Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 3. Detroit: Gale, 2005.
The Carolingian Restoration of Roman Culture
Charlemagne and the Restoration of Empire
The first enduring attempt at a restoration of Roman culture since the fall of Rome was accomplished under the rule of Charles the Great (768-814), king of the Franks, known to history as Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus, in Latin; the “Carolingian” dynasty was named for Charlemagne and his grandfather, Charles Martel or Carolus Martellus). One of the many migrant Germanic tribes that came from the east to settle in early medieval Europe, the Franks were able to consolidate their power into a kingdom (more or less corresponding to present-day France, Germany, and the Benelux countries [or Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg]) of formidable size and strength. Charlemagne’s ambition was stated on his royal seal—renovatio Romani imperii (restoration of the Roman Empire)—and in the realm of politics as well as culture and the arts, he expressed the spirit of a classical revival, a trend that would continue into the following centuries with art objects such as the processional Lothair Cross (c. 1000, today in the Schatzkammer of the Aachen Dom), which features a cameo with a portrait bust of the emperor Augustus in the center of the cross’s triumphal side. Politically, Charlemagne sought to make his rule a continuation of the western empire of Rome and a counterpart to the great Byzantine Empire of Constantinople, the eastern part of the late Roman Empire and center for Greek Orthodox Christianity. He took a major step toward this goal when, on Christmas Day in the year 800, he had himself crowned emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III.
Charlemagne and his successors, from their capitals in Aachen (in present-day Germany) and elsewhere, developed a cultural policy that depended upon the opulent and aristocratic artistic heritage of the Roman and Byzantine imperial courts. Books were an important part of the literary, intellectual, and religious culture of the Carolingians, and manuscripts that were beautifully illuminated (illustrated with colored and gilded pictures) and adorned (provided with richly decorated covers) represent the peak of achievement in the visual arts during this time. In Latin manuscripts—copied in a stately round, wide, and highly legible script called Carolingian minuscule and decorated in royal and monastic workshops—Carolingian notions of sacred kingship and courtly refinement were strongly expressed. Some of the most extravagant of these books—usually copies of the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, intended for use by the emperor—had covers made of gilt silver and precious stones or of ivory panels carved in relief in the Byzantine manner.
The Lorsch Gospels
An excellent example of such a work of decorative art is the preserved back cover of the Lorsch Gospels, produced in about 810. It is composed of five ivory panels carved in relief and arranged so that the Virgin and Child appear in the center flanked by the figures of Zacharias and John the Baptist, with a scene of the Nativity below and two angels supporting an image of Christ in Majesty above. The iconography or image-types depicted, as well as the style of carving and the use of the luxury material ivory all suggest an interest in emulating the sumptuous art of the Byzantine imperial court. A full-page illumination depicting the evangelist John contained within a gospel book executed for Charlemagne around 800 demonstrates how the royal painting workshops very often depended upon classical Roman models. Not only does this image hark back to antiquity in its naturalistic treatment of the human figure, but it also adopts the antique motif of the author portrait in its representation of John as author of his gospel. Such artistic masterworks as these ivory panels and this manuscript painting showcase the abilities of Carolingian craftsmen and express a clear cultural policy of classical revival and courtly opulence.
The Lindau Gospels
Luxury book covers, executed in metal and precious stones, conveyed a similar sense of courtly magnificence and sacred kingship. The front cover of the Lindau Gospels is a prime example of such work. Both the central figure of the crucified Christ (the prototype of the “sacred king”) and the angels and mourners hovering above and below the arms of the cross were created by hammering designs into sheets of gold, a technique known as repoussé. The rigid symmetry of the composition as well as the use of gems and pearls set within the gold cover are a fine example of how the sacred, royal art of the early Middle Ages was meant to communicate a particular idea in powerful and unambiguous terms. It was also meant to flatter the royal patron (in this case the Emperor Charles the Bald) and impress the members of his court, since it clearly encouraged imperial pretensions and implied that the ruler was worthy of such a magnificent object.
The Monastic Influence
Benedictine monasteries had a particularly important role to play in the elaboration of the visual arts of the period, in no small part because of the royal support of Benedictine monastic houses within the Carolingian Empire and emphasis on the Rule of St. Benedict in preference to other monastic rules. This was true especially under the rule of the Carolingian king Louis the Pious (814-840), who endowed major monastic foundations at Reims, Metz, and Tours (all in present-day France), each of which produced some of the most important decorated manuscripts that have survived. The portrait of the evangelist St. Mark in the gospel book of Archbishop Ebbo of Reims (816-835) shares with the portrait of St. John—from one of Charlemagne’s personal copies of the gospels—a dependence upon a classical formula, but the more dynamic and expressive style hints at the creative vigor of monastic artists of the period, especially in the strong lines of the garment folds. A similar linear dynamism and pictorial inventiveness can be seen in the illustrations to the famous Utrecht Psalter (a book of psalms used during the Liturgy of the Hours), also from the Reims school of manuscript decoration. Once again, the style of the drawings (like the minuscule script modeled on what the scribe imagined was “Roman” writing) are unmistakably classical in inspiration, though the images, which provide literal illustrations to the text of the psalms, are without precedent in late Roman wall and book painting. In a detail from Psalm 11, the figure of Christ literally rises up and steps out from the confines of his divine aureole (a circle of light around the head or body of a divine being) in illustration of the text: “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I rise, said the Lord.” Below that, the wicked actually “walk round about,” again in a playful and literal response to the text. These few examples from the visual art of the Carolingian period give a sense of the ingenuity of Carolingian artists; they point to the centrality of luxury books within the religious, intellectual, and political culture; and they represent the early medieval adaptation of artistic techniques (in metalwork, ivory carving, and manuscript painting) inherited from classical antiquity.
England and the Vikings
The Rise of English Unity
The empire of the Carolingians began to decline after the monarchy of Louis the Pious (814-840), but its artistic influence was felt for centuries to come, often far outside its borders. England, settled by the Germanic tribes known as Angles and Saxons, developed a political model of sacred kingship that was based on Old Testament precedents and that was dependent upon the official sanction of Christian churchmen, just as Carolingian kingship had been. This early medieval notion of sacred kingship implied that the authority of the church was exercised through the person of the king or emperor, whose claim to both political and religious authority was based on the precedent of the Old Testament kings and, more recently, the Frankish (or Carolingian) emperors of Rome. It was an accommodation between spiritual and temporal authority that served the interests of both, as each sought to gain legitimacy and power by association with the other. The “golden age” in early medieval English culture is usually associated with the reign of King Alfred the Great (871-899) of the royal house of Wessex, the unifier of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in their defense against the invasions of the Vikings. A Scandinavian people not yet converted to Christianity, the Vikings raided and looted all over western Europe in the ninth century, destroying many wealthy monastic houses but invigorating interregional trade in early medieval Europe through their establishment of routes along which their precious booty (slaves as well as gold and silver) was exchanged for goods from the East. The Vikings, and in particular their technically accomplished and decorative metalwork, had an important impact upon the visual arts in Western Europe.
The Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel, made from gold and enamel and probably intended to be the top of a royal scepter, reveals quite a bit about the state of the visual arts in England around 900. First, there is the connection of this object to a king. The arts would not have flourished as they did in the early Middle Ages were it not for the sponsorship of rulers, who saw the propaganda value of art and often lavished great resources upon the royal and monastic workshops that produced all sorts of luxury objects. Second, an inscription around the edge of the Alfred Jewel reads “Alfred ordered me to be made,” an attribution that demonstrates the general anonymity of the early medieval artist in contrast to the all-importance of the (royal) patron. Additionally, the style and craftsmanship of the jewel shows the way that different cultural traditions were often combined in the creation of works of art: the goldwork resembles that of the Vikings, who specialized in small-scale portable objects in metal, stone, and wood and were especially known for detailed and decorative metalwork, while the half-length enameled figure of the ruler is based on earlier English indigenous traditions of semi-abstract figure drawing. The Carolingian (and more Roman) impact on the visual arts in England is not yet evident in the Alfred Jewel, but would appear soon in the illuminated manuscripts of the tenth century.
Monastic Centers of Illumination
King Alfred presided over a flourishing and vibrant court culture, and in the manner of Charlemagne he invited scholars from all over the continent to come to his court and work under his patronage. Because monasteries were the preservers of the intellectual heritage and many of these had recently been destroyed or looted by the Vikings in the ninth century, Alfred and some of his successors helped to rebuild monastic libraries in England in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Illuminated manuscripts, therefore, constitute an important part of the artistic legacy from England in the early Middle Ages. Important schools of manuscript illumination sprang up in cathedral centers like those of Canterbury and Winchester, thanks to the efforts and patronage of church leaders like St. Dunstan (d. 988), the abbot of Glastonbury and later the archbishop of Canterbury, and St. Aethelwold (d. 984), a monk at Glastonbury who was made bishop of Winchester.
The New Minster Charter and Benedictional of Aethelwold
The first known work of the new Winchester school of manuscript decoration shows the close relationship between pictorial imagery and accompanying text. The book called today the New Minster Charter was commissioned by Bishop Aethelwold in 966 to commemorate the introduction of Carolingian-style monastic reform (focused on eliminating “worldly” behavior) into a Winchester monastery. The frontispiece of the charter depicts King Edgar between the Virgin Mary and the Apostle Peter, the two patron saints of the abbey. Edgar is shown extending the charter—a document outlining and confirming the royally granted holdings and privileges of a monastery—up to the enthroned Christ, visualizing the royal donations made to the abbey by the king on this occasion. The accompanying text says, “Thus resides on his heavenly throne he who created the stars. The devout King Edgar humbly adores him. King Edgar issued this privilege to the new monastery and, with praise, granted gifts to the almighty Lord and his mother Mary.” Just as monastic reform was introduced to England from France, so too were later Carolingian traditions in manuscript illustration brought to England and adapted to local tastes, as shown by this image. In the 970s Aethelwold ordered a lavishly decorated benedictional (a book containing blessings spoken by the bishop during the Mass) in which each major feast is accompanied by a pair of full-page illustrations. The illustration of the Baptism of Christ demonstrates further how Carolingian traditions in manuscript illumination found new life in the vibrant monastic houses of Anglo-Saxon England. The figures of Christ, John, and the angels, as well as some of the narrative details (like the water), are rendered in a linear style reminiscent of the French “Reims Cathedral” school, but the complex color scheme and the profusion of leafy ornament that literally bursts out of the frame indicate a rising interest in decorative embellishment and a new artistic complexity.
Spanish Culture and the Muslims
Promoting the Reconquista
Like their counterparts in England, the tenth-century rulers of the Christian kingdoms of Spain were consolidating power in the face of enemy resistance and developing a visual culture of ornament and symbols to express their political aspirations. Muslim forces had crossed from northern Africa into Spain in the year 711 and proceeded to defeat the Visigoths, a Germanic people converted to Christianity who had ruled Spain until that time. After the Muslim conquest of most of Spain, the Christian territories occupied only the northernmost and northeastern parts of the Iberian Peninsula. Here, Christian rulers held their ground against Muslim incursions and gradually expanded the area of their control. Clinging to the hope that all of Spain would one day be united under Christian rule, as it was before the Muslim conquest, Christian rulers in Spain developed the notion of the Christian Reconquest of Spain (Reconquista), and they sponsored a program of visual arts to advance this notion. From liturgical objects (objects used in church services) created out of precious materials to illuminated manuscripts of Bibles and other religious texts, the arts of early medieval Christian Spain proclaimed Christian victory to be inevitable. In the Christian kingdoms of Asturias, León, Castile, and Navarre, these luxury arts combined established Visigothic visual traditions with Carolingian influences, as well as artistic motifs and styles derived from the neighboring Islamic culture.
The Victory Cross of Oviedo
The royal ideology of Christian Reconquest is clearly evident in the spectacular Victory Cross of Oviedo, donated in 908 by King Alfonso III of Asturias to the cathedral of Oviedo, and probably made a few years earlier. This fine object draws upon the tradition of the cross as an image of Christian victory, which originated in the fourth century with the Roman Emperor Constantine (who was told in a dream that he would defeat his enemies “under this sign”). As an object of richness and beauty, it perfectly showcases the artistic splendor and magnificence that in the early Middle Ages was the aesthetic counterpart to the Christian idea of worldly triumph in its figural embodiment. The iconography of this cross displays no humility or poverty, virtues often associated with Christianity in other contexts.
Monastic communities in Christian Spain, just as in Carolingian France and Germany, and Anglo-Saxon England, played a major role in the elaboration of the visual arts. As scribes and illuminators of decorated and illustrated manuscripts, Spanish monks developed a recognizable visual language that was the unique expression of their culture. An illustration from a manuscript produced around 950 is a fine example. The work is an illustrated commentary on the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of St. John in the modern New Testament. The text of this commentary was compiled before 800 by a Spanish monk known as Beatus of Liébana, and, as the idea of Christian Reconquest picked up momentum in the tenth century, it was expressed anew in the monastic houses of the Christian north through extensive programs of illustration. The apocalyptic theme of these books may have appealed to monks of the time, who imagined the Christian Reconquest of Spain as an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. An illustration from one manuscript of the Beatus Commentary, perhaps produced for the monastery of San Miguel de Escalada in the kingdom of León, shows the Heavenly Jerusalem, a mystical vision presented in highly schematized (rather abstract and diagrammatic) form. The visual language of intense color and ornamental flatness—for the image lacks any suggestion of naturalistic or three-dimensional space—hearkens back to some Visigothic precedents but may also be understood in relation to the very impressive and influential art of Islamic Spain. Islamic art is noted for its geometric patterns, its profusion of ornament, its rich colors, and its general avoidance of figuration because the Koran forbade the reproduction of human and animal forms in art as idolatrous. Of course, in such Beatus illustrations, the inclusion of human (and divine) figures indicates a specifically Christian point of view. The decorative and somewhat formulaic presentation provides an effective way to express in pictorial form a text that is full of mystical imagery.
Also typically Spanish in such illustrations of the Heavenly Jerusalem is the “horseshoe” arch that often frames the figures arranged around the central square or circle. This is an architectural form common in Islamic Spain and certainly familiar to those Christians, known as “Mozarabs,” who had lived under Islamic rule before coming north to the Christian kingdoms in the tenth century. The Mozarabs brought their knowledge of Islamic culture and artistic traditions along with them, and the image of the Heavenly Jerusalem is an example of how those traditions were incorporated into the visual art of Christian monasteries in tenth-century Spain. Another example of Mozarabic influence can be found in a Beatus manuscript from about 970, made for the monastery of San Salvador at Tábara in the kingdom of León. The image on the colophon page (at the end of the manuscript where the scribe provides identifying information about his involvement in the production) shows the same architectural feature—the horseshoe arch—in the representation of the tower and scriptorium of the monastery. In this earliest surviving image of a medieval scriptorium (where manuscripts were copied by hand and sometimes decorated), the scribes named “Emeterius” and “Senior” are hard at work. It is a testament to the cultural importance of monasteries such as this one that the likely creators of this illuminated manuscript are known to us by name.
The ongoing struggle between Christianity and Islam in medieval Spain clearly was (and continued to be) a significant factor in the development of unique and often hybrid artistic forms. Yet the visual art of early medieval Spain shares many commonalties with other artwork being produced outside of Spain during the same period: its undeniably Christian character; its royal and/or monastic context of production; its relationship to earlier and contemporary artistic traditions; and its ambitions, which at this early stage in the history of medieval Europe sometimes exceeded the level of technical ability or the availability of wealth and resources.
Revival of Empire in Germany
Although the Carolingian Empire lasted hardly a hundred years, the mantle of empire was passed in the tenth century to a dynasty of rulers from Saxony, in Germany, known as the Ottonians (after “Otto,” the name used by three of them). These rulers styled themselves “Roman Emperors” and very self-consciously attempted to recapture the power and prestige of Rome and Constantinople for their reigns, just as Charlemagne had done. In the sumptuous production of the cathedral and monastic workshops (which were supported by imperial donations), precious metalwork objects, carved ivory panels, and deluxe manuscripts speak of the Ottonian reign as decreed by God, and, in particular, they show a strong debt to Byzantine artistic practices. Like Charlemagne, the Ottonian rulers were formally recognized by the Byzantine emperors and the two realms were soon connected by marriage ties. Byzantine visual arts and fashions of all kinds were imitated by Ottonian artists and court officials. This imperial art in the center of Europe, with its impressive synthesis of Carolingian, Byzantine, and other, especially Roman, traditions, would play a major role in the elaboration of the early Romanesque style by the mid-eleventh century.
The Imperial Crown
In its material and symbolic richness, the German Imperial Crown fashioned for the coronation of Otto I as emperor in 962 (and used as well by subsequent German emperors) is a wonderful example of German imperial art of the early Middle Ages. Its eight arched golden plates form an octagon, in deliberate reference to the architecture of Charlemagne’s palace chapel in Aachen. The many gemstones and pearls arranged on the eight plates make explicit reference to the number and distribution of pearls and gems on the walls of the Heavenly Jerusalem as described in the biblical Book of Revelation. The symbolic schema applied to the construction of this crown therefore serves both to associate Otto’s rule with that of his famous Carolingian predecessor and also to lend biblical authority to that rule. The crown’s structure and arrangement of parts clearly demonstrate that monastic artists of the time could combine their masterful craftsmanship with their scriptural and theological knowledge. In this way a work of medieval art also becomes a document of medieval learning and culture in a broader sense.
The Lothair Cross
The Lothair Cross, a work created around the year 1000 for processional use or for display on the church altar during a mass before an imperial audience bears a clear relationship to earlier examples such as the Spanish Victory Cross of Oviedo. With its very different front and back configurations, however, the Lothair Cross expresses the dual, antithetical character of medieval Christianity. On the one side, a simple linear engraving of the dead Christ on a silver ground embodies the notion of the cross as an instrument of suffering and death. On the other side, an array of jewels upon a golden ground proclaims Christ’s victory over death and recalls the magnificent, visionary images of the cross as an apocalyptic sign of Christian triumph. Early medieval art objects and images were very often designed in this way so as to negotiate between such antithetical concepts as luxury and austerity; biblical past and apocalyptic future; time-bound narrative and eternal symbol. The Roman cameo with its portrait bust of the emperor Augustus, set in the center of the cross’s triumphal side, provided a worthy model for the imperial rule of the reigning emperor, Otto III (983-1002). It also illustrates the interrelationship between religion and politics that was crucial in the configuration of so much early medieval art.
The Gospel Book of Otto III
Ottonian artists were equally accomplished in the field of manuscript illumination, and this pictorial medium was just as important as metalwork objects in expressing the ideals of the Ottonian emperors and bishops who commissioned particular manuscripts. The deluxe Gospel Book of Otto III is a case in point. Upon opening the jewel-encrusted golden cover, with its inset carved ivory panel, one finds a painted ceremonial portrait of the emperor and members of his court spread across two full pages. The very formal, frontal depiction of the larger-than-life emperor hearkens back to late Roman and early Christian ruler portraits. His large scale and central placement with respect to his attendants (bishops on his right, secular lords on his left) indicates his place at the top of the hierarchy and his sovereignty over both church and state. The four female figures that approach in homage on the facing page are personifications of the four provinces of the empire bearing tribute for the emperor. In early medieval painting as in metalwork or sculpture, any attempt at naturalism is generally subordinated to the symbolic or hieratic (traditional) expression of key ideas in unambiguous terms. Naturalism did exist in early medieval art, but not in any absolute sense, and always in tension with non-naturalistic modes of representation.
The Cult of Saints and the Rise of Pilgrimage
An Investment in Pilgrimage Art
Although the concept of Christian pilgrimage to a sacred site was almost as old as Christianity itself, pilgrimage as a social phenomenon in medieval Europe increased dramatically during the tenth and eleventh centuries as more people visited traditional shrines where saints’ relics had long been venerated. A relic is what’s left of a saint, either a part of the body (a tooth, an arm, a skull, some blood, etc.) or an article of clothing or other accessory (ranging from Christ’s own Crown of Thorns to a shoe or garment belonging to the most minor of saints). Such holy objects, increasingly in the possession of churches, cathedrals, and abbeys all over Europe, were venerated by members of all social classes who attributed to them a divine power. Their custodians preserved and honored these relics by creating beautiful containers, known as reliquaries, to house them.
The Impact of Pilgrimage
The impact on European culture and visual art of this new flourishing of the cult of saints is difficult to overestimate. Whether pilgrims traveled to fulfill an oath, to seek a cure for an illness, to gain the favor of a particular saint, or as an act of penance, they spent money along their journeys and gave donations at local shrines. Recognizable by their large brimmed hats, walking sticks, and food bags called scrips, pilgrims collected small tokens or badges at shrines along the way, which they could bring home as souvenirs of their journey. Fundamentally a spiritual endeavor, pilgrimage also became a big business in the eleventh century, stimulating the economy and motivating secular rulers and monastic communities to invest heavily in the visual arts associated with the cult of saints. Thus, in addition to new and larger churches along the major pilgrimage routes designed to accommodate greater numbers of pilgrims, this period witnessed an explosion of metalwork and enamelwork reliquary containers for saints’ relics; illustrated books narrating the lives and miracles of saints; other decorated religious books such as Bibles and psalters; and liturgical vestments and vessels used for the performance of the Mass before ever-larger crowds of Christian pilgrims. The powerful abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, France, promoted the growth of pilgrimage across Europe and profited immensely, while kings and bishops found political as well as economic advantage in supporting and endowing popular shrines with costly art objects.
Reliquary Shrine of St. Foy
A wonderful example in many ways is the golden reliquary statue of St. Foy (or Foi), currently in the Cathedral Treasury of Conques, in south-central France. Foy was a martyr saint, a young girl executed by the Romans for her Christian beliefs. Her relics were brought to the abbey of Conques in the later ninth century. During the expansion of pilgrimage to Conques in the tenth century, the monks there actively promoted the cult of this saint and over time built for her relics a magnificent statue-like container (which was embellished further in the centuries afterward). Gold sheeting was laid over a wooden core, and a metal crown and throne were added along with the jewels, antique cameos, and gold filigree work that adorn the garment. The head is actually a late-Roman parade helmet, readapted for this new purpose. The resulting representation of the saint is a powerful object of devotion, and as an image of sacred authority (following the ancient Roman visual tradition of seated authority figures), it was an effective visual aid in the abbey’s campaign to solicit donations in gold from the surrounding region. Some of the donations were used in the creation of this exquisite reliquary, but most of the abbey’s income from this campaign was used for trade and other projects. The St. Foy statue thus represents and visualizes the very straightforward economic power of the reinvigorated cult of saints, just as it suggests how the devotional power of a relic could be enhanced by the creation of a work of visual beauty to contain it.
Less magnificent and imposing but still very fine and much more abundant were the box- and casket-reliquaries composed of metal plates (sometimes over a wooden core) decorated with enamel panels, such as a twelfth-century container for a fragment of the True Cross (the cross upon which Christ was crucified) that seems to have been made specifically for the church of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, France. The figures decorating the box are labeled by name and tell the story of the relic’s journey from the East to Saint-Sernin. On the lid is an image of Christ in glory. The beauty of the container with its fine craftsmanship and colorful surface suggests the importance and value of the relic within. The two main centers for the production of such small, portable enamelwork objects beginning in the twelfth century were Limoges, in central France (where the Saint-Sernin reliquary was produced), and the Mosan region in the Rhine and Meuse River valleys. The type of enamelwork seen in the Saint-Sernin reliquary is known as champlevé, created by a process in which the desired forms and lines are engraved into the metal surface and filled with colored glass powder, which is then heated until it fuses, producing a glass-like surface. Such works were exported all over Europe, helping to promote the veneration of relics while contributing to a greater uniformity of style and iconography in the visual arts of the period.
The Throne of Wisdom
Another important benchmark in the rise of European devotional culture is the increasing presence of sculpted representations of the Virgin Mary (or the Virgin and Child), usually on church altars. One striking twelfth-century example carved in wood illustrates a specialty of the Auvergne region in central France. With its rigid frontality and rather abstract rendering of drapery and other details, this statue and others of its kind were meant to project an iconic presence and to convey a theological notion of the Virgin as “Throne of Wisdom” (sedes sapientiae in Latin). Such objects often doubled as reliquary containers, and they flourished in churches along the pilgrimage roads. The expression of stern authority and devotional intensity of this Virgin and Child is clearly related to that of the St. Foy statue. It is this period, in fact, that witnesses the return of monumental figurative sculpture which had been generally absent in European art since the fall of the Roman Empire.
Romanesque Art: An International Phenomenon
An Age of Surplus
Until the eleventh century (and so, throughout the early medieval period), the visual arts in western Europe were an index of a young civilization’s efforts to recapture a former grandeur and to express the ideals of the developing culture of Latin Christendom. Beginning around the end of the first Christian millennium (and certainly by the mid-eleventh century), European culture and the visual arts reached a new plateau and entered into a wonderfully rich and fertile period that we have come to call “Romanesque.” The historical factors underlying this cultural development are well known. Improved agricultural technology helped to bring about an historic expansion of the European economy and society in the eleventh century. Old centers of production were revitalized, interregional trade increased (as did the use and circulation of gold and silver coinage), and populations grew. Unprecedented surpluses, controlled by the landed aristocracy, made possible the burst of building activity and art production that is associated with the Romanesque period, the beginning of what might be called the “High Middle Ages.”
The Romanesque Style
The art-historical designation “Romanesque” was first used in the nineteenth century to describe the architecture of eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe, which, with its rounded arches, barrel vaults, and columns with decorative capitals, seemed derivative of ancient Roman architectural forms. Today the term Romanesque is used to describe the general style of the visual arts from the period. For the first time since ancient Rome, a genuinely international movement in the visual arts is apparent, united by common forms, subjects, and styles and stretching across the regions that now comprise England, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy. The arts reached a new level of coherence in the integration of Roman, Byzantine, Carolingian, Ottonian, and Islamic traditions. The imperial art of Germany was an especially important influence with its Byzantine connections and its powerful visual language, while the explosion of pilgrimage activity helped to establish pathways throughout Europe over which artistic styles and techniques could be spread.
While the renaissance of Charlemagne in the Frankish Empire around 800, or of King Alfred the Great in England around 900, represented the ambition of a ruler to project a higher level of civilization, the Romanesque era was more than a projection; European civilization legitimately began to rival both Byzantium and Islam in terms of cultural development and sophistication. The visual arts—sculpture in stone and wood, metalwork, textiles, manuscript illumination, and mural painting—bear witness to this remarkable achievement.
The Reliquary Shrine of San Isidoro
The Reliquary Shrine of San Isidoro in León is a good example of how royal sponsorship helped to bring about the production of what may be considered the earliest known Romanesque reliquary shrine. In its monumentality of conception and execution, it anticipates works of the following century. The occasion for the creation of this shrine was the defeat of the Muslim forces at Seville and the capture of that city by King Fernando I of León in 1063 (a major advance in the Christian Re-conquest of Spain). The prized relics of San Isidoro (who was something of a Spanish national saint) were transferred at this time from Seville in the south to León in the north and deposited in a church that was rededicated to the saint. The ideological importance of the relics within the kingdom of León and the political importance of the occasion warranted the creation of the gilt silver container. The five scenes from the biblical book of Genesis (two additional scenes have been lost) as well as the figure of Fernando I appear on plaques that adorn the shrine. The choice of scenes and particular compositions recall both Carolingian Bible illustration from the Tours school and figurative bronze work from the Ottonian era (specifically a set of bronze-relief doors from Hildesheim in Saxony). The decorative silks lining the casket are of Islamic origin, their re-use a customary practice for Christian reliquary containers in Spain.
Abbot Durandus at Moissac
The effectiveness of so much Romanesque art in conveying a sense of political authority by drawing upon powerful, iconic modes of representation is well illustrated by an image of Abbot Durandus from about 1100, carved in low relief on the central marble pier in the cloister of the abbey church of Saint-Pierre, in Moissac (southwest France). This church, an important stop on one of the major pilgrimage roads, was a key outpost of the powerful monastic order of Cluny. It was reformed according to the Cluniac Order by Durandus, who ruled the religious community there as abbot from 1047 to 1072. This marble slab, erected later in his memory, commemorates the period of his rule and serves as a visualization of the authority that was so important within a monastery. This sense is conveyed by the rigid symmetry and frontality of the figure and by the ceremonial vestments and gesture. In its position facing the room where the monks regularly held meetings, this image functioned very well as a reminder of the abbot’s supremacy. Romanesque art does not always display such rigidly abstract qualities; in fact the period after 1100 saw the spread of a more dynamic expressiveness in many works of visual art. But the close physical connection between the figure of Durandus and the architectural frame enclosing him (and also the structural support upon which he appears) is very characteristic of the Romanesque aesthetic.
The Cistercian Moralia in Job
The close relationship between figure and support was even more creatively explored in the realm of manuscript illumination, a much more fluid medium. Text and image were often conflated in “historiated” or “inhabited” initials, in which the form of a letter provides space and structure for one or more figures to appear and to act out scenes related to the text. An example is the initial “R” from the title page of an early twelfth-century manuscript of the Moralia in Job, a well-known commentary on the Old Testament Book of Job composed centuries earlier by Pope Gregory the Great. The title Moralia indicates the “moralities” or allegories of New Testament events Gregory found contained in the story of Job. Literally occupying the space within the letter is a dragon confronted by a sword-wielding knight who stands upon the back of a lance-wielding soldier or servant. The monastic community responsible for the production of this manuscript and its decorations is that of the new Cistercian Order, founded in 1098 in Cîteaux (in Burgundy, France) by Benedictine monks who opposed what they saw as the worldly excesses of the Cluniac Order (the leading order of Benedictine monasticism). They wished to live a more austere life closer to the model of the early Christian hermit monks, and their outlook eventually carried over into the visual art (and architecture) that they produced. By the time this manuscript was completed in 1111, the Cistercians’ most rigorous strictures regarding the artistic embellishment of books and other objects had not yet been enforced (although there is a conspicuous absence of gold leaf, and there are no full-page illustrations within). Decorated initials such as this one were seen by the monastic audience in terms of spiritual meanings; in this case the fight between dragon and knight represented the spiritual struggle of the monks over evil impulses. Although involved in a scene of strenuous action that might seem to call for a realistic style, the figures are depicted with fantastically proportioned bodies and decorative, stylized clothing characteristic of the Romanesque. Naturalism here is clearly subordinated to a scheme that is decorative and made to literally “fit” the text it embellishes.
The Bayeux Tapestry
The relationship between text and image is just as important in the 231-foot-long “Bayeux Tapestry,” which is technically not really a tapestry at all but an embroidery on linen. Commissioned in the 1080s, it features a continuous pictorial narrative relating the story of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. This secular work, apparently unique, follows very closely the written narrative account of the conquest by William of Poitiers, the chaplain of the victorious Duke William of Normandy. Captions throughout identify figures and scenes. In one section, for example, the Earl Harold of England can be seen accompanying Duke William of Normandy on his military campaign in Brittany; another section shows the Battle of Hastings, where William’s forces defeated Harold and paved the way for William’s ascent to the English throne. Meant largely as a justification for the Norman Conquest and subsequent rule over the English, this monumental work draws inspiration from the ancient Roman tradition of the continuous picture roll, which similarly served a political function. The combination of forms, colors, composition, and iconography marks this work as distinctly Romanesque. It is also worth noting that the Bayeux Tapestry shares with other Romanesque works a certain focus on the contest for power and authority (whether secular or religious). Interestingly, its theme and its lively narrative have appealed to more modern military leaders and would-be conquerors (such as Napoleon and Hitler, who sought to study this work), just as its abundant imagery continues to inspire new art-historical scholarship.
Art At the Cultural Frontier in the Twelfth Century
A Multicultural Art
Interregional trade in luxury and art objects helped make it possible for Romanesque art to synthesize many different visual languages. But there were also particular regions where Latin Christians from Europe coexisted or came into frequent contact with members of other cultures, and these points of contact were important in giving Romanesque art its international character. Spain continued to be a frontier region where Christians and Muslims intermingled, sometimes sharing in a common artistic culture. In southern Italy and Sicily, a dynasty of Norman rulers presided over “a kingdom of the Two Sicilies” in which Latin, Greek (Byzantine), and Islamic traditions all had a share in defining the local culture. The eastern Mediterranean—the Holy Land—was another crucible of cross-cultural interaction where Latin Christian crusaders, Byzantine Christians, and Muslims fought each other and yet gained knowledge of each other’s traditions in the visual arts. Sometimes, art objects produced by one culture were taken and reused in a new context by another culture. Some hybrid art forms (Christian or Islamic? Latin or Greek?) carried across Europe through trade, war, or diplomacy were expressive of this medieval multiculturalism. With such a rich and cosmopolitan art scene in twelfth-century Europe, the stage was set for the advent of the more complex, intellectually sophisticated, and naturalistic visual art of the later Middle Ages.
The Normans, who had recently invaded and conquered England, established dominion over Sicily in the early twelfth century and founded a state which became a major power in the Mediterranean basin. The mantle for the coronation of the Christian king Roger II, created between 1133 and 1134, is a work of Islamic art made by Muslims in the royal workshop in Palermo (as its Arabic inscription states). It features a central Tree of Life flanked by lions attacking camels, a common hunting motif that signified royal power and dominion. What is meant by the commissioning and ceremonial employment of Islamic art by a Christian king? A comparison with the Spanish situation is instructive.
Christian kings of Spain brought back Islamic textiles or carved ivory caskets (often produced at the caliph’s court in Córdoba) as spoils of war and then often incorporated them into Christian shrines (as in the Reliquary Shrine of San Isidoro). This sort of hybridization in the arts, however, must be seen in the light of the ongoing military struggle between the two communities and the practice of despoiling one’s enemy and then neutralizing enemy symbols by re-contextualizing them. In Norman Sicily, Muslims were recognized subjects and even members of the royal administration; they were not the enemy. The coronation mantle, when worn by the king, visualized his claim to be ruler over a diverse ethnic constituency. His appeal to the visual tradition of his Muslim subjects demonstrates that rulers during this period could no longer assert their authority in the early medieval terms of absolute power. In multicultural contexts, they increasingly relied on a visual language of inclusiveness.
The Pisa Griffin
Sometimes works of art from this period are not so easy to identify with one specific cultural group or another. This may be because of the fact that they were moved from region to region, or perhaps because many of the same techniques and visual motifs were often employed in different places. A long-celebrated enigma of Islamic craftsmanship in bronze, the so-called “Pisa Griffin” has been alternatively assigned to Ummayad Spain, Fatimid Egypt (the first two named for the dynasties of their Muslim rulers), Sicily, Italy, or Iran. Each of these places had bronze-working traditions as well as flourishing court cultures that produced luxury objects and engaged in trans-regional trade. For some 700 years the Griffin stood proudly atop Pisa Cathedral in Pisa, Italy; how it got there is something of a mystery. It is thought to have been made in the late eleventh or early twelfth century, but was it given as a gift, exchanged through channels of trade, or taken as booty during a military campaign? Standing just over three and a half feet tall, this majestic creature would have been understood by any number of Mediterranean communities as a symbol of power and victory (hence its placement as a trophy atop the cathedral). It is the circulation of such works from place to place that gives evidence for cross-cultural relations during the period.
But surely these works also played a role in establishing pan-cultural identities and fostering knowledge of neighboring and distant peoples. In an era long before “globalization,” individual works of art very often did the work of establishing connections between places or attesting to the existence of those connections.
Queen Melisende’s Psalter
One outpost of Latin Christendom that served as a crucible of cross-cultural exchange in the visual arts was the Holy Land during the period of the Crusades (from about 1100 to almost 1300). During this time, knights and adventurers from all over Western Europe established states along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, the most important of which was the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Here, rulers of Latin or sometimes mixed Latin-Byzantine ancestry asserted their sovereignty over a mixture of peoples, not unlike the rulers of Norman Sicily. One such ruler was Queen Melisende, who ruled alongside her husband Fulk until his death in 1143, after which she enjoyed exclusive sovereignty over the kingdom until 1152. One of the greatest monuments of visual art from the period of her reign is a deluxe psalter, or book of Psalms, currently preserved in the British Library. The psalter text itself, the first page (and the first letter, an historiated letter “B” for “Beatus vir,” the first words of one of the Psalms), begins after a cycle of full-page New Testament illustrations and a calendar of the feasts of the saints. The golden script used throughout, as well as the overall sumptuousness of the book, indicates royal patronage and imitates the manner of imperial manuscripts from the Byzantine court in Constantinople. The text was copied by a scribe in a northern French style, and the figural work within the initial letter “B” imitates an English style. This mixture of influences can be found throughout the manuscript; the illustrations are largely Byzantine with some western touches, and the carved ivory covers recall textile motifs from the Near East. A work that truly synthesizes various cultural influences, the psalter expresses the queen’s desire to establish royal authority over a mixture of peoples by accommodating their various traditions within the new visual culture of the royal court. Other strategies are employed as well, such as the propagandistic scenes of King David on the front ivory cover which suggest a biblical prototype for the crusader rulers of Jerusalem.
The Stavelot Triptych
That a single work of art may express inter-regional connections by the literal incorporation of other works within it is clear from the example of the Stavelot Triptych, thought to have been commissioned by Wibald, the Benedictine abbot of Stavelot (in modern-day Belgium) sometime after 1155. It is a portable gilt copper altarpiece whose doors open to reveal scenes from the life of the Roman emperor Constantine in circular enamel panels, an assortment of gems and pearls, and two smaller triptychs in the central section. Wibald had just returned from a trip to Constantinople, and this altarpiece, executed by master metalsmiths in the Mosan region, emphasizes the abbot’s regard for Byzantine traditions in the visual arts. The two small triptychs in the center are actually reliquary containers from Constantinople, given as gifts by the Emperor Manuel I. The fragment of the True Cross that each contains as well as the particular type of enamel-work used to decorate the small reliquaries are both decidedly Byzantine intrusions into a work from Western Europe. The pride of place they are given within the overall work suggests that Byzantine sacred objects were held in especially high regard in the West. Perhaps the patron is also making a statement about the interconnectedness of different Christian traditions or about his own enlightened cosmopolitanism. Regardless of the specific meaning, it is works such as this that tell us that twelfth-century Europeans were finding many ways to assimilate influences from neighboring and distant cultures in the forging of new works of visual art. It is this openness to the larger world, as much as any internal developments, that helped pave the way toward the magnificent visual arts of the later Middle Ages.
Political Life and the New State
Achievement of the Royal State
By the later Middle Ages the various European states reached a crucial stage in their political development. England, France, and the Spanish kingdoms were each able to consolidate power and territory, asserting royal prerogatives and centralizing the administration of the realm. In France of the Capetian and Valois dynasties (987-1498) and in England of the Plantagenet dynasty (1154-1399), particularly, this resulted in the achievement of the royal state—the predecessor of the modern nation-state. The case of France is especially important because it is there that centralized political authority coincided with the development of the Gothic style—the prevailing style of European art in the later Middle Ages. Generally associated with the patronage of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis in the 1140s, outside of Paris, and emerging first in architecture, the new style very quickly came to be thought of as both “modern” and native to France. Leaving behind all notions of aesthetic and spiritual austerity, Gothic art fully embraced visual splendor for the greater glory of God, not to mention the glory of the monarchs, bishops, and noble individuals that promoted it. It was elegant and awe-inspiring, human-centered and otherworldly. The Gothic spread rapidly throughout the Ile-de-France (Paris and the surrounding region) and then on to England and elsewhere. It is found first in architecture but soon became predominant in all the visual arts, in fashion, and even in the design of mundane and everyday objects.
The Gothic as a French Style
If the maturity of the Gothic style in France and its dissemination throughout Europe can be associated with the reign of a single monarch, then that ruler is King Louis IX (r. 1226-1270). This “most Christian king” (Louis was made a saint 27 years after his death) patronized the arts in grand fashion as part of his effort to glorify Paris as the “new Jerusalem” and exalt the French nation as the “true Israel.” Convinced he was favored by God and destined for greatness, Louis spared no expense in pursuing his ambitious plans, both at home in Paris and on Crusade in the Holy Land. Because Paris became such an important and influential center during Louis’ 44-year reign, the mature Gothic style found its way from there to all corners of Europe. As a strong monarch and a patron of the arts, Louis came to be a model for other late medieval kings, most notably his contemporaries kings Henry III of England (r. 1216-1272) and Alfonso X of León-Castile (r. 1252-1284), as well as later rulers like King Charles V of France (r. 1364-1380) and King Edward III of England (r. 1327-1377).
The Psalter of Saint Louis
Created between 1253 and 1270 for the private devotion of the French king, the Psalter of Saint Louis defines the Gothic as a courtly French art. This exquisite small-format manuscript (5 cm x 3.5 cm), along with the many other high-quality illuminated manuscripts produced for the royal court of France during this time, earned for France its reputation as a center of Gothic art and culture. As a bibliophile whose library was famous throughout the royal courts of Europe, King Louis commissioned the psalter to be decorated with more than 78 full-page illustrations of Old Testament scenes. Each scene is set in an architectural frame adorned with lancets, pinnacles, tracery, and rose windows that seem to echo in miniature the architectural elements of Louis’s newly built Sainte-Chapelle (1243-1248). Along the borders run scrolls with an ivy leaf motif and fantastic animals in the corners. The program of illustrations lacks a clearly-defined relationship with the psalter text, and the choice of scenes—many of which concentrate on biblical heroes, such as Abraham and David—suggests that Louis probably intended there to be an association between himself and the biblical figures who were seen as his prototypes. In one example two episodes from a biblical story are depicted, conveniently separated by an oak tree. On the left, three strangers appear before the bearded and kneeling Abraham; on the right, the men have been invited in to break bread with their host, who has just learned that Sarah—who peeks through the open curtain in the back—will bear a child. Such a story would have been understood in thirteenth-century Christian Europe as a prefiguration of the Annunciation to the Virgin, a pattern of symbolism in which the Old Testament episode was intended to foreshadow a New Testament event, thus showing that the New Testament stories fulfilled prophecies in the Old. For Louis, programmatic and jewel-like works of art like this psalter were part of a coordinated cultural policy that exalted the ruler as saintly and his kingdom as a latter-day Israel, chosen by God and destined for greatness.
The Spread of the Gothic Style
Within the culture of the aristocratic and royal courts, the arts continued to flourish, sponsored by men and women who shared a common culture and held fast to the noble virtues of rank, wealth, and vestiges of chivalry. These individuals decorated castles, erected public monuments, and sought to commemorate their own deeds and those of their ancestors. They also turned to the visual arts to celebrate the more mundane pleasures and activities of courtly life, such as hunting, jousting, and literary invention. The taste and high standards of the nobility—visualized in illuminated manuscripts, goldsmith work, tapestries, and sculpture—translated into an aesthetic of opulence, elegance, and technical complexity that created a fashion across Europe. Drawing their inspiration from the new Gothic style in architecture, both visual artists and sculptors endowed their works with a decorative style of intricate lacy designs, sinuous curves, and a taste for architectural motifs such as high, pointed arches and pinnacles. Stone- and wood-carvers tended to favor patterns inspired by nature, such as vine and ivy foliage and acanthus flowers. The tomb of King Edward II of England (Gloucester Cathedral, 1307-1327) illustrates all these characteristics and shows how thoroughly this style of French origin was now implanted in England. It features an effigy of the deposed monarch reclining beneath a canopy of marble adorned with high pinnacles and ogival (curved and pointed) arches. With its complex architectural structure, its profuse ornament and overwhelming size, the marble canopy sets the deceased king apart from the viewer as it elevates him to an unattainable heavenly resting-place. Enshrined in this highly decorative structure, the idealized alabaster portrait of the king, contrasting in size and sobriety with the canopy, rests undisturbed in a majestic dignity. Here we see the Gothic in the service of the later medieval royal state, expressing the power and importance of the royal office while commenting upon the greatness of the honored individual.
The Hours of Jeanne D’evreux
Charles IV of France was another of the monarchs whose patronage expressed the elegant and aristocratic quality of the Gothic style. His wedding present to his wife, Jeanne d’Evreux, was a precious Book of Hours executed between 1325 and 1328. The small size of this manuscript (8.2 cm x 5.6 cm) made it a perfect present for the queen. Like many other ladies of the court, she most certainly treasured compact and portable manuscripts that could easily be carried in a pouch on the belt and read at intervals throughout the day. Books of Hours were very often personalized with portraits of the owner (Jeanne appears kneeling in an initial D below an image of the Annunciation) and with coat of arms when appropriate, and their pages were also used to press flowers or to hold images of favorite saints on tabs of parchment attached to the margins.
Iconography and Decoration
Both the iconographic program of the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux and its decoration point to its essentially aristocratic nature. The book includes a special cycle of devotions to Saint Louis (King Louis IX of France), newly canonized and favored at the French court. In the borders and the lower margins, small human figures and animal or hybrid grotesques are performing courtly games and secular activities such as jousting, hunting, and musical performance, so as to amuse the reader. The famous Parisian illuminator Jean Pucelle was responsible for the majority of the decoration, most notably the innovative technique of grisaille painting in manuscripts. Grisaille or monochrome painting (in shades of gray) was better known as a stained-glass technique and was also used in fresco painting when artists wished to emulate the volumetric quality of sculpture. During his travels in Italy, Pucelle may have been inspired by the works of Italian painters from whom he borrowed technical as well as compositional features. Besides the grisaille technique, he employed the device of the apparently three-dimensional volume of space containing each scene, the mannered drapery of the figures, and their swaying posture. The double page showing the Annunciation and the Betrayal of Christ illustrates some of these characteristics: the architectural device that encloses the Virgin and the archangel Gabriel resembles an Italian loggia, with decorative niches housing cherubs watching the scene. Mary’s mannered position and elegant drapery fit the delicate attitude of the court ladies of France, but Pucelle could also have seen examples of this style in Italy. Below, young girls and boys play a game of “froggy in the middle,” mocking one of the children, perhaps a deliberate reference to the mocking of Christ. On the facing page, below the Betrayal of Christ, two knights mounted on goats attack a barrel, possibly an allusion to military training.
The International Style
The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux expresses a courtly aesthetic that was increasingly international and that would before long give rise to the well-known and aptly-named “International Style” of aristocratic art by the end of the fourteenth century. Following the blood lines and the marriage ties that linked aristocratic courts, the International Gothic style could be found by the later fourteenth century in France, Italy, England, Germany, Bohemia (the western part of the modern Czech Republic), and Aragon. Instrumental in the establishment of interregional connections were the artistic commissions of the papal court in its new surroundings in southern France. By the early fourteenth century, political intrigue had combined with a weakened papacy in bringing about the pope’s exile from Rome to Avignon in 1305. This exile lasted for much of the fourteenth century, only to be followed by the Great Schism (beginning 1379), in which two and, at one point, even three rival popes each claimed absolute spiritual authority over Christendom. Pope Clement VI (r. 1342-1352) saw himself as a worldly sovereign and member of the aristocratic elite, and his grandiose palace in Avignon was meant to express this status. He employed both French and Italian artists under the supervision of the Italian master Matteo Giovanetti to decorate his private apartment with scenes that convey all the pleasures of courtly life. The Stag room (or camera cervus), the antechamber leading to the pope’s private bedroom, gets its name from one of the scenes that decorate the walls. Each of the four walls presents a large fresco depicting several scenes of fishing, stag hunting, falconry, fruit gathering, and bathing. Only the two windows of the south wall interrupt the scenes, which are set upon a continuous landscape background (complete with animals, men, and all sorts of naturalistic detail), itself presented upon a lavish red ground. In terms of style, the frescoes combine the elegance of Parisian court painting, the realism of Flemish painting, and the Italian fresco technique in a truly international style.
Intellectual Influences on Art in the Later Middle Ages
Academic Influences on Naturalism
Already in the twelfth century, formal education had moved from monastic houses to urban cathedral schools, and by the turn of the thirteenth century, the latter had given rise to the first universities, which quickly became the center of later medieval intellectual life throughout Europe. Although the traditional seven “liberal arts” (grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music) remained part of the curriculum, it was the newly translated writings of Aristotle that were most highly valued. Because of the perceived heretical ideas in the more naturalistic of his works, university scholars often dedicated themselves to the integration of this classical inheritance with Christian theology. Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus were two of the most important masters in the project of integrating faith and reason. More important for the visual arts, however, were the teachings of Robert Grosseteste (who wrote a treatise on light) and his admirer, Roger Bacon, who argued for greater attention to what can be seen with the human eye and more intellectual emphasis on empiricism and experimentation. Aristotle had placed the sense of sight at the top of the hierarchy of human senses, but these medieval thinkers formulated new ideas that harmonized with, perhaps justified, and possibly even helped to bring about the greater naturalism of later Gothic art. Artists always reserved a place for copying designs from model-books, but as the Middle Ages progressed, more artistic attention was also devoted to the observable world as inspiration.
A Visual Statement on Learning
The “Allegory of Learning,” an illustration from an early thirteenth-century encyclopedic work known as the Garden of Delights (Hortus Deliciarum), provides a clear visual statement of the interrelationship of faith and reason (and the curricular dominance of theology and philosophy) in the Gothic era. The original manuscript of the Garden of Delight, preserved in Strasbourg until it was destroyed by fire during the bombardment of the city in 1870 (and after which reproductions of some illustrations were made based on nineteenth-century drawings from the originals), was the ambitious product of Herrad von Landsberg, abbess of the convent of St. Odile in Hohenbourg (near Strasbourg) from 1167 to 1195. The new genre of the Christian encyclopedia or compendium of knowledge was a product of the twelfth century that sought to accommodate biblical, moral, and theological material. The Garden of Delights included nearly 1,200 texts by various authors, as well as some 636 illustrations that were so closely tied to their texts it is thought that Herrad must have supervised their planning, if not their execution (the manuscript illumination was most likely completed after her death). Although she undertook this massive project in “praise of Christ and the Church,” Herrad’s privileging of intellectual pursuits is obvious. “The Allegory of Learning” illustration in the text represents the seven liberal arts arrayed in niches around the central personification of Philosophy, who is enthroned and holding a scroll that reads, “All knowledge comes from God.” Socrates and Plato sit at her feet, emphasizing further the prominence of the Greek intellectual heritage within the now-Christian world of later medieval Europe. That such an undisguised tribute to pagan learning was possible at the time is a testament to the efforts of theologians and scholars who made this material “safe” by enveloping it within a thoroughly Christian worldview. It is notable in the history of medieval visual arts that such innovative compendia as the Garden of Delights relied so heavily upon their visual component. Certainly the compelling visual images helped to define the new construct according to which reason and revelation would continue to be reconciled.
Attention to Human Philosophy
Two fourteenth-century paintings from Italy demonstrate a similar concern for the intellectual preoccupations of medieval scholastic philosophers, and they present them in a format that offered much greater public access than Herrad’s manuscript, which was produced solely for the nuns in her convent. The first, an altarpiece from Santa Caterina in Pisa, created by artists working in the circle of Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (c. 1340-1345), depicts the glorification of St. Thomas Aquinas (See Philosophy, Challenging the Averroists, for a portrait of this type.) Aquinas had recently been canonized, and such images were meant in part to combat the spread of heretical ideas by reminding Christians that this saint’s approach to synthesizing philosophy and theology had become part of church doctrine. Accordingly, the painting shows the saint receiving his inspiration directly from God as he reads from the books presented to him by none other than Aristotle and Plato. This knowledge is transmitted to lay and religious figures alike in the form of golden rays, a motif traditionally used to depict the transmission of divine revelation. The figures of the evangelists above, accompanied by Paul and Moses, represent the enduring authority of God’s revelation, newly accommodated (but not subordinated) to the wisdom of human philosophy. At the bottom, the Muslim philosopher Averroës (1126-1198) reclines half-asleep. Another work that visualizes this theme for a Christian public is the fresco painting of the Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas, made by Andrea da Firenze in the vault of a chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence (c. 1360-68). Clearly, the church wished for the saint to be viewed as the model of Christian wisdom, for here he is enthroned with the representation of the seven liberal arts as well as leading figures from the various sacred and secular realms of knowledge. Such attention to human philosophy, here and elsewhere, did not pose a threat to the church’s authority because according to Aquinas, the physical world (as described by the philosophers) is a metaphor for the divine cosmos. Likewise, the work of art was to be seen as only a mirror image of the physical world. By cultivating the virtues of order, clarity, and harmony in their work, artists approach the ideal of beauty that for Aquinas refers ultimately to the perfection of the divine. Hence there was not only a justification for visual representation, but also an argument for greater realism in art, greater fidelity to the physical world.
Art from Sketchbooks
Direct evidence for such an approach to art-making is available in the preserved notebooks of an architect from early thirteenth-century France named Villard de Honnecourt. His ink sketches on parchment, dating from the 1220s or 1230s, illustrate Aquinas’ Aristotelian belief that “all causes in nature can be given in terms of lines, angles, and figures.” Since basic geometry (one of the liberal arts) was thought to assist artists and practitioners of all kinds in the creation of ideal structures in any medium, it was the essential tool in reconciling the observable physical world with the perfect and transcendent divine cosmos. Honnecourt’s notebook, used as a teaching manual, shows how such lofty ideas, conceived by great thinkers like Aquinas, translated into the relatively mundane and humble practice of art and architecture during the later Middle Ages.
Art for Moral Instruction
In addition to the famous naturalism of Gothic art, university teaching also gave rise to new kinds of texts with commentaries used at court for the instruction of princes. From the viewpoint of the visual arts, an especially notable group of such texts are the ones developed in Paris and known as “moralized Bibles” (Bibles moralisées). A sophisticated program of illustrations was developed for this book; copies of this work were among the most ambitious and beautifully decorated illuminated manuscripts of the thirteenth century. The creation of the illustrations, as well as the writing of the commentary texts, was over-seen by clerics and theologians associated with the university in Paris. They were concerned with maintaining influence at court despite the increasing independence of the state from the church. In addition to advising lay rulers on how best to govern, they also wished to combat any heretical ideas associated with pagan learning or with Jewish traditions. One surviving example of a moralized bible was produced in Paris around 1230 under the patronage of Blanche of Castile and her son, the young king Louis IX. Preserved today as a fragment (of what was originally a three-volume work with over 5,000 illustrations) in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, this volume follows the typical format for arranging the illustrations in two columns of four superimposed medallions. The first of each vertical pair illustrates a scriptural verse, which is duly transcribed in a separate column just to the left of the medallion. The second of each pair illustrates the commentary text, also located on the left, which was intended to elucidate the contemporary meaning of the scriptural passage. The illustrations were generally configured according to a system of biblical typology: the first medallion of each pair illustrates an Old Testament scene while the second illustrates a New Testament scene. The former was understood to be a “type” (i.e., prototype) for the latter, the relationship between them helping to describe how the truth of the New Testament was “disguised” in the verses of the Old Testament, which has been superseded but which, through typological connections, continues to bear witness to Christian truth. Sometimes a medallion depicted a biblical scene while its companion illustrated a scene from contemporary life in order to show how real-life events unfold according to scriptural truth. In contrast to this innovative arrangement, the frontispiece of the book shows a conventional set of portraits, including Blanche of Castile, King Louis IX, the author, and a scribe.
Illustrations for Didactic Texts
Another, more secular kind of morally didactic art appears in a work by Christine de Pizan, a prolific author who supported herself with her writing after the death of her husband, Estienne Castel, in 1389. Because they were responsible for the rearing of children, medieval women were often recognized as ambassadors of lay education, and it was not all that uncommon for women to be tutors or advisors in the employ of kings and queens, as Christine de Pizan was at the courts of Charles V (r. 1364-1380) and Charles VI (r. 1380-1422) of France. Born in Venice, she embraced French aristocratic culture at the court of Charles V where her father was appointed as court doctor and astrologer. She became an important figure at court, advising and tutoring the princes through her didactic texts, which were often preserved in manuscripts with illustrations and lavish decoration meant to amuse the reader and to augment the text. Sometime after 1405 all of her existing works were collected in one manuscript now in Paris. Often her works focused on moral precepts as do two illustrations from Epître d’Othéa (Letter from Othéa), a work that takes the form of a letter to the warrior Hector from the goddess Othéa (See illustration in Literature, Europe’s First Professional Female Writer). One illustration depicts the “Wheel of Fortune,” a device that demonstrates the ephemeral nature of fame and fortune by sending each figure in turn from the top of the wheel down to the bottom (and then back again). Related in its concern for the vanity of worldly happiness, the second illustration depicts two lovers who are criticized for confusing the happiness of their carnal embrace with a more meaningful and transcendent happiness.
Art and the Knowledge of Distant Lands
Satisfying the Thirst for Knowledge
The Crusades to the Holy Land during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had whetted the European appetite for contact with foreign and distant lands and knowledge of strange peoples and customs. Despite the risks of travel, individuals set out on long-distance journeys and brought back tales that circulated throughout Europe and inspired the late medieval imagination. The travels of the young Venetian Marco Polo to the Mongol court of Khublai Khan and of the Englishman John Mandeville to both familiar and exotic regions became known through written accounts as well as through the programs of illustration developed to accompany these texts. During this period there also developed a new genre of world map, offering large circular depictions of the earth that included not only place names and topographical features, but images of unusual peoples and mythical animals believed to live in remote parts of the world. The largest example (destroyed in an air raid on Hanover, Germany, during World War II) was the Ebstorf Map (c. 1239), which was twelve feet in diameter and painted on thirty goatskins. In a typical symbolic representation of cosmology, the world is depicted as a disc in the hand of Christ, with his head at the top and feet below. Still to be seen today is the Hereford Map in Hereford Cathedral in England (65 by 53 inches, dated 1290), which shows an image of the crucifixion in Jerusalem, as well as a griffin fighting with men over emeralds, and numerous other exotic animals such as parrots, crocodiles, and camels. Visual images therefore assisted the growing late medieval thirst for empirical knowledge of the world.
The Book of Wonders
“Empirical knowledge” is a relative term when applied to the Middle Ages. Most of the works of travel literature and accounts of journeys relied at least in part upon standard formulas, previous works, or even ancient accounts of the “monstrous races” of the earth. A good example is a manuscript of the Book of Wonders, produced in early fifteenth-century France. This work included the travel accounts of both Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville. Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324) was a Venetian who set out for China in 1271 with his father and uncle, both merchants. At that time China was ruled as one of four Mongol khanates under Khublai Khan, and the Polo family bore letters for the Mongol leader from Pope Gregory X. The journey took four years and was followed by a seventeen-year sojourn in the service of the great Khan, during which Marco traveled extensively throughout China. He returned to Italy in 1295 and dictated his book, A Description of the World, while a prisoner during the war between the rival city-states of Venice and Genoa. The Travels of John Mandeville was in fact a compilation of geographical texts from diverse sources (including medieval encyclopedic works), and, although attributed to an Englishman, was probably first written in mid-fourteenth century Flanders. It was divided into two parts: a sort of pilgrim’s guide to the Holy Land and a description of travels in the Far East. Like Marco Polo’s text, it circulated widely in the late Middle Ages and helped spur a popular fascination with outlying territories and exotic peoples (the circulation of such works would only increase with the invention of printing and the voyage of Columbus to the New World).
Illustrating the Monstrous Races
One famous image from the Book of Wonders depicts three inhabitants of “Syberia,” who were described by Marco Polo as “wildmen” and who were illustrated as representative of the marvelous races of the East. In fact, these figures—one ablemmyae with his head on his chest; the second a sciopode or shadow foot with only one leg ending in a huge foot that provided shade from the sun; and the third a naked wildman with club and shield—refer back to the descriptions of the monstrous races from antiquity (such as those encountered by Alexander the Great) that were compiled in the early Middle Ages by Isidore of Seville and passed along into later medieval compendia. Extreme climates were often thought to account for the deformities of these grotesque figures. Although opportunities for travel were increasing and readers were eager for factual information, the images in these books tended to reproduce mythical and imaginary legends, so that, ironically, real travelers, even as late as Christopher Columbus, continued to expect to find such peoples.
Another perspective on the world, with attendant visual imagery, was provided by late medieval cartographers. Knowledge of classical cartography combined with newer and more accurate technology enabled the creation of topographical maps that bore little resemblance to the earlier maps that typically placed Jerusalem at the center of the world and imagined the earth as the very body of Christ, whose head, hands, and feet could often be seen projecting from the top, bottom, and sides. A splendid example of the newer variety is the famous “Catalan Atlas” of 1375, commissioned by King Pedro IV of Aragon and executed by a Jewish cartographer from Palma de Mallorca named Abraham Cresques (1325-1387). The completed Atlas was given as a gift to King Charles V of France, and was intended to assist in the navigation of the seas. Several different cosmographical, astronomical, and astrological texts were copied onto the parchment in order to provide practical information on how to gauge tides and reckon time at night. Other illustrations, calendars, and charts document the state of contemporary knowledge on the planets and constellations, the tides, and so on. The actual map itself shows an indebtedness to the literary traditions of Marco Polo, Mandeville, and their precursors. There are also many biblical and mythological references, such as Moses’ crossing of the Red Sea with the Israelites, the Tower of Babel, the magi following the star, Alexander the Great, pygmies battling cranes, etc. Overall, this unique artifact provides a very compelling demonstration of the accumulated learning of the Middle Ages and the effectiveness of visual traditions when deployed for such a purpose. Of course, it also points toward the historic sea voyages of over a century later and their discoveries that would forever alter the European outlook on the world and that belong more properly to the period of the Renaissance.
Social Life and The Individual
The Rise of Urban Centers
With the continued growth of the mercantile economy throughout Europe, towns and cities flourished and became the vital centers of late medieval culture and art production. At the forefront of this new urban culture was the middle class, a social group that increasingly came to be associated with the patronage base for much art of the period. They were merchants and financiers, manufacturers and craftsmen, and they could afford to acquire works of art that accorded with their tastes and growing sense of their social status. With the rise of a professional class of artists organized by trade or specialty into guilds, cities such as Paris, London, Barcelona, Siena, Cologne, and Brussels became booming marketplaces for the production and sale of art. Art from such a context was very often secular in nature and in its new subjects and themes it tended to express the materialism and social experience of the middle class.
Daily Life in Art
These new clients for art encouraged artists to explore new themes in their work. Painters, in particular, increasingly turned to the objects of everyday life, which when rendered in a naturalistic style expressed the taste of their middle-class patrons. Subjects such as landscapes, cityscapes, still lives, and portraits became more and more prominent in art, whether the work was to have a religious or a purely secular function. In works of a religious nature, complex theological ideas were made more accessible to a middle-class viewer when expressed in a visual language of everyday naturalism. In the oil painting known as the Salting Madonna, Robert Campin, an artist from the city of Tournai in Flanders, placed the Virgin Mary within a contemporary domestic setting, complete with fireplace, a bench with comfortable pillows (upon which lies an open Book of Hours), and a window with an open shutter allowing a view of the town outside. An attentive mother dressed in contemporary bourgeois clothing, Mary holds her baby gently and prepares to nurse. Except for the occasional visual clue that a contemporary viewer would recognize in this or similar paintings—the fire screen that frames Mary’s head like a halo, in this case (the chalice is part of a modern restoration)—little about such paintings suggests a divine, otherworldly subject. In fact, bourgeois viewers would have easily identified with the familiar scene and its homey details. The modest size of this work and others like it stood in contrast to the more lavish and grandiose productions destined for the church or the aristocracy and suited the taste and the needs of a middle-class urban clientele. As head of the Tournai painters’ guild (as well as holder of several other prominent positions in the city), Campin was part of the new urban social fabric and thus he well understood the milieu of his patrons.
Town life also bred a sense of civic identity, and as urban populations assumed more control over society and politics, the arts provided a visual expression of this new sense of civic pride and power. This is especially evident in the case of the rival city-states in Italy like Florence, Siena, Pisa, and Venice, which commissioned major civic monuments throughout the later Middle Ages. Increasingly specialized and organized into guilds, artists participated in a professional culture that was more highly regulated and standardized than ever before. Regulations stipulating the civic responsibilities of artists were laid out in compilations such as the Livre des Métiers (Book of the Trades) written in Paris in 1268.
Competition for Art
In thriving European cities, cathedral and town hall often competed with one another in luring the best artists and commissioning works that combined in equal parts civic pride and Christian piety. The case of fourteenth-century Siena is exemplary in this regard. The acclaimed painter Duccio di Buoninsegna (active 1278-1318/19) was commissioned in 1308 to create a large altarpiece for the cathedral’s main altar. It was to depict the Virgin Mary in glory according to an established format and type known as Maestà. Duccio’s completion of the project in 1311 occasioned citywide festivities. The huge altarpiece, made up of a large central panel and 26 smaller side panels, was carried in procession from Duccio’s workshop to the cathedral accompanied by the music of tambourines, trumpets, and castanets. In acknowledgment of Duccio’s great renown and his importance to the city, his signature was prominently displayed on the face of the altarpiece. In this case the artist and the work of art are both emblems of civic pride and identity. But this status was not conferred only upon one artist or one work: six years later the acclaimed painter Simone Martini was commissioned to paint the same subject for Siena’s city hall.
A Fresco of Good Government
In 1338, the elected city council of Siena (the nine good and lawful merchants of the city, known simply as The Nine) requested the services of Ambrogio Lorenzetti to create an elaborate program of frescoes to decorate their meeting chamber (the Sala della Pace) in the Palazzo Pubblico or town hall. A Siena native, Ambrogio (with his brother Pietro) was perhaps the chief rival to the great Simone Martini. The commission was granted in the hope that the work—in its quality as well as its subject—would reflect well upon the governing administration. The subject consisted of three scenes depicting the effects of good and bad government and an allegory of good government. Ambrogio chose the wall receiving the most light (East) to paint the Effects of Good Government, while leaving the Effects of Bad Government on the darker side. (For Ambrogio’s Effects of Good Government, see the paragraph “Round Dance” in the Dance chapter.) In the former, Ambrogio depicted the interrelated urban and rural economies by means of realistic topographical representations of a town and its surrounding countryside, with all the details of an organized landscape and the industrious work of its inhabitants. The view of the town offers a panorama of late medieval occupations that included, among others, carpenters, shopkeepers, shoemakers, and shepherds. A school recalls the importance of education for good government, and the tavern perhaps alludes to the necessity of some leisure in a balanced society. To complete this image of harmony, a group of elegant ladies are dancing and playing tambourines in the foreground. Painted with utmost realism, this picture of civic life in Siena impressed upon any visitors to the Palazzo Pubblico the soundness of the local government and the pride of the citizens.
Individualism among Artists and Patrons
Both patrons and artists came to imprint their own personal identities on works of art. Although patrons now included members of the rising civic elite, they shared with the most exalted rulers a desire to express their pretensions and their ideology in commissioned works. Artists, encouraged by demanding clients to achieve ever-greater levels of technical mastery, developed innovative approaches and personal styles that increased their status and their appeal among patrons. Aristocratic patrons especially sought out some of the most well-known and accomplished painters, illuminators, sculptors, and goldsmiths of their day, from the late twelfth-century’s Nicholas of Verdun to later masters such as William de Brailes, Jean Pucelle, Jean de Liège, Simone Martini, Ferrer Bassa, the Limbourg brothers, and Giovanni Pisano. Because society recognized the importance of the arts for the promotion of particular values, the status and role of the artist in society advanced from that of a simple artisan to the more distinguished rank of ambassador or city councilor. With this upwardly mobile status came the prospect of steady commissions as well as special tax exemptions and other advantages. Many of the best artists were drawn to important urban centers for these reasons, while the competition among artists encouraged innovation and technical virtuosity.
Commissions in Gold and Enamel
Perhaps the practice of the goldsmith best represents the patrons’ demands for singularity and perfection in their commissioned works. Religious commissions in gold and silver were intended to express the brilliance of the celestial city and they often occupied a proud spot within their respective church treasuries. The durability of the material was seen as fitting for a representation of an eternal concept, and the economic and symbolic value of the precious metals meant that such commissions were generally entrusted to the expert hands of the most talented craftsmen. An important center for this kind of work was the Meuse Valley, in northwest Germany. The goldsmiths, aware of their own status and importance, typically signed their work, and some even included a self-portrait within a completed art object. Nicholas of Verdun’s Klosterneuburg altarpiece, executed around 1181, is a good example. The work was originally conceived as a pulpit for the abbey of Klosterneuburg near Vienna, Austria, and it was later reconstructed as an altarpiece after it was damaged in a fire in 1330. In this most excellent example of the goldsmith’s craft, Nicholas employed both the niello and champlevé enamel techniques on bronze-gilt panels. The translucent blue enamel technique vividly contrasts with the gilt-bronze, and the virtuoso chiseling of the metal creates a fine design delineating sinuous figures and details of drapery folds, hair, beards, and muscle definition. A certain Provost Wernher, whose name is recorded with that of the artist, was presumably responsible for orchestrating the iconographic program that contains typological comparisons between the Life of Christ and the Old Testament scenes. These scenes, reconstructed into three horizontal rows are organized into the following categories: ante legem (before the Law of Moses: scenes from Genesis and Exodus), sub lege (under the Law of Moses: scenes from subsequent sections of the Old Testament), and sub gracia (under Grace: the new dispensation of Christ, with scenes from the Annunciation to the Pentecost).
Professional Artists in the Court
As artists’ sense of self-worth and social importance increased, patrons and artists developed new kinds of relationships. Artists working in the service of kings and dukes were often recognized with courtly titles, such as Valet de Chambre, which guaranteed them lifelong security. A well-known example is that of the brothers Limbourg and the duke of Berry. The story of Pol, Herman, and Jean Limbourg, manuscript illuminators, begins in Nijmegen in the northern Netherlands where they were born to a family of artisans. While traveling to Brussels where they planned to join their uncle the painter Jean Malouel, who worked for the Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy, they fell victim to the conflict between the regions of Brabant and Guelders, and were imprisoned. Thanks to the intervention of their uncle, the generosity of the duke of Burgundy (who paid their ransom), and the duke’s family ties to Jean, duke of Berry, the three brothers ended their journey at the court of Jean, duke of Berry, in Poitiers (south-central France). There, they entered into a privileged relationship with the duke that ended only with his death in 1416. An exceptional art amateur, a great collector of gems and precious objects, and a renowned bibliophile, Jean, duke of Berry, became for the three brothers an ideal patron and benefactor. Expert in the art of illuminations, the Limbourg brothers offered to the duke, in exchange for his protection and support, some of the most excellent manuscript decorations of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Their best-known production is the very famous Très Riches Heures (Very Rich Hours) executed between 1390 and 1416.
The Très Riches Heures
The decorated book of hours was a quintessentially late medieval product with which some of the most familiar artistic personalities and the most pretentious and demanding patrons found common cause. A compendium of devotional texts that developed from the psalter and the monastic breviary but that was intended for private use among the laity, the book of hours became a showcase for both illuminators and patrons to express their identities and to champion the individualism and the artistry of the late Middle Ages. In the Très Riches Heures, the Limbourgs present a wonderfully detailed panorama of the duke’s properties and of courtly life in later medieval France. In the calendar pages, scenes depicting the “labors of the months” feature aristocrat pleasures or peasant activities set against the background of the duke’s castles. In the January page, for instance, the duke receives his guests at a lavish banquet. Jean can be identified sitting at the center of the group with a “halo” that is in fact a fire screen. The master of the ceremony welcomes his guests (“approche, approche”) who warm their hands near the fire, and servants bring more food and wine to the table. The detailed depiction of the trappings of courtly life helps to showcase the wealth and extravagance of the duke: for example, the bells hanging from the lavish costumes of the courtiers, gold thread embroideries, the ducal coats of arms and emblems woven into the tapestries that hang on the walls, the golden vessels, and the generous display of food upon the table. The Limbourgs’ knowledge of the duke’s collection is demonstrated by their faithful rendering of particular objects, such as the golden vessel in the shape of a boat or the tapestries with battle scenes. Their views of several of the duke’s castles suggest that they at times accompanied their patron on his journeys to these residences.
Spiritual Life and Devotion
The Church in Crisis and the Rise of Devotional Art
Throughout the medieval period, the church continued to be a powerful force in the dissemination of the aristocratic tastes and styles of the Gothic movement. At the same time, however, the later medieval papacy experienced a number of crises that served to diminish both its political authority and its spiritual credibility among the faithful. German emperors such as Frederick II (1212-1250) enjoyed an expanded sphere of influence and challenged the authority of the popes, and widespread perceptions of corruption in the church—particularly on such issues as the sale of indulgences, which promised sinners a reduced period of time in purgatory—caused ordinary people to turn away from the authority of hierarchical religion. While a good deal of art continued to celebrate the “Church Triumphant” during the Gothic era, a new artistic trend based on the imagery associated with private devotional practices resulted from the spiritual needs of individual Christians. Moreover, the interest in this devotional imagery in later medieval Europe was reinforced by a growing middle-class demand for privately owned images of all kinds. At the center of this world was the Devotio Moderna, an approach to personal devotion that was newly formulated by the Flemish Dominican mystic Geert Groote (1340-1384) and was soon widespread (especially in northern Europe). In appealing to popular belief and practice, the Devotio Moderna relied a great deal upon the cult of saints and especially of the Virgin Mary, a practice that was centuries old, but now more popular than ever. Marian devotion prompted Christians to visit shrines of “Our Lady” all over Europe, and the many images of Mary created during this time expressed the popularity of the accessible and ever-compassionate Virgin.
Printed Images of Saints
The various saints were popular as subjects in later medieval art because as role models, personal protectors, and intercessors they were so well-positioned to attend to the needs of individual believers. Cities and guilds all had their own patron saints, and routine events and solemn occasions both required special devotion. Individuals also turned to particular saints at specific times and for specific reasons: St. Margaret watched over pregnancy, St. Apollonia could be helpful in soothing a toothache, and St. Sebastian received particular devotion during outbreaks of plague. A woodblock print image of St. Christopher carrying Jesus across the river, produced in Germany anonymously in 1423 illustrates the contemporary piety for individual saints and the new medium of woodblock printing, through which their images were so easily disseminated. A necessary companion to the medieval traveler, St. Christopher’s image facilitated devotion to the saint who provided protection on the difficult and often unsafe journeys of tradesmen, artisans, noblemen, clerics, students, soldiers, and pilgrims. Easily reproduced by mechanical means (though colored by hand) and reasonably priced, prints were an ideal form of portable devotional image that gained tremendous popularity in the later Middle Ages. Prints were pasted in books, jewel boxes, and on walls. They were kissed and handled, prayed to, and wept upon. Such popular devotional practices have been learned from written sources, but the images themselves, with the material evidence of their use, are silent witnesses to a vibrant and flourishing visual tradition.
The Cantigas of Santa Maria
The art of devotion also made an impact in more elite contexts. Created for Alphonso X (the Wise), king of Castile, around 1280 by an anonymous court illuminator, the Cantigas de Santa Maria demonstrates both the importance of Marian devotion in later medieval culture and the obsession with tangible signs of divine intervention in everyday life. The royal manuscript is a collection of some hundred songs in praise of the Virgin Mary, with narrative illustrations describing many of her miracles. In one illustration that tells the story of how the Virgin miraculously saved a man from falling, the page is split up into six different scenes. A line of text below each scene provides the reader with an abbreviated version of the story. The first scene shows an artist perched on scaffolding beneath the vaults of a church interior as he paints images of both the Virgin and the Devil. The Devil, apparently not flattered by his portrait, confronts the painter and causes the scaffolding to fall in the next scene. Thanks to the intervention of the Virgin, the man remains suspended in mid-air in the following scenes so that he can finish his work, which is subsequently admired by the community in the final scene. The moral here, as in each Cantiga, is that the sincerity of one’s devotion to the Virgin will protect him or her from harm.
The Humanity of Christ and the Diptych
Another important facet of late medieval devotional culture was the focus on the humanity (as opposed to the divinity) of Christ. Mystic writers of the fourteenth century, such as the German Meister Eckhart (a Dominican) and his disciple Henry Suso, focused their attention on Christ’s suffering, spurring the production of new visual images, such as the Pietà (Mary cradling the limp, dead Christ) and the Man of Sorrows (the dead Christ displaying his bloody wounds to the viewer). These images were meant to convey the grief and pathos that would prompt a viewer’s empathy, and were thus aids to devotion. One painted diptych (a pair of paintings on two hinged panels) produced around 1350 depicts Christ as Man of Sorrows on one side and the Madonna and Child on the other. Viewers are meant to be struck by the contrasting (though interrelated) images of maternal compassion and pitiful suffering. The figures are depicted on a gold-tooled ground that recalls the aesthetic of Byzantine icon painting. The tilt of the Virgin’s face, saddened with the foreknowledge of her son’s sacrifice, echoes that of Christ, and her pensive gaze foretells her future grief. Meanwhile the infant seems to provide reassurance to his mother with a gentle caress on her cheek. Such painted images were often produced in small format and used as private devotional altarpieces. Opened up at times of prayers and for special celebrations, diptychs could easily be personalized with their owners’ mottos, monograms, or coats of arms, usually on the back of the panels.
The Influence 0f the Mendicant Orders
Individual piety and affective devotional practices were advanced early on by the friars of the new mendicant orders, the Franciscans (founded 1210) and Dominicans (founded 1216). Poverty, asceticism, and preaching were the ideals from the Gospels that the mendicants espoused, providing all Christians access to personal and profound spiritual experience. Instead of the almighty and powerful judge familiar from the early Middle Ages, God was increasingly imagined in human terms as the suffering and merciful Christ. In the visual arts Christ was more consistently presented in these terms, his humanity and earthly life eclipsing images of apocalyptic Majesty or stern judgment. During times of plague or pestilence mendicant preachers reassured the populace with verbal imagery that was closely connected to the visual imagery of devotion. Conversely, new visual images drew upon the preaching of the mendicants. Works of visual art from the Rhineland, intended to trigger a viewer’s empathy for the suffering Christ, show a particularly striking connection to the sentiments often conveyed orally by preachers. Known by the term Vesperbilden, such images and objects aroused a sense of grief comparable to that experienced by the Virgin (and commemorated during the Vespers celebration on Good Friday). The Seeon Pietà, sculpted around 1400, effectively conveys a sense of emotional distress through the representation of suffering. The grief-stricken Virgin holds the oversized body of her dead son on her lap. The contorted body of Christ prominently displays bleeding wounds. Similarly moving is the Pestkreuz Crucifix (plague crucifix) of around 1304 that displays an emaciated Christ on the cross. By visualizing Christ’s suffocation, dehydration, and dislocation, the work encourages viewers to contemplate and meditate upon this ultimate sacrifice, endured for the sake of their own salvation.
Images of Death
Consciousness of Mortality
Whether or not one’s pious devotions assured him or her of salvation, the specter of death continued to provoke anxiety among even the most faithful. In the later Middle Ages, the visual arts record this anxiety with a particular vividness. Climaxing around the time that the worst epidemic of the bubonic plague (referred to as the Black Death) wiped out a third of the European population (1347-1350), visual images of death and mortal decay appear throughout Europe. Scenes of the Dance of Death, the Three Living and Three Dead, the Apocalypse, and the Last Judgment reminded viewers of their inexorable fate. Hoping to guarantee salvation or lessen their time in purgatory, the poor often undertook arduous pilgrimages to shrines of their favorite saints, while the rich commissioned lavish tombs, public monuments, and private works of art to express their piety and devotion.
The Office of the Dead
The Three Living and the Three Dead
Humor—usually mixed with a dose of moralizing—focused on human vanity and foolishness and helped the medieval Christian community to deal with the certainty of death. A popular visual “lesson” was the theme of the “Three Living and the Three Dead.” Based on a subject from thirteenth-century troubadour poetry, the image flourished in several different versions in later medieval Europe and was reproduced in various media, including manuscript paintings, fresco painting, and sculpture in stone, in addition to printed images. The image normally depicts three noblemen, often hunting on horseback, who suddenly come across three dead men near a cemetery. The three grotesque specters of death harangue them with testimonies of their own past deeds, as a warning to the noblemen about the folly of pride and the inevitability of death. The lesson warns the three noblemen as well as the beholder of the image that “what you are now we once were, and what we are you will become.” This is an admonition to abandon fleeting worldly pleasures for eternal life in the love of God.
In the funerary art of later medieval Europe, the obsession with confronting death and publicly visualizing one’s piety and hope for salvation took many forms. Many great cycles of frescoes and sculptures were commissioned to express devotion to saints and to proclaim the virtue of the deceased. Tombs themselves were often framed by elaborately carved niches in the walls of a chapel or by ornately embellished canopies (as was the case with the tomb of King Edward II of England). Very often tombs containing the mortal remains were topped with carved representations of the deceased in idealized, peaceful repose. The most elaborate of these tomb chests had multiple levels—called transi tombs—with portrait effigies accompanied by solemn funeral processions and grieving figures. Sometimes sculpted effigies took the form of decaying corpses in order to emphasize the divergent paths of the soul and the body after death. A notable example is the tomb of the Burgundian duke Philip the Bold, originally situated in the Chartreuse (or monastic charterhouse) of Champmol. Executed by the renowned artist Claus Sluter and two other sculptors, the tomb (finished by 1414, ten years after the death of the duke) features a portrait effigy reclining above the sarcophagus with some forty mourning Carthusian monks within a curtain of niches below, in a carved evocation of the actual procession that took place between Brussels, near the duke’s place of death, and Dijon, where he was laid to rest. This six-week procession over more than 250 arduous miles was undertaken on foot, though the carved representation expresses more playfulness than exhaustion. Each monk, draped in a heavy woolen garment, expresses a unique attitude: one is absent minded, another is bored, one is pinching his nose in mock disgust, and yet another grieves in silence. The striking naturalism with which Sluter is associated (and that was such a hallmark of the later Middle Ages) is employed here both to capture a real-life event and to guarantee the eternal rest of one mortal soul.