Medieval Art and Architecture—Ancient Art Forms of the Middle Ages

Updated on March 15, 2018
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Ancient art and architecture isn't only for historians, but for people like us who’ve always been interested in anything olden and periodic.

All through the medieval period, art largely consisted of the architectural design and construction of churches, monasteries, castles, and similar eclectic structures while homes and other types of buildings were given less attention.

Medieval artists and skilled craftsmen, including masons, carpenters, woodcarvers, sculptors, metal workers, and painters, applied the ornamental features of these structures into their own specific craft.

Artisans of the lesser arts, like locksmiths, blacksmiths, shoemakers, and weavers, were equally influenced by these features which were replicated, copied and applied to anything and everything they produced.

What Was Life Like in the Middle Ages?

Life in the Middle Ages was dominated by feudalism, a kind of system where the nobles practically owned and ruled all the land. Vassals, who held the land under feudalism, were tenants of the nobles who paid homage to the lords. They were indeed loyal and in return were guaranteed protection in return.

Serfs were the downtrodden and lowest social class during the Medieval Period. These peasants worked and laboured for the noble in a condition of bondage. Though they were not slaves – they were allowed to own property, however, in most serfdoms, peasants were legally part of the land, so, if the land was sold by the lords, the serfs were sold with it.

Due to the fact that the Middle Ages was dominated by the feudal system, there was a vast difference in the daily lives of peasants when compared to that of the noble. The daily lives of people were therefore dictated by power, wealth, and status in the society with the noble spending most of their time on entertainment, games, and sports while the serfs toiled on their fields to serve them.

Religion played a major part of daily life during the Middle Ages, reasons why the artists of the early Middle Ages were predominantly priests and monks who lived in monasteries. Their art became the primary method of communicating narratives of a Biblical nature to the people.

Medieval Art and Architecture - An Expression of the Spiritual

Medieval art illustrates the passionate interest and idealistic expression of the Christian and Catholic faith. Architectural designs and their interior décor showed avid expressions of the deep religious faith of the people of the Middle Ages.

This was an era when political order was almost non-existent, and every common man or woman had no hope in life and little to live for, except the hope of happiness and peace in heaven.

The churches served as the centre of town life and were designed and built by the people and not the clergy. They served other purposes that met the requirements of their daily life, with many housing schools, libraries, museums, and picture galleries.

Main Divisions of Middle Ages Art

Medieval art is generally divided into different types, each of which was expressed differently in different regions and at different times. They are:

  • The Byzantine period
  • Early Christian period
  • Romanesque and Norman period
  • Gothic period

Byzantine Art (330 -1453)

Byzantine art was developed in Constantinople, then the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. This style was characterized by a combination of Roman and Oriental arts, with dome ceilings being typical features.

The iconoclastic (radical) movement at the time absolutely forbade the use of human or animal forms in their artworks. According to the history of art, such forms were regarded by the Byzantine as idolatry and 'graven images', which were frowned upon in the Ten Commandments.

The architecture of the churches was not only brilliant and grandiose but mostly reflected the wealth and intellectual level of their designers and builders.

Early Christian Art (330 - 880)

This was developed (to some extent) in countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean region, but primarily in central Italy. Churches and monuments were constructed with stones found in the ruins of pagan temples.

The Early Christian art forms developed after the people of the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity.

They had features which included flat ceilings, semi-circular arched forms, elaborately panelled flat wood ceilings, and straight high walls with small window openings at the topmost parts of the structures.

Interiors were rich and elaborate with mosaics on the walls, ornately framed paintings, and marble incrustations.

Romanesque and Norman Medieval Art Forms (800 - 1150)

The styles of this period were developed in France and other Western regions. They are characterized by simple structural forms with window and door openings designed with semi-circular arched top sections.

The term 'Romanesque art' refers to medieval styles of art that were greatly influenced by Italy and Southern France.

This same style was taken to the shores of England by William the Conqueror where it became known as Norman art and continued until it evolved into the Gothic forms of the 12th century.

Romanesque buildings were huge, strong and almost foreboding in appearance but they had simple surface enrichment showcasing the simplistic ways of life of the planners who were monks.

Architectural forms were basically interpretations of their own concept of Roman architecture.

Gothic Art and Architecture (1150 -1500)

"Verticality" is emphasized in Gothic art and architecture, which feature almost skeletal stone structures and great expanses of stained glass showing biblical stories, pared-down wall surfaces, and extremely pointed arches.

Furniture designs were ‘borrowed’ from their architectural forms and structures with arches, pillars, and rigid silhouettes.

Through the Gothic period, building construction was constantly geared towards lightness of forms but with enormous spiked heights to the extent that there were times when over ornamentation coupled with delicate structural forms made their structures collapse.

The structural collapse was, of course, imminent because construction methods never followed scientific principles but were rather done by mere 'rule of thumb'. Only when many buildings started to collapse before they were completed did they then rebuild them with stronger and sturdier supports.

All in all, medieval art, the art of the Middle Ages, covered an enormous scope of time and place. It existed for over a thousand years, not only in the European region but also the Middle East and North Africa. It included not only major art movements and eras but also regional art, types of art, the medieval artists and their works as well.

And because religious faith was the way of life, the history of art of the Middle Ages tells us about social, political and historical events, through the building of church cathedrals and eclectic structures that were erected in practically every town and city in the region.

© 2012 artsofthetimes


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    • artsofthetimes profile image

      artsofthetimes 2 days ago

      Thank you for your feedback Mask. Will endeavour to do that.

      Glad you found it helpful for your medieval homework.

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      artsofthetimes 3 days ago

      You are welcome Beep boo.

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      Beep bop 3 days ago

      Thanks for helping me with my prodject

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      Mask Panda 4 days ago

      This is an okay site but also much information. Some advice for this website is that you should make it longer and filled with more information. But overall a very good website. It helped me for my medieval homework.

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      artsofthetimes 13 days ago

      You are welcome @mad history.

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      mad history 2 weeks ago

      thanks for the info it really helped me

    • artsofthetimes profile image

      artsofthetimes 18 months ago

      Very interesting piece of history Moral Man. Thank you.

      I will definitely research and read further on these medieval era painters you mentioned.

      Thanks for the visit and sorry for the late response...

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      Moral Man 2 years ago

      The Medeival period has some of the greatest painters. One of the most remarkable is Heironymus Bosch(1450-1516) from the late Middle Ages. He is famous for his imagination and religious subject matter. "The Garden of Earthly Delights," "The Haywain," "The Last Judgment," and "Ship of Fools are noteworthy.

      Frans Hals came later in the 1600s or the early Modern period and was also Dutch like Bosch. Frans Hals is famous for his portrait paintings such as "Malle Babbe." Its known that Malle Babbe was based on a real historical person which Frans Hals knew in his lifetime.

    • artsofthetimes profile image

      artsofthetimes 5 years ago

      Thank you Gareth, and thanks for visiting.

    • Garethmoore profile image

      Garethmoore 5 years ago

      well-written, I love the topic you choose. Thanks!