Once upon a time, many years ago, I went on a class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As usual, the Met was packed. Everyone was crowding in to see the Impressionist paintings, the Egyptian temple, and the modern sculpture gallery. Being the kind of kid that liked to either stay near the chaperones or wander off on my own (much to the distress of the chaperones) I gravitated towards the Medieval Gallery. It was all but empty.
I’ve never understood why people don’t have a greater interest in medieval art. It’s absolutely beautiful, breathtaking stuff! It has a dignity and grace about it. medieval art is wise. It has its own language. And that’s why I think modern people have a harder time with it than they do with post-renaissance painting, for example.
If you’re looking at medieval art, don’t try to take it at face value. Whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, a stained glass window, or an illuminated manuscript you’re looking at, the aesthetic of the image you are viewing is not the point. Sure, it’s beautiful and vibrant and passionate, but all of that is secondary to the true function of medieval art.
The majority of art created during the middle ages was commissioned and paid for by the Church. Aside from a few pieces displayed in the homes and castles of nobility, it was mostly displayed inside of churches. So as you would imagine, most medieval art contains a religious theme.
The purpose of most medieval art, therefore, is to display the wealth and authority of the Church and to teach people. In a world where most of the population was illiterate and where the mass was delivered in Latin, the Church’s way of connecting with the people and teaching them the stories of the Bible and tenants of the Church was through art. Medieval churches are full of imaginative, graphic depictions of the lives of important figures in Christendom. They are also full of visual examples of what could happen to you if you don’t follow what the Church teaches.
One reason I think modern people dismiss medieval art is because they believe that if the figures represented aren’t lifelike then the art isn’t “good”. I strongly disagree with that! Figures in medieval art are representational. Often people are out of proportion with their environment or with each other. This isn’t because medieval artists didn’t know how to visualize things. The point in art of his era was to draw attention to what was most important by making it the biggest thing in the image.
Space wasn’t rendered as an exact replica of what someone would see if they were looking out a window. In fact, medieval artists used the space within their work to depict as much information as possible. Scenes of the Last Judgment were incredibly popular in medieval art, and as you can see by this example, the space of the carving was used to depict as many possible outcomes of following or turning away from God as possible.
This was an encyclopedia of knowledge to people who couldn’t read or understand a word of what was being said in the masses that they were required to attend. My personal opinion was that the Church knew that people couldn’t possibly pay attention to long Latin services. They knew that their attention would wander, that they would end up staring at the walls while the priests went on. And that’s why the true lessons of the Church were in the walls themselves.
Stained glass windows were particularly educational. I was fortunate enough to grow up more or less right next door to Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, PA, which houses the largest private collection of medieval stained glass in the United States. The Great Hall of the museum is packed with actual medieval stained glass windows that were brought over from long-gone cathedrals in Europe. Each of the panels is divided into scenes depicting stories from the Bible. You could (and I have) sit for hours staring at these windows, seeing something new with every viewing. Stained glass windows are stories filled with light.
In the next couple of weeks I’ll go into greater detail about each of the different art forms that make up medieval art. Each medium had its own purpose and its own set of rules. One thing I think you’ll find as we look at them is that the figures in medieval art aren’t as expressionless and unrealistic as a lot of people think they are. Sure, as the aesthetic of the renaissance took over the focus became more on realism and movement, but what art gained in emotion it lost in narrative.
But we’ll look at that more later.