter and church doctrines. Other significant media during this period include stained glass and the continued tradition of illuminated manuscripts.

Gothic Art

Left: Vierge a l’Enfant Sculpture. Sold for €1,488,250 via Sotheby’s (November 2007). Right: Vierge a l’Enfant Sculpture. Sold for €6,337,000 via Christie’s (November 2011).

Late medieval art includes Gothic art, which originated in the 12th century with the rebuilding of the Abbey Church in Saint-Denis, France. Gothic architecture offered revolutionary structural advancements such as ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and decorative pinnacles all contributing to taller, lighter building designs.

Similarly, Gothic sculpture borrowed motifs from the architecture of the period since it was primarily used to decorate exteriors of cathedrals and other religious buildings. Figures depicted in Gothic sculpture became more realistic and closely related to medieval cathedrals. Paintings also became more lifelike, and with the rise of cities, foundation of universities, increase in trade, and creation of a new class who could afford to commission works, artists started to explore more secular themes and non-religious subject matter.

Famous Examples of Medieval Art

From religious paintings to gospels and exuberant architectural structures, there is much to be collected and studied from the Middle Ages. The subsequent socio-political currents throughout the world during this time led to an evolution of various genres and forms of art. Below are some notable examples.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

Built in 537 AD at the beginning of the medieval period under the direction of Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the Hagia Sophia epitomizes Byzantine architecture. Though originally built as a Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral, it was repurposed as a mosque after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and today stands as a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. At the time it was built, it was the world’s tallest building, known for its iconic, massive dome.

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels. Sold for £4600 via Dominic Winter Auctions (November 2017).

The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated manuscript and one of the finest examples of Insular art, which combines Mediterranean, Anglo-Saxon, and Celtic elements. Assumed to have been produced around 715 A.D. by Northumbrian monk Eadfridth, the work consists of the four Christian gospels—Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John. The text is copied from St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Christian Bible, also known as the Vulgate.

Palatine Chapel

Byzantine mosaics at The Palatine Chapel in Sicily.
Byzantine mosaics at The Palatine Chapel in Sicily.

The Palatine Chapel was completed in 804 A.D. as the remaining component of Charlemagne’s Palace of Aachen in present-day Germany. Though the palace itself no longer exists, it now acts as the central part of the Aachen Cathedral. The building is a dome chapel, considered an exemplary vision of Carolingian architecture—relating to the Frankish dynasty that ruled in western Europe from 750 to 987—due to its intricately designed core.

Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram

The Adoration of the Lamb from the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram.
The Adoration of the Lamb from the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram.

Another notable example of illuminated manuscripts is that of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram. It was produced for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles II (the Bald) at his Carolingian Palace School in the 9th century. Richly decorated with gold lettering and highly colorful illustrations, it is one of the few surviving treasured bindings from the period.

Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre-Dame Cathedral prior to the fire in 2019.
Notre-Dame Cathedral prior to the fire in 2019.

Perhaps the most famous of Gothic cathedrals, the Notre-Dame’s construction began in 1160 under the Bishop Marice de Sully and has undergone many changes since. With its use of the ribbed vault and flying buttress, complete with stained glass windows and iconic sculptural elements, the church is vastly different from the Romanesque style that preceded it. It has suffered damage and deterioration in the centuries that have passed since its original construction, most recently in 2019 when a fire broke out during a restoration campaign and destroyed the 19th century spire. Plans and funds to rebuild are already underway.

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, it was very expensive to commission a work of art or architecture, which made it accessible only to large institutions, like the Church, or the wealthiest of patrons. As time went on, however, a considerable number of pieces could be found in small villages. The period as a whole lacked the knowledge and resources necessary to preserve older works, and the Renaissance and Baroque periods that followed did little to help. For these reasons, many works from the era were lost entirely, and much of the surviving work suffers a high rate of wear and tear.

Though the Renaissance period that followed reverted to the values of classical art, the 19th century saw a renewed interest and understanding of medieval art, highlighting its vast achievements in fine art and architecture. This was due in large part to a relatively new academic field of study—art history—which concentrated heavily on medieval art, and worked hard to date surviving works and analyze the development of many of the styles that came out of the era. Now, it is heavily collected by museums and private collectors, and many modern artists are inspired by the anti-realist and expressive elements that formulated from the medieval time period.