The End of Europe's Middle Ages

Visual Arts

This chapter is composed of four sections: Introduction, Architecture, Sculpture and Painting. Please follow the link at the end of each section to read the entire chapter.


The rise of secular powers and the disunity of the Church in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries impacted the visual arts with respect to both patronage and themes. The papacy and the Church remained majors patrons of artists and craftsmen but commissions from secular sources, both public and private, began to increase significantly. Strong national influences can be seen in architecture and art as each locale imposed its own interpretation upon the prevailing international styles.

One of the most interesting aspects of the visual arts in the Late Middle Ages are the shifts that occurred in both style and dominance between the major forms of architecture, sculpture, and painting. Architecture was the most prevalent expression of the Gothic style between 1150 and 1250 - the Age of the Great Cathedrals. Gothic sculpture was initially extremely architectural in spirit; that is, sculpture reinforced or enhanced architectural structures. After 1200, however, sculpture began to come into its own and achieved its greatest advances over the next two centuries. Painting became the dominant art form during the early fourteenth century in Italy and, in northern Europe, after 1400.

While van Eyck subdued personality in search of accuracy of detail, in the late fifteenth century, Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464) set out to translate the pathos of Gothic sculpture into painting. Using the unusual approach of simplifying and eliminating detail, Rogier emphasises human traits, revealing the personality behind the portrait.

The realism of the panel paintings of the Flemish masters spread quickly in the 1400s. By the middle of the century, the style was employed from the Iberian Peninsula to the Baltic Sea, impressing its standards on manuscript illumination, stained glass, and even sculptures. The successful three-dimensional rendering of the painters inspired sculptors to revive a search for realism in carving and the late fifteenth century blossomed with artists who excelled in both painting and sculpture.

The first of the Early Renaissance painters of Italy was Masaccio (1401-1428). Despite the brevity of his life, Masaccio's achievements stand out in the perfection of perspective, the consistent use of a single light source, and realism. In The Holy Trinity with the Virgin and St. John, a fresco in Sta. Maria Novella, Florence that was done in 1425, Masaccio combined Giotto's dramatic emotion with Brunelleschi's scientific perspective to depict an actual space occupied by the figures instead of merely a background.

Masaccio's extraordinary ability to depict living creatures in space died with him. While numerous Italian artists of the fifteenth century created beautiful and compelling masterpieces, no contemporary artist approached Masaccio's mastery. Of these other artists, Fra Filippo Lippi (c.1406-1469) pursued elements of movement at the expense of spatial order while Fra Angelico (c.1400-1455) retained spatial proportion but de-emphasised the "humanness" of his figures.

Trained by Fra Filippo Lippi and influenced by Pollaiuolo's painting and engraving, Sandro Botticelli (1444/5-1510) quickly rose to prominence as the favoured artist of the Medici circle of patricians, scholars, literati, and poets. The Adoration of the Magi contains portraits of three Medicis - Cosimo, Lorenzo and Giuliano - as well as a full-face self-portrait of Botticelli. One of his best known paintings is the Birth of Venus, which depicts voluptuous nudes that deny the principles of weight and gravity. This artistic paradox closed the Early Renaissance and opened the door to the great Renaissance masters who were to follow.

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The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
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