Medieval Art – Summary of Notes

Tutor report notes with suggestions/corrections are at the end of this blog.


  • King Harold Bluetooth tried to convert Danes to Christianity around 900 but failed although conversion happened a century later.
  • Turbulent history for century after Charlemagne died but foundations for medieval life laid with individual cultures developing in France and Germany and feudal systems developing.
  • Germany re-established stability with King Henry and then Otto I – new version of Holy Roman Emperors.
  • Otto I stability meant economic growth and city republics which effected political and cultural life for centuries.
  • Pisa prospered as did Venice due to wars and trade. Venice became rulers of Eastern empire
  • Sacking of Constantinople that meant crusaders divided up empire amongst themselves.
  • France suffered more to Charlemagne’s empire crumbling due to invasions by Vikings, Muslims and Magyars – slow recovery meant later growth of Romanesque art and architecture. However Dukes of Normandy and nominant vassals became richer and church held more land than any other ruler.  Duke of Normandy became ruler of England.
  • Cluniac Order established and pilgrimages became part of medieval life – riches of monasteries and luxurious life of abbots and priors meant call for religious reform.
  • Great cathedrals and buildings meant fund needed to build them in various ways and community life revolved around them.
  • Saint Francis of Assisi founded new religious order (became Gray Friars) and Saint Dominic formed another similar one (becoming known as Black Friars) – both on emphasis of poverty and religious faith as opposed to luxury life – most learned men of 13th Century drawn to one of them.
  • Black Death of Europe decimated population by a third but only temporary hiatus in arts although it meant no longer shortage of money, land or food – believed to be divine punishment though and so many sought to atone for sins by flagellation or pilgrimages.
  • Richard II England – unstable ruler but internationally cultivated court and there were brief periods of peace during wars with France that enabled painters and artists to work either side of the Channel.


  • Prime aim of artists in Medieval Europe was to represent the stories of the gospels so that people believed it was happening before their eyes – imagery became separated from Byzantine art.
  • Pisans valued architects so much names inscribed on Baptistery that was built.
  • Stone masons and architects in much demand – architects were often stone masons – all had served long apprenticeships and then did their ‘master piece’ so were classed as master craftsman or stonemasons.
  • Stained glass craftsman and also mosaic artisans must have also been sought after but like the stone masons the impression is that they were classed as mere labourers – this was also the same for painters.
  • Florentines in particular patronised art and wrote first history of art.
  • Technical difficulties of working on frescoes and similar panels meant premium put on the work but this still did not seem to raise status.
  • Changes in status of artists took place due to more secular as opposed to ecclesiastical patronage.


  • Bulbous outer domes developed due to a system designed by Islam.
  • Developments in architecture due to styles developed elsewhere – wooden roofs stopped being used in part due to fire risk but also due to recovery of ancient Roman architectural large vault construction.
  • Innovations in Romanesque architecture developed through Gothic architecture – development of different types of vaults and rib construction and use of windows and tracery. Bay system of building developed. Flying buttresses that had previously been concealed became ever more elaborate and hid their physical purpose.
  • Carving developed – seemed to more sensitive and expressive so the use of tools therefore must have developed alongside or the training of stone masons (apprenticeships).
  • Development of frescoes whereby pigments put on wet plaster that became durable when dry – al seco was when pigments mixed with adhesive and put on dried plaster. Panel paintings done in same manner but on layer of plaster put on wooden panel.
  • Manuscripts developed not least as written literacy language did.


  • Depiction of Crucifixion first seen in medieval art – became distinguishing feature of Western Catholic Christianity.
  • Ottonian art style developed.
  • Gothic art style of architecture developed eventually becoming High Gothic and also Italian, English, German and International as variations according to country emerged. English gothic had own ‘Decorated style’ and French had a ‘Flamboyant style’.
  • Byzantine style of Gothic architecture in Venice – Venice architectural style very unique with Islamic influence.
  • Different style of sculpture appeared – Greek influence but with sensitivity and expressiveness and naturalism.
  • Opus Anglicanum style of English embroidery – prized throughout Europe.
  • Painters developed more complex and bolder style plus more naturalistic with recession in architecture seen in paintings. Style changed from sparse and reflective of monastic life style of Franciscans and Dominicans to more elaborate as secular patronage made its mark. Naturalistic style in mural paintings.
  • Mosaic artists had bold and colourful style.
  • Sculpture showed expressive human dignity and tragic intensity and so naturalistic that some sculptures are incredibly lifelike – more so when originally painted. Mix of realism with mysticism.


  • St Bernard – patron, architect and critic of lavish lifestyles of some of the monasteries and abbots and priors – fiercest critic of monastic abuse.
  • Raoul Glabor – monk who wrote of period of stability effected by Otto I.
  • Suger – writer as well as patron of St Denis and architect.
  • St Thomas Aquinas – greatest theologian writer of Middle Ages.
  • Cimabue – included here as founder of Italian school of painting.
  • Palla Strozzi – Florentine Humanist – commissioner of altarpiece but also famous writer.
  • Poet Dante Alighieri – Dante’s Inferno author and influence on art.
  • Gervase of Canterbury brethren – medieval historian and wrote of Gothic style.


  • Biblical influence on art throughout Middle Ages – from New and Old Testaments.
  • Roman influence on architecture and sculpture.
  • Byzantium and Islamic influence.
  • Manuscripts of Dionysius – influence on building of first Gothic church St Denis which became ancestor of all Gothic churches.
  • Influence of sermons of Gray and Black Friar’s sermons on visual arts as well as poetry.
  • Gothic architecture influenced all areas of visual arts including manuscripts.
  • Giovanni Pisano and son Nicola – great sculptor – influenced art of 14th Century Italy.
  • Different artists influenced each other through the travel of the time and the cultural influences such as Byzantine or study of Classical antiquities of Roman sculpture if travelled to Byzantine.


Fleming, J and Honour, H. 1984.  A World History of Art. Seventh Edition.  London.  Laurence King Publishing


  • Fusion of Mediterranean Christian and native pagan traditions and selective survival of artifacts – this is where I now understand how much art changed with that fusion.
  • My tutor points out the fact that a medieval work of art “is likely to display an artisan’s technical skills rather than their personal idiosyncrasies, preferences, and proclivities” – in our modern society today artists are allowed to be innovative and express themselves and as my tutor reminds me those factors/styles would have been unfamiliar in medieval times and creativity was obscured by a social system that favoured anonymity.  
  • Skilled technical execution/fine materials valued above innovation – an artist at the time was regarded as an artisan practicing a craft – the social status was not as high as they would achieve in the Renaissance.
  • My tutor asks me to think about the impact of the Cluniac Order on the development of the Romanesque architecture and sculpture and also the technical innovations or experiments along with thinking about a passage from WHA which I have answered in my response to the feedback which can be seen at:
  • My tutor asks me to consider an extract from the Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture and see whether I agree – “Before Saint-Denis Abbey, builders simply borrowed features, more or less unchanged, from other building projects.  In the generations that followed Saint-Denis Abbey, when builders borrowed elements, they increasingly integrated them into the total design.” Yes I do agree with this statement because to me this statement indicates that the builders of subsequent generations were directly influenced by this building and integrated elements of the design but at the same time changing and adapting those element to fit into the design of their new building.  Previously the features were borrowed and inserted unchanged but the developments meant the borrowed elements could be integrated more seamlessly.  
  • A final pointer is to consider the impact of the more complex design solutions along with the disciplined regularity in regard to the flying buttresses, ribbed vaults etc.


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