|church interiors (Byzantine style mosaics and murals), icons|
|early Dark Ages
|late Dark Ages
|illumination||barbarian styles: insular style (Book of Kells)||Winchester Bible||Tres Riches Heures|
|Carolingian (Ebbo Gospels) > Ottonian (Codex Egberti)|
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
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 Muralsca. 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
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.
Byzantine Iconsca. 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
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 Paintingca. 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
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.
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.
Romanesque Ageca. 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).
Gothic Ageca. 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.
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
2 - "Western Painting", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
4 - "Byzantine Art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
5 - "Christianity", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2009.
6 - "Hiberno-Saxon Style (art)", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
7 - "Illumination, in art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2009.
8 - "Illuminated Manuscripts", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
9 - "Illuminated Manuscript (art)", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
10 - "Illuminated Manuscripts: Gothic Manuscripts", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
11 - "Giotto", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
12 - "Giotto di Bondone (Italian painter)", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
13 - "Christianity: History » Western Christianity", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
16 - "Byzantine art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2009.
17 - "Western Painting: Eastern Christian", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2009.
18 - "Byzantine art and architecture", Encarta. Accessed July 2009.
19 - "Halo", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2009.
20 - "Early Christian Art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2009.
21 - "Winchester school", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2009.
22 - "Giotto", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2009.
23 - "Middle Ages", Encarta. Accessed July 2009.
24 - "Painting", World Book Encyclopedia. Accessed November 2009.
25 - "Mosaics", Encarta 2004.
26 - "Romanesque Art and Architecture", Encarta 2004.
29 - "Mosaic", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed January 2010.
30 - "Mosaic", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed January 2010.
31 - "Education", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
32 - "The Origin and Meaning of Celtic Knotwork". Accessed February 2010.
33 - "Celtic Art in Pagan and Christian Times", J. Romilly Allen. 2001. Dover Publications.
34 - "101 Celtic Knotwork Designs", Courtney Davis. 2004. David and Charles.
35 - James Trilling (2001). The Language of Ornament. Thames and Hudson
36 - "Ottonian art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.