Medieval Art and the Middle Ages

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.