Art History/Medieval Art

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Medieval art dates roughly from the period 500-1500 AD.

European medieval art is generally centered around the architecture and icons of the Roman Catholic Church. The Christian Church grew from the fourth century onwards as the Roman empire collapsed. The pagan gods were no longer worshipped and such was the power of this new Christian religion that Iconoclasts destroyed early pagan statues and religious objects during the reign of Constantine, Emperor of Rome from 306 to 337. From the ashes of Classical Rome came a new Europe where the Christian Church became intricately entwined in the politics and economics of the day. Charlemagne (c. 742 – 814), a Frankish king, united Western Europe and was given the title "Holy Roman Emperor" (Imperator Augustus) by Pope Leo III on the 25 December 800 C.E. From this moment on the Christian Church and the State had forged a bond that would last for centuries.

Romanesque[edit]

The Romanesque period refers roughly to the eleventh and first half of the twelfth centuries. The term Romanesque was first given to this type of architecture in the 19th Century due to the use of round-headed arches and masonry barrel vaults, practices that had been common in ancient Roman architecture. The kinds of monuments that were sufficiently permanent to survive--mainly church buildings and sculpture--were commissioned by the Church.

Common characteristics of Romanesque architecture are thick, stone walls and large, exterior buttresses to support them, rounded arches, and barrel vaults. The windows in these structures are usually small due to the restraints of using ashlar masonry. The exteriors of Romanesque churches, as compared to the modular Carolingian and Ottonian churches of the ninth and tenth centuries, have unified decorative schemes of architectural and sculptural elements that unite the design as a whole. These design elements include blind arcades, (rows of arches set flush against the wall's surface), and corbel tables, (series of arches mounted, not on columns, but on decorative stone brackets, called corbels), both of which often run around the entire perimeter; down the exterior nave wall, and around the transepts and apse, tying the structure together visually.

A 12th century manuscript page - Psalm 24

One major development of eleventh and twelfth-century architecture is the addition of increasingly elaborate programmes of figural sculpture on the exterior, particularly at the West end, usually the main entrance to the church. Standing figures of sacred Biblical authors, such as prophets and apostles, as well as saints and Old Testament kings were placed against the walls beside the doorways, called jambs. The arches over doorways, instead of being left open, were usually filled with semi-circular slabs of stone, called tympana (sing. tympanum). The subject matter in the tympana was dominated by representations of the Last Judgment when, according to traditional teaching, Christ would return and divide the world into those who will receive eternal reward, and those who will be punished. Romanesque sculpture is marked by a love of inventive surface patterns, and an expressive approach to the human body, using elongation, unnatural poses and emphatic gestures to convey states of mind.

Among smaller art forms, Romanesque manuscript illustrators continued to present full-page author portraits, for example, before the beginning of each Gospel book; but also elaborated the written word with historiated initials, that is, the first letter of a section drawn large, containing relevant figures or even narrative scenes; and marginal miniatures, the small scenes, sometimes fanciful and strange, drawn in the margins of the page. Metalwork, and carved gems and ivory share some of the expressive and decorative qualities of monumental sculpture and manuscript painting.

Gothic[edit]

Gothic architecture originated in southern France, around 1140, beginning with the innovative construction of the choir of Saint-Denis. Several characteristics mark Gothic architecture including the use of flying buttresses, elaborate stained-glass windows, ribbed vaults, pointed arches, and a distinct emphasis on verticality.

'Several of these characteristics are exemplified in specific cathedrals:

'Flying buttresses: Notre Dame de Paris
Stained Glass: Chartres Cathedral
Distinct Verticality: Amiens Cathedral'

In contrast to the dark, claustrophobic Romanesque churches, Gothic cathedrals present a light, airy atmosphere due mainly to their ribbed vaults and flying buttresses which are able to support thinner walls, higher ceilings, and large, light filled windows.


East Asian art, 500-1500[edit]

South Asian art, 500-1500[edit]

Islamic art to 1500[edit]

From c. 670 to 1500, Islam expanded from its roots in modern-day Saudi Arabia to an empire stretching from Morocco to India. The spread of Islam throughout Eurasia was accompanied by the development of an artistic style which was closely related to Islam and its interpretation by regional dynasties. Islamic arts and architecture vary widely according to region but have a few unifying features. The Qur'an forbids depictions of the Prophet Muhammed and depictions of any person in religious art; therefore, Islamic artistic decoration is characterized by abstract floral and vegetal motifs rather than figural representation. Also, the Qu'ran discourages the construction of any building that would outlive its architect unless it serves Islam or the community in some way; therefore, surviving works, particularly works of architecture, tend to be public buildings like mosques, gardens and markets. (Palaces also frequently survive, although this could easily be because of the desire to preserve works of that quality of construction and decoration). Finally, the Arabic language, as the language of the Qur'an, is deeply embedded in Islamic artistic tradition; text is often featured as meaningful decoration in works of art and architecture.

African art, 500-1500[edit]