Medieval Art

Medieval Art – Visual and Literary Arts of the Middle Ages

The Medieval Art period covers an immense range of time and place, as it incorporates over 1000 years of art history within Europe. Having said to begin with the fall of the Roman Empire and coming to a close by the early 14th century, Medieval Art was an incredibly influential period of Western art culture at the time. Due to its sheer span of time, many innovations and unique artifacts were made during the Medieval Art movement, with this artistic influence reaching Western Asia and Northern Africa as well.



What Is Medieval Art?

Originating in Northern Europe after the Roman Empire collapsed, Medieval Art included some of the most major art movements and periods known to develop within art history. Influenced by the artistic heritage of the previous Roman era and the iconographic customs of the early Christian Church, the Medieval period existed as an amalgamation of these artistic heritages.

Due to this fusion of styles, Medieval Art essentially went on to produce some incredibly iconic artworks due to the distinct artistic style that developed.

Due to the vastness of the Medieval Art period, the movement can generally be divided into a number of distinct periods and styles. These art phases have come to be seen as Early Christian Art, Byzantine art, Pre-Romanesque and Romanesque art, and Gothic art. In addition to these various styles, each region within Europe exhibited an artistic style in a very distinct way, meaning that some Medieval Art pieces varied greatly from region to region despite being created within the same time period.

Medieval Era Painted wooden ceiling of the Oude Kerk (church) in Amsterdam; Hans A. Rosbach/CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Medieval Art was made up of various artistic mediums, such as sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, tapestries, mosaics, and metalworks. Numerous artworks were made using these different styles, which went on to have a higher survival rate than other mediums like fresco wall paintings. However, in the early Medieval art period, works that were more decorative and made use of things like precious metals, ivory carvings, enamel, and embroidery were thought to be more valuable than traditional paintings and sculptures.

Artworks created in the Medieval era became renowned for their use of valuable and precious materials, which went on to become a constant feature of the period. The Medieval Art era eventually came to an end with the emergence of the Renaissance period of art, which saw a recovery of the skills and values associated with classical art that had been scorned for some centuries.

Due to the achievements of the Medieval period, it has come to be regarded as an enormous developmental phase for future Western art forms that later emerged.



A History of Medieval Art

Medieval Art within Northern Europe grew out of the aesthetic heritage left by the Roman Empire. After its dissolution in 476 A.D., the period leading up to the emergence of Medieval Art was seen as an incredibly formative time in the continent’s artistic history. Lasting until the early stages of the Renaissance in the 14th century, Medieval Art encompassed many diverse forms of media. Thus, the history of Medieval Art is said to be very expansive as the movement lasted for numerous centuries and covered a wide range of genres.

Prominent in European regions, as well as the Middle East and North Africa, the Medieval Art period produced some artworks which are considered to be the world’s most valuable pieces today. These artworks were predominantly featured in churches, cathedrals, and other sacred doctrines and places of worship. Artworks using gold, such as gold leaf in religious manuscripts, was popular during the Medieval era, as the movement was greatly influenced by the early stages of Christian art and the “barbarian” culture of Northern Europe.

Medieval Artists Book cover of the Coronation Evangeliar, part of the Imperial Regalia of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), by Hans von Reutlingen, c. 1500; Hans von Reutlingen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The development of Medieval Art produced a diverse range of artistic styles and periods, as the different artworks created were based on their location within Europe. Due to the variety of styles emerging, the Middle Ages art period can generally be divided up into three distinct phases. These are the Byzantine Art era, the Romanesque Art era, and the Gothic Art era.

The majority of the art produced during the Medieval period was religious in nature and made use of Catholic subjects and themes. 

Also referred to as the Middle Ages, the Medieval period was dominated by feudalism within society. Feudalism existed as the dominant social structure in Medieval society at the time, where nobles effectively held control over and ruled all of the lands. Society was made up of the richest members and peasants, who were forced to answer to the nobles controlling their land.

The daily lives between these two social groups were thus vastly different, as the upper-class experienced wealth, power, and status, while the lower class were expected to serve others. Due to this, a distinction existed between the two, which was only bridged by the presence of religion. This was why many individuals of the early Middle Ages were priests and monks in addition to being artists, as religion played a major part in daily life within the Medieval period.

Medieval Period Tapestry The Apocalypse Tapestry is the oldest surviving set of tapestries of this size, 100m (328ft). It was commissioned in 1375 by Louis I, Duke of Anjou and brother of King Charles V. The tapestry took seven years to make and is made entirely of wool. Each piece starts with a major figure followed by two rows of seven scenes between a strip of sky and strip of earth; Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The early Medieval art pieces that were created were used as the main method of communicating accounts of a Biblical nature to society, as a rise in illiteracy during this time period was experienced. This resulted in the necessity for art to express complicated narratives and symbolism in a way that was accessible to all of society. As a result of this, Medieval Art pieces became more stylized, as the genre lost the classical naturalism associated with the Graeco-Roman times for most of the movement.

Due to this lack of literacy, printed materials became increasingly available to monks and nuns who began to copy illuminated manuscripts so as to communicate with the masses, with these manuscripts becoming art forms themselves. Narratives of a Biblical nature were predominantly favored, as focus shifted from producing naturalistic images to being able to express complex stories. This also influenced the style of the movement as a whole, which began to lean towards the inclusion of abstracted figures within much of early Medieval Art.

Therefore, art produced within the Medieval period consisted mainly of architectural designs of churches, castles, and monasteries, in addition to paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts.

Medieval artists worked alongside accomplished craftsmen such as carpenters, woodcarvers, masons, metal workers, sculptors, and painters when applying ornamental features to their artworks. These works influenced artisans of lesser-known arts, like blacksmiths, locksmiths, shoemakers, and weavers, who imitated the Medieval style in the objects they manufactured.

Medieval Era Metalwork Reliquary Plaque of an Evangelist. This bas-relief engraved plaque depicts an evangelist seated within an arcade. It was part of the 13th-century redecoration of the 11th-century “Saint Amandus Shrine”; Walters Art Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What made the Medieval Art period so important was that it was not purely aesthetic, but it also existed as a symbol that declared one’s status, identity, education, and culture. Thus, the major societal, cultural, and artistic changes that occurred in Europe as the Medieval period developed went on to further define the artworks produced during that time. While the movement neither began nor ended at a precise date, the end of Medieval Art was thought to be signaled by the changes in art that accompanied the start of the Renaissance period.

As the period generated a large quantity of art that was seen to be historically significant, the Medieval era continues to be a significant area of study for art critics, students, and collectors. The accomplishments of artists during the movement have gone on to greatly influence the development of modern genres of Western art that have since emerged.

Thus, it can be said that the Medieval Art period exists as one of the most significant art movements in history.



Early Medieval Art

The period of time that has been classified as early Medieval Art is quite complicated, as it includes artworks that range from the 5th century CE all the way through to 1000 CE. In addition to this, early Medieval artworks demonstrate a diverse cultural influence, which combined classic Greek and Roman artistic components with Christian subject matter and decorative designs taken from the pagan North.

At the time of the emergence of early Medieval Art, the Catholic church and other wealthy patrons began to commission projects for particular social and religious ceremonies. Medieval artists were required to create artworks that featured Biblical tales and classical themes for churches, while the insides were intricately adorned with Roman mosaics, elaborate paintings, and marble incrustations. Due to the religious influence, many of the oldest examples of early Medieval Art remain in Roman catacombs or burials beneath cities.

Early Medieval Art Fresco of a Christian Agape feast showing the fractio panis, the breaking of the bread during the meal of Holy Communion. Greek chapel, Catacombe di Priscilla, Rome. 2nd – 4th century; Unknown author Unknown author. Photographer: André Held, akg-images., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Many artistic styles that existed before the emergence of early Medieval Art continued to be referred back to for inspiration. A popular art form that was used as the Medieval period progressed was the creation of relief sculptures. These sculptures were influential, as they stood out from their backgrounds to create a three-dimensional effect. Medieval artists used ivory as their primary medium and sculpted complex designs on book covers, caskets, panels, doors, and devotional items.

Another artistic form that artists continued to conserve were frescoes and mosaics, which were used to decorate churches and palaces. Both of these mediums were intricately designed and were used to portray Christian saints and scenes, such as the Blessed Virgin Mary and the ascension of Jesus. A vast lack of realism accompanied these creations, with fresco paintings appearing to be particularly flat in style with incredibly somber subjects.

Medieval Period Wall Art Duomo di Siena (Siena Cathedral), a medieval church in Siena, Italy, dedicated from its earliest days as a Roman Catholic Marian church, and now dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta (Holy Mary, Our Lady of the Assumption); Chenspec, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Churches and palaces that were decorated using both relief sculptures, frescoes, and mosaics became a common sight in the early Medieval Art world. While the design of these buildings remained predominantly Roman, the artistic style had a definitive Christian influence.

However, while early Medieval Art preserved some forms and techniques from the past, such as stylistic elements taken from the Classical world, the movement also began to develop new forms and styles that went on to permanently change the art world.



Main Divisions of Middle Ages Art

The Medieval Art period lasted for ten centuries and covered an enormous scope of time and place, which meant that many different styles and forms of art were experimented with and included. As religion and faith were seen as the way of life during the Middle Ages, artworks that were created expressed various social, political, and historical events through the building of churches in most European towns.

Generally, Medieval Art is divided up according to the distinct types of artworks that were created, which were expressed differently in different regions and at different times. These separate art periods have collectively been agreed on to be the Early Christian period, the Byzantine period, the Romanesque period, and the Gothic period.


Early Christian Period

As early Medieval Art began to develop, religion and Christianity proved to be major influences of the movement. The majority of the artworks contained holy and spiritual references, as the subject matter tended to portray Biblical scenes. To some extent, countries bordering the Eastern Mediterranean region helped the Early Christian period of art in its development. However, the main area where this period of art emerged was central Italy.

Golden Medieval Sculptures Detail of the Golden Madonna of Essen, 990 A.D.; Martin Engelbrecht, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Early Christian art forms developed after the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity as their ruling religion. Around the 4th century, Christian art grew in popularity as pictures of Christ became more common. Concerns existed around creating images of the Deity began to grow, with more Medieval artists beginning to create scenes that depicted Jesus and other religious figures.

Sadly, as the Early Christian art period appeared at the beginning of the Medieval Art era, very few sacred artworks and designs have managed to survive the first three centuries of Christian art. Most of the Early Christian artworks that exist today, such as iconic paintings, come from catacombs. Despite this, some examples of Early Christian architecture remain, as numerous churches were constructed during this period of art.


Byzantine Period

Developing in Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire at the time, was the Byzantine period of art. The beginning of the Medieval era was considered to be the Dark Ages, with Byzantine art existing as the primary type of art used by artists from the Eastern Roman Empire. The Byzantine art period is often considered to make up the best artworks that were created during the Middle Ages due to the impeccable craftsmanship and quality of materials used.

Medieval Period Paintings Cambrai Madonna (c. 1340); Cambrai Cathedral, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Byzantine art, which was made up of a combination of Roman and Oriental arts, was characterized by its complete lack of realism. Artists did not attempt to make their paintings seem realistic, as they instead concentrated on the symbolism that was present in their artworks. Thus, the paintings produced were incredibly flat with no shadows, with subjects that appeared to be very serious and grim.

The majority of the subjects within Byzantine art were religious, with many Medieval paintings being depicted of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Architecture during the Byzantine period was typically grandiose and dazzling, as buildings demonstrated the wealth and intellectual prowess of their designers, artists, and builders. This is why churches built during the Byzantine period were magnificent, as they represented the dominating religion of Christianity in addition to these qualities. Unfortunately, most of the artwork created during this period has since been destroyed, along with the exquisite mosaics and fresco paintings that adorned the churches.


Romanesque Period

Beginning with a phase that was known as pre-Romanesque art, the Romanesque period developed around 1000 A.D. and was influenced by both the Romans and Byzantine art. The Romanesque period placed its focus on religion and Christianity, with these influences being seen in the artworks that were created. Typical Romanesque art pieces included stained glass pieces, engravings on buildings and columns, big murals on walls and domed ceilings, illuminated manuscripts, and sculptures.

Medieval Era Tapestry Bayeux Tapestry (1070s), scene 32 – men staring at Halley’s Comet; Myrabella, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Romanesque buildings were enormous, powerful, and foreboding in appearance, but were characterized by their simple surface adornments that showcased the simplistic way of life of the artists. Structural forms during this period were based on artists’ basic interpretations of Roman architecture, as the elements and characteristics present in this art period were taken specifically from ancient Rome. This stylistic influence was why the era was dubbed the “Romanesque” period.

The styles utilized by the Romanesque period were developed in France before they spread to other Western regions such as Spain, Germany, and Italy. It existed as the foremost art style to disperse throughout Europe, which demonstrated the increasing affluence of European cities and the authority of church monasteries. The Romanesque style eventually made its way over to England where it became known as Norman art and continued to develop until the emergence of the Gothic Art period.


Gothic Period

The last period of late Medieval Art was the Gothic art period, which began developing in the 12th century. Growing out of Romanesque art, the Gothic period emerged when the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis in France was being renovated. The style began to grow in popularity and spread all over Europe, eventually replacing Romanesque art entirely.

Gothic art was characterized by the use of brighter colors, dimensions, and perspective, as it demonstrated a pointed move back towards realism.

Artists began to use more shadows and light in their artworks and experimented with broad and new subject matters. Religion was dropped as the most important element within art, as these new subject matters included animals and mythic scenes. Figures depicted within the Gothic period made use of more realism, as paintings became more lifelike.

Medieval Paintings St. Aegidius and the Hindu (c. 1500) by Master of St. Aegidius; National Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As cities began to expand, the rise in universities, trade, and creation led to the formation of an entirely new class who could suddenly afford artistic commissions. This ultimately allowed Medieval artists to explore more earthly and non-religious themes and subject matters in their artworks. Gothic architecture presented some revolutionary structural advancements to buildings, which were used to create taller and lighter buildings.

Similarly, sculpture within this era borrowed elements from architecture and was mainly used to decorate the facade of cathedrals and other religious buildings. Gothic art eventually morphed into the Renaissance period, as elements began to mix together as the artistic period changed.


Medieval Architecture

During the Medieval Art period, architecture formed an important part of the artistic developments. The Middle Ages was an era where political order was practically non-existent, which left many common individuals with no hope in their lives and very little to live for. The only certainty that existed was the promise of peace in heaven, where happiness and hope would finally be experienced.

Middle Ages Art The cathedral, side, Cologne, the Rhine, Germany; See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The influence of religion led to churches being designed by members of the public as opposed to the clergy, which allowed these holy places to meet the requirements of the daily lives of its members. Thus, churches during the Medieval era took on the role of libraries, museums, and picture galleries in addition to being places of worship.

This led to churches becoming the center of town life within the Medieval period. The architectural designs of this time illustrate the deep passion and idealism of the Christian and Catholic faith, which was represented in the churches built.

These buildings existed as a direct expression of the spirituality of society at the time, with the interior décor demonstrating the eager declaration of the deep religious faith of the people during the Middle Ages.



Characteristics of Medieval Art

Due to the vastness of the Medieval period, many different types of mediums were experimented with. The artworks that still remain in large quantities include sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, metalwork, stained glass, and mosaics. These art forms were all said to have higher survival rates than fresco wall paintings and works made out of precious metals, despite them being extremely popular during Medieval Art. Below, we will talk about some of the most significant mediums of Medieval Art and their characteristics.

Medieval Art Tapestry La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), also called the Tapestry Cycle, is the title of a series of six Flemish tapestries depicting the senses. They are estimated to have been woven in the late 15th century in the style of mille-fleurs; Unknown author Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Medieval Paintings

During the Middle Ages, religion went on to become a prevalent theme in the majority of the artworks that were produced. Vibrant paintings that featured famous icons, such as Jesus and the Virgin Mary, were common during the early stages of the Medieval period. One of the most iconic religious paintings created during this time was Last Supper by Giotto di Bondone, painted in 1306. This painting portrayed Jesus surrounded by his apostles, which went on to become the most depicted religious scene in art history.

Famous Medieval Paintings Last Supper (1304-1306) by Giotto di Bondone; Giotto di Bondone, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, by the time the Gothic art period came around, artists began to stray away from the inclusion of typical religious themes in their artworks. This meant that the subject matter began to change, along with the art style, as paintings started to focus on mythology, animals, and various other themes that differed from the norm. One particular artistic element that artists began to adopt within their artworks was realism, which became an important feature in the paintings created during the Medieval phase.


Medieval Sculptures

The inclusion of realism also featured within the Medieval sculptures that were created. Prior to the fall of the Roman Empire, sculptures were traditionally stylized in their features. After the empire collapsed, realism was ushered in by the Ottonians and Carolingians, who emphasized the use of realistic aesthetics over the apathetic expressions that were used in periods such as the Byzantine era.

Medieval Sculptures Virgin and Child, ivory, first half of the 14th century; Vassil, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This transition into realism began a significant period of cultural revival within Medieval Art. Exquisite ivory carvings began to re-emerge, along with bronze castings that had three-dimensional details. These sculptures were influenced by classical realism that had exceeded previous art movements and had found expression during the Medieval phase.

Due to the vastness of Medieval Art, many styles and types of sculpture came and left, which accounted for the different architectural sculptures found within the Romanesque and Gothic periods.

Prominent Medieval sculptures included the figures that decorated the exterior of famous churches, as well as carvings of the Virgin Mary. The size of sculptures also denoted the wealth of individuals, with full-scale alabaster tombs existing as signs of excessive affluence, while smaller ivory sculptures were seen as merely devotional objects.


Illuminated Manuscripts

An art form that rose in popularity during the Medieval era was illuminated manuscripts, which featured documents of adorning text and ornamental objects. In the art archives today, the majority of the surviving illuminated manuscripts come from the Medieval phase of art.

The creation of illuminated manuscripts was an expensive and complicated process, as it began with writing the text onto sheets of parchment paper. Once this was completed, a lengthy stage of planning began, whereby the blank spaces within the layout were used for decoration. Within the final step, stunning figures were painted onto these pages and frequently made use of gold, which was a favored color in the earliest manuscripts that were created.

Medieval Era Literature Epistles of St Paul with Gloss (c. 1150), illumination on parchment; Bodleian Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Due to the vast development of illuminated manuscripts, a unique style that emerged was the creation of the historiated letter. This was an enlarged, often decorated letter used at the start of a paragraph and other sections of text that typically contained a picture. This was first seen in Insular Art before becoming increasingly popular during the Romanesque period.

The production of illuminated manuscripts had a great influence on the development of art, with these decorative initials being seen in antique-inspired books of myths and legends today.


Stained Glass

Another stunning type of art that was prevalent during the Medieval era was the art of stained glass. This art form was created by mixing sand and wood ash together before melting it into a liquid so that it molded into a glass. Before the glass had hardened, powdered metals were added which created the beautiful colors seen in the glassworks that later decorated great cathedrals.

The colors, while incredibly vibrant, depended on the type of stain and ingredients used but no matter the mixture, breathtaking scenes of wonder were always guaranteed. These stained-glass masterpieces were incredibly time-consuming, as different pieces of glass were carefully arranged together before deciding on the final pattern and design.

Artists then added final details by hand before putting together the finished artwork and attaching it into a window. Religion was also an important theme within the creation of these stained-glass designs, as they were essentially used to adorn the windows of churches and cathedrals with beloved icons from the Bible.

Stained Glass Medieval Art The stained glass window with the Stories of San Giacomo Maggiore, by Corrado de ‘Mochis from 1554-1564. It was commissioned by Pius IV of the Medici di Marignano; Carlo Dell’Orto, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons



Famous Medieval Artworks

As the Medieval Art period was one of the oldest art periods to occur, many early Medieval art and their artists remain unknown to us. The artworks that have survived throughout the centuries, most notably sculptures and architecture, belong to artists who produced what was considered to be late Medieval art. Additionally, the most notable artists that are spoken about today lived during the latter part of the Medieval period and are thought to overlap with the beginning of the Renaissance.

As most of the fresco paintings did not survive after the end of the Medieval era, we will be exploring some of the most notable architectural structures to come from this period of artistic creation.


Hagia Sophia (built in 537 A.D.)

Built at the beginning of the Byzantine period within Medieval Art, under the direction of Roman emperor Justinian I, the Hagia Sophia was the largest Christian church in existence within the Eastern Roman Empire. Originally built as a Greek Orthodox Christian church, the Hagia Sophie was converted into a mosque in 1453 after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. Today, the Hagia Sophia exists as a museum in Istanbul, Turkey.

Medieval Period Architecture A photograph of the Hagia Sophia, built in 537 A.D.; Ali Rıza Paşa, -1907, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Due to its structural design, the Hagia Sophia is believed to be the epitome of Byzantine architecture, as it is also one of the greatest surviving architectural examples from this period. At the time of its construction, it was considered to be the world’s tallest building and was well-known for its distinctive and massive dome, as it was the first church to ever make use of a fully penetrative dome.

The interior of the structure was originally decorated with rich mosaics and marble pillars that held great artistic value. Being seen as a great achievement of late antiquity, its architectural and eucharistic influence spread throughout both Eastern and Western Christianity and Islam. Today, the Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


The Lindisfarne Gospels (written between 715 – 720 A.D.)

Existing as one of the greatest examples of Insular Art, the Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated manuscript gospel book that was written in a monastery in Lindisfarne in North East England. This manuscript, which blends Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Mediterranean elements, is made up of the four Christian gospels, Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John.

Medieval Period Literature Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels, incipit to the Gospel of Matthew. The main text contains the first sentence of the Gospel According to Saint Matthew: “Liber generationis Iesu Christi filii David filii Abraham” (“The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham”); Eadfrith of Lindisfarne (presumed), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Supposedly mimicking St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, the Gospels recount the life and teachings of Christ. The manuscript is seen as a great example of Medieval European bookmaking, as it was richly illustrated and originally encased in a fine leather bounding that was covered with precious jewels and metals.


Palatine Chapel (built between 790 – 805 A.D.)

Located in Germany, the Palatine Chapel was a Medieval chapel that was consecrated by Pope Leo III in 805 A.D. to honor the Virgin Mary. It existed as the outstanding piece of Charlemagne’s Palace of Aachen. While this palace no longer exists today, the preserved chapel now forms part of the Aachen Cathedral. Seen as an early example of Classical, Byzantine, and Pre-Romanesque art, as the architecture combined elements of all three periods, the Palatine Chapel is an exemplary vision of Middle Ages art.

Medieval Era Architecture A photograph of the exterior of Capella Palatina. Palermo, Italy; Liilia Moroz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The building was made up of a dome chapel with a square apse and two basilican structures that are only known through archaeology, as the original structures have sadly been destroyed. The structure of the dome, which resembled an octagonal cloister vault, borrowed heavily from the Roman period of art through its techniques. Like other structures created in the Medieval period, the Palatine Chapel was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it also now forms part of the Aachen Cathedral.


Notre Dame de Paris (built between 1163 – 1345 A.D.)

Perhaps the most well-known Gothic cathedral in existence is the iconic Notre-Dame de Paris, which took over 100 years to be fully completed. At the beginning of the Medieval era, Notre Dame was considered to be an incredibly expensive commission of architecture. Artworks of this magnitude were only accessibly to large institutions at the time, such as the church, or by the wealthiest of patrons. This late Medieval art structure was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.

Translated to mean “Our Lady of Paris”, Notre-Dame was sanctified and dedicated to Virgin Mary. The cathedral is also seen as the finest example of Gothic architecture, as the cathedral pioneered the use of flying buttresses and rib vaults, in addition to its beautiful stained-glass windows and iconic sculptural elements. Notre Dame differed significantly from the Romanesque style that appeared before it due to its distinct style and design.

Architecture from the Medieval Period A view of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, on the Ile de la Cité in Paris, 1855; Brown University Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The cathedral, which was the site of Napoleon I’s coronation, gained notoriety in society, as interest in the cathedral sparked after Victor Hugo’s 1831 publication of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. While it was also adapted into many movies, the most notable adaption came from Walt Disney Pictures in 1996.

Since the cathedral’s original construction, it has suffered major damage and dilapidation in the centuries that have gone by. The most recent destruction occurred in 2019 when a massive fire broke out in the attic of the cathedral and destroyed the 19th-century spire. Two years since this destruction, restorations to rebuild the spire remain underway.



Literature from Middle Ages Art

In addition to artworks, some iconic pieces of literature were also produced during the Medieval period. The majority of the literature coming from the Middle Ages was written by monks and religious leaders, as very few other people know how to read and write. Due to this, the available literature was incredibly religious, as hymns and songs about God were mostly written. However, some leaders wrote philosophical documents about religion, which differed slightly from the typical hymns.

Late Medieval Art Saint Marina the Monk presented to the monastery, from Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea (Golden Legend), 14th century, France; Richard de Montbaston, from Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea (traduction de Jean de Vignay), France, Paris, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most notable books coming from the Medieval era, which told stories about Saints during this time period, was the Golden Legend. The book was written by the archbishop of Genoa, Jacobus de Voragine, between 1259 and 1266. Some other secular books were written as well, but the more religious literature pieces proved to be more popular.

While religion influenced the majority of the literature produced, some famous non-religious literary works were also written. Some of these works include The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri to name a few. These literary masterpieces, which are still spoken about today, have managed to withstand the test of time and exist as some of the most iconic writings that were produced during the Medieval Art period.


The beginning of the Renaissance period signaled an end to Medieval Art and saw a return to the values of classical art and a renewed understanding of the features within the Middle Ages art. While the Medieval era was generally thought of as a dark period in history, its contribution has influenced the many different art styles that exist today. Due to its extensive time frame, Medieval Art experimented with a variety of genres that helped broaden its range, which has allowed the movement to stand as evidence to the progression of art.



Take a look at our Middle Ages art webstory here!


Cite this Article

Isabella, Meyer, “Medieval Art – Visual and Literary Arts of the Middle Ages.” Art in Context. June 8, 2021. URL:

Meyer, I. (2021, 8 June). Medieval Art – Visual and Literary Arts of the Middle Ages. Art in Context.

Meyer, Isabella. “Medieval Art – Visual and Literary Arts of the Middle Ages.” Art in Context, June 8, 2021.

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One Comment

  1. Take a look at Emperor Leo VI (886–912) adoring Jesus Christ. Imperial Gate mosaic in Hagia Sophia.
    Even though mosaic art is a more difficult medium, Jesus feet and knees are more prominent because they are closer. His clothing has a plethora of shadows. His blessing hand, face and neck have the depth with shadows. His face is as realistic as any art work. Emperor Leo VI’s expression is that of a supplicant. The only thing that they had not mastered is perspective as attempted in the throne.

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