top of page
© Copyright
© Copyright

The Middle Ages and Renaissance


By Alex Brown





In AD313 the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In AD324 he moved the Imperial Court from the pagan Rome eastward to the new city of Constantinople (in present day Turkey). There, a new blend of Greco-Roman culture, mixed with Christianity, emerged and it is known as the Byzantine.


After his death, the western half of the Empire was under constant attack from barbarian migrants. In AD 410, Rome was sacked by the Germanic Visigoths. In AD 476, the last Roman emperor was deposed. The Roman Empire in the West collapsed and was divided into parts, ruled by different tribes.


As for the Eastern Empire, Constantinople was soon faced with attacks from Persians, the Slavic people and the Arab in AD 700, who still accepted the domination of the Eastern Empire. The Eastern Empire lasted for the next 1000 years till it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.




By the end of the 5th c, the western Roman Empire was split into various parts:


Ostrogoths in Italy,

Franks in Northern Gaul, Angles,

Saxon and Jutes in England.


In the early 8th c, the Islamic Moors from North Africa invaded Western Europe but was defeated in AD 732 by the Frankish major, Charles Martel. In AD 741, Charles’ son, Pepin the Short, was crowned with permission by the Church. His dynasty is known as the Carolingian. As a repayment to the Church, he ‘donated’ some Italian lands to the papacy and this started the formation of a papal state in central Italy.




During the 11th c, the Church began to assert its independence from secular power from the imperial control. The College of Cardinals was established so that future popes could then be elected with spiritual rather than political, monetary or family considerations.


Formation of religious communities emerged as early as in the late 4thc and 5th c.


         Benedict of Nursia (AD 480 - 547) in Italy is one of the earliest monk calling for a life of prayer contemplation, study, communal work and labour.


        The Cistercians: In the 12th c, a Benedictine reform movement resulted the formation of the Cistercians. Instead of public worship and agricultural labour, this group of monks emphasized individual devotion and other forms of work, following a rigorous diet.


The Dominicans, founded by Spanish Agustinian Dominic (1170) in 1216, were a group depending on alms for their living. They took vows to poverty, chastity and obedience.

Established by Francis of Assisi (1182) in 1209, Franciscans devoted themselves to the spiritual and material needs of the poor in their pledge to poverty and humanity.


With the blunder of Boniface VIII (1294 - 1303), the days of papal supremacy were crashed. Clement V (1305 - 1314) was elected then by the then dominating powers of the French monarchy.




In the late 8th c, Charlemagne crushed the Lombards in Italy, the Saxon in Germany, and created a second Rome in Aachen. He engaged Alcuin (AD 735), the Anglo-Saxon to make up the first model for education.


The seven Liberal Arts are :


Trivium:           grammar, rhetoric, and logic

Quadrivium:     arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy


Also, Charlemagne had other scholars copying Greek legal and religious manuscripts which were to be distributed to monasteries. These are then being discovered and read by the 15th c scholars.


4.1    Literature in the Middle Ages


Apart from medieval literature in native languages, there are major works by writers who aimed to promote a national language out of regional dialects:


Dante Alighieri, (1265 - 1321) - The Divine Comedy

Geoffrey Chaucer, (1387 - 1400) - Canterbury Tales




By the 6thc, silk has become one easily available fabric from the Far East. The dressing for the rich was stiff, heavy and richly patterned, with semi-precise stones. With borders often of Eastern designs/ motifs, the rich man’s dress had single animals such as the eagle or elephant dominating in a grand scale.




The barbarian tribes (the Goths, Vandals and the Franks), who ruled Western Europe were very much influenced by Roman culture. They were, in fact, 'half Romanized'. In this context it is possible to define four influences which merged together to form the general artistic style in the Middle Ages:


1.      The visible remains of Roman Classical art ‑ the ruins of great buildings, statues, etc.

2.    The art of the still powerful Eastern Roman Empire (now called Byzantium) the  mosaics, architecture and style.

3.      Islamic influence ‑ decorative, natural/linear, writhing twisting vines and other  natural forms.

4.      Christian religious symbols and themes ‑ the 'official' religion of the late Roman  Empire.


From these sources, the artistic style in the Middle Ages may be divided into three periods:


1. Early Christian (Byzantine)………AD 313 ‑ AD 1000


2. Romanesque.................... ……   AD 1000 ‑ AD 1100


3. Gothic................................... …..AD 1100 ‑ AD 1400


6.1   Early Christian / Byzantine Period


Christianity, now the state religion was at first supported by money from the Byzantine emperors based in Constantinople. They built churches throughout the empire as they had built temples before that. However, as it faced growing pressure from the Persians and the Arabs, its influence in the West began to fade.


Money for art now came from the powerful established church based in the Italian city of Ravenna. (Later the Church moved its headquarters to Rome itsel0. The kings who now ruled different parts of Europe saw themselves as protectors of the Church.


The art produced in this period is simple and modest compared to the work of the Roman Empire and was essentially 2‑dimensional and decorative as against the 3­dimensional and sculptural work of the Greeks and Romans.



6.2   Characteristics of Early Christian / Byzantine Art


1.      Less skilful and realistic than Roman Classical work. Many craft and artistic skills had been  lost with the fall of the Empire.

2.      Surface decoration dominates everything as paintings or mosaics.

3.      Primitive figures from Northern Europe sit inside Classical frames. Fragments of  the Classical past remain to give dignity to Christian themes and figures.

4.      The natural world takes over as a background to figures with complex linework and tracery everywhere (like vines) ‑ a reminder of the Northern forests from which the Gothic tribes  came.


6.3  The Romanesque Period

The Holy Roman Empire was established by the Franco‑German king Charlemagne who was crowned emperor in AD 800 temporarily uniting the different states of Western Europe into a new Christian Empire.


After Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire was split by wars and attempted invasions by Northern tribes. Political and artistic stability was now centred on the Church which had become the only real unifying centre of Western Europe and wealthy enough to build a large number of new churches and monasteries throughout Europe stimulating artistic development.


This period of new building produced a continuing shift away from the style of the Classical past. Though it was not Roman in the truly classical sense, but only in details, this style nevertheless has been called the Roman-style - 'Romanesque'.


6.4  The Characteristics of Romanesque Art


1.      The Roman BASILICA building type (shed) using the arch as structure and decoration was further developed with simplified Roman details and towers added for emphasis.

2.      Complex linear decoration, ornament, paintings, mosaics, coloured glass and stained glass windows are used on churches.

3.    Simple, rigid and highly stylized figures, both in sculpture and painting are always set within arched frames.

4.    The detailed arts of jewellery, script and book illustration became highly developed, highly decorative and stylized.


6.5    The Gothic Period


By the year 1200 the Church had become extremely powerful. It had established many churches and monasteries throughout Europe and had recovered much of the Classical literature and ideas which had been lost with the fall of the Roman Empire.

In 1100 the Church organised the first Crusade ('Holy War'), sending armies to the Middle East to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. Two more crusades took place and failed. However, the Crusades demonstrated the power of the European Church and brought Europe into contact with a very sophisticated Arab civilization which benefited European art and science.


6.6   Characteristics of Gothic Art


1.      The Romanesque Basilica develops into the Christian Cathedral with its pointed arch and  tall slim columns. Stained           glass is used to fill increasingly large  windows.

2.     The sculpture of human figure remains somewhat stiff due to conventional ideas.

3.    Artists try to represent themes of grace, sainthood, delicacy, wisdom and the divine.

4.      Painting, tapestry and the illustration of books developed very quickly.

6.7  The End of the Gothic Period


At its height, Gothic had always been a particularly Northern European style. By 1400 the new political power of the Popes in Rome, Italy, brought the centre of European culture from the North to the Classical Mediterranean where the ruins of the classical past could be seen everywhere. At the same time, two Italian cities were becoming economically powerful: particularly Venice (through trade with the East) and Florence (through banking and the financing of other peoples wars in Northern Europe).


By 1450, particularly in Florence, the Italians had begun to see themselves as the 'New Romans'. The spirituality of the Gothic period evolved to the Humanism of the Renaissance (rebirth). More than before the idea of the heroic quality of human work and individuality became important and required expression. And this was only possible using examples from the non‑Christian past : from the Greeks and the Romans




By 1300 Northern Europe was in an almost constant state of war and in effect Europe had disintegrated into a series of independent states. Between 1337 and 1453, England and France were at war and it came to be known as The Hundred Years War.


Italy was relatively untouched by these wars and certain Italian city states had become extremely prosperous, notably: Florence, Siena, Milan, Venice and Pisa. Economic, cultural and sometimes military competition between these states combined with the new Humanism (human-centred philosophy), led these cities to pattern their cultural activities on classical Greek and particularly Roman models.  They deliberately sought to recover the prestige and glory of the Roman past in order to establish an equally powerful corporate and political identity.


7.1    Learning and Literature of the Renaissance


Scholars of this period began to see themselves as the unifying element with the ancient world. Taking Classical texts as references, they reoriented the emphasis from biblical texts to pagan literature, and stressed CIVIL VALUES over individual quest for spiritual immortality.


 Petrarch (1304 - 1374)

 Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 - 1375)

 Leonardo Bruni

 Niccolo Machiavelli


The flowering of Neo-Platonism began in the Late 15th c. It is a mixture of ideas from classical thoughts, Christian teachings and astrology.

7.2    Renaissance Art


By 1400 the Gothic style in Art had become increasingly complex and sophisticated. The new wealth, stable politics and cultural climate of Italy provided an environment where late Gothic Art could be transformed into a new and revolutionary art form.


The artist at the centre of this cultural revolution becomes an individual much sought after by different Italian states. In many cases, Gothic artists had been labelled as craftsman. Now the name and skill of individual artists were known throughout Europe. Names such as Donatello, Botticelli, Masaccio, Brunellesci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci.


This prosperity of the Italian city states later led to state patronage of Art (commissioning buildings, paintings and sculpture) as a means of displaying the power and grandeur of each city. Artistic competition between city states in effect led to the flowering of the ITALIAN RENAISSANCE


7.3  Characteristics of Early Renaissance Art.


Works of art were being recovered from Roman ruins and copied. Roman works of literature were studied and Republican and Humanist ideas became the dominant force in Renaissance Italy.


This meant that rational analysis and experiment rather than simply belief in a divine will and revelation became the primary source of knowledge. We can find here in the European Renaissance the true beginnings of the scientific method where the ‘truth’ of a statement is not its agreement with authority, tradition or the past, but its correspondence with a measurable reality. The key question in this era becomes: ‘How do we prove things to be true?’. The consequences of this scientific approach would be enormous for the whole of Western society.

By the middle 1500s scholarship and archaeology had led to a considerable understanding of the Roman and Greek Classical ORDERS which were used in the design of Renaissance buildings.


1.      Influenced by recovery and analysis of Classical literature and models.

2.       Increasing technical skill in painting.

3.       The discovery and use of perspective revolutionises painting.

4.      Renewed interest in human emotions and expressions.

5.      Painting and sculpture become more dynamic and 3‑dimensional.





Back Home

architecture, design history, cultural history of Europe, US, Asia, gothic, islamic, renaissance, baroque, modern, postmodern, 

Architecture Art Design Cultural History and Theory and More

From Undergraduate to Graduate: its all here. Packed with information. Everything you wanted to know about :



bottom of page
free html visitor counters
free html visitor counters