Essential Reading: Medieval Christendom

p72 of course notes: Read Chapter 9 – Medieval Christendom.

Contents: Ottonian Art, Romanesque architecture, Gothic art & architecture.

1 Political, economic or social factors
  • ‘The complexities of early medieval civilisation, reflect its origin in the turbulent centuries following the death of Charlemagne in 814.’ p359 “France suffered more than Germany, many towns being devastated by the Vikings, Muslims and Magyars” p366
  • Ottonian: Otto I Crowned Holy Roman Emperor, 962 AD, ruled Germany & Northern Italy. Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (983-1002) had the cross of Lothar made from Gems and gold. The Roman, gem encrusted side faced the emperor and the crucifix embossed side faced the clergy during ceremonies p358.
  • 1066, Norman invasion of England – Bayeux Tapestry made 1073-83
  • Romanesque: 1095-99, First Crusade. Pisa growing rich from shipping Crusaders to the Holy Land, reflected in building beautiful buildings (Baptistery, Cathedral and leaning tower). p365
  • 1098 Cistercian Order founded. Much stricter, vows of poverty and denunciation of fanciful Romanesque sculpture and artworks in manuscripts (St Bernard).. p370
  • Romanesque: “The daily mass and the increased number of priests in monastic houses were among the more conspicuous results of the religious reform movement of the mid-tenth century”. P368
  • “Pilgrimages were a binding force in medieval life – bring together clergy and laity, rich and poor, different regions and languages – quickening the diffusion of secular, as well as religious culture”. P369 Romanesque cathedral Santiago de Compostela in Spain was a very popular pilgrimage symbolised by the cockle-shell badge of St James. Pilgrims wearing the cross symbolised they’d visited as far as Jerusalem.
  • The ‘cult of carts’ at Chartres, 1145, where the money ran out to finance the church building and over 1000 locals turned out with their carts to haul stone etc. The wealthy donated large one off items which they could attach their names too, such as specific stained glass windows. Their lives revolved around it once built. p387/8
  • In England a new sense of national identity was forming in the mid-13th century as English was first used in an official document. P391
  • St Francis of Assisi founded a new religious order, took a vow of poverty and got papal sanction to be wandering preachers, Fratri minori, lesser brethren (not priests) in 1211. St Clare was his first female disciple (who founded nuns order). S Francesco in Italy was a church with direct, non-allegorical frescos (attributed to Cimabue and perhaps Giotto) of Christianity by popular demand. Cistercians tried to suppress Franciscans (Grey Friars) because they were outspoken about the church and clergy owning wealth, land and estates. At the same time St Dominic of Spain started the Dominicans (Black Friars, who later manned the spanish inquisition). These two orders had a direct effect on literature and visual arts of the 13th century with the demand for plain talking and evocative religious stories which would have widespread appeal amongst the educated and uneducated alike. P394-5
  • Alterpieces came into being in the 13th century as a result of the change in the way mass was given with priests now having their backs to the congregation.
  • ‘The conventual life provided women with an alternative, often the only alternative to arranged, loveless marriages and frequent childbearing.’ p396
  • The black death (bubonic plague) swept across Europe in 1348 wiping out a third of the population. It was believed to be divine retribution. The feudal system collapsed through lack of manpower. However the artistic activity in Italy did not get impacted much and public building projects continued as though nothing had happened, for example in Venice the Doges’ Palace, a Venetian version of Gothic.  p411
2 Changes to status or training of artists
  • Romanesque: “At a time when it was usual to state that a building had been erected ‘by’ the patron who commissioned it – the emperor king, pope or bishop – the Pisans recorded the names of the individual architects in the inscriptions on the fabric: Busheto, Rainaldo, who began the cathedral facade, Diotisalvi, who designed the Baptistery.” p365
  • High Gothic: “Masons and master-masons or architects travelled widely and it is more than likely that many made drawings of features of buildings that caught their attention.” The only surviving architect’s sketchbook from this time has made different building plans, structures and decorations from a wide area in France and Hungary. P380
  • The Gothic architects names recorded but not much else about them. ‘Like other medieval architects each had doubtless risen from the ranks of masons after having served an apprenticeship in a quarry where the stone was cut, and having earned the title of ‘master’ by carrying out some technically difficult piece of work or ‘masterpiece’.’ The masons handed out traditions and secrets of craftsmanship & design in lodges or workshops.
  • “The influence of Giovanni Pisano was pervasive throughout the early 14th century in central italy.” p401 He and his father created a new more vivid visual language for representing religious ideas. However artists were still paid by the day as wage labourers by the cathedral authorities and were soon forgotten once the work was up in the churches. p402
3 Development of materials and processes
  • Romanesque: Use of stone tunnel vault ceilings on churches (instead of flat wooden ones). ‘Efforts were now being made to recover the ancient Roman art of large stone vault construction. Stone gave a nobler and more solemn effect and also provided better acoustics for the sonorous Gregorian chant”.’ p367
  • Bayeux Tapestry not a true tapestry but made from a long strip of embroidered linen. ‘Naturalistic effects attempted’ for example figures not sized and grouped by rank but all the same size with smaller boats in the background denoting distance. P369
  • Ceilings: Tunnel vaults gave way to Transverse vaults, to Groin vaults, to Rib vaults. P374 for details
  • “Tracery was a Gothic invention and its development towards ever greater dissolution of the wall – from ‘plate tracery’ to ‘bar tracery’ – can be followed stage by stage from Chartres to Reims and from Reims to Amiens and beyond”. P385
  • Mosaics were costly and slow to execute so painted murals were seen as a cheap alternative until the frescos of Scrovegni Chapel. True frescos are almost as durable as mosaics. Painted on fresh damp plaster with pigments that chemically unite as the plaster dries, it takes great skill to get it right as whole sections have to be done very quickly. Pigments which could not be absorbed into the plaster like this were mixed with adhesive and added as a secco to be applied on top of the dried plaster. p407
4 Styles and movements
  • “To present events of the Gospel story, and especially the Passion, so vividly that spectators might feel they were participants was to be one of the prime aims of western European artists throughout the Middle Ages, setting their imagery ever further apart from that of Byzantium” p357
  • Ottonian: “Naked figures owe little or nothing to the Classical tradition of heroic nudity.” p361 Ottonian art characterised by lack of ‘classical rationalism’, ‘surface patterns of flowing lines’ and ‘rich bright colours with passionate emotionalism.’ p362
  • Romanesque: ‘debased Roman’, ‘architecture which retained the column and round arch before the adoption of the Gothic pointed arch.’ p365 Style exemplified by qualities of  ‘Solid, dignified, inflexibly self-assured’. Styles origins in ‘Roman engineering and utilitarian ‘architecture’. P368
  • “The integration of Old Testament, New Testament and topical concerns is very characteristic of medieval art and thought” p372
  • Gothic architecture was born in St Denis, Paris. P375 Completed 1144 AD. Here ‘figurative stained glass windows were first given the importance they were to retain for some four centuries in northern Europe.
  • Gothic churches often had vine-leaf patterned carvings on the capitals of columns. ‘Every detail in these great buildings proclaimed the glory of God and the wonder of his creation’. P388
  • Carved relief sculptural figures were more natural, individual and breaking free of the buildings. Different from Romanesque in that they ‘desire to visualise the scene in human terms.’ The allegorical significance is less boldly stressed than before. P391
  • In England, the ‘decorated style’ (double -curving ogee arches, twists and turns of tracery) was used long before the ‘flamboyant style’ appeared in France. P391 Embroidery was english speciality and was prized all over Europe (some still survives in the V&A) p394
  • Italian painting (distinct from late Roman & byzantine) began with the frescos at S Francesco. Direct images and stories. Monks with grey woolen habits and ropes with three knots in them (poverty, chastity and obedience).
  • The first artists to enter the ‘canon’ emerged at this time and they remained influential in the early Renaissance period.  Famously Giotto Di Bondone was particularly noted owing mainly to the first histories of Italian art being written by fellow Florentines although no surviving work attributed to him is full documented.
  • International Gothic (p411), around 1400. “The intricate elaboration and enrichment of surface patterning, and the more detailed naturism with which animals, flowers and especially fashionable costumes were depicted, all combined with an accentuation of distinctly gothic elegance in the representation of figures, both human and divine to suggest sometimes an ascetic spirituality though always, in their well-mannered gestures and poise, with a courtly air”. Example Wilton Diptych, after 1395, National Gallery. p411
5 Inside and outside influences
  • King Harold Bluetooth conquered all Denmark & Norway, and “the Northern artistic traditions of intricate flat patterning were to contribute much to the creation of medieval art in Western Christendom.” p358
  • “S Marco in Venice is essentially Byzantine” built 1063-1094. P365
  • Figures & architectural backgrounds of italian painting in the 13th century are according to byzantine conventions, called the ‘Greek Style’. P398
6 Critics, thinkers and historians
  • Romanesque: In 1000 AD, monk Raoul Glaber wrote his famous quote on ‘white garment of churches’ p362
  • Dante Alighieri defined pilgrims to be ‘anyone outside his fatherland’ or ‘only the man who travels to or from the sanctuary of St James’ in La Vita Nuova (The New Life) c 1292. (p369)
  • Early theologians endowed stained glass windows with ‘Neoplatonic significance’ p381
  • St Thomas Aquinas was the greatest theologian if the Middle Ages, author of ‘summa theologica’ p388



I really did struggle through this chapter. The gothic churches were quite interesting with their beautiful interior spaces but I found the religious medieval life deathly dull. I’m so glad I was born in this century where there are more choices than loveless, arranged marriages or becoming a nun! I think you really have to make your way through this chapter to really really appreciate the good stuff to come e.g. the Renaissance


Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing



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