The era of Byzantine art started around the time the Middle Ages is said to begin: the year 500 AD. In this era, the Byzantine Empire was creating tremendous paintings and tableaus of incredible sophistication and realism. For the most part, religion fuelled the art of the Middle Ages, as Christianity strengthened its hold on the European cultural consciousness, and Byzantine art is no exception. Most, if not all, Byzantine art was extremely religious, consisting of icons (wooden depictions of sacred images) and other types of physical art. In addition to frescos and mosaics, which were paintings of religious imagery within churches and other religious temples, the Byzantine era helped to shape the influence of European religious art, creating works of great beauty and sophistication.
Art throughout the Middle Ages continues to evolve until the Romanesque period of the 11th century, where Christianization of Northern Europe led to more and more French, German and Spanish paintings and monumental sculptures comig into prominence. One way in which art was conveyed in the Middle Ages during this period was through architecture; Romanesque buildings often had thicker walls and vaulted roofs, creating giant structures that melded together into a single whole. Depictions of religious figures in sculpture were great evidence of the development of art in this time; the Golden Madonna of Essen, the Virgin Mary and more were often given physical form in stone or other materials. This was soon followed by Gothic art, which placed a new emphasis on naturalism and a darkness that was not seen frequently in many works of previous periods of the Middle Ages. The Chartres cathedral, created in 1220, is a perfect example of the naturalism present in Gothic art, with realistic figures sculpted into the columns.1
The Romanesque style of painting was much different than in Byzantine art - instead of weaving intricacy and sophistication, Romanesque paintings focused on vivid colors, clear iconography, and a great deal of raw expression behind it. In this time, more art was able to be seen by more of the population, and as much of it was religious art it was often seen to be an increasingly important teacher of religious doctrine. Stained-glass artwork became more and more prominent in churches, the form being used to depict many religious scenes. In addition to that, Mosan art, a type of metalworking and sculpture, came into prominence - some notable examples of Mosan art include the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne and the Baptismal font at St. Bartholomew's Church in Liege.2 These examples and more all provide ample proof that the evolution and creativity of art in the Middle Ages was thriving.
Creativity did not extend purely to physical art and sculpture, however; the written word was also in somewhat of a renaissance during the Middle Ages. The first serialized novel was written during this period, in the form of the anonymously written epic poem Beowulf. In this time Geoffrey Chaucer also offered an incredibly intricate and accessible piece of anthologized storytelling with The Canterbury Tales, as well as other works like the romantic Troilus and Cressida. Tales of war and gallantry were also prominent, as in anonymous tales Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Song of Roland. Lancelot, Percival and the Holy Grail, Tristan and Isolde and other works of the writer Chroticn de Troyes are indicative of a deeper level of allegory present in Middle Ages literature; these works examined the ideas of chivalry and morality through familiar yet well-written stories3. These works and more are indicative of a dramatic outpouring of significant literature and written works, elevating the concepts of the written word and the poem to new levels of sophistication and meaning.
New developments in music were created during the Middle Ages as well. The High Middle Ages saw the advent of the organum style of singing - effectively, harmony was created as a second singer sang along with the melody to a different tune. This introduced counterpoint to the realm of music. Also, musical notation was created in the Middle Ages, showing duration and tone, in order to express the sounds made by new instruments like the clavichord, trumpet, keyboard-based instruments and stringed instruments which were created during this time period. Songs were set to poems to create new secular music, which were played by troubadours that roamed the countryside looking to entertain - they used the new concept of courtly love to fashion new songs and tales that delighted and remained with many people (aristocratic or not) who heard them in that time. This type of music was brought to the commoners and royalty alike, offering all classes the chance to experience this level of sophistication in music. 4All of these different aspects of music were created and innovated during the Middle Ages; from that point, they continued to evolve into the types of popular, secular music we see today.
One important distinction to make in the development of art and the humanities during the Middle Ages, as can be seen, is that the majority of art was religious and sacred. Due to the prominent role Christianity and other religions played in the lives of those who lived during this period, it is easy to see how the art revolves mainly around sacred and Biblical events and stories. However, there is a fair amount of secular literature and art that came about during this time period as well - courtly love became an ever increasing subject in Medieval literature in these days, as expressed by traveling singers called troubadours. This managed to combine the flourishing patterns of secular, romantic literature and traveling, innovative songwriting and singing for pleasure that are further evidence of the growing sense of creativity that was present in the Middle Ages.
Despite the expectation that the Middle Ages was a cultural morass, a substantial amount of art and humanities-related content came out of that time period. While most of it was religious in nature, it nevertheless had a substantial amount of charm and sophistication to it, and many different artists tested the waters of what constituted art. New art forms were created and innovated, from sculpture to new forms of architecture. Writing became more secular, and many creative works with nuanced characters and allegorical stories were released in the Middle Ages which still have resonance today. Without the Middle Ages, the world of the humanities would not have progressed so rapidly; the need for a cultural outpouring to express religious belief or ideas of chivalry and courtly love created the demand for new songs, new stories and new works of art to flourish.
John P. McKay, et al. A History of Western Society. Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Henry M. Sayre. Discovering the Humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2010