Medieval Painting

Introduction

Table Summary

Summary of Eastern Medieval Painting
Byzantine Empire
ca. 500-1453
church interiors (Byzantine style mosaics and murals), icons
Summary of Western Medieval Painting
early Dark Ages
ca. 500-750
late Dark Ages
ca. 750-1000
Romanesque
ca. 1000-1200
Gothic
ca. 1200-1500
illumination barbarian styles: insular style (Book of Kells) Winchester Bible Tres Riches Heures
Carolingian (Ebbo Gospels) > Ottonian (Codex Egberti)
wall painting Giotto

General Features

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Western Europe crumbled into a patchwork of small, impoverished, non-urban kingdoms. The Eastern Roman Empire (which encompassed lands around the eastern Mediterranean), on the other hand, survived as a united power until the end of the Middle Ages. During its medieval phase, the Eastern Roman Empire is known as the Byzantine Empire.

The foremost medium of medieval painting in Western Europe is illumination (manuscript illustration). The term "illuminated" springs from the gleaming effect of gold leaf, which was often applied to the pages along with ink and paint. Though medieval Western artists also painted murals (in the same styles as manuscript illumination), few have weathered the centuries.2,9

The Byzantines, who also produced fine illuminated manuscripts and murals, were primarily devoted to mosaic (see Mosaic). Indeed, the Byzantine culture is unique in history for elevating mosaic to its leading form of visual art. Byzantine mosaics (and murals) flourished principally in the decoration of church interiors.29

Main Article

The Byzantine Style

Byzantine visual art remained sufficiently static throughout the Middle Ages to allow for the sweeping term Byzantine style (although subtly distinct phases can indeed be discerned).16 The transition from Roman art (which is quite realistic) to the Byzantine style (which is quite stylized) occurred during the Early Christian period (ca. 200-500; see Early Christian Art).4 Throughout the Middle Ages, the influence of the Byzantine style pulsed steadily into Western Europe, especially Italy.

The central concern of the Byzantine style is the awe-inspiring presentation of holy figures. To this end, figures are portrayed in stylized postures (as though they were posing for the picture), serene of expression and often halo-crowned. (The halo originated in Greek art, gracing the head of Helios, god of the sun.19) Three-dimensional depth is largely shunned in favour of a single plane; this flatness is especially striking when robes are drawn with complex folds (such that the robe takes on the appearance of a curtain).F98,2,4

Byzantine Mosaics and Murals

ca. 500-1453

The principal canvas for Byzantine mosaic and painting was the church interior. Large surfaces were graced with biblical figures, while narrow spaces were adorned with intricate patterns. The interior as a whole was often united as a hierarchical composition, conveying the hierarchy of beings in the Christian universe.29

The domed, central plan design of Byzantine churches (see Medieval Architecture) was ideally suited to hierarchical composition. The top of the main dome was typically devoted to a glorious representation of Christ; often, angels were positioned immediately beneath him, and saints beneath the angels. Sub-domes were occupied by other primary Christian figures, such as Mary and the apostles.4

Hierarchical Composition (mosaics and murals) in a Byzantine Church
Hierarchical Composition (mosaics and murals) in a Byzantine Church
Byzantine Mosaics
Byzantine Mosaics
Byzantine Mosaics

A recurring feature of Byzantine mosaics is a gleaming gold background.30 Gold and silver tesserae (mosaic tiles) were produced by coating a sheet of glass in a layer of leaf (namely gold leaf or silver leaf), then breaking the sheet into cubes. Glass tiles in other colours were similarly produced using powdered metal oxides.25

Most Byzantine art and architecture is found in the lands surrounding the eastern Mediterranean. The Byzantine culture sphere did extend, however, to parts of Italy, most famously the cities of Ravenna and Venice (both of which lie on the east coast of northern Italy). Given their location, these cities were subject to strong Byzantine influence (and were even part of the Byzantine Empire for a few centuries), and produced much Byzantine style art throughout the medieval period.

Mosaic at San Vitale (a church in Ravenna)
Mosaic at San Vitale (a church in Ravenna)
Mosaics at St Mark's Basilica (a church in Venice)

Byzantine Icons

ca. 500-1453

Apart from architectural decoration, the foremost medium of Byzantine visual art was the icon: a panel painting of one or more holy figures. While most icons are simply portraits, some feature narrative scenes. Icons, which (like their mosaic and mural cousins) feature the Byzantine style, were intended to help Christians understand spiritual realities by providing visual intermediaries; they were not meant to be worshipped, for that would constitute idolatry (object worship, which is forbidden in Christianity).17

Byzantine Icon
Byzantine Icon
Byzantine Icon
Byzantine Icon
Byzantine Icon

At several points in Byzantine history, however, religious authorities decided that icons were indeed idolatrous, and had them destroyed en masse. The term iconoclasm (Greek for "image breaking"), which denotes the purposeful destruction of religious objects, springs from these campaigns of destruction.

Dark Age Painting

ca. 500-1000

As in Eastern Europe, the painting of Western Europe experienced a shift from ancient realism to medieval stylization. The fractured and chaotic political landscape, however, prevented Western Europe from being united by a single aesthetic. Instead, a patchwork of regional styles developed, known as the barbarian styles.

The barbarian styles, which flourished roughly throughout the Dark Ages (ca. 500-1000), are all quite flat and stylized, and focus on decorative patterns rather than human figures. This reflects the unfamiliarity of Germanic artists with either figures or realism; the primary form of native Germanic art was intricately-patterned work in metal and wood.

In the field of manuscript illumination, the most successful barbarian style was the insular style of Britain and Ireland. ("Insular" simply means "relating to an island".) Developed jointly by the Celts and Anglo-Saxons, this aesthetic is also known as the Hiberno-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic style.H354,2,26

The predominant feature of insular art is knotwork, which consists of interlacing cords. Knotwork art culminated among the Celts, and is consequently often referred to indiscriminately as "Celtic knotwork". Yet the Anglo-Saxons were also major contributors; notably, they introduced zoomorphic motifs. The invention of knotwork has been traced to the late Roman Empire, from which it radiated to Britain and Ireland.D133,6,34,35

Roman Mosaic with Knotwork

The foremost insular style manuscript is the Irish-made Book of Kells.8 This book is filled with staggeringly intricate knotwork frames and initials. Human figures, when present, are flat and highly stylized.

Illumination from the Book of Kells
Illumination from the Book of Kells
Illumination from the Book of Kells
Illumination from the Book of Kells
Illumination from the Book of Kells
Illumination from the Book of Kells
Illumination from an Insular Style Manuscript (English-made)
Illumination from an Insular Style Manuscript (English-made)
Illumination from an Insular Style Manuscript (English-made)

The human figure was restored as the central focus of Western art by the Carolingians and Ottonians. "Carolingian art" denotes artworks produced by the Carolingian Empire (ca. 750-900). "Ottonian art", which is founded upon that of the Carolingians, denotes works produced by the Holy Roman Empire during its first century (ca. 950-1050).

The art of these two periods is often quite similar. The main difference is that Carolingian art is generally more realistic, in terms of both three-dimensionalism (perspective and shading) and colour (relatively subdued colouring). In other words, the Carolingians reverted to an Early Christian level of realism, after which the Ottonians slid back into flat, brightly-coloured stylization.36

The most famous Carolingian illuminated manuscript is likely the Ebbo Gospels. This work is sufficiently realistic to be mistaken for Early Christian art. The three images from the Ebbo Gospels provided below are examples of the evangelist portrait: a depiction of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John in the act of writing his gospel.

Luke (Ebbo Gospels)
Mark (Ebbo Gospels)
Matthew (Ebbo Gospels)
Carolingian Manuscript Illumination
Carolingian Manuscript Illumination
Carolingian Manuscript Illumination
The most famous Ottonian manuscript may be the Codex Egberti. As this work demonstrates, Ottonian colouring is vibrant, and gold leaf is often generously applied.7,10
Illumination from the Codex Egberti
Illumination from the Codex Egberti
Illumination from the Codex Egberti
Illumination from the Codex Egberti
Ottonian Illumination
Ottonian Illumination
Ottonian Illumination

Romanesque Age

ca. 1000-1200

The Romanesque period marks the return of a strong degree of aesthetic unity across Western Europe. Art of this period developed from all three great Dark Age traditions: barbarian, Carolingian, and Ottonian. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Romanesque illumination is unprecedented abundance of saturated colours (as opposed to earthy colours; see Colour Theory), especially blue, green, and red. Often, however, Romanesque illumination strongly resembles Ottonian work.

One of the foremost works of Romanesque illumination is the Winchester Bible, known for its magnificent "historiated initials" (initials embellished with scenes from the text).

Illumination from the Winchester Bible (historiated initial)
Illumination from the Winchester Bible (historiated initial)
Illumination from the Winchester Bible
Illumination from an English Romanesque Manuscript
Illumination from an English Romanesque Manuscript
Illumination from a French Romanesque Manuscript
Illumination from a French Romanesque Manuscript
Illumination from a German Romanesque Manuscript
Illumination from a German Romanesque Manuscript
Illumination from a German Romanesque Manuscript
Illumination from a Low Countries Romanesque Manuscript

Gothic Age

ca. 1200-1500

To a non-expert eye, Carolingian, Ottonian, and Romanesque illumination can all look quite similar. Gothic illumination, on the other hand, stands clearly apart. Gothic painting is characterized by a strikingly new degree of physical realism, including depth of perspective, three-dimensional figures and objects, natural postures, and realistic contemporary settings (including the actual clothing and architecture of the times).10 Gothic occupies the middle ground between the flat stylization of most medieval art and the fully-developed realism of the Renaissance.

The undisputed masterpiece of Gothic illumination is the Très Riches Heures, executed mainly by three Dutch brothers (the Limbourg brothers) working in Paris.7 (Many Dutch artists were found in Paris at this time, reflecting the rise of the Low Countries as a leader of Western art.) The twelve calendar illustrations are its most famous pages.

February (Très Riches Heures)
September (Très Riches Heures)
Luke (Très Riches Heures)
Christ and 24 Elders with John (Très Riches Heures)
Gothic Illumination
Gothic Illumination
Gothic Illumination
Gothic Illumination
Gothic Illumination

With the invention of the printing press near the end of the Middle Ages, the great age of manuscript illumination drew to a close.7

Meanwhile, the Gothic age witnessed a resurgence of wall painting, particularly in Italy. In this medium, groundbreaking work in physical realism was carried out by Giotto di Bondone, considered the key transitional artist from Gothic to Renaissance painting.C68,12

Giotto made critical progress in both of the fundamental techniques of physical realism: perspective (the three-dimensional articulation of space) and lighting (or, equivalently, shading: the three-dimensional articulation of surfaces).11,22 (The manipulation of lighting/shading in visual art is known as "modelling".) Giotto's advances in perspective were still accomplished "by feel", however; precise mathematical perspective would not develop until the Renaissance.

Giotto's foremost work is the Life of Christ mural series (Arena Chapel, Padua), which illustrates the advances in physical realism described above. Moreover, these paintings often feature emotional realism: figures with realistic emotional expressions, rather than the standard serene expressions found in most medieval art. Thus, in addition to furthering physical realism, Giotto helped to thaw the emotionless-ness of medieval painting.I113

Nativity (Life of Christ mural series, Arena Chapel, Padua), Giotto
Adoration of the Magi (Life of Christ mural series, Arena Chapel, Padua), Giotto
Last Supper (Life of Christ mural series, Arena Chapel, Padua), Giotto
Ascension (Life of Christ mural series, Arena Chapel, Padua), Giotto
Christ (Peruzzi Altarpiece), Giotto
Madonna and Child, Giotto
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