The Medieval Period

As the Roman Empire collapsed and we were plunged into The Dark Ages, an evolution of the use of images for communication unfolded. The Middle Ages is split into 3 parts:

The Early Middle Ages (estimated around 500-1000), The High Middle Ages (c.1001 – 1300) and the Later Middle Ages (c.1300-1500).

During the Early Middle Ages, Christianity was a leading Religion in Western Europe and imagery and text (or the verbal words) had a strong connection. Religious images were created to tell their stories to those who were illiterate, or for those who wanted to pray upon an image (for example images of the crucifix, or Virgin Mary) during times of worship, such as being in Church, to directly communicate with God.

Particular images created at this time would have set scenes, laid out one after another almost like a comic book, for example what is seen in the scenes from”The Life of St. Jerome”, however different from our idea of a comic today as characters would not have speech bubbles or might appear twice in the same panel, but this would not have been a problem for the viewers in this era. It is most likely that some images required a verbal translation by the artist or the Church, or perhaps Christians at the time were just simply skilled at interpreting the symbolic nature of their religious imagery or expertise in religious ideology. Sadly what ancient images once represented can be clouded by our modern eyes as empathy for cultural differences has been lost.

Many art styles arose during the medieval period. Byzantine(c.500-1453) is the first major style to merge after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Byzantine empire’s leader and founder, Constantine The Great (306-337 AD) is seen in Byzantine Art. He endorsed Christianity: “By the 4th century, the new religion had made such rapid strides that practically the entire Roman Empire was Christianized” (Byzantine Art, p8) Byzantine art is almost wholly Religious and typically uses rich materials such as gold leaf for the Holy figures in the imagery as well as emphasising the leaders power and wealth. Pagan views were  soon after rendered criminal and were defaced as the Christian Church spread and grew with power, thanks to Constantine.

As the Byzantine Empire reined in the East for the long period of a thousand years (324-1453), the art style is seen throughout Early Medieval artwork. Most critics view the art style as uncreative as it is an exhaustive collection of regurgitated and cliché religious imagery.

Justinian the Great was the Byzantine Emperor (reined 527-565) whom attempted to fix the crumbling state of the Roman Empire(Justinian might be a possible origin of the word “Justice”). However ultimately failed as territory was lost in the fall of the Roman Empire. As his reign ended, so did the Byzantine Empire. In his portrait you can see the use of gold, colourful and large jewellery, and framed with a Halo around his head to highlight his power, wealth and his Holiness.

Romanesque Art (c.1000 to 1150) is from the Western part of the Roman Empire. Romanesque and Gothic Styles  went together back to back for quite a while(Gothic Art: c.1150 to 1400) as they both tied in together during the High middle Ages until the Later Middle Ages.  Romanesque was a common art style throughout Medieval Europe and was popular in Spain.

The piece “Christ as Orpheus” (4th century) was an attempt to warm up the pagan culture that was the public to this new religion, Christianity. The faces of figures they knew and worshiped were vandalised and replaced with Christ. It it amusing in an ironic way, as subjectively Pagan’s had just enough right to do the same thing to Jesus’ face. Romanesque art also features animals from myths and legends which does not break away from the classic Roman style.

Insular (or Hiberno-Saxon) Art was around in the British Isles by the Celtic cultures that lived there during the Early Middle Ages (c.500-1170). They had Anglo-northern roots and had nothing to do with the Roman Empire, so that art style was noticeably different and refreshingly unique. Insular artwork typically gives off a natural, organic feel with pagan animals intertwined.

A great example of the Insular art style is The Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is a religious manuscript of gospels that  is filled with beautiful imagery, delicate detail and powerful symbolism that is unique to the book. Of course the imagery would have made sense to viewers of the time, but The Book of Kells remains a beautiful and important medieval manuscript to this day with a thick history.

Gothic Art (c.1150 to 1400) emerged at the end of the Middle Ages, and is mainly seen in cathedral architecture, but it spurted a reaction and was seen as ugly (Gothic translates as barbaric). It was a rebuilding of the choir of Benedictine church of St. Denis, and the style we recognise as Gothic began to spread, as Romanesque art was beginning to fade: “It was a period of intense experiment, unevenly and untidily distributed” (Gothic Art, p7) immense detail and pattern was applied in an attempt to create a sense of importance to buildings. the insides of  Gothic buildings is smothered with over-the-top detail with barely any surface untouched, giving a rough appearance.

Jesse tree window” is a stain-glass window seen in Chatres Cathedral, an example of the Gothic style in churches. The image features Christ and was designed to be read by the illiterate, so needed multiple images. The window is far too complex with unnessessary thick black outlines against opposing bright coloured glass and is just an eyesore,  especially since the window is huge and would have been seen at a distance.

The tree of Jesse is seen throughout cathedrals in France and England and is supposed to represent the family tree of Jesus Christ.


Life in the Middle Ages would have been rough and with a limited access to knowledge to lay people, diseases spread quickly and many people suffered and died from them, such as the Black Death. So death was common in everyday life and a big deal, as it is a painful subject matter. The Holy Bible was a guidance point on how to live your life, so many people believed sin was the cause of disease.

Damned are swallowed by a Hell mouth” (c.1200’s) was an image that would have been sold as the absolute truth of your fate, and sinners would have been sent to Hell. Used as a horrifying deterrent, as it shows a large monstrous mouth being opened to reveal a pile of green, rotting corpses of those who have sinned. This demonic mouth represents the entrance to Hell. What is interesting is how it features a Holy figure(a priest) painted in gold leaf that holds the key for opening this portal. This expresses the immense power that the Church had over the masses.



Diebold,William J.  (2000) Word and Image: An Introduction to Early Medieval. Westview Press

Durand, Jannic  (1999) Byzantine Art. Paris : Editions Pierre Terrail

Lowden, John  (1997) Early Christian & Byzantine Art. Phaidon Press

Martindale, Andrew  (1967) Gothic Art. London : Thames and Hudson

Petzold, Andreas  (1995) Romanesque Art


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