What Is Medieval Art?

Medieval art refers to art created in Europe during the Middle Ages, roughly from the fifth to the seventeenth centuries CE. Painting and sculpture were among the many types of medieval art, as were textile arts, illuminated manuscripts, metalworking, mosaics, and stained glass windows. Depending on the time period and region, medieval art can have a wide range of conventions and characteristics. For example, early medieval works of art from the Roman Empire often followed Roman conventions, whereas art from northern Europe usually followed Germanic conventions. In some types of Middle Ages art, Islamic influences can be seen. Later centuries saw the various artistic influences blend together a little more, and certain regions of Europe are thought to have developed their own distinct artistic conventions.

Throughout history, there have been several schools of medieval art. The art of the Late Antique period is considered the earliest of these schools, and it is thought to closely resemble Roman artistic conventions. This style of art is thought to have survived the longest in southern Europe. Late Antique art is thought to be virtually non-existent in northern Europe, England, and Ireland, as these peoples never fully fell under the Roman Empire’s influence. For many centuries in Spain, where Islam was the dominant religion rather than Catholicism, medieval art is thought to have developed facets reminiscent of Arab culture and artistic conventions.

Romanesque and Gothic art were two other styles of art popular during the Middle Ages. In the 10th century CE, Romanesque art preceded Gothic art. According to art historians, this style of art combined the many cultural and religious influences that existed in Europe at the time. Though it included elements of Islamic tradition, it primarily dealt with Christian themes. Gothic art is thought to have first appeared around the 12th century, and the 16th century, it had spread throughout Europe.

In medieval Europe, much of the art produced was religious in nature. During this time, the Catholic Church used paintings, sculptures, and other forms of art to help educate the largely illiterate public about religious matters. Marginal doodles and sketches were common in some forms of art, such as illuminated manuscripts, with no apparent purpose other than to entertain those who created and viewed them. Some medieval works of art, such as the Bayeux Tapestry, are thought to have depicted significant historical events. Metalwork, particularly in precious metals such as silver and gold, is thought to have grown in importance during this time, possibly because the Catholic Church believed that only valuable metals were suitable for crafting religious implements.