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Medieval Paintings and Art History

MEDIAEVAL PAINTINGS and ART

mediaeval art and painingsThe Middle Ages extend from the latter part of the fifth century to the time of the Renaissance, or about the fifteenth century. The painting of this period has little to attract attention if regarded only from an artistic stand-point, for we may truly say that, comparing it with the Greek art which had preceded it, or with the Italian art which followed it, that of the Middle Ages had no claim to the beautiful.

The medieval art of the Western world covers a vast scope of time and place, over 1000 years of art history in Europe, and at times the Middle East and North Africa. It includes major art movements and periods, national and regional art, genres, revivals, the artists crafts, and the artists themselves.

Art historians attempt to classify medieval art into major periods and styles, often with some difficulty. A generally accepted scheme includes Early Christian art, Migration Period art, Byzantine art, Insular art, Pre-Romanesque and Romanesque art, and Gothic art, as well as many other periods within these central styles. In addition each region, mostly during the period in the process of becoming nations or cultures, had its own distinct artistic style, such as Anglo-Saxon art or Norse art.

Medieval art was produced in many media, and the works that remain in large numbers include sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork and mosaics, all of which have had a higher survival rate than other media like fresco wall-paintings, work in precious metals or textiles, including tapestry. Especially in the early part of the period, works in the so-called "minor arts" or decorative arts, such as metalwork, ivory carving, enamel and embroidery using precious metals, were probably more highly valued than paintings or monumental sculpture.

On the other hand, it is full of interest to students, because it has its part in the history of art; therefore I shall give a mere outline of it, so that this link in the chain which unites ancient and modern painting may not be entirely wanting in our book. ( BY CLARA ERSKINE CLEMENT, NEW YORK, FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY, MDCCCXCI. Copyright, 1887, By FREDERICK A. STOKES, Successor to White, Stokes, & Allen. )

Early mediæval painting, down to about a.d. 950, consists principally of paintings in burial-places, mosaics (usually in churches), and of miniatures, or the illustration and illumination of MSS., which were the books of that time, and were almost without exception religious writings.

This period is called the Early Period of the Middle Ages, and the pictures are often called the works of Early Christian Art.

THE EARLY PERIOD.

fresco in the City Hall of Siena by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1338About 1050 a revival of intellectual pursuits began in some parts of Europe, and from that time it may be said that the Renaissance, or new birth of art and letters, was in its A B Cs, or very smallest beginnings. The period between 950 and 1250 is often called the Central or Romanesque Period of the Middle Ages, and it was during this time that glass-painting originated; it is one of the most interesting features of art in mediæval times.

From 1250 to 1400 comes the Final or Gothic Period of the Middle Ages, and this has some very interesting features which foretell the coming glory of the great Renaissance.

The paintings of the catacombs date from the third and fourth centuries after Christ. The catacombs, or burial-places of the early Christians, consist of long, narrow, subterranean passages, cut with regularity, and crossing each other like streets in a city. The graves are in the sides of these passages, and there are some larger rooms or chambers into which the narrow passages run. There are about sixty of the catacombs in and near Rome; they are generally called by the name of some saint who is buried in them. The paintings are in the chambers, of which there are sometimes several quite near each other. The reason for their being in these underground places was that Christians were so persecuted under the Romans, that they were obliged to do secretly all that they did as Christians, so that no attention should be attracted to them.

The principal characteristics of these pictures are a simple majesty and earnestness of effect; perhaps spirituality is the word to use, for by these paintings the early Christians desired to express their belief in the religion of Christ, and especially in the immortality of the soul, which was a very precious doctrine to them. The catacombs of Rome were more numerous and important than those of any other city.

Christian catacombs

Moses. From a painting in the Catacomb of S. Agnes

Many of the paintings in the catacombs had a symbolic meaning, beyond the plainer intention which appeared at the first sight of them: you will know what I mean when I say that not only was this picture of Moses striking the rock intended to represent an historical fact in the life of Moses, but the flowing water was also regarded as a type of the blessing of Christian baptism.

The walls of the chambers of the catacombs are laid out in such a manner as to have the effect of decorated apartments, just as was done in the pagan tombs, and sometimes the pictures were a strange union of pagan and Christian devices.

decoration of a Roof.

The above cut, from the Catacomb of S. Domitilla, has in the centre the pagan god Orpheus playing his lyre, while in the alternate compartments of the border are the following Christian subjects: 1, David with the Sling; 2, Moses Striking the Rock; 3, Daniel in the Lion’s Den; 4, The Raising of Lazarus. The other small divisions have pictures of sacrificial animals. These two cuts will give you an idea of the catacomb wall-paintings.

The mosaics of the Middle Ages were of a purely ornamental character down to the time of Constantine. Then, when the protection of a Christian emperor enabled the Christians to express themselves without fear, the doctrines of the church and the stories of the life of Christ and the histories of the saints, as well as many other instructive religious subjects, were made in mosaics, and placed in prominent places in churches and basilicas. Mosaics are very durable, and many belonging to the early Christian era still remain.

The mosaics at Ravenna form the most connected series, and are the best preserved of those that still exist. While it is true in a certain sense that Rome was always the art centre of Italy, it is also true that at Ravenna the works of art have not suffered from devastation and restoration as have those of Rome. After the invasion of the Visigoths in A.D. 404, Honorius transferred the imperial court to Ravenna, and that city then became distinguished for its learning and art. The Ravenna mosaics are so numerous that I shall only speak of one series, from which I give an illustration.

This mosaic is in the church of S. Vitalis, which was built between a.d. 526 and 547. In the dome of the church there is a grand representation of Christ enthroned; below Him are the sacred rivers of Paradise; near Him are two angels and S. Vitalis, to whom the Saviour is presenting a crown; Bishop Ecclesius, the founder of the church, is also represented near by with a model of the church in his hand.

On a lower wall there are two pictures in which the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodosia are represented: our cut is from one of these, and shows the emperor and empress in magnificent costumes, each followed by a train of attendants. This emperor never visited Ravenna; but he sent such rich gifts to this church that he and his wife are represented as its donors.

Good Shepherd fresco from the Catacombs of San CallistoThe first large-scale catacombs were excavated from the 2nd century onwards. Originally they were carved through tufo, a soft volcanic rock, outside the boundaries of the city, because Roman law forbade burial places within city limits. Furthermore, the pagan custom was to incinerate corpses, while early Christians and Jews used to bury. Being most of the latter of lower classes and slaves, they usually lacked the resources to buy land for burial purposes, thus using the soft volcanic rock of the whereabouts of Rome to dig tunnels in which to bury their dead. At first they were used both for burial and the memorial services and celebrations of the anniversaries of Christian martyrs (following similar Roman customs).

They probably were not used for regular worship. Many depictions of the catacombs show them as hiding places for Christian populations during times of persecution. There are sixty known subterranean burial chambers in Rome. They were built along Roman roads, like the Via Appia, the Via Ostiense, the Via Labicana, the Via Tiburtina, and the Via Nomentana. Names of the catacombs – like St Calixtus and St Sebastian, which is alongside Via Appia – refer to martyrs that might be buried there.
Christian excavators (fossors) built vast systems of galleries and passages on top of each other. They lie 7–19 metres (23–62 ft) below the surface in area of more than 2.4 square kilometres (590 acres). Narrow steps that descend as many as four stories join the levels. Passages are about 2.5 by 1 metres (8.2 × 3.3 ft). Burial niches (loculi) were carved into walls. They are 40–60 centimetres (16–24 in) high and 120–150 centimetres (47–59 in) long.[citation needed] Bodies were placed in chambers in stone sarcophagi in their clothes and bound in linen. Then the chamber was sealed with a slab bearing the name, age and the day of death. Fresco decorations were typically Roman. The catacomb of Saint Agnes is a small church. Some families were able to construct cubicula which would house various loculi and the architectural elements of the space would be a support for decoration. Another excellent place for artistic programs were the arcosoliums. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacombs_of_Rome)

Justinian, Theodora, and Attendants. From a mosaic picture at S. Vitalis, RavennaAfter the time of Justinian (a.d. 527-565) mosaics began to be less artistic, and those of the later time degenerated, as did everything else during the Middle or Dark Ages, and at last all works of art show less and less of the Greek or Classic influence. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_of_San_Vitale)

When we use the word miniature as an art term, it does not mean simply a small picture as it does in ordinary conversation; it means the pictures executed by the hand of an illuminator or miniator of manuscripts, and he is so called from the minium or cinnabar which he used in making colors.

In the days of antiquity, as I have told you in speaking of Egypt, it was customary to illustrate manuscripts, and during the Middle Ages this art was very extensively practised. Many monks spent their whole lives in illuminating religious books, and in Constantinople and other eastern cities this art reached a high degree of perfection. Some manuscripts have simple borders and colored initial letters only; sometimes but a single color is used, and is generally red, from which comes our word rubric, which means any writing or printing in red ink, and is derived from the Latin rubrum, or red. This was the origin of illumination or miniature-painting, which went on from one step to another until, at its highest state, most beautiful pictures were painted in manuscripts in which rich colors were used on gold or silver backgrounds, and the effect of the whole was as rich and ornamental as it is possible to imagine.

Many of these old manuscripts are seen in museums, libraries, and various collections; they are very precious and costly, as well as interesting; their study is fascinating, for almost every one of the numberless designs that are used in them has its own symbolic meaning. The most ancient, artistic miniatures of which we know are those on a manuscript of a part of the book of Genesis; it is in the Imperial Library at Vienna, and was made at the end of the fifth century. In the same collection there is a very extraordinary manuscript, from which I give an illustration.

This manuscript is a treatise on botany, and was written by Dioskorides for his pupil, the Princess Juliana Anicia, a granddaughter of the Emperor Valentine III. As this princess died at Constantinople a.d. 527, this manuscript dates from the beginning of the sixth century. This picture from it represents Dioskorides dressed in white robes and seated in a chair of gold; before him stands a woman in a gold tunic and scarlet mantle, who represents the genius of discovery; she presents the legendary mandrake root, or mandragora, to the learned man, while between them is the dog that has pulled the root, and falls dead, according to the fabulous story. This manuscript was painted by a masterly hand, and is curious and interesting; the plants, snakes, birds, and insects must have been painted from nature, and the whole is most skilfully done.

The Discovery of the Herb Mandragora. From a MS. of Dioskorides, at Vienna

During the Middle Ages the arts as practised in Rome were carried into all the different countries in which the Romans made conquests or sent their monks and missionaries to establish churches, convents, and schools. Thus the mediæval arts were practised in Gaul, Spain, Germany, and Great Britain. No wall-paintings or mosaics remain from the early German or Celtic peoples; but their illuminated manuscripts are very numerous: miniature-painting was extensively done in Ireland, and many Irish manuscripts remain in the collections of Great Britain.

When Charlemagne became the king of the Franks in 768, there was little knowledge of any art among his northern subjects; in 800 he made himself emperor of the Romans, also, and when the Franks saw all the splendor of Rome and other parts of Italy, it was not difficult for the great emperor to introduce the arts into the Frankish portion of his empire. All sorts of beautiful objects were carried from Italy by the Franks, and great workshops were established at Aix-la-Chapelle, the capital, and were placed under the care of Eginhard, who was skilled in bronze-casting, modelling, and other arts; he was called Bezaleel, after the builder of the Tabernacle. We have many accounts of the wall-paintings and mosaics of the Franks; but there are no remains of them that can be identified with positive accuracy.

Miniature-painting flourished under the rule of Charlemagne and his family, and reached a point of great magnificence in effect, though it was never as artistic as the work of the Italian miniators; and, indeed, gradually everything connected with art was declining in all parts of the world; and as we study its history, we can understand why the terms Dark Ages and Middle Ages are used to denote the same epoch, remarkable as it is for the decay and extinction of so many beautiful things.

There were also in these early days of the fourteenth century schools of art at Bologna and Modena; but we know so little of them in detail that I shall not attempt to give any account of them here, but will pass to the early artists who may be said to belong to the true Renaissance in Italy.

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