Posted by Matt Ward on April 14, 2014
While not an art enthusiast myself, several readers of the site have emailed me asking to do a more detailed posting about the beautiful arts of the Middle Ages. In the spirit of the age I have decided to better educate myself and you guys about the creative culture and artwork of the Middle Ages. This is no small task as the period properly known as the Middle Ages spans approximately 1000 years and encompasses a great deal of differing cultures. For our study of the medieval masterpieces we will choose to focus upon those works of art and beauty confined to the continent of Europe, thereby eliminating other important though overwhelming regions.
As you may well know during the Early Middle Ages after the Fall of Rome, Europe was in a bit of turmoil. With the destruction of the well established order and the collapse of structure people fell away from the Roman ideal of innovation and culture. Climate issues further attacked the peoples of Europe through poor harvest and hard times. Because of these issues art and creation were not placed high upon the medieval priority list and art suffered. Early medieval works are highly rare and valued because there simply were few skilled artists in the era. The primary pieces during this time would have been commissioned and owned by the more powerful peoples of the time, specifically the high noble classes and the church. Throughout history the Church and in this case the many monasteries have provided patronage to the artists of the times to decorate their walls and dwellings with beautiful pieces.
Thankfully the conditions in medieval Europe would improve following the cold period and the High Middle Ages would lead to much greater levels of prosperity and liveliness for the people. This rise in conditions would lead to a much greater diverse variation among expressions of artwork and creative spirit. From the pathetic amounts of artist creation of the earlier eras would emerge multitudes of paintings, mosaics, sculptures and stain glass windows. Finer tapestries and adornments could now be observed in homes of the high classes and covering the churches of the Middle Ages.
Unfortunately much of the secular works of art have been lost or destroyed over the years. This gives the false belief that all medieval artwork was made for the religious minded. While the Church did in fact spend extravagantly on the trappings of its houses of worship, the reason for the disparity in surviving pieces is more long term. Whereas often times buildings would be destroyed or renovated from unforeseen issues, the results would differ. The Church focused primarily on preserving old history and would rebuild the edifaces in much the same fashion as previously perceived to spread the longevity of Christianity and the Church whereas the rich and powerful were often less obsessed with restoring disarray to its previous state. As such the Church dwellings and works of art persisted with much greater frequency and perfection than their secular counterparts.
During the Middle Ages there was a great deal of glorious art created to honor god and entertain the people. Unlike with other eras where the value was often in the hands of the artists and beauty in the eyes of the beholder, focus was placed more upon physical value. Medieval art consisted of a great deal of expensive materials which were highly valued and used to increase the prestige of the pieces.
Rather than merely creating beautiful art with low cost the buyers sought out the very best. Gold was in high demand for art adornments and other expensive extravagances were also employed like stained glass tesserae and exotic colorings.
With the extended geography and time period of the Middle Ages, numerous artistic styles were bound to emerge which would define differing parts of the era. The main subdivisions of these pieces according to historic art scholars consists of the Early Christian and religious works from the early centuries AD to after the fall of Rome and after that, that of the Byzantines of Eastern Europe. Other themes of European artwork revolve around counterpart of Byzantine works, that of the nomadic tribes of Western Europe following Rome's collapse. Finally there were strong periods of Gothic and Romanesque artwork which would truly define the Middle Ages.
In the early parts of the Middle Ages art was not high active as the difficulties with hardships of life were bountiful. In spite of this Christian style art which had begun as the heretical style in Rome gained influenced as the acceptance of Christianity grew. This led to the combination of Roman style and Christian purity led to a renewal of art with many beautiful but less than realistic works. Additionally the ancient style of side based profile views was replaced with a less aesthetic, more inviting frontal focus.
As the Roman empire grew more divided the differences between the Western European Romans and the Meditteranean Greek Romans grew. Following the fall these contrasts could be perceived in the amazing works of Byzantine art of the early Middle Ages. In this the Byzantines were highly conservative and very against the worship of idols and icons. Much of their artwork therefore focused away from sculptures and religious images and more dealt with the beauty and style of the ancient Greeks. The true strength of the Eastern Europeans was their perfection of the amazing mosaics and frescos(mural style plaster paintings) which adorned their many monasteries and houses of worship.
The last major style of early medieval creativity is often called Migration Period art. This represents the artwork created following the upheaval of the western Europe with the fall of Rome. Here eastern and western tribes freely moved throughout the region, fighting for power and their claim upon the newly freed lands. Most of the works of this era did not survive due to the nomadic style lives lived by these powerful peoples but some artifacts do in fact remain. These works were a more barbaric way of art in which there was little focus on the individual or human subjects but rather an abstracted view of the world.
As the harder times of the Early Middle Ages came to a close and the lives of the people improved their was a bit of a revolution in the arena of art. From the beginning of this time in about 1000 AD for several centuries the boom in Church population and Church production necessitated greater amounts of amazing art. This time is characterized by the Romanesque styles which dominated the architecture and artwork. From the focus on semi-circular arches and sturdy powerful walls in the architecture space to beautifully colorful sculptures and reliefs, this era of medieval art was truly historic. With massive double door churches, ornately carved wooden carvings and a true sense of suffering on the acts of Christ, this era of medieval art is considered by many to be some of the most beautiful and inspirational of the period.
Following this focus upon the earlier excellencies of the ancients and Roman the tide would turn in the expression of beauty in the early to middle parts of the 12th century. Gothic greatness would now conquer the artist talents of Europe and spread its influence, much of which has survived to this day throughout the continent. Where once romantic Romanesque works and churches stood, now new Gothic cathedrals would be erected to spread the word of Christianity and holiness of the Virgin Mary. With these new mega-cathedrals, the massive structures would sport taller and more elongated stained glass windows and ornately carved altars. The opulence of the Church at this time was enormous and the creation of the majestic masterpieces represented that. From building taller and taller cathedral(in the shape of the cross) to test the limits of human engineering to the focus on pointed arches the Gothic period of art will be remembered and loved by many of history's greatest.
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