Art Appreciation Topic III: Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages
Art Appreciation Topic III: Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages 300-1450
In the West, early Christian art appeared before thereligion was officially established in 313. Some of the earliestexamples can be found in the Catacombs—the subterranean vaultsjust outside Rome. Persecution by the Roman authorities, whichreached a peak during the reign of Diocletian (284-305), ensuredthat art works were either portable or hidden away from publicview. The situation improved in 313, when EmperorConstantine granted Christians full religious freedom. In earlyChristian art, images of the Crucifixion were consideredabhorrent, since it was a degrading form of execution reserved forslaves and criminals. Instead, early Christian artists borrowed ideasfrom classical depictions of Roman gods. A favorite theme was theGood Shepherd, which was frequently depicted in paintings,mosaics and carvings.
In 330, Emperor Constantine moved his capital toByzantium, renaming it Constantinople. Here, Christianartists were exposed to very different influences. The citywas Greek, but affected by cultures of the Near East. Byzantine artists created their first religiousmasterpieces in mosaic. In 395, following the death ofTheodosius the Great, the empire was divided and theartistic traditions of its two halves began to diverge. Afterthe fall of Rome in 476, the city of Ravenna played a keyrole, as the Emperor Justinian made it his capital in theWest. Constant warfare in the West led to an era ofdiminished artistic production, while in Byzantiumreligious icons and imperial images were venerated.
The veneration of holy images led to problems in the8th century, when the practice was deemed idolatrous.During the Iconoclastic crisis (c.725-83), thousands ofreligious works were destroyed. In later Byzantine art, wall paintings and iconsplayed a growing role. Religious icons were venerated, andtheir appearance was strictly controlled. Their forms weresymbolic and stylized, and any artistic individuality wasfrowned upon. Religious icons transmitted Byzantine influences farbeyond the empire’s borders, with the greatest icons beingproduced in Russia.
The Romanesque and Gothic styles of architecture andart dominated western Europe after 1000. Romanesque architecture revived certain features ofancient Roman art, especially its sheer ambition, expressing a newconfidence following a period when Western Christendom hadbeen threatened with destruction. Large-scale sculpture wasrevived and painting flourished. Whereas Romanesque architecture is massive and oftenoverpoweringly austere, Gothic architecture is, characteristically,soaring and graceful. Painting and sculpture of the Gothic periodis typically refined, with figures often having elongated proportionsand a sense of flowing elegance. Gothic art was used primarily inthe service of the Christian Church, although it also had secularexpressions, particularly when it developed into the courtly styleknown as International Gothic.
Crucifixion with aCarthusian Monk by Jean deBeaumetz
St. GeorgeRescuing thePrincess ofTrebizond byPisanello
Italian art of the late 13th and 14th centuries differsfundamentally from that produced elsewhere in Europe at the time.Various currents flowed through Italian art in the early 14th century,including influences from the Gothic style and from Byzantine culture. In the later 14th century, however, the austere otherworldlinessof Byzantine art began to be softened by a new naturalism andhumanity, looking forward to the Renaissance. Religion was a major inspiration to artists at this time:altarpieces and church frescoes were the dominant forms in painting,and sculptural types included pulpits and statues of saints. Italianpainters of the day established standard techniques for tempera andfresco that endured for centuries. In sculpture, the materials for themost prestigious works were marble and bronze, sometimes gildedwith a thin layer of gold.