The early Middle Ages were characterized by art of the Dark Ages and the time preceding them. This art, the Byzantium style, had developed in the Roman Empire prior to its fall. Artists were typically monks in monasteries, and the paintings themselves featured religious imagery in a flat tone with no perspective or sense of dimension. Colors were muted and individuals were portrayed face front, often with long and somber faces.
As the Middle Ages progressed, painting styles began to evolve. The medieval ages brought about the birth of the Gothic and Realism styles, both of which were necessary predecessors to the eventual Renaissance period. Numerous painters in the Middle Ages worked to bring about changes in the current painting style, creating pieces still shown today that were critical to the continued development and evolution of painting.
Painters trended away from the darker and more religious tones of Byzantine art during the Early Middle Ages. Gothic paintings from the Middle Ages featured brighter colors, heightened realism and naturalism, and a move toward improved painting technique that included shadows and light, perspective, and dimensions. Gothic art also featured a change in the subject matter of the works themselves. Paintings could be focused on pastoral scenes, mythology, or animals rather than strictly based in religion.
Naturalism and realism came into play as more paintings were developed by true artists rather than simply by monks in solitude. Painting as a form of personal and individual expression began to be more readily explored, and those who dedicated their lives and talents to painting developed skills previously unknown as far as depicting spatial elements, casting shadows, and playing with light in paintings. These advances were absolutely critical to the continued development of painting as an art form and the eventual Renaissance that marked the end of the Middle Ages.
Groundbreaking Painters of Medieval Times
Giotto di Bondone was born in Italy in 1266 to a land farmer. He apprenticed under another well-regarded painter of the time, Cimabue, before achieving renown in his own right later in his career. Giotto’s works marked a unique period in painting history, combining the religious imagery that was such standard subject matter for so long with advanced techniques of light and realism.
One of Giotto’s most famous works, The Last Supper, depicts the scene of Jesus and his Apostles seated at the last supper in the linear, iconographic fashion of the time. While Giotto maintained focus on religious icons in his work, he combined the subject matter with the more recent techniques marking the Gothic style, including brighter colors and the use of light, to create more accessible and enjoyable works that were brighter and more natural-looking than those of the past.
Filippo Brunelleschi was born in Florence, Italy in 1377. He trained as a goldsmith and a sculptor, and later became a painter and architect as well. Brunelleschi pioneered a unique and wholly new style of architecture with his usage of geometric designs and symmetry. Most importantly, as a painter, his unusual and individualistic vision and approach created the elements of perspective used in paintings to this day. His eye for shapes and ability to translate reality to a canvas was fully new and imitated by artists both contemporary and following his career.
Leon Battista Alberti, arguably the first “Renaissance Man,” continued the legacy left by Brunelleschi in his own art and architectural work. Born in 1404, he was well educated, and studied painting extensively as a basis for his eventual focus on architecture. Like Brunelleschi, his dual studies in painting and architecture informed and assisted one another.
Alberti continued work with spatial techniques, dimension, and light and shadows begun by his predecessors. His architectural work allowed him a unique perspective he was able to bring to the canvas, and his work on canvas allowed him to more easily visualize architectural components and how they could be structured.
Unfortunately, many of the more significant paintings from the Middle Ages have been lost. Frescos painted within cathedrals often marked the most well-known and influential works of the time. As cathedrals were destroyed or suffered the ravages of time, their frescoes were destroyed with them.
Paintings on canvas remained less common, as painters were craftsmen commissioned for works. The works for which they were frequently commissioned were large-scale murals and frescoes rather than smaller, individual pieces. Giotto’s work, including The Last Supper, remains widely regarded as well-executed and important works of the time.
While paintings from the Middle Ages are less commonly referenced, art in many other forms remains throughout the world. Architecture experienced a particular boom during this period, and the Gothic influences in this art remain in use today. They can be seen in castles, buildings, and cathedrals built during this time throughout Europe. Additionally, artists like Donatello worked primarily in sculpture during the Middle Ages, creating unique and revolutionary works that remain on display worldwide today.
Siena Cathedral in Siena, Italy, is in itself a masterpiece of Middle Ages art. In addition to the cathedral’s classical Gothic architecture, it is home to some of the greatest art of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance in the world, including sculpture by Donatello and early painting by a young, as yet un-established Michaelangelo.
Duccio di Buoninsegna, himself a lifelong resident of Siena, created his masterwork within Siena Cathedral with his altarpiece, the Maestá. Duccio’s work features religious imagery, as was the tradition of the time, merging the Byzantine monks’ signature iconographic style with more modern concepts of light, shading, and perspective. The altarpiece at Siena marks a clear transitional period between older styles of painting and the newer styles that would continue to grow in popularity and improve in technique as the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance began.
Today, Siena Cathedral remains a rich source of art history, museum-caliber in its importance in history and art. The skill and technique used in the building of the cathedral itself and displayed in the works of art it houses are a stunning example of the artistry, skill, and talent that grew exponentially during the Middle Ages.