The Medieval World

The Gray-Fitzpayn Book of Hours, 14th century

Why do I like medieval artwork so much, often better than artwork that has more firmly grasped what we would today consider the subject’s fundamentals? For those who know me, they may quickly decide that it is because medieval artwork is outdated, obscure, forgotten, and boring. I concede that outside of certain circles the medieval arts are often unappreciated – “Gothic” was, after all, a derogatory term applied by a more “enlightened” age to the art of the centuries after Charlemagne and before the Renaissance. However, I do not believe my high opinion is unfounded.

There are, of course, some examples of medieval art that are breathtaking in their complexity; the Celtic Book of Kells, for instance, or some late medieval sculptures. The often wild and humorous illuminations of the 14th century still cause amusement among scholars and casual viewers alike. But there is much beyond this that is reason to love medieval artwork. The myth of the “Dark Ages” persists to this day; however, medieval art was never truly pessimistic, compared with most modern art, for example. The disturbing “Dance of Death” and “Victory of Death” artwork has remained among our most distinctive images of the late Middle Ages, but in fact these pieces did not spring out of pessimism but rather a spirit of egalitarianism that arose simultaneous to the increasing self-consciousness of the poorer classes; a realization, following the Black Death and the plunge of most spiritual authority into corruption, that the weak equally bore the image of God.

And these late-medieval images of death only form a minority of the images that we have received from the Middle Ages. Open a 14th-century psalter such to find images of contented daily life alongside the imaginary creatures and satirical caricatures that some monk had the leisure to indulge in. The colors are vivid and gay, but not usually gaudy. This trickled into the church, perhaps too much, according to Bernard of Clairvaux.

Finally, what good are such things [as paintings and gold objects] to poor men, to monks, to spiritual men? Perhaps the poet’s question could be answered with words from the prophet: “Lord, I have loved the beauty of your house, and the place where your glory dwells” (Ps. 26:8). I agree. Let us allow this to be done in churches because, even if it is harmful to the vain and greedy, it is not such to the simple and devout. But in cloisters, where the brothers are reading, what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns? In one place you see many bodies under a single head, in another several heads on a single body. Here on a quadruped we see the tail of a serpent. Over there on a fish we see the head of a quadruped. There we find a beast that is horse up front and goat behind, here another that is horned animal in front and horse behind. In short, so many and so marvelous are the various shapes surrounding us that it is more pleasant to read the marble than the books, and to spend the whole day marveling over these things rather than meditating on the law of God. Good Lord! If we aren’t embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn’t we at least be disgusted by the expense? (Medieval Sourcebook)

It is stylistically as much as subjectively that I love medieval art. The artists before the Renaissance were perfectly aware that things in the distance appeared smaller, and that line of sight causes foreshortening, but did not usually attempt to develop linear perspective or produce a formula. Plato suggested that the study of perspective reduced art to mathematics; whether or not the medieval artists knew or cared about this I do not know, but I do think that their style was deliberate and not merely a resorting to old methods for lack of something better. I have mentioned the complexity that often attends their works; great time and attention to detail is a feature of many of the best miniatures and sculptures, such as in the clothing. Their use of symbol to communicate their message was exceptionally effective.

It is also a myth that there was no emotion in medieval art. In facial expressions and (to a lesser degree) postures, I concede that emotion was not generally captured as dramatically as in later works, but the subject matter is relied upon heavily and not unsuccessfully to generate reaction. What can be more impressive, especially to the illiterate person who owns nothing bright or beautiful, than the gold leaf and brilliant blues of an illuminated Bible, portraying scenes of their heritage and the foundation of their hope?

Finally, it is an understanding of what lay behind this art. The monks who worked on their manuscripts were preserving not only Western civilization and the heritage of the Classical world but also the Bible and a foundation of Christian theology. The artisans who labored to produce the stained glass windows and sculptures and soaring Gothic architecture in many cases, no doubt, merely worked to be payed. But the genuineness of their faith is apparent in the (often moving) pieces that have survived. There was a very real love of God behind much of the art in the public sphere, something that is no longer true. The most beautiful, touching art of this period is of this kind.

I might also extend my reasons for enjoying medieval studies into their cosmology. The medieval worldview was the most ordered and precise the world has seen, until possibly the advent of modern science. To the medievals, everything had a place given it by God. When the scientific revolution exposed new principles and ideas that violated this cosmology, the order was doubted and so, therefore, was God. Even today, when a regularity and order is easily seen in the world and consistent laws can be observed, science still decrees that chaos is king.

What is attractive about the medieval worldview is not their credulity (which has been far exaggerated by Enlightenment scholars and their successors); it is their desire to examine and uncover the works of God as best as they knew how. Remember that geocentricism was defended not only by taking certain Biblical texts too literally but also by its accord with the theories of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and leading natural philosophers of their day. Galileo, on his part, defended his own heliocentrism as much with theological texts (such as Augustine) as he did his own observations. The church’s attack was borne out of an adherence to a longstanding cosmological theory combined, perhaps, with a fear that Galileo’s theories could destroy the system and so undermine faith in the creator God (which, despite Galileo’s faith, actually happened).

It may surprise some people (or perhaps not) to learn that I have very little interest in medieval economics, class and gender relations, or even (though of course there is overlap) political history. To me these serve an almost purely functional purpose; I accept them, but I will study and enjoy them only when contingent with the study of a larger cultural theme or idea. In my mind it is these details that “round out” the study of any civilization rather than the other way around. It is not in the technical characteristics and fashions that we find the basic truth about a civilization; it is rather there that we find outgrowth from the heart of any people.

When I want to learn about any place of history, I don’t go to their methods of succession or who fought who when. I go to their music and art and (above all) literature. It is only then that I feel I have a grasp of who these people were. For instance, in studying the Georgian culture, I first read The Knight in the Panther Skin, and then searched YouTube for clips of their music and the internet in general for pieces of their artwork. Unfortunately there is very little of that available to me at this time, so even while I can read the political history of the Caucasian peoples, I still feel that I have an insufficient knowledge of that civilization; where I get the closest is in understanding their forms of cultural expression. But I do have a hint of the spirit of the people, just enough to make me thirst for more. I’m sure this method can be applied more broadly, but for now I’ll leave it with historical application only.

Let me return to the arts briefly to list some of my favorite artistic movements.

  • Celtic
  • Byzantine
  • Persio-Islamic
  • Gothic
  • Mughal
  • Giotto’s works
  • Pre-Raphaelite
  • Impressionistic
  • Van Gogh’s works

Maiestas Domini, from the Missal of Abbess de Munchensey, c. 1300

Perhaps I will also mention what I have recently discovered as one of the best sites for finding some good-quality images of medieval art: http://www.wga.hu/ It’s not as extensive as, say, the Dutch Royal Library (http://www.kb.nl/manuscripts/), but it has some excellent pieces in all mediums.

I am far too long-winded for my own good, as you can see. I ought to be studying for the GRE…. But that is a comparatively brief summary of what I think about medieval artwork and a lot of other things.

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5 comments on “The Medieval World

  1. Justin says:

    Have you ever read John Ruskin’s thoughts on Gothic architecture? It was pretty amazing. Definitely worth the read if you haven’t. I think it’s called The Savageness of Gothic Architecture from The Stones of Venice. Ask Dr. Mac about it since we read it in English Lit. Was one of my favorite pieces of that year along with all the poetry.

    • It sounds familiar, as well as interesting, but no, I haven’t read it, unfortunately. There are so many things I want to read…. But I’ll keep your recommendation in mind, thanks. And I agree with your comments about the Book of Kells. Look online sometime for medieval book covers – they are works of art in themselves, often enough. The written word is so cheap now… so devalued…. But that’s another discussion.

      • …as evidenced by the presence of blogs, come to think of it.

      • Justin says:

        hah! indeed. I like to believe we all have something valuable to say…but every time we take finger to keyboard, or pen to paper, or open our mouth? probably not. but there’s always diamonds in the rough wherever you look.

  2. Justin says:

    Also I’ve always thought the Book of Kells is one of the most beautiful pieces of art ever created. But maybe that’s cause I am a writer, and the act of calligraphy is like taking my form of expression and turning it into a piece of art beyond just prose. It’s how I really -see- the words, if that makes sense.

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