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History of Art: The Middle Ages

This post is part of a series called A Beginner's Guide to Art History.
History of Art: Asian Art
History of Art: Renaissance

Welcome back to our series on art history! From the lands of Asia, we now venture onward to experience the world of art from the Middle Ages. Let's see how history significantly affected the art of this time.

Insular Art from the Middle Ages
An Insular art piece of the Virgin Mary from the Middle Ages.

Art in the Age of Darkness

If you were born during the Middle Ages then you would have been witness to a major period of transition in history as a whole. After the devastation of the Black Death, Europe saw its most dramatic decrease in stability, with at least a third of the population killed off by this awful pandemic.

Understandably, art suffered as a result. And though threats from outside invasions were no longer as imminent, the Islamic influences from earlier years of conquests became a recurring theme in many works of art. Religion is presumed to be a huge subject as well, as survivors clung to the hopes and stories of their favorite icons. But there was also the emergence of definitively different styles like Baroque and Gothic art, which opened the doors to great artistic influences for centuries to come.

Art during this period is not necessarily confined to one particular style or time, with historians often breaking down the era into several phases.

Barbarian Art from The Middle Ages
A shoulder clasp from the Migration Period of the Middle Ages.

So today we'll cover just a few of the media that were most prevalent and survived this remarkable era of death and rebirth.

Sculptures and Carvings

With the fall of the Roman Empire, sculptures with traditionally stylized features became replaced with more realistic aesthetics. This was due to the work of the Ottonians and Carolingians, who emphasized realism over the stoic expressions left behind by the Byzantine Empire.

Ivory Carving from the Middle Ages
Ivory sculpture featuring a courtly scene. Image by Jastrow.

This also began an important period of cultural revival. Beautiful ivory carvings emerged along with bronze castings with three-dimensional details influenced by classical realism that surpassed their predecessors.

With this massively expansive era, many styles of sculpture came and went, including architectural sculpture found from the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Here, figures adorned the faces of famous churches, and the Virgin Mary became a prominent subject of this time.

Life-sized alabaster tombs were a sign of the wealthy, while small portable sculptures of ivory were used as devotional objects.

Gothic Art Sculptures from the Middle Ages
Pictured here are Gothic sculptures seen on the Chartres Cathedral.

Illuminated Manuscripts

An illuminated manuscript is a document with decorative text and ornamental objects. And most of the surviving illuminated manuscripts of today came from the Middle Ages.

A costly and super complex process, it all started with writing the text onto sheets of parchment paper. This was followed up by a long stage of planning, in which the blank spaces of the layout were used primarily for decoration. Finally, beautiful figures were painted onto the pages, with gold being a favorite color in many earlier manuscripts.

An Illuminated Manuscript from The Middle Ages
Pictured here is the Tyniec Sacramentary, an illuminated manuscript written in gold.

A unique style that came from this period was the historiated letter. A large, decorated letter used at the beginning of a passage, this letter was first seen in Insular art and became pretty prevalent during the Romanesque period.

You can even see the influence of these illustrious manuscripts today, with decorative initials often adorning the pages of antique-inspired books filled with old tales of myths and legends.

A Historiated Letter on an Illuminated Manuscript
Pictured here is a historiated letter "P" from the Malmesbury Bible.

Stained Glass

Another beautiful medium that was popular during the Middle Ages was the art of stained glass. Stained glass was created by mixing sand and wood ash together and melting it into a liquid in order to form glass. While the glass was still molten, powdered metals were added to create the beautiful colors that would later adorn great cathedrals.

Stained Glass from The Middle Ages
Stained glass from Troyes Cathedral in France. Image by Vassil.

Each window image was created by arranging different pieces of glass together to create the desired design. The artist then added final details by hand before assembling the completed art and mounting it into a window.

Again, religion was an important theme in many stained glass designs because they were meant to decorate the windows of churches with beloved icons. The colors of the glass also changed during this time according to the stain and which ingredients were used for the glass mixture. But no matter the mixture, artists guaranteed stunning results of illustrated scenes full of color and wonder.

Stained Glass Panel from The Middle Ages
Stained glass panel from the Chartres Cathedral. Image by Vassil.

Icon Paintings

With religion still a prevalent theme, vibrant paintings featuring famous icons were also a recurring art form during the Middle Ages.

Paintings from The Middle Ages
Two panels from the Wilton Diptych, a painting created on Baltic oak.

But it wasn't until the emergence of Gothic art that we see artists start to back away from the typical religious themes. And while the subject matter changed, so did the art style. Paintings now focused on mythology, animals, and other themes apart from the norm.

Realism also became an important feature of painting practices during this time. No longer were there just monks in solitude creating art, but also truly skilled artists with many years of practice and persistence under their belts.

The painting most well known from this time is "Last Supper" by Giotto di Bondone. A painting depicting a scene of Jesus surrounded by his apostles, this artwork features one of the most depicted religious scenes in art history.

Last Supper by Giotto di Bondone
Painting of the Last Supper by Giotto di Bondone.


Though the Middle Ages were considered a dark period in history, this era largely contributed to many different art styles today because of its expansive time frame and allure. Its wide range of culture and influence is a true testament to the evolution of art, and I hope you continue to learn more about these amazing timelines on your own.

For more wondrous tales of art history from the Middle Ages, dive into the links below for further reading. And join me next month when we discuss the glorious art of the Renaissance period.

The following sources were also included in this article:

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