UNIT 2: THE MIDDLE AGES
To define an age as being in the middle of two others naturally makes us think the age is less important
than what comes before or after it. That is, in fact, how sixteenth-century historians thought of the great
expanse of time between the dissolution of the Roman Empire and the revival of classicism in the fifteenth
century. But it is only if we accept classicism as the only “good” style of art that this attitude makes sense.
There is nothing insignificant about a Gothic cathedral and nothing mediocre about sumptuous manuscript
pages like those in the Book of Kells.
Medieval art, however, does serve a different purpose than classical art, and its beauty is of another kind.
For the most part, medieval artists were not interested in creating illusionistic space. Instead, they wanted
to create works that conveyed a religious message or that honored God through highly wrought patterns
and precious materials. Instead of large-scale sculpture showing heroic men, sculptors made small,
precious works used by religious leaders and laity alike, or they carved stories from the Bible around the
doorways of their churches to teach the people who couldn’t read. Instead of creating monumental
buildings to honor human rulers or pagan gods, medieval artists built churches to give glory to one God.
Most of the art and architecture discussed in this unit was made in the service of Christianity. Christianity
is a religion based on the belief that Jesus is the Messiah (the Christ), that is, that he is God who was born
a man and died in order to redeem the sins of humanity. Jesus was crucified, but then rose from the dead,
a sign of the eternal life that Christianity promises its followers. The life of Christ is told in the Gospels of
the New Testament, and the illustration of these stories was the most important function of Christian art
in its early years. Christian art also uses symbols and narratives from the Old Testament (the Jewish
scriptures that describe events before the coming of Christ); the other books of the New Testament; and
countless other writings (some of dubious authenticity) about Jesus, his mother the Virgin Mary, his
disciples, and the saints.
The medieval period was a time of great social and political change. The nomadic tribes, who moved in
waves from the Russian steppes toward the east, gradually settled and established kingdoms in Europe. At
the same time, feudalism was developing as the dominant political and social system. Under feudalism,
kings or lords owned land, which they deeded to vassals in exchange for military protection by the vassal’s
knights. Serfs also received protection, and they, in turn, provided necessary labor. Feudalism was
important until the Gothic period when urban centers developed and encouraged a merchant economy. In
the Gothic period (the twelfth through fourteenth centuries), the kingdom of France increased its power,
and the courts began to rival the Church as patrons of the arts.
In the early fourth century the Roman Empire was divided into eastern and western. Our attention in this
unit will be to the subsequent development of the western part of the former Roman Empire. The eastern
part became known as the Byzantine Empire, and rich cultural traditions developed there. Although
Byzantine art seems patterned and different from classical art, the Byzantine people felt that they genuinely
carried on Roman traditions between the fourth and the fifteenth centuries. The full development of
Byzantine art cannot be covered in this introductory course; however, we will refer to Byzantine works
because they influenced western European artists.