As the Roman Empire fell into decline and collapse another unifying cultural force began to spread through Europe, this time not by a process of conquest and empire-building, but through the gentler methods of persuasion and spiritual transformation. Legalised by Emperor Constantine I in 313 C.E. and declared the official religion of the Roman Empire under Theodosius I in 380 C.E., the rising influence of Christianity and the waning power of Rome had a huge influence on art throughout Europe.
Christianity had inherited from its Jewish roots strong taboos against idolatry and nudity. Moreover, the new religion emphasised the pursuit of spiritual over physical perfection. Where once the athlete’s sculptured muscles and the maiden’s curvaceous beauty had epitomised all that was most desirable in humanity, now the focus was on gaining spiritual enlightenment and eternal life in the hereafter.
Sculpture, therefore, almost disappeared, not to emerge again as a dominant art form for many centuries, long after the practise of idol-worship had faded from memory. And the bodies depicted in art were no longer gloriously built, their beauty emphasised by the drape of their garments or else displayed uncovered. Now, in most cases, the body disappeared under neck-to-wrist-to-ankle robes; still recognisably human but not in itself something to marvel at. Only the eyes, large and luminous, were emphasised, for the eyes as the “lamp of the body” (Luke 11:34, Matthew 6:22) served as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment, while the halo appears to have been adopted from Classical depictions of the god Helios/Apollo as a way of indicating the sanctity of a particular individual (their possession of ‘the light of God’ cf. John 1:1-9).
There is little emphasis on hellfire and damnation in these early Christian works: that would come later, during the Gothic period. Instead, the art of the early church was focussed on depicting scenes from the life of Jesus and the lives of the early believers. Mosaics continued to be produced for several centuries and, thanks to their durability, have in some cases survived to the present, but the most common medium at the time was tempera paint, made by mixing ground pigments with a binder – egg was frequently used – and water to create a durable paint which was usually applied to wooden surfaces. Fresco painting, where the pigment is suspended in water and applied to wet plaster, typically on a wall, was also common, while gold and lapis lazuli were sometimes used to add luminous embellishment.
In some areas, most notably the British Isles, another art form emerged which merged traditional Celtic art with the production of manuscripts of the Christian gospels and other Biblical texts, to produce intricate illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Written in ink on vellum, with no use of gold leaf or other valuable pigments, many of these manuscripts remain in remarkable condition for works produced well over a millennium ago.
As far as we know European art continued along these lines right through the medieval period and up until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This was the period that came to be known as the ‘Gothic’, a word today most associated with the architectural style which became popular at this time, which made increasing use of arches and buttresses to create buildings, especially cathedrals, which soared towards the heavens, but which was originally derogatory. It was the Visigoths, under King Alaric, who had sacked Rome in 410 C.E., an event which came to symbolise the final collapse of the once-mighty Roman Empire. Although the changes in artistic style between roughly 1280 and 1510 originated in Italy, traditionalists of the time considered them to be similarly barbarian and destructive of the supposedly-superior style which preceded them.
Although much art continued to be concerned with depicting Christian subject matter (it must be remembered that at this time literacy levels were low, books were hard to come by, and for many people the paintings on the walls of the local church were the only ‘Bible’ they were ever likely to encounter), a greater emphasis came to be placed on secular subjects. It was during this period that individual portraiture began to emerge as a popular art form, with one of the earliest extant examples being ‘Portrait of a Woman’ by Robert Campin (c.1420-1430).
The move to individual portraits was a logical extension of the increasing emphasis on greater realism in the depiction of individual faces and their characteristics. Compare, for example, Cimabue’s depiction of Mary in his ‘Maseta’, or that of his student, Giotto, in his ‘Madonna and Child’, with the 6th century work above. Images of the Virgin and Child became increasingly popular during the Gothic period, even as images of Jesus portrayed him as ever more powerful and remote, and although they would disappear from Northern art during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, they would continue to appear frequently in the artistic tradition of the various Catholic nations.
The Celtic illumination which had, in centuries past, focussed on the production of Bibles, was now adapted to producing gloriously illuminated ‘Books of Hours’ – prayer books for wealthy laypeople – and by the fifteenth century a darker side began to creep into religious art, most notably in the North, with an increasing focus on the crucifixion, typified by the works of Matthias Grunewald, and hellish visions of depravity, demons, the Last Judgement, and the torments of Hell, foremost amongst which are the nightmarish visions of Hieronymus Bosch.
The secular impulse brought numerous other changes. The 14th century was the heyday of tapestry making, centred particularly around Arras in France, although the most famous example, the Bayeux Tapestry, not only dates to several centuries before this but is also, strictly speaking, an embroidery rather than a tapestry (as a side-note, although modern depictions of tapestry and embroidery in the Middle Ages portrays it as a predominantly domestic and female occupation, the reality is that most tapestries were produced commercially by men).
Relief carvings depicting religious figures appeared on the new churches and cathedrals, and statues of secular subjects also began to emerge as the aversion to idolatry which had stayed the hand of earlier artists faded. As early as the mid-14th century Ambrogio Lorenzetti produced one of the earliest landscape paintings, ‘Allegory of Good Government: Effects of Good Government in the City and the Country.’
The mid-14th century saw another development as well, this one a technological advancement which would do as much to shape the appearance of the art of the subsequent Renaissance period as would any alteration of style, when either Jan Van Eyck or his brother Hubert developed a way of blending oil into the pigments used to produce paint, rather than applying it to the surface afterwards. While tempera would continue to be used for some years to come, the age of oil painting had arrived.