The art of the middle ages

by Ulrich Henze

In art history, the term “Middle Ages” is traditionally used to describe the works of art created between late antiquity, i.e. the end of the 4th and 5th centuries, and the beginning of the so-called early modern period, which began in the 14th and 15th centuries.

In the past, the focus has always been exclusively on Europe; only the production of art in the Byzantine Empire (395 – 1453) was included in the art historical canon. Recently, not least as a result of the globalisation progressing on all levels, a rethinking has taken place: European art – not only that of the Middle Ages – is no longer seen as isolated in research, but increasingly also in the consciousness of museum and gallery visitors; for example, the relationship of European art to the art of the Middle East and the Arab world or to the African continent is more and more in the focus of art studies.

The situation is similar with the epochs into which art history (and with it intellectual history in general) divided the Middle Ages. In chronological order, these are grosso modo: late antiquity or early Christianity, Carolingian, Ottonian and Salian art, Romanesque and Gothic, as well as the Byzantine art already mentioned; all these epochs, which are equated with specific stylistic phenomena, have also been divided into an early, high and late phase, etc.

Today’s research is rather critical of this epochal thinking, as it recognizes that these individual style phases can neither be clearly defined nor clearly distinguished from one another. Thus, “late Gothic” in the German-speaking areas means something completely different than, for example, in the former territories and urban republics of Italy: while the style term here describes the period around 1300, it is common for the areas north of the Alps until around 1500. Finally, there has recently even been a demand to consider the term “Middle Ages” as an epochal term completely obsolete, as can be seen from a discussion held in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in August 2018.

We can see that there are some pitfalls when we speak of “medieval” art. Nonetheless, there is no adequate substitute term for it as yet.

Moreover, we all have our ideas in our heads when we speak of medieval art, which is not generally wrong, but needs to be modified and supplemented here and there. With this awareness it seems legitimate to continue to use the term “Middle Ages” and its implications. This seems less appropriate for the traditional style names: Too much is associated with terms such as Romanesque or Gothic, a sweeping definition of stylistic phenomena (e.g. Romanesque means “round arch”, Gothic means “pointed arch”), as that we can actually reconcile them with the appearance of the architectural and pictorial works of that time; for this reason it makes sense to dispense with these rather rigid divisions into stylistic periods as far as possible – we will see that this does not always succeed – and to make use of centuries and decades as chronological grids.

So what is it that distinguishes medieval art? Is there a superior bracket, a greatest common denominator that can be agreed upon?

As far as architecture is concerned, it seems that the common ground is that in the centuries under discussion here, sacred architecture was the absolute priority. But beware: representative profane buildings were of course also erected, including not only fortresses and urban planning facilities, but also artistically designed castles, palaces and noble residences, of which unfortunately very little has survived, which narrows our view of medieval architecture.

Nevertheless, it can be said that most of the energy has been spent on the construction or conversion of churches, monasteries and cathedrals, and it is in this area that the latest developments in structural engineering and architecture can be found.

As far as the visual arts are concerned, the situation is similar: Certainly there were profane pictorial themes that decorated castles and palaces, but also town halls and town halls. But by far the largest part of the pictorial works can be assigned to the sacral sphere. Here too, however, it must be said that only a very small part, an estimated five to ten percent, of everything that once existed has come down to us. The losses and decimations caused by the effects of war, natural catastrophes or iconoclasm are immense and must always be kept in mind in all our considerations of medieval art.

There is another aspect to consider: what has been preserved until today is mostly neither in its original place nor in its original state. Innumerable medieval works of art are now exhibited and on view in many museums around the world, large and small, important and less important. This is wonderful and laudable, since we can study them in this way, protected and often at close quarters. But they are isolated in a museum and completely removed from their former context. But this is extremely important for their understanding. We can admire a carved, colourful 13th century Madonna in a museum because of her artistry, but we cannot understand her in her functional context – the context is missing.

However, medieval art is characterised precisely by the fact that its pictorial works were always contextual, i.e. the place where they stood in the sacred topography of a church or comparable sacred site is indispensable for understanding the meaning of the objects.

And even if we can still find works of art in numerous medieval churches today that obviously date back to the time of their construction, we must ask whether they originally belonged there, whether they are still in their original place today and – very important! – whether they still look the same as before. Because: works of art are rarely preserved as they once left the workshop of their creators.

All too often over the centuries they have been modified, rewritten, “modernized”, adapted to a new taste and altered liturgical or piety rites. Especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, people loved to dress medieval works of art in a modern garment; examples are the numerous baroque adaptations of “Romanesque” churches in southern Germany or, for example, the reworking of the famous Byzantine Madonna of Luke in the cathedral treasure at Freising in 1629, which had already been altered around 1330.

In addition to questions of context and state of preservation, there are also considerations of material and technology to be directed at a medieval work of art.

Researchers have increasingly recognized this, so that today no fundamental and far-reaching art-historical conclusions about a work or work complex – for example when working on inventory catalogues – can be drawn without consulting experts in restoration and art technology.

Knowledge of materials and artistic techniques is also important for medieval objects because we are dealing with very precious and sometimes extraordinary materials and processing methods during this period. Thus, precious metals such as gold and silver played an important role, not only in the art of goldsmithing, which is one of the most important medieval genres, but also in connection with painting and sculpture.

Numerous pictorial works are (or were) elaborately decorated with gold or silver leaf in addition to their colourful setting, which not only evoked a noble appearance but also emphasised the significance of the sitter or the events visible in the picture.

In harmony with the walls of the church architecture, which were originally also partially or completely coloured – and which are usually hardly visible today – we must therefore imagine the once extremely solemn image of a total work of art, composed of wall paintings or mosaics, preciously clad altar arsenals, glass windows shimmering like precious stones, and the reliquaries, sculptures and panel paintings shining in gold and colours with which a medieval church was furnished. The pigments used for the paintings, such as the exotic lapis lazuli imported from Africa, were also among the valuable and expensive materials used both in panel painting and in book illumination, which flourished in the Middle Ages and with which liturgical and profane manuscripts in monastic and later secular scriptoria were artistically decorated in great variety.

With the theme of book illumination, which must always be seen in connection with the text it decorates and illustrates, we touch on the cosmos of treasure art, which plays a special role in the Middle Ages.

Whereas in post-medieval times the predominant genres were fresco cycles on ceilings and walls, small and large-format paintings, mostly in oil on canvas, as well as sculptures and sculptures, in the Middle Ages, at least until the 13th century, we also had to deal with small to very small-format works. Created from the most valuable materials and produced with the highest level of craftsmanship, they included panels and diptychs carved from ivory, reliquary containers made of rock crystal or gold and silver, often richly decorated with precious stones, pearls, antique cut stones, shimmering coloured enamel and other melting techniques, miniature paintings on parchment or small bronze sculptures such as crucifixes and aquamanilies.

The art historian Hanns Swarzenski (1903 to 1985) vividly demonstrated the significance of these microscopic works of art for the Middle Ages in a groundbreaking work published in 1954 with the programmatic title “Monuments of Romanesque Art”. He made a decisive contribution to bringing these works of the highest artistic refinement and content and functional content from the field of “arts and crafts”, which until then had been rather disparagingly valued in art history, into the focus of scholarly debate on medieval art.

In addition to specific genres such as reliquaries, tombs or the aforementioned book illumination, it is above all the modes of representation and the changing stylistic phases that make up the art between about 600 and 1400.

It can basically be assumed that, unlike in later epochs, the commissioners and artists of that time were less concerned with a depiction of the real and visible world than with a form of illustration of the Christian salvation event or princely ideas of “world” and “rule” that was hierarchically ordered under various aspects.

But this general statement must not be understood as if tendencies towards naturalism had been completely foreign to the Middle Ages – on the contrary. The depiction of plants and animals, man and “environment” played a major role in the pictorial design, whereby questions such as perspective and space also played an important role, albeit in a different sense than we have been used to since Renaissance art.

In this context, the exemplary nature of ancient art, which can be observed throughout the Middle Ages, is also of decisive importance.

This may come as a surprise, as this subject is usually first associated with Italian art of the early modern period from the 15th century onwards.

But it is indeed the case that antiquity plays an important role in medieval architecture and pictorial art. From the Lorsch Gate Hall and the Aachen Palatine Chapel to the Speyer Cathedral or the third building of the Cluny Abbey Church, echoes of ancient building forms or architectural decorative elements of Roman origin can be found everywhere. The situation is similar with pictorial works: Both Carolingian book illumination and the goldsmith’s works of Nicholas of Verdun from around 1200 show ancient models – which is not surprising in view of the ancient ruins and debris still visible in many places in the Middle Ages, especially since antiquity and its culture were never completely forgotten. Thus, luxurious and highly esteemed small works of art from Roman times such as gems and cameos, vessels cut from rock crystal or precious stones, and coins and medals filled secular and ecclesiastical treasure chambers.

Finally, there is another characteristic that distinguishes medieval art from that of later times: it is quite clearly a commissioned art.

Until the 12th and 13th centuries, hardly any work of art was created without a commission. As a rule, it was not the artist who was responsible for the appearance of a work, but the person on whose commission it was created and for whom he or she paid. Princes, kings, the lower nobility or even the Roman emperors are just as likely to be responsible for this as representatives of the clergy, bishops and abbesses, canonesses and canons; from the 13th century onwards, cities and their representatives increasingly appeared on the scene as patrons.

Artists played a rather subordinate role in this structure, which is why – apart from a few exceptions – they were generally not held in particularly high esteem and are therefore only very rarely known by name.

In the Middle Ages there was no art market of modern character; only the pilgrim trade is owed to prefabricated devotional objects such as pilgrim’s signs or the ampullae preserved from Monza; from the 13th century onwards, and increasingly in the 14th century, there were first attempts to produce pictorial works for the market. Nevertheless, the contract business remained the predominant form of image production for a long time.

At the end of these brief and general reflections, it is worth mentioning a fact that is all too often forgotten or too little anchored in consciousness: the Middle Ages were not a static age.

Many of the people who were entrusted with the production of construction and pictorial works – artists such as painters, barrel painters, gilders, stonemasons, master builders and entire construction works, but also carpenters and other craftsmen, goldsmiths, enamelers and stone cutters as well as clients of all kinds – were extremely mobile and often travelled very long distances. This applies not only to the art of the crusader era and the close exchange between Orient and Occident that went hand in hand with it, but also to almost all centuries and all directions.

In addition, media such as pattern books, templates, plans and cracks also migrated and could be passed on from hand to hand, from workshop to workshop. As a result of all this, motifs and ideas, floor plans and iconographic features as well as stylistic phenomena and techniques became widespread, confronting us today with often insoluble questions of dating and localization.

At the same time, however, the recognition of the great mobility of medieval art promotes our understanding of the global and networked aspect and the conditions of origin of these fascinating works from a distant past.

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