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A Late Antique ivory carving

A Late Antique ivory carving

Roman artGerman art, and Islamic art mixed together in Europe in the Early Middle Ages to create a new form, which we call medieval art. Art historians divide medieval art into Early Medieval, Romanesque, and Gothic art. But these types of art looked different in different places, and in the hands of different artists. And in northern Europe, both Romanesque and Gothic art happened later than they did in southern Europe.

The first type is Early Medieval art. Some Early Medieval artists worked in a more or less Roman style, so people would know they were Roman Christians. In Spain and Constantinople, Late Antique art lasted until the Arab conquest of Spain in 700 and the iconoclast controversy in the 700s AD. In France, it lasted longer, until the end of the Merovingians around 800 AD. In England and Germany, still later, until about 1000 AD. In Italy, where people were proud of their Roman heritage, they kept making Early Medieval art until about 900 AD.

A very long, twisted man in stone, from Moissac

Jeremiah, on a column from the Romanesque monastery at Moissac in southern France

After Late Antique art came Romanesque art. Now artists mixed German, Roman, and Islamic ideas. That brought a new energy and excitement to architecture, sculpture and painting. Romanesque architecture has a heavy, substantial, impressive feel. Sculpture is more abstract. It combines stiff, formal forms in some places with fantastic carvings of real and imaginary animals and demons in others. Nearly all Romanesque artists used Christian themes.

Romanesque art in northern Spain, where Romans and Visigoths fled after the Arab conquest, was influenced by Islamic art. In France, Charlemagne got a lot of good Romanesque art produced around 800. Then Charlemagne’s children and grandchildren also paid for a lot of art. In England, Romanesque art came from France with the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD. And in Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great, also about 1000 AD, got artists to start working in the new Romanesque style.

Fra Angelico, Italy: Jesus and Mary Magdalene

Fra Angelico, Italy: Jesus and Mary Magdalene

Romanesque art gradually turned into Gothic art around 1100 AD in Italy, Then Gothic ideas spread slowly over Europe between 1100 and about 1300 AD. The easiest way to recognize Gothic architecture is by the pointed arches. But in general Gothic architecture shows a new ambition to reach higher and lighter, with walls of glass, reaching up to Heaven.

Gothic sculpture shows more concern for realism than Romanesque, and more emotion. Now Mary appears everywhere. Jesus becomes more merciful, compassionate, and loving. In painting, artists also searched for more realism and more emotion. Artists like Giotto and Fra Angelico began to experiment with backgrounds and crowd scenes.

In Constantinople, Gothic never caught on, because people thought it was a Western, barbaric style. Also, iconoclasm made it seem wrong to paint people too realistically. In France, by 1200 people began to build Gothic cathedrals. England was not much later. In Germany and northern Spain, Gothic came later, not until around 1300. And in southern Spain Islamic styles came with Islamic government until almost 1500 AD.

Learn by doing: painting an icon
More about Cimabue

Bibliography and further reading about medieval art:


Islamic art
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