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Middle Age Misconceptions

What we get wrong about Medieval art
Published

Aug 10, 2018

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Sandro Botticelli

Michelangelo Caravaggio

A lot can be said of how the name of an era enters the vernacular. “Renaissance” has come to signify revival, or well-roundedness. “Baroque” and “Rococo” mean elaborate, ornamented. “Medieval” has arguably fared worst of all: a byword for primitive, obsolete, or archaic.

Saints John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene (detail)Italian, Neapolitan Follower of Giotto
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This aligns with the widespread belief that art from the Medieval era is graceless, untrained, or simply “bad” (a notion often aided by the idea that the Black Plague left little room for aesthetics). The narrative is that Renaissance, with its lofty intellectual pursuits, allowed for a much greater artistic understanding of perspective and human proportion. In this view, the intense naturalism produced by Renaissance artists picked up where Greek and Roman sculptors left off, leaving the “Middle Ages” as a period lost to progress.

Despite our instinct for neat categorization, it isn’t so easy to summarize a millenia worth of artistic contribution. In reality, there’s another, less obvious story to be told: that Medieval artists were quite capable of the naturalism found in Renaissance paintings. They only favored flat images, with their skewed perspectives and unsettling proportions, for reasons of religion and style.

From Rome to Constantinople

Understanding “unrealistic” Medieval (and Early Renaissance) style calls for a history lesson. The Roman Empire saw itself as superior to all other cultures; to them, their art’s splendor went unchallenged. Artists carved perfectly idealized Gods and Emperors out of marble—a luxurious material that emphasized the permanence of its form, suggesting that these marble emperors and Gods could never crumble.

Augustus of Prima Porta, artist unknown, 1st century AD

But in 476 C.E., Rome did fall, along with its statues. As Christian rulers rose and established the Byzantine Empire, visual culture rejected Rome’s hubris, and its obsession with beauty and form. Christian values emphasize life after death, and so Byzantine (early Medieval) art featured figures that could not possibly exist on earth, indicated by their lack of perspective, unreal proportions, and rejection of physical beauty (as in Madonna and Child Enthroned). Not only are these figures otherworldly, they are thin and weak (Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth, Matthew 5:5), a great departure from Greek and Roman ideals. Another way to tell if an image is Medieval is by noting the background. Medieval works will offer no indication of setting and will often portray figures in a blank plane of gold. Early Renaissance works, however, usually take place somewhere earthly, i.e. a field with rocks, flowers, and trees.

The Order of Saint Benedict was established in 529 C.E. in Rome. By the 800s, it had become the prototype for monasteries throughout Europe. The Order emphasized routine, manual labor, study, and prayer—and renounced earthly pleasures, like sex. These values dictated that figures be portrayed in veiled, extremely loose clothing, with little to no indicators of femininity (especially Mary, whose virginity was venerated).

Returning to Earth

With the Renaissance came a new wave of secularism, letting artists return to the natural, bodily forms of the Greco-Roman period. In the Medieval era, art was patronized by either the church or its supporters. But by the 1400s, an aristocratic class had emerged in Europe whose wealth was unrelated to religion (such as the Medici family in Venice). When artists painted commissioned portraits, they rendered their subjects with naturalism, careful to highlight their earthly form (and wealth).

This naturalism extended into paintings of religious figures, as a way to bring those figures into the viewer’s world. One example is Fra Filippo Lippi’s 1465 painting Madonna with the Child and Two Angels. The painting’s background is recognizably earth. The figures’ halos are extremely faint, downplaying their connection to heaven. Lippi painted a faux frame that the figures burst out of, giving the illusion that they actually enter the viewer’s space. This is the opposite of Medieval images, which emphasized a separation between the realm of the religious figures and that of the earthly viewer.

The (broken) arrow of time

Dormition of the Virgin, c. 1340–45

If the cause of Medieval abandonment of naturalism was a divine mandate, its result was greater conceptual experimentation. Take the concept of time, which Medieval art often depicts as nonlinear (as it can be in spiritual settings). One example is The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (359 C.E.), which portrays scenes from both the Old and New Testaments out of order. Another is Dormition of the Virgin, which shows an adult Jesus over Mary’s earthly body holding a smaller version of Mary, representing her soul. (Mary’s soul sometimes even appears as a baby, creating a reverse Madonna and Child.)

Caravaggio painted one of the last “Dormition” scenes with a level of realism that deepens the sadness of Mary’s death. In his version, the viewer can imagine Mary as someone they know, in a home that looks like their own. Less obvious is what that realism precludes: a more ambitious rendering of time and meaning. For that, you’d have to go back to the Middle Ages.

The Death of the VirginMichelangelo Caravaggio
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Middle Age Misconceptions