To build up a specific time period of the Middle Ages, seen as a civilizational idea, seems troublesome. Also, in certainty it is incomprehensible. If there should be an occurrence of the medieval art, be that as it may, it introduces no difficulty at all. Since there is no such thing like an ancient medieval art, and in the art of the Antiquity no declaration of the Middle Ages is made. There were no pre-Middle Ages in light of the fact that there couldn’t be such thing. The explanation behind that is the very essence of the medieval art.
The whole culture of the Middle Ages is bound with the birth and improvement of Christianity: comprehended as another monotheistic religion but as well as a revolutionarily new, universal factor bringing together the community. For the first time in history of mankind a rule of the membership to the community appeared. It was free of factors, for example, family origin, race, ethnic membership and wealth—every one of them generally subject to various types of power majeure. This measure comprised of a conscious and deliberate (and, in the origin of Christianity, frequently heroic) decision of a specific system of values.
The fact that the early medieval Christian art was taking a light advantage of formal achievements of the Antiquity is only apparently one of its paradoxes. It is easier to understand these paradoxes if Roman sarcophagi originating more or less from the same period are compared. In the first row, fragments of “ancient” sarcophagi (i.e. formally and thematically referring to the ancient tradition) are shown. In the second row the sarcophagi are early Christian.
Stylistic differences are quickly observable (the sarcophagi date from the 4th century when Christianity was at that point a legitimate, carelessly creating philosophy). However, what really draws
a line between these two artistic world are their important themes. They are not comprehended as plots communicated through artistic means yet rather as sets of thoughts to which these plots make reference.
The art of European Middle Ages, all the way to the decadent phase of the international Gothic style is an art of symbols driving our thoughts towards the world of impartially existing values. It is hard to understand therefore having no background of Christian iconography. Its subject matter is focused on the relationship between man and God.
For a long period of time formal elements of the Antiquity were manifesting themselves in medieval art—and for a good reason.
Christianity did not create, neither during the Middle Ages nor in any later periods, its own aesthetic doctrine. It did not focus on architectural orders but on the new order of the Universe after all. The introduction of Christianity as a spiritual attitude of the Roman Empire citizens did not change anything in their earthly life. It did not change their habits, social functions or artistic tastes either. It did, however, excluded them definitely from the tradition of the Antiquity.
Elaboration of their own formal language has been delayed by the heritage of Christianity. Originating from the Judaic tradition, the prohibition on creating images of God was based on a belief that every single attempt was bound to impoverish the essence of divinity and create falsely worshipped idols—because of their inevitable imperfection. As a result, almost until the 5th century the medieval art lacked of images of Christ. There were only exclusively allegorical displays of the Good Shepherd.
The only truly Antiquity-derived thing in the art of Christian Middle Ages is a passion for realistic depicting of abstractions and immaterial phenomena (something that, for instance, Islam did not endeavored). It did not come out of nowhere nor it did it suddenly. It is crucial to remember that in the first centuries of the Middle Ages Christianity was shaping itself and no centuries-old, Christian tradition of today’s understanding existed. The number of Christians did not increased as a result of a higher birth rate or new generations being brought up in new faith—but as a result of the conversion of adults who had grown up in a tradition of the Antiquity and who had their mentality formed, as well as the financial and social position: the last wave of persecutions of Christians concerned mostly the members of emperor’s court. These people grew surrounded by works of the classical “pagan” art. When their spiritual life reached a turning point, a subject matter of that art changed radically; first of all though, changed their symbolism. It is probably hard for us to understand today how radically the Middle Ages changed the art. In the Antiquity’s works a goblet of wine, a bread, a fish on a plate, a dove, lambs and even good shepherds can easily be found. In the Middle Ages the same objects became symbols and even the most awkward work of art boiled with meanings.
This was a radical iconographic revolution and it most probably took place towards the end of the 1st century (no older works of the early Christian art have been preserved). It is irrelevant whether it concerned the masses (probably it did not since it took two centuries to legalize the new religion). Since then the history of art has already had two separate trends: the art of the Antiquity, still great but declining towards an inevitable fall, and still very lumpy but more and more fascinating early Christian art. In thousand years it would build Gothic style cathedrals, but from the very beginning it contained the entire essence of the Middle Ages.
And here lies the greatest paradox of this fascinating era.
Culture of the Middle Ages, based on Christianity born in the ancient Palestine only developed and flourished to the north of the Alps, on barbarians’ lands. It is hard to rationally explain this fact. Since the time of Constantine the Great the political center of Europe moved first from Italia to Constantinople, and then to Franks’ lands; however, the smaller was the political importance of Rome, the greater role played the papacy there. Therefore it should have become even more the center of Christian culture; too strong tradition of the Roman antiquity could be the reason for this not to have happened. Perhaps the new vision of world would dazzle peoples which had not had—as Greeks and Romans—any pagan past preserved in an impressive culture and art, and when they crossed the frontiers of a civilized world they sought for a universal “ID card”.
It is hard to say whether it was the thrust of barbarians that wiped out the ancient Roman empire or rather it just depleted its potential and fell a pray easily to the invaders. Three centuries of the Migration Period were definitely not only a period of plundering but also of a cultural, civilizational and political education.
Huge formal diversity of the medieval art resulted from the universalness of the Christian doctrine. Implementing common values over huge areas inhabited by all sorts of cultures, it did not formulate any manners in which those values could (or should) be expressed in art. Every culture interpreted them according to its own artistic tradition so that formal elements of the Celtic, Roman or Armenian art would soon form part of it, taking over gradually the shared Christian symbolism.
This diversity requires a division of the medieval art history into the following chapters:
EARLY CHRISTIAN ART
it was emerging from the beginning of the 2nd century till the beginning of the 6th century; it includes the catacomb painting, early Christian architecture and the decorative art of Rome, Jerusalem and Syria, as well as the art of non-European peoples such as Copts and Armenians.
coming into existence from the 6th century in Constantinople and in its zone of influence. It emerged after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and after the appearance of regional and doctrinal diversity in Christianity.
PRE-ROMANESQUE ART OF THE “BARBARIANS”
includes the art of the Visigoths, Lombards, Franks (Merovingian and Carolingian) and Anglo-Saxons.
includes the so-called “first Romanesque”, developing in the area between Catalonia and Lombardy, and the Ottonian art as well.
emerging in the 11th and 12th centuries, it constituted—thanks to the international range of Christian monasticism—the first codified style of the Christian Europe. It includes the continental monastic architecture of Benedictine monks (Cluny), English Norman as well as related to it Sicilian Romanesque.
GOTHIC STYLE ART
emerging from the half of the 12th century, it includes the architecture, sculpture and—for the first time—painting as a self-reliant, independent of architecture form of art, having lots of regional varieties: from the bombastic Spanish Gothic style till the German brick Gothic style.