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.


Stained Glass Manuscript

Flight from Egypt (detail), Broederlam

Painting as an art form during the Middle Ages encompassed a broad range of mediums including stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, murals and frescos, as well as panel paintings. Prior to the rise of the Gothic style, the prevalent form of painting was manuscript illumination. During the first half of the thirteenth century, the great Gothic cathedrals demanded artistic attention and stained glass painting achieved dominance. 

The techniques of painting stained glass were well developed before the arrival of the Gothic style of architecture and sculpture but the advent of vast expanses of windows created an opportunity to expand those techniques. By the early thirteenth century, a Gothic style of stained glass had emerged that attempted to imitate architectural sculptures. The method of joining hundreds of small pieces of painted glass by lead strips, drawing only the finest details, resisted attempts to create three-dimensional images but created its own style.

Illuminated manuscripts re-established the dominance in the late thirteenth century but the impact of stained glass can be seen in the heavy outlines, even though details are exquisitely represented. The S-curves of the bodies, flowing hair, and serene faces reflect the influence of Gothic sculpture. After the thirteenth century, however, the production of manuscript illuminations was no longer restricted to monasteries and secular artists created more dynamic and realistic miniatures. 

June, from Les Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry

In the second half of the fourteenth century, the Italian style of painting had a profound influence on developments north of the Alps. Manuscript illumination was the first to experience the impact of new uses of space, adapting it to a manuscript page. One of the most amusing developments is the incorporation of fanciful marginal designs, or drôleries, a characteristic feature of Northern Gothic manuscripts. Frescoes and panel paintings followed the same path as the Italian masters, providing little opportunity for regional innovation.

Just as an International Style had developed in architecture and sculpture, an International Style of painting began to appear around 1400. The main proponents of this style were Melchior Broederlam (fl. 1387-1409) and the Limbourg Brothers. Melchior Broederlam, a Fleming working in Burgundy, utilised an exceptional attention to modelling and shadowing to convey the impression of depth. Although many people may be unaware of the Limbourg Brothers, few remain ignorant of their most famous creation, the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The continued prevalence of manuscript painting is demonstrated by the exceptional quality of the miniatures in this fifteenth century Book of Hours.

  Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Sample of Block Print

While the rise of printing technology had a major impact on literary content in the late fifteenth century, its influence was also felt in the graphic arts. Printing from carved wooden blocks was the prevailing method of printing pictorial designs during the fifteenth century and the images reflect the International Style with their heavy outlines and stylised bodies. Intended to be coloured at a later time, these pictures are evocative of the stained glass of the period. Also, block prints were popular art and note-worthy artists disdained the form until the sixteenth century. 

Flagellation of Christ by Schongauer

At some point in the early fifteenth century, the practice of printing with engravings came into use. While the art of engraving itself can trace its roots back in a continuous line to antiquity, the application to printing was a novelty. Engraving allowed artists to express greater detail and forms are shaped by cross-hatching. Most early engravers were goldsmiths but their works reveal the prevailing painting styles. Some engravers, such as Martin Schongauer (c.1431-1491), also achieved renown as painters. 

Maestà Panel (detail), Duccio

During this period the most fervent development in painting occurred in Italy. At the end of the thirteenth century, Italian artists began demonstrating an astonishing genius for strikingly dramatic works. Incorporating the neo-Greek influences acquired from the Fourth Crusade with the Gothic style, a bold new emotional intensity was revealed. The first major step removing painting from the architectural setting of other art forms can be seen in the Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin by the Sienese master, Duccio (c.1255- before 1319). Here we see the figures within an architectural setting - earlier painters always placed architectural features behind the figures - creating a new perspective of space and depth. 

Mourning of Christ (detail), Giotto

While Duccio, in his art, established structural space and depth on a two-dimensional surface, opening a window onto a distant scene, Giotto (1267?-1336/7) distilled these concepts of depth and space to startling simplicity, drawing the viewer into the picture. The main action occurs in the foreground, providing continuity between the space of the viewer and that of the painting. Giotto is also noted for the intense emotions that his works portray. His fresco, The Lamentation, done in 1305-6 in Padua, is exceptional for the raw anguish and grief on the faces of the figures surrounding a dead Christ. Giotto's success marks a turning point in the rise of painting to the dominant art form. A radical innovator, Giotto is credited with the boast that painting is superior to sculpture. His appointment in 1334 as head of the Cathedral workshop in Florence, a post previously restricted to architects and sculptors, gives credence to the claim. 

Carrying of the Cross, Martini

As Giotto's brilliance overshadowed the next generation of Florentine artists, the next major advancement in Italian Gothic painting came from the Sienese. Simone Martini (c.1284-1344) combined the architectural setting of Duccio, the vigour and emotion of Giotto, and an appealing attention to everyday life. The Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio (both died 1348?), pursued Martini's concern with detail as well as experimenting with problems of spatial representation. The frescoes on the Sienese town hall done by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in 1338-40 demonstrate innovations in the use of space, presenting a detailed landscape. 

In the first half of the fourteenth century, the disasters of famine, economic collapse, and the Plague struck the fertile artistic ground of Italy. Popular reactions to these disasters ranged between the extremes of asceticism and hedonism. Paintings displayed a similar tendency, contrasting the immediacy and sensuality of life against the inevitability of death.

Effect of Good Government on the City Life (detail), A. Lorenzetti

The best Italian painter of the International Style was Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427). Fabriano portrays his subjects with a sense of weight and substance. The people and animals are rendered with impressive detail and realism while light and shadow is used to focus attention on the central images. 

Adoration of the Magi (detail), Fabriano

Arising simultaneously and independently in the early fifteenth century, two revolutionary movements in Florence and in the Netherlands realism into the next phase of Gothic painting. In the North, the style is known as Late Gothic while the Italian version is termed Early Renaissance. The overlapping terminology is indicative of the difficulty of classification in the period. The High Gothic artists of the North were extremely influential beyond their own regions and painters in the Italian Early Renaissance style clearly modelled their work on Northern artists. On the other hand, the Early Renaissance style had little impact outside Italy. The situation leaves many art historians uncertain of the extent and impact of the Renaissance movement.

Merode Altarpiece, Master of Flémalle

The Late Gothic style of the North departs from the International Style, reaching for and achieving increasingly detailed and realistic representations. A new spatial reality is sought, as evidenced in the works of the Master of Flémalle, who painted in the first half of the fifteenth century. In the Merode Altarpiece, degrees of light are presented, as are distinctions of texture, shape and size. The homey setting of a Flemish burgher's house emphasises the rising influence of the mercantile class while the extensive use of symbolism indicates that the Master of Flémalle was either himself a man of extensive learning or had contact with scholars and theologians. 
  Master of Flémalle - Web Museum

Arnolfini Marriage, van Eyck

The most outstanding innovation by the Master of Flémalle was in technique. Previously, the basic technique of medieval panel painting was to use tempera, in which finely ground pigments were mixed with diluted egg yolk. A tough, quick-drying paste ideally suited for applying intense colour to flat surfaces, tempera was virtually impossible to blend, making three-dimensional effects difficult. The Master of Flémalle substituted the egg yolk with oil, producing a variety of effects from thin, translucent glazing to thick impasto. The longer drying time and the continuous scale of colours meant that new levels of realism could be achieved. 
  Jan van Eyck - Web Museum

The actual invention of 'oil painting' has been credited to Jan (c.1390-1441) and Hubert (d.1426) van Eyck. The ability to blend and vary the intensity of the new oil paints was exploited by the van Eycks to achieve a heightened sense of depth and distance, systematically depicting the phenomenon of atmospheric perspective. The overall composition is peaceful and serene, the drama of the works appearing in the detail. Another intriguing element of Eyckian paintings is the depiction of architectural and sculptural motifs, such as those in the Ghent Altarpiece, that signify supremacy of painting over these other art forms.

Ghent Altarpiece (sculptural detail), van Eyck

Descent from the Cross, van der Weyden

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.

Holy Trinity with Virgin, MasaccioMadonna with Child and Angels, Fra Filippo LippiPresentation in the Temple, Fra Angelico

Birth of Venus, Botticelli

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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