Medieval art is a term that encompasses a general period of economic and social stagnation in Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. It spanned roughly from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD to the early stages of the Renaissance in the 1400s. Though art historians debate the exact styles and chronological separations in the Medieval period, it is generally accepted that it is divided into three sub-categories. These were Early Medieval Art or Byzantine Art, Romanesque Art and Gothic Art.
There was very little evolution during this period and much of the knowledge gained from the Romans and Greeks were discarded and destroyed. This was because they represented a belief in a pantheon of Gods, as opposed to the singular creator that represents Christianity. The evolution that did occur was through mankind addressing Biblical subjects, Christian dogma and
combining it with Classical mythology. During the Early Middle Ages, the Catholic Church funded many projects and the oldest examples of Christian art survive in Roman catacombs or burial crypts beneath the city. By 350 AD, the Church had two primary power hubs, Rome in the West and Constantinople in the East. Constantinople was also the capital city of the Byzantine Empire.
This played quite an influential role in the evolution of Medieval art and the Byzantine period. However, despite this seeming progress, this age of art is generally also referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’. This is the period of time from 500 to 1000 AD. The main form of art produced here is called Byzantine art and originated from the Eastern Roman Empire. Byzantine art was characterized by its lack of realism. The artists did not try to make their paintings realistic but
focused on the symbolism of their art. Paintings were flat with no shadows and the subject matter was usually very serious and somber. The subjects of the paintings were almost entirely religious with many paintings being of Christ and the Virgin Mary. After this period came the Romanesque art phase, which began around 1000 AD.
The Romanesque art movement lasted around 300 years. The focus here was much the same as the Dark Ages, with religious subject matter being at the fore. However, they explored other areas like stained glass detailing, large murals on walls and domed ceilings and carvings on buildings and columns. Following immediately from this was Gothic art. Here we see a move towards more realism, with proportion and perspective being more closely examined. The
Gothic artists also used brighter colours and began to play more with shadow and light. With these new techniques, they found themselves more interested in trying varied subject matter and themes, shifting to include mythical scenes in their art, as well as religious representation.
It is important to look at all facets of life during this time and acknowledge that the majority of literature from this time also focused heavily on religion. Most people who were literate were clerics and monks. Very few people knew how to read and write and relied on these figures to relay information to them. It is only natural then that the perception of knowledge was very much skewed to show but one side of the coin. The reason this era was called the Dark Age was because of the lack of progression. People were not taught to think for themselves and relied only on the word of others. Past cultures were even seen as being ‘Pagan’ and thus to be feared and destroyed. Progress simply halted because there was nothing to be learned from the past and no way through the lack of information. It was only when the bloom of the Renaissance took hold that more and more people had the skills to question and critique the world around them.
Islamic art will typically encompass all visual arts produced from the seventh century onwards by culturally Islamic populations. It is not art from a specific region, time or place and is not encompassed by a single medium. It spans across about 1400 years and covers many lands, populations and includes a wide range of artistic fields from architecture to calligraphy, painting, glass ceramics, and even textiles, among others.
One of the key identifiers of Islamic art is that it does not usually show the human form. Unlike other religious arts, Islamic culture believes that the depiction of the human form is idolatry and is thereby a sin against God. It is forbidden in the Qu’ran, which it the central text of Islam. Calligraphy and architectural elements are given more important religious significance in Islamic art for this reason. However, despite this, it is a misconception to say that all Islamic art is free from figurative representation. Most of it is because most of it stems from religious or public spaces. In secular, private areas, one has a bit more freedom to explore. The areas where this is a bit more gray is usually in secular, or non-religious representations of Islamic art. Depictions of the human form can be found in these instances. Often private residences of sovereign rulers were filled with vast figurative paintings, mosaics, and sculpture.
Islamic art also developed from a variety of sources. From Roman art and early Christian influences to Byzantine styles. Even the influence of central Asian styles brought by various nomadic excursions can be seen in Islamic painting, pottery, and textiles. In general, however, Islamic art encompasses the visual arts produced from the seventh century onwards by both Muslims and non-Muslims who lived within territories that were inhabited or ruled by a culturally Islamic population. It is thus a very difficult art to define because of how wide spread it was. Islamic art is not necessarily restricted to religious representation and can include art from all manner of different, culturally rich walks of life. Because figurative representations were and still are generally forbidden in Islam, the written word takes on religious meaning in art through calligraphic inscription. Calligraphy and the decoration of manuscript Qu’rans is an important aspect of Islamic art as here the written word takes on the religious and artistic significance, instead of a figure meant to represent a god or angels.
Islamic architecture is also particularly important to look at. Architecture such as mosques are embedded with religious significance. There are repeating elements in Islamic art and architecture. Wall decorations or murals will typically be stylized, feature geometric floral or vegetative designs in a repeating pattern known as the arabesque. The arabesque in Islamic art is often used to symbolize the transcendent, indivisible and infinite nature of God. Some scholars believe that mistakes in these patterns may be a deliberate show of humility by artists who believe that only God can produce true perfection. This carries through to many different iterations of their craft, from an imperfect stitch in a carpet to a missed repetition on the decoration of a vase. The focus primarily in Islamic art was on the depiction of patterns and calligraphy.
One of the most famous monuments of Islamic art is the Taj Mahal, a royal mausoleum which is located in Agra, India. Hinduism is the majority religion in India however because Muslim rulers dominated large areas of modern-day India for centuries. As such, India has a vast and dynamic range or Islamic art and architecture. In general, Islamic empires and dynasties controlled territories from Spain to Western China at differing points in history. However, few artists from these areas would have labeled themselves as Islamic artists. An artisan from Spain would have just been a Spanish painter. As such, it makes it difficult for art historians to use the term “Islamic Art” as an umbrella term. Places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art have decided instead to omit the term “Islamic” from their new galleries. They will instead call them things like “Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia.” This stresses more the regional styles and individual cultures associated with Islamic art. Despite this, there are still themes and types of objects that link the arts of the Islamic world together. Certain building types, for example, appear throughout the world. Mosques, gardens, mausoleums and religious schools can all be found across the Islamic world.
Byzantine art, architecture, paintings and other visual arts were produced in the Middle Ages in the Byzantine Empire, which was centred at Constantinople and in other various areas that came under its influence. The styles that emerged from this period were all particularly similar or homogeneous. It began this way in the 6ht century and continued on until Constantinople was captured by the Turks in 1453. Byzantine art was almost entirely concerned with religious expression and more specifically, with a very carefully controlled church theology. Essentially in that, the church controlled the artistic terms of the period. Its architecture grew out of this, as well as its paintings and for the most part, remained fairly uniform and anonymous.
India has a rich and complex history spanning thousands of years. India was the only major Asian
culture known to have been visited by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. As such, they have carried
with them this air of mystery and exoticism throughout time. Many Asian cultures were often seen
this way, as somehow exotic and mysterious. However, this is just because their works have always
been different from what was being made in the rest of the world and as a culture, they function
differently to the West. Their artworks reflect this and are both unique and exuberant.
Indian art as a whole refers to the different artistic expressions created in the historical regions of the Indian subcontinent, including modern-day India, Bangladesh, and areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It covers several art forms, historical periods and influences. Archeologists have found evidence of
prehistoric rock art in India, an early art form consisting of carvings or drawings on cave rocks. Some
of the oldest examples are called the Bhimbetka petroglyphs found in central India and are believed
to be at least 290,000 years old. In very similar ways to Southern African rock art, many of the ancient
Indian rock art examples also feature representations of animals and humans. The oldest examples of
these date from about 7000 BCE.
Traditional Indian art usually had a religious character that was depicted and Buddhism, Hinduism and
later Islam, have been a common theme throughout the centuries. The pieces often feature
mythological, human and animal forms and had elaborate ornaments. Unlike other areas influenced
by Islam, Indian art never abandoned figurative representations. Architecture in ancient India focused
mostly on religious buildings. Many Hindu temples featured very distinctive towers in the form of
truncated pyramids and had elaborate ornamentation with hundreds of sculptures.
Buddhism originated in India at some point during the 6th century and this very much influenced the
art that was being made. Religious artists made sculpture pieces from stone and bronze. They also
produced magnificent examples of Indian cave art, with entire temples being carved in stone and
decorated with Greek-influenced columns and sculptures. By the 5th century CE, sculpture was a
common practice among Indian Buddhists and Hindus. What is unique here is that the general area of
India and surrounds is the home of several of the world’s major religions, so it’s not really surprising
that most of India’s art is centered on religion. Around 300-200 B.C., the Buddhists began to erect
large stone pillars at important places. These pillars were often topped with a figure of a lion. The lion
was a symbol of power for Indian rulers. Other pillars had figures such as lotus’s, bulls and elephants.
Hindus also made carvings of the gods that were shaped like humans but often with many arms or
heads to show that they could take different forms. In northern India, these images were carved into
rocks. In southern India, they were made into bronze statues. When Islamic rulers took over North
India, they forbid the worship of carved figures shaped like humans so many of them were destroyed.
Hinduism continued to be the focus of art creation for centuries, with sculptures of Shiva and other
deities as well as huge stone temples like the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, built in the 11th century.
India became a British colony in the 19th century, which had a big impact on their art. The British
established art schools that promoted European styles in the country but ironically, back in Europe
there was a large demand for Indian art objects. This resulted in local artistic traditions merging with
foreign influences. After India’s independence in 1947, artists have searched for new styles.
Contemporary Indian art has been international in its scope and very experimental and it is deeply
seated in a long and rich history.
Ancient Japanese Art includes a wide range of styles and expressions, ranging from ceramics, sculpture, painting, and calligraphy on silk, paper, woodblock print and more. It has a long and rich history and begins around 10, 000 B.C. when humans began settling in the region. Historically, Japan has been subject to very sudden invasions of new and alien ideas. The term alien here refers to the “other”. In essence, everyone outside of Japan. It is appropriate to say this because Japan has, both geographically and culturally, were very different from their neighbors. Perhaps this is because they separated by a mass of water and as an Island, were quite isolated. Over time, the Japanese have developed the ability to absorb, imitate and assimilate those elements of foreign culture into their artistic preferences.
The first examples of complex art in Japan were produced in the 7th and 8th centuries and were linked to Buddhism. In the 9th century, Japan began to free itself from the cultural influence of China and developed indigenous forms of expression. From this point onwards until around the 15th century, both religious and secular art flourished. After the Onin War which lasted from 1467-1477, Japan entered a period of political strife both socially and economically. This lasted for well over a century and in the shift in political climate saw religious art fall somewhat to the wayside, with secular, representative art coming to the fore. With this came a development and interest in ink painting, calligraphy, poetry, literature, and music as forms of self-expression and entertainment.
Painting as an art style was and still is the preferred artistic expression in Japan. Even today, as they did in ancient times, the Japanese wrote with a brush rather than a pen and their familiarity with the use of the brush techniques has made them particularly sensitive to the aesthetic values of painting. With the rise of popular culture in the Edo period, the style of ukiyo-e woodblock prints became an important art form and its techniques were refined to produce colourful prints. These prints were used to spread information – everything from daily news to issues of school books. The Japanese have always thought that the use of sculpture was a much less expressive and empathetic way of making art as the use of sculpture in Japan had almost always been used in the service of religion and with the decline of traditional Buddhism, sculpture too fell away from the mainstream. The Edo period marked the triumph of political and military power of the Tokugawa, who moved the countries capital to Tokyo and closed all doors to contact with foreigners. Great attention to science and techniques was given in this period. It lasted from around 1603 till 1868. It is also known as the final period of Traditional Japan and was a time of internal peace, political stability and economic growth under the shogunate (military dictatorship.)
Something the Japanese are most well known for would be their ceramics. They are regarded as being some of the best in the world and represent the first known artifacts from Japanese culture. In this and in architecture, the Japanese have always expressed clearly their ancestral preference for natural materials and the harmonious interaction between interior and exterior space. This translates into the materials used to build their homes, the subject matter they chose to paint and represent and also the mirroring of natural elements into the interior space. Ancient Japanese art has grown and evolved in many different ways since the 7th century but none more so than in their own identity. They have undergone many shifts and changes throughout time and it has all influenced the way they make their art and what they make their art about. Moving away from religious depictions made room for more representations of nature and harmony and allowed them in more contemporary times to push boundaries freely and expressively
The art that came from the Ancient Chinese was heavily influenced by the idea of all things natural and spiritual. In many ways, it shares characteristics with Japanese and Indian art. These are typically referred to in the umbrella term of Ancient Asian art. Yet each have their own unique characteristics and show the culture and history of its origins. They all start around 653 BC and end late into the grand scale of art history, coming to an end around 1900 AD. This was likely due to that being the start of man’s true industrial expansion. They also placed value on showing the stories of everyday people as opposed to revering those in power. We will explore the intricacies of Ancient Japanese and Indian art in further blogs but for now let us focus on Ancient Chinese Art.
Chinese art takes a great deal of influence from great philosophers, teachers, religious figures and political leaders. It covered a vast and ever-changing geopolitical landscape and the art it produced over three millennia is, unsurprisingly, just as varied. Despite continuous technical developments as well as changes in materials and tastes, there are certain qualities inherent in Chinese art which make it possible to describe in general terms. It also makes it possible to recognize no matter where or when it was produced. These essential qualities include a love of nature, a belief in the moral and educational value of art as well as an admiration for simplicity and the appreciation for accomplished brushwork. There was also a loyalty to much-used and loved motifs and designs, from lotus leaves to dragons. Chinese art has tremendously influenced its neighbors in East Asia. Its reach even extended across the world through their work in ceramics, painting and jade work.
Ancient China produced many types of beautiful works of art and different eras and dynasties had their specialties. Chinese philosophy and religion have an impact on artistic styles and subjects. There is a concept that refers to The Three Perfections and refers to the arts of calligraphy, poetry, and painting. Often these would be combined together in art. It is a concept that became important with the Song Dynasty. Ancient Chinese considered writing to be an important form of art. Calligraphers would practice for years to learn to write perfectly, but with style. Poetry was an important form of art as well and great poets were famous throughout the empire. However, all educated people were expected to write poetry. During the Tang Dynasty, poetry became so important that writing poetry was even a part of the examinations to become a civil servant and work for the government. Painting was typically inspired by calligraphy and many paintings featured landscapes of mountains, homes, birds, trees, and water. Amongst these art forms, the Chinese specialized in silks, lacquers, and pottery. One of the most notable aspects of Ancient Chinese art was the construction of the Terracotta Army. It was created for the burial of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang to protect him in the afterlife. It consists of sculptures that make up an army of soldiers. There were over 8000 sculptures of soldiers and 530 horses. Every single sculpture was life-sized and highly detailed. Each soldier has his own uniform, weapons, armor and each one even had his own unique face.
An important difference between China and many other ancient cultures is that a large proportion of Chinese artists were not professionals. Many were gentlemen amateurs who were also scholars. They were students of Confucius and his principles and were often men of literature who also published poetry. For them, art was a means to capture and present a philosophical approach to life. For this reason, the art they produced is often minimal and without false details. Art throughout most of China’s history was meant to express the artist’s good character and not merely as a means to display their skills. There were, of course, professional artists too, as there are today. They were employed by the Imperial court or wealthy patrons to decorate the walls and interiors of their buildings and tombs. Of course, there were also thousands of craftsmen who worked with precious metals and crafted objects of art for those who could afford them. However, they were not regarded as artists. In ancient China, the real arts of merit were calligraphy and painting. Even back then the art world was plagued by questions of what is and what is not art.
Because of this connoisseurship of art, more and more people became collectors of it. Texts were even printed to help guide people on the history of Chinese art with helpful rankings of the various merits of past artists. In a certain way, art became quite standardized, with conventions to be adhered to. Artists were expected to study the great masters and copy their works as part of their training. One of the most famous and long-lasting sources of advice on judging art is the six-point list from 6th-century art critic and historian, Xie He. They were originally published in the now lost Old Record of the Classifications of Painters. When viewing a painting, the viewer should consult the list to determine the merit of the painting. It is as follows:
These rigid rules of art creation and appreciation were there largely due to the belief that art should somehow benefit the viewer. The idea or acceptance that art could and should express the feelings of the artist themselves would only arrive in more modern times. That is not to say that there weren’t the occasional eccentric outliers who ignored social convention and created works in their own, original way. There will always be these people who don’t abide by the rules of convention. There are cases of artists who painted to music, not even looking at the painting. There was one who only painted drunk and another who used his fingers and toes to paint. Innovation is always present, even in a society that thrived off of structure. One does need both, to ensure balance.
The topic of ancient Roman art is very broad, spanning over almost 1000 years and 3 continents, from Europe into Africa and Asia. The first record of Roman art dates back to 509 B.C.E with the first formation of the legendary Roman Republic. Roman art encompassed a broad spectrum of media, from marble to painting, mosaic and gems, silver and bronze work as well as terracotta. The city of Rome itself was a melting pot of culture and influence. The Romans had no problem adapting other artistic styles from the Mediterranean cultures that surrounded them. For this reason, it is common to see Greek, Etruscan and Egyptian influences throughout Roman art. Despite their knack for adopting other styles, there is still something very “roman” about Roman art. In fact, one of the larger challenges of art history is identifying what that is.
Greek art had a significant influence on Roman art. After conquering Greece, Rome adapted much of Greece’s culture and artistic heritage. They even imported many of Greece’s most famous works to their own lands. The Romans were quite taken with Greek culture. The Roman poet Horace even famously said that “Greece, the captive, took her savage victor captive.” Many Romans commissioned versions of famous Greek works and sculptures from earlier centuries. The Romans did not believe that having a copy of artwork was of any less value than having the original. The copies did typically have some variation though, with small changes made to them. These changes were often made with a sense of humour, turning the more serious and somber elements of Greek art on its head. For example, a famously gruesome Hellenistic sculpture of the satyr Marsyas being flayed was converted into a Roman dining knife handle. The irony here is clever, as the tool used in the flaying is now the structure itself. This demonstrated not only the owner’s knowledge of Greek Mythology but also a dark sense of humour. This shows that the Roman artist was not simply copying, he was adapting in a conscious and clever way. It this ability to adapt, convert and combine elements with a touch of humour that makes Roman art distinctly “Roman”.
The founding of the Roman Republic, as we know it, occurred after the last Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown. The Etruscan civilization is the modern name given to the civilization of ancient Italy. During this period, the Romans were governed by magistrates, who were elected annually. There was also an overarching ruling body of the state referred to as “the Senate”. Eventually, this system broke down and civil wars ensued between 100 B.C and 42 B.C. The wars ended when Augustus defeated Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. During this era, art was produced in the service of the state, depicting public sacrifices or celebrating victorious military campaigns. Portraiture depicted the common goals of the Roman Republic, which was about hard work, age, wisdom, being a community leader and a soldier. Patrons of the arts would deliberately choose to have themselves represented with balding heads, large noses, and extra wrinkles. This demonstrated that they had spent their lives working for the Republic as model citizens. The would show off their wisdom with each wrinkle and furrow of the brow.
Augustus’s rise to power signaled the end of the Roman Republic and the formation of Imperial rule. Roman art shifted here to represented the power, status or wealth of the ruler and his family. The different periods here were named after the ruling families at the time. Imperial art often referred back to the Classical art of the past, again borrowing heavily from Greek culture. The term “Classical” is often used when speaking about this type of art. It refers to the smooth lines of the work, the elegant drapery, idealized nude bodies, highly naturalistic forms, and balanced proportions. The Greeks had spent centuries perfecting this practice and the Romans simply continued the effort. There was a dynamic shift here. In this case, figures were idealized and people no longer wanted to be shown as wise, wrinkly old men but rather young, powerful warriors.
We, unfortunately, know very little about the artists making these works, especially during the Roman period. There is a significant lack of documentary evidence such as a contract or letters. The evidence we do have refers more to famous Greek artists of the past. As a result, historians will refer not to specific artists but consider them as a largely anonymous group. The Romans were an adaptive group of people and this really was their defining characteristic, when it came to art anyway. They had a remarkable ability to adapt, to take in and uniquely combine influences over centuries of practice. This is truly what made them distinct.
Ancient Greek culture was full of different types of art. They decorated almost every part of their lives, from their buildings and streets to the inside of their homes. Many objects were created with beauty in mind and they worked primarily with paints, metalwork, mosaic, sculpture, architecture, and pottery. Ancient Greek art was produced from about 1000BC to about 100BC. Many historians generally accept that Ancient Greece as a distinct culture ended with the establishment of Roman rule over the Greek-speaking world in about 100 BC. After this, art and other forms of cultural expression were labeled more as being Greco-Roman because they were inspired by earlier Greek examples and while the scale of work produced here was impressive, there was a significant decline in quality. Finally, the advent of Christianity brought the classical era to an end in the 5th century AD. However, despite this, Greek art had an enormous influence on the culture of many countries, from ancient times to the present, particularly in the areas of sculpture and architecture.
The art of Ancient Greece is usually divided stylistically into three periods: the Archaic, the Classical and the Hellenistic. The Archaic period is widely regarded as being the start of Ancient Greek art at around 1000 BC. The onset of the Persian Wars in 480 BC is usually taken as the dividing line between the Archaic period and the Classical period and the reign of Alexander the Great is taken as the start of the Hellenistic period, which began around 336 BC. In reality, there was no sharp transition from one period to another, and there very rarely is when it comes to the history of art. Forms of art developed at different speeds in different parts of the Greek world and innovation tended to happen slowly and through experimentation. While we can categorize artworks as being from certain periods, it doesn’t happen overnight and new styles did tend to develop slowly, particularly because there was no such thing as the internet back then.
There is also a question that relates to the word “art” itself in Ancient Greece. There is a word in Ancient Greek culture that commonly translates to “art” but more accurately means “skill” or “craftsmanship”. This word was “tekhni” and was considered an ideal that was highly regarded. Greek painters and sculptures were craftsmen who learned their trade as apprentices. They were not regarded at first as being in a social class of their own. They were considered to be more skillful than talented and It was only really in the Hellenistic period that artists were regarded as being on the level we know today. In fact, poets and playwrights were considered distinguished “artists” before painters were. Artists were typically hired by wealthy patrons rather than having their work in galleries and as such were considered craftsman for a long time.
Ancient Greek art has survived most successfully in the form of sculpture and architecture as well as in more minor arts like coin designs, pottery, and gem engraving, as these are made of materials that have more durable qualities. However, despite this, through writings and recordings, we know that the late Greeks regarded painting as the highest form of art. There was a painter called Polygnotus of Thasos who worked in the mid 5th century BC and was regarded by the Greeks in much the same way that we regard Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo. However, today none of his works survive, even as copies. Greek painters worked mainly on wooden panels and these perished rapidly after the 4th century when they were no longer actively protected. Nothing survives today of Greek painting aside from some examples of painted terracotta and a few paintings on the walls of tombs. Because of the eras that followed, many works from the Greek period have not survived as they were seen as pagan idols.
Even in the fields of sculpture and architecture, only a fragment of the total output of Greek art survives. The acute shortage of metal during the Middle Ages led to the majority of Greek bronze statues were melted down. Those statues which did survive did so primarily because they were buried, forgotten or lost at sea. Many of the buildings too were pillaged in war, looted for building materials or destroyed in Greece’s many earthquakes. Only a handful of temples like the Pantheon and Temple of Hephaestus in Athens have been spared.
Many of the Greek’s sculptures and artworks represented the gods, great heroes of war and the ultimate desire for perfection. Art reflects the society that creates them and nowhere is this truer than in the case of the ancient Greeks. Through their temples, sculpture, and pottery, the Greeks incorporated a fundamental principle of their culture, arete. To the Greeks, arete meant excellence and reaching one’s full potential. Their goal was to reach the pinnacle of their ability to create. It is a pity that so much was lost to history and time but we can take inspiration from the artworks and buildings that remain and strive for our own arete.