Middle Ages Art

The Middle Ages have received their named based on the impression of a relative lack of progress and productivity in the length of time between antiquity and the Renaissance.  Despite the early widespread belief that these were”Dark Ages”, the art that remains testifies to a devout and creative people, more innovative than often credited.

Unlike contemporary art practice when pieces are meant to be displayed in a museum or gallery, art in the Middle Ages was almost exclusively commissioned by the church.  Even private commissions by individuals were generally related to religion in theme and purpose.  Despite common themes and styles, medieval art was created in a variety of media, including painting on board, painting on manuscript, glass, tile, and sculpture in ivory and wood.

Stained Glass

Detail of a medieval window at Troyes Cathedral, France (1300s). Author VassilStained glass windows have become a rather iconic element of Catholic and Anglican churches.  Ornamental windows are most commonly seen in the Middle Ages in the churches, but some wealthier individuals included stained glass in their personal chapels within their castles or even, though rarely, in secular contexts.  With increased architectural technology available, windows could become bigger allowing more space for decoration and more light to enter the space.  Stained glass windows are produced by placing pieces of coloured glass in an iron framework.  The glass could then be painted to provide additional detail, like facial features.

As a significant percentage of the population was illiterate, Middles Ages art became necessary for didactic purposes.  Windows can be organized to relate biblical narratives such as the crucifixion or last judgment.  Other windows contained biblical iconography including symbols of the evangelists or lives of the saints.

In the later medieval period when Gothic architecture reached its prime, some church walls appeared to completely disappear and be replaced with glass.  The ability to incorporate so many windows provided more space for depicting narratives, but also brought in much-needed natural light into the church.  Above the entranceway, on the façade, many churches exhibit a large rose window, which is circular in shape unlike the more typical rectangular windows.


The coronation of the Virgin with angels, saints, Pope Nicolas IV and Cardinal Colonna. Apse mosaic in Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, by Jacopo Torriti (1295), with parts from the original mosaic (5th century). Author JastrowIn Northern and Western Europe stained glass became one of the most prominent forms of church decoration, but in Southern Europe, particularly areas that came in contact with the Eastern Orthodox Church, mosaics were more common.  The apse is perhaps the most visible point in a church when the congregation is seated and thus became a special location for mosaics, principally images of God the Father or the Trinity.  Depending on the beliefs of the commissioning body, the image of God could be stern and forbidding, as in the Old Testament God, or he could be portrayed as forgiving and peaceful, more akin to the New Testament God.

Within other areas churches mosaics were used to decorate wall and ceiling space.  Biblical narratives and patrons of the church were common subjects for mosaics.  Using small pieces of glass, ceramic, or other material could not provide quite as precise detailing as is possible in paint, but the shimmering reflection off the varied surfaces creating a mystic aurora around the works.

Illuminated Manuscripts

11th century Tyniec Sacramentary manuscript was written with gold on purple background. Though most of the population was illiterate, the monks and nuns in the abbeys and convents led extremely productive lives emphasizing the accumulation and spread of knowledge.  Time throughout the day would be devoted to work on manuscripts of biblical and secular texts.  Before the invention of the printing press, books had to be written and copied by hand in order to reach an audience. 

While some texts contain solely writing, most become works of art unrivaled by contemporary book projects.  Illustrations accompanied the text and other decorative elements were added including ornate letters at the start of a chapter and borders.  It could take months or years of concentrated labour to produce a single work, and as such, they were extremely expensive and highly valued commodities in the medieval world. 

It also became common practice for wealthy men and women to commission their own illuminated manuscripts for personal use.  These were referred to as Books of Hours because of the prayers and schedules contained within.  Despite being a project outside the Church, the use of artistic items for private prayer is evidence of the devotion of the Middle Ages.

In addition to the detailed worked within, some books received heavily decorated book covers.  Some surviving covers are carved in ivory to make the closed book as much of a centerpiece as the illustration within.  The relatively small scale of the covers demonstrates the masterful craftsmanship exhibited in sculpture in the Middle Ages.

Icon Paintings
Within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, icon paintings were used as a means of devotion and meditation.  The figure of a saint or the Virgin Mary and Child is placed in front of a gold leaf background, often with scenes from the saint’s life surrounding in the central image.  When placed in the dim, candle-lit space of a church or cathedral, the sheen of the gold would lend an otherworldly feeling to the otherwise static work.  Icon paintings were controversial in the Middle Ages because of concerns regarding making graven images as prohibited in the Ten Commandments.  Despite the iconoclastic revolution, many stunning examples of Eastern Orthodox icons remain in museums and collections around the world.

Icon paintings and other paintings on board exhibit the contemporaneous perceptions of the human form as well as ideas of beauty.  The figures are often out of proportion, generally being too long and with exaggerated and contorted features, particularly the fingers and the neck.  Despite the imperfect renderings of the human figure, paintings were executed with a great degree of skill and detail.  Egg tempera was the media used for painting and worked well with very finely haired brushes. 

Middle Ages Art Conclusion

The Middle Ages were a period that lasted for almost a thousand years, and given the vast span of time and varied cultures throughout Europe, medieval art reflects this variety to a certain extent.  With the vast percentage of Europeans being considered peasants, the main commissioning body was necessarily the Church.  Because of this patronage, Middle Ages art was extremely religious in nature, even throughout the different media used.  Beyond the subject matter, an interesting aspect that recurs in much medieval art is the theme of light and perception.  Stained glass windows are designed to be seen with light pouring through and the gold in mosaics and icon paintings creating atmosphere for the works.  To a modern eye, medieval art may seem static and awkward, but the ability to design not only the material but the way it will be perceived is highly sophisticated.

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