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Painting in the Middle Ages

550 -1450

The Age Of Faith

Art of the Middle Ages, 550-1450, was complex and intriguing, fraught with religious fervor and symbolism. The Catholic Church, the all powerful institution of the time, commissioned Biblically themed art-works such as paintings, sculptures, architecture and illuminated manuscripts. Stories of the Bible were told and retold continuously--painted, sermonized, allegorized, embellished, creating a convincing and mysterious faith. 

In a society of limited literacy, constant outbreaks of black death, smallpox, leprosy, and the ever present threat of famine, art was a true sanctuary. Paintings were darkly mystical, infused with an ethereal emotional intensity. The mysticism of the Middle Ages imparts a sense of uniqueness and wonder to art. Painters from this time period had a taste for the poetic and their use of symbols are secretive hints and glances into the mysterious religious world that lies behind the dark reality of the times. As time went on the style of painting was a reflection of the transformation that was taking place in Europe, the change from the feudal system to a more enlightened society.

Manuscript illumination offers some of the greatest examples of Biblically themed paintings. These early masterworks were created in monasteries by pious monks. The room in the monastery where illuminators worked was called a scriptorium. According to Medieval historian John William Bradley, "In the sixth century the monasteries, such as they were, necessarily kept themselves very quiet and unobtrusive. They were situated usually in out-of-the-way corners, solitudes apart from civilization, or, at least, apart from the busy haunts of men. "


According to art historian Clara Erskine Clement "The Middle Ages extend from the latter part of the fifth century to the time of the Renaissance, or about the fifteenth century. The painting of this period has little to attract attention if regarded only from an artistic stand-point, for we may truly say that, comparing it with the Greek art which had preceded it, or with the Italian art which followed it, that of the Middle Ages had no claim to the beautiful. On the other hand, it is full of interest to students, because it has its part in the history of art; therefore I shall give a mere outline of it, so that this link in the chain which unites ancient and modern painting may not be entirely wanting in our book.

Early mediŠval painting, down to about a.d. 950, consists principally of paintings in burial-places, mosaics (usually in churches), and of miniatures, or the illustration and illumination of MSS., which were the books of that time, and were almost without exception religious writings. This period is called the Early Period of the Middle Ages, and the pictures are often called the works of Early Christian Art."



With the triumph of Christianity, artists aspired to reawaken the divine spirit of holy figures rather than depict their physical qualities. Their unique style is a combination of frontal simplicity, truth to nature, harmonious unity together with precision in details. The use of costly materials such as gold, precious stones and ivory indicates the degree of wealth that was common during this period, and attests to the sophistication of the culture. "

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