Painting Before 1300 AD (6): Medieval
Fresco of a lion from San Pedro de Arlanza, ca. 1220. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters. Photo: MetMuseum.org http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/471061

Painting Before 1300 AD (6): Medieval

With the fall of the Roman Empire in the west in 476 AD, life  in Europe became (to use the pithy phrase of 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes), “nasty, brutish and short.” No longer did Roman soldiers keep the seas clear of pirates and the barbarians away from the gates. Impelled by the Huns galloping across the steppes of Asia, tribes such as the Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Vandals flooded into Europe, plundering and murdering as they went. City-dwellers fled into the forests, hoping to escape with their lives and a few possessions. In this headlong flight and the subsequent struggle for survival, the advances of the Roman peace – including high literacy, sanitation, well maintained roads, and reliable water supplies – were lost by the wayside. During the Dark Ages (ca. 400 – 800), almost everything valuable was portable and easily hidden.

Only in a few distant monasteries in Ireland and England, on the fringes of the former Empire, was the art of reading and writing kept alive. Illustrators of the manuscripts copied there were particularly fond of convoluted, interlaced designs, from the ends of which sprout animal heads and tails.


Christ from the Book of Kells, ca. 800. Trinity College, Dublin.

When human figures appear, they seem to have been ironed onto the page: knees, elbows and face are reduced to pure pattern, with no attempt to make them appear three-dimensional.

The rule of Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, brought some stability to much of present-day France and Germany. Europe began a slow crawl out of the Dark Ages. The variety of subjects in  manuscript illustrations increased, but almost without exception the subjects were still Biblical, designed to teach Christian stories to everyone from illiterate nobility to illiterate peasants.

It was an art that did not require advanced techniques such as perspective. In fact, the less subtle the illustrations were, the better they could be seen by those in the back row of the congregation.


Moses Receiving the Ten Commandments and showing them to the Israelites, French manuscript of ca. 840. British Library Add. MS 10546, f. 25v. Photo: British Library

Outlines are simplified, details eliminated. Important figures (such as Moses in the illustration above) are enlarged, and their important parts (Moses’ arm, holding the Commandments) are enlarged even more. Colors are flat and bright. Drapery is stylized into regular patterns, repeated over and over. Beneath the drapery, no suggestion of a human body can be seen. Quite often the number of heads and feet doesn’t even correspond to the number of bodies.

In Spain, where there was some influence from Islamic art, the stylization is even more extreme, and the colors are as brilliant and unrealistic as in a van Gogh painting.

Do such illustrations merely reflect lack of skill? Certainly that was a factor, but a medieval artist would probably have said that realistic details simply don’t matter. The story is conveyed not by superb rendering, but by brute emphasis, as if written in underlined bold italics.

The period from 1095 to 1200 saw the first Crusades and the journeys of thousands of pilgrims to Rome and to the tomb of St James at Santiago de Compostela (northwest Spain). All along the pilgrimage route, churches and monasteries sprang up. In France alone, some 2,000 churches of this period remain – it’s estimated that some 25,000 were built. Their style is now called Romanesque (“Roman-like”), because its round arches and barrel vaults imitate the buildings of the Roman Empire. This architectural style spread along the pilgrimage routes and eventually throughout Europe. The churches were covered with sculpture for the edification of illiterate pilgrims. Some also had frescoes, such as the lions from a Spanish monastery.

Fresco of a lion from San Pedro de Arlanza, ca. 1220. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters. Photo: MetMuseum.org

Clearly medieval artists did not give up their love of pattern after the Dark Ages: look at the way the lion’s face, mane, and hindquarters are turned into a series of symmetrical swirls. In a similar vein, manuscripts called herbals offered some of the most advanced medical knowledge available, and their worth depended on the user’s ability to identify herbs from the pictures – but the plants are drawn in such a stylized, symmetrical way as to be virtually unidentifiable to an aspiring botanist. (Bestiaries such as this one were the equivalent for animals.)

In 1202-1204, European Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem paused to sack Constantinople. The loot from the capital of the Byzantine Empire (a Christian empire, mind you!) introduced to Europe the influence of Byzantine art, which gave a jump-start to artists in France and Italy. The founding of the Franciscans (1223), who advocated the study of Christ’s life on earth, and Thomas Aquinas’ integration of the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s this-worldly point of view into the Christian scheme of things (ca. 1275) also had a profound influence. Within a relatively short period painters begin to show scenes from the life of Christ and use a new style of art – more realistic than the illustrations above.

Characteristic of the new style are elegance (figures have a pronounced “S”-curve, making them sway gracefully), bright colors, and an attempt to show figures in slight relief by modeling with light and shadow. The outlines are heavy and dark, like the outlines of figures in the stained glass windows that were filling the vast walls of the new gothic cathedrals (starting from 1140 at St. Denis, Paris). Heads have charming smiles, tidy hair, and huge foreheads. This style dominates Europe until it is displaced by the influence of Giotto (1266/7-1337), who was the first artist in centuries to look for himself at reality and to attempt to represent it as he saw it. But that’s a story for another essay.

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  • Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a couple dozen essays on the history of painting for BeyondBooks.com, a subscription service that provided online supplementary materials for high-school students. The site’s owners have given me permission to publish the essays (copyright © 2001 Beyond Books) on this website. This is the last of six essays in the section on painting before 1300 AD. I’ve only lightly edited it because copyright issues could get thorny … I’m using this series to get my mind back in gear for editing Innovators in Painting, a companion to Innovators in Sculpture. Both focus not on the art of separate civilizations, but on the major innovations that gave all artists greater power to make viewers stop, look, and think about sculptures.
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