Early Medieval Art – Research Notes

The Middle Ages in Europe can be broadly defined as the period between the end of antiquity in 5th century and the Renaissance, or rebirth, of classical learning in the 15th and 16th centuries. Petrarch, the 14th century poet and scholar referred to the period as the Dark Ages because he felt that the knowledge of the classical age was eroded during that time. While the visual arts did flourish they were influenced, and in some ways limited, by the newly emergent Christian faith.

The artists of ancient Greek and Rome had created portraits which showed a realistic likeness of the individual, whether they were created to portray Emperors, government officials or private individuals.

This legacy was a problem for early Christian theologians. According to the Old Testament, God had forbidden Moses from making any likeness of heaven, earth or in water. Many early Christians, however, were converted pagans and had used images as part of their worship.

While the use of images persisted, the style and appearance began to change to accommodate the emerging Christian theology. There was a move away from the realistic quality of the classical world. Techniques such as shading, modelling and perspective began to fade out. Working from the natural world lessened as artists worked to more prescriptive templates and styles. Without perspective, space was flattened and images lost their realistic quality.

In sculpture, the faces of individuals used other ways of identifying the individual using instead their attributes, coats of arms or inscriptions.

In Western Europe, this approach dominated until the imperial rule of Charlemagne (800-814 AD) and the rise of Carolingian art. The debate continued within the Byzantine Empire with the issue resolved, allowing images, in 787 AD.

In the 14th century more realistic representations emerged, complementing the symbolic representations of the past. This began with royal funerary or commemorative busts and by the late medieval period realistic images were, once again, being created.


Little, C.T, and W.A. Stein. The Face in Medieval Sculpture. At: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/face/hd_face.htm (Accessed on 18.06.17)

Ross, N. (s.d) Introduction to the Middle Ages. At: http://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-history/medieval-world/medieval-europe/a/introduction-to-the-middle-ages (Accessed on 18.06.17)

Ross, N. (s.d) A New Pictorial Language: The Image in Early Medieval Art. At: http://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/medieval-world/medieval-europe/a/a-new-pictorial-language-the-image-in-early-medieval-art (Accessed on 18.06.17)

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