Robin Urton: dimensional paintings on glass


Medieval Art

The fall of the Roman Empire brought in the age of a new power, that of the Christian Church. Since the Christians had completely different concerns than the Roman republic, their art took on an entirely different direction. It became much less focused on realism, and more concerned with symbolic representations of Christian concepts. All art served the role of church decoration. This helped to set an atmosphere of devotion, while illustrating Christian stories to a largely illiterate public. The first period of Medieval art is called the Byzantine (after the original name of Constantinople: Byzantium).


Empress Theodora, 547

Byzantine Mosaics

The primary medium of Byzantine art was their use of glass mosaics. The Romans had used tiny stones to create mosaics, but the Byzantine artists used small pieces of colored glass, set into the mortar of the church walls at different angles to catch the light. The style is highly decorative, symbolic, and flattened representations of Christian saints. The gold backgrounds are intended to give an heavenly atmosphere, and figures often have halos to represent their divine status.Occasionally, the Holy Roman Emperor or Empress are depicted, to show the unification of the church and state. Here, the Empress Theodora holds a goblet, representing the blood of Christ. Another mosaic within the church depicts the Emperor, Justinian, holding bread, representing Christ's body.



Icon Images

The Byzantine reliance on images of Jesus and the saints opposes the second Commandment which states, "Thou shalt not make graven images to worship", but the Church counsel decreed that since Christ had been incarnated in human form, it was necessary to represent him in the flesh. Images of Christ on the cross began in the 6th century. In addition to mosaics, the medieval artists developed a new medium of painting with egg tempera on a wood support. This technique requires mixing the pigment with egg yolk, creating a permanent bond to the surface. Those intended to hang within the church were of a fairly large scale, and smaller versions were later created for personal devotion. The stylization is similar to those found in the mosaics: flattened and symbolic representations of Jesus, Mary, and saints, with halos and a gold background to symbolize their heavenly status. The image of Christ on the cross evolved from images with his eyes open (representing his victory over death), to those with his eyes closed. Later representations show his body slumped in death (as the focus shifts to empathy with Christ's suffering).


Madonna Enthroned, 1285

Giotto di Bondone
Madonna Enthroned, 1310
Images of Mary enthroned as the heavenly mother of Christ was another popular icon. She is always the center of the composition, and hierarchic scale also makes sure that she is the focus of attention. The gold background reinforces her divine status, as do the surrounding angels. There are strong similarities between these two images, given the conventions that dictated her representation, but if you look carefully, you will note that Giotto begins to define Mary in more three-dimensional terms. We will see this tendency develop further as we move into the Renaissance period.



The "Animal Style" and Illuminated Manuscripts


The animal style is the artwork created by Northern nomadic peoples of ancient and medieval Europe. They derive from the Germanic and Nordic countries, which were barbaric tribes, until missionaries christianized them during the Middle Ages. Since they had always been nomadic people, their art was focused on things that they could carry, and were generally functional objects (i.e., decorative swords, horse-trappings, ship prows, etc). In general, their styles were based on animal imagery, combined with an intricate interlacing of geometric lines. This style was integrated into their Christian images, such as the Celtic Cross, and illuminated page from the Book of Kells, below. Close inspection reveals delicate interlacing lines and (in the case of the illuminated manuscript), human faces embedded in the design.


Evolution of Architectural Styles

Central Plan

Basilica (Cross) Plan


The first Christian Churches generally followed the central plan in the east (influenced by Roman temples, such as the Pantheon), and the basilica plan in the west (a longitudinal plan with a transcept separating the altar from the nave). Many of the eastern churches were transformed to Muslim mosques when the Turks won the territory in 1453. Minarets (small towers) and calligraphy from the Koran (the Moslem sacred book) replaced Christian decorations in the Hagia Sophia, below. Throughout western Europe, the basilica style eventually came to represent the image of the cross.

Hagia Sophia- Instanbul, Turkey
(previously Constantinople)

High Medieval Period

St. Sernin Cathedral

Notre Dame de Chartres Cathedral

The "High Medieval Period" is first characterized by the Romanesque, and then the Gothic styles of architecture. For many centuries, the Middle Ages suffered from a lack of technical knowledge which the Romans had previously achieved. The essential ingredient creating the bonding agent in concrete had been forgotten, and churches were being built with wood roofs, which were continually burning down. During a period of expanding interest in religious pilgrimages, churches needed to be built which could contain growing numbers of worshippers. Architects rediscovered Roman vaulting (utilizing mortar to hold the stones in place, though concrete was not re-invented until the 19th century). The vaulted arch allowed for a wider nave and sound construction. St. Sernin is an example of Romanesque architecture. The walls were massive stone blocks and the roof utilized the Roman semicircular arch. Despite its lofty height, its massive structure makes it appear as though it is "hugging the earth" (especially when viewed from the exterior). The Romanesque had a symmetrical design, with a single tower, and was not as highly decorative as the later, Gothic style.


Interior of St. Sernin

Interior of Chartres

Chartres Cathedral is an example of gothic architecture in France (in Chartres, just outside of Paris). During this period, architects make the greatest technical advances of Medieval times. By devising a pointed arch, they are able to make walls which are taller and thinner, creating the tallest buildings up to that time (and not superceded until this century). The design opens up, allowing larger windows, which they now decorate with colored glass. In addition, they have devised a system for propping up the buildings with an exterior support called "flying buttresses".



The gothic period marks the highest point of Medieval art. Their huge churches are their greatest masterworks, the crowning achievements of the Middle Ages. As the gothic period progressed, the buildings continued to reach higher, and the decoration became progressively elaborate. When one of the towers at Chartres Cathedral burnt down, it was replaced with the later Gothic style (which is why it has an asymmetrical appearance from the front). The church below is an extreme example of High Gothic architecture. Notice the elaborate sculptures that fill every surface.


Architectural Sculpture


Throughout the Middle Ages, most sculpture is attached to the walls of the church. The cathedral was a "sermon in stone" which could be "read" by an illiterate population. Before a worshipper has even entered the church, he would find images of saints and sinners, of angelic beings and the punishment of the damned. All stood as a reminder of the importance of holding one's thoughts to God. During the Romanesque period, there is a great similarity between images from illuminated manuscripts and those depicted in their sculpture. Romanesque design tends to be very flat, shallow reliefs of biblical stories and figures. Gothic sculpture, on the other hand, tends to be much more three dimensional, and the figures start to come to life. The full-volumed bodies carved on the Chartres Cathedral, for instance, look as if they may walk off of the building. In addition, the features are much more naturalistic: more human and individualized. This trend will influence the beginnings of Renaissance sculpture as well as painting.



The original purpose of a gargoyle was to drain water away from the sides of a building. The word comes from the French "gargouille" which means "throat or pipe." Many gargoyles fill this purpose, but others are purely decorative.The images may relate to Europe's pagan past, combining various animal parts in a grotesque fashion. One possible purpose for them is the belief that frightening figures could scare away evil spirits. Another theory is that they are reminders of the fate of sinners.