Art History for Chapter 8:
The Medieval Mêlée: The High and Later Middle Ages, 1000 to 1500
As Europe settled down under strong kings after the end of the tenth century, artistic production likewise began to pick up. Artists revived along with the creation of Western Civilization, although most of them remain anonymous. Perhaps society viewed them as simple craftsmen rather than creative talents, and so unworthy of being remembered. There were also certainly female artists, especially by nuns illustrating manuscripts in their nunneries, leading some art historians to suggest that “anonymous” is a woman.
Two basic styles arose in this period. Historians call the first “Romanesque” because of its use of the rounded Roman arch. For the next style, Later Renaissance critics used the name “Gothic” as an insult, associating it with the barbarians who destroyed the classical civilization they so admired (see below).
With the large wall spaces provided by the Romanesque churches, frescoes often decorated the walls. Painters used tempora paints (pigment mixed with egg), that dried quickly, leaving little time for revision. Themes were, of course, drawn from the Bible and lives of saints.
All medieval books were hand-made craftworks. They were written and decorated by hand on vellum (calfskin) or parchment (lambskin). Their expense made them accessible only to the few and learned. Since so few scrolls from classical antiquity survive, it is hard to know if they had many illustrations. Medieval books, though, became highly decorated. Illustrations in medieval books are called illuminations or miniatures (not because they were small, but were done with red ink=minium). Medieval scribes, usually monks and nuns, added designs, patterns, and pictures, rather than leaving the words speak for themselves. They did not have a great interest in portraying realistic and naturalistic anatomical accuracy. Instead, symbols for a story or a moral were more important.
One unique graphic work is the Bayeux Tapestry, which is actually a work of embroidery. It illustrates the Norman Conquest of England in a series of successive illustrations, similar to the ancient Trajan's column or a modern comic strip. (For some other versions see here, here, and here).
The new churches also required decoration in stone, much more of which has survived from the Romanesque period. Sculpture also served religious purposes: it was the Bible for the unlettered and ignorant. Many sculptures seem based on manuscript illustration, or vice versa. The capitals of pillars were favorite places for saints and monsters to hold up the arches of ceilings and roofs.
To enter many a church, the faithful, whether priest, potentate, or peasant, walked through portals and entryways under the Lord seated for the Last Judgment.
The rise of Cluniac monastic reform, and increased pilgrimages, and exchanges of ideas among builders encouraged innovation in building bigger and better churches of stone.
Although with some regional variation, the churches shared common characteristics:
1. A cross shaped plan: the apse containing the altar at the East end; a long body of Church (nave=ship, since it was long like a boat); the cross aisles, called the transept, about two-thirds down the nave.
2. A blocky appearance using groups of simple geometrical shapes. Heavy load-bearing walls and thick columns held up the roof. Thick walls meant that windows could not be too large, but the interior of many Romanesque churches actually appear very bright today compared to Gothic churches.
3. Roofs and ceilings were made with the Roman method of rounded arches, barrel vaults, towers. With these techniques, the anonymous church builders were able to create created large open spaces that held many worshippers.
As the economy improved, a veritable church-building frenzy took hold of Europe. We can see how important churches were by the way they dominated the city skylines. The most important symbol of medieval civic pride were the churches. Their construction involved the nearly residents of all classes -- some even developed a cart cult, religious devotion to carts to help carry stone. Towns tried to outdo one another the in size and glory of their religious buildings.
The other major architectural need were military fortifications, either as castles for families or town walls for an entire community. Over time, more residences in towns were built in stone, encouraged partly to help prevent destructive fires.
As society became still more prosperous, a new innovative style appeared in the Twelfth Century. At the time, it was simply called the “modern” or the “French “ style, but in art history it has gained the name Gothic Art (1150-1500). Gothic has a majestic and ethereal beauty.
Late Gothic art adopted a tendency to become more realistic when dealing with natural figures. Artists (sculptors and artists) moved away from the stylized and stiff Romanesque to more natural, flowing and rounded bodies. Gothic efforts at naturalism actually helped lead transition into Renaissance styles which became obsessed about anatomy and perspective.
Gothic Churches are the most visible reminder of the style. If they could afford to, town leaders replaced numerous Romanesque churches, whether the population size had outgrown the older churches, or merely because they wanted to keep up with the latest fashion. Gothic had several distinct features, contrasting with the Romanesque.
1. The pointed arch, a form based on the oval, was foundational to Gothic design. It more efficiently held and distributed weight from the roof than the Romanesque rounded arches. Thus walls could be made both thinner and higher and could be filled with glass windows.
2. The pointed arch was adapted into a further load-bearing structure as the flying buttress. Again, walls and roofs could reach higher. Spires and bell towers further added to the design of reaching toward the heavens.
3. The lighter walls that allowed windows were filled with stained glass, rather than clear glass. Ironically, today the dirty interiors of many Gothic churches and the dim light allowed by the stained glass make them seem darker than comparable Romanesque churches. But the light through stained glass on a sunny day creates an incomparable visual and spiritual experience (especially with incense and choral hymns).
Like the frescoes before them, stained glass often illustrated Biblical and historical stories. Others were abstractly decorative, especially the round Rose windows.