Mon-Fri 9am-5.30pm

Mediaeval Art

In the Western world, mediaeval art defines a period of some 1000 years, also known as the Middle Ages, which begins with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD (the eastern Roman provinces form the Byzantine Empire, a mighty power into the 11th century) and eventually ushers in the Early Renaissance at the turn of the 15th century. Petrarch, the 14th-century Italian poet and scholar, famously referred to this period as the Dark Ages, a descriptor that is frequently, and misleadingly, deployed to this day. As a great admirer of Greco-Roman society, he considered classical learning to be the ‘light’ and thus considered the period between the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire and his own lifetime (c.1330s) a period of intellectual darkness. Subsequent historians would pick up on this idea, identifying the period as a ‘middle’ point between the end of antiquity and the rebirth of classical learning in the Renaissance.
However, the mediaeval period is a crucial bridge between these periods. As the Eastern Roman Empire splintered into various smaller feudal kingdoms, many artistic styles and periods emerged. Although these are difficult to concisely define, broadly speaking they include early Christian and Byzantine, Anglo-Saxon and Viking, Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque and Gothic. The rise and spread of Christianity throughout Europe saw the unification of various secular arts and a sophisticated visual culture built throughout the mediaeval period, producing prominent works in numerous disciplines – manuscripts, architecture, sculpture, mosaic, textiles, ivories and painting.
Key Figure: Charles IV
Charles IV, Count of Luxembourg by birth, King of Bohemia by inheritance and Holy Roman emperor by election, is one of the most captivating mediaeval rulers. Born in 1316 and educated at the court of his godfather Charles IV of France, the young prince grew into an extraordinary diplomat and great lover of arts and sciences and is considered the greatest German emperor of the late Middle Ages. Charles transformed Prague into the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and his name relates to many of the best-known monuments and institutions of Prague: Charles University, Charles Bridge, St Vitus Cathedral and the new town with Wenceslas Square at its centre. To connect his capital with his favourite imperial city of Nuremberg, where he was also the patron of the impressive Nuremberg Frauenkirche, Charles incessantly acquired territory to create an imperial thoroughfare between Bohemia and Franconia. During his reign, Charles was largely concerned with the economic and intellectual progress of Bohemia, founding the university in Prague in 1348 and thus encouraging the early humanist movement that would come to dominate intellectual thought of the Renaissance period. Discover more about the life and legacy of Charles IV on our study tour, On the Golden Road.
Key Location: Durham Cathedral, UK
Constructed by the Normans between 1093 and 1133 to house the bodies of St Cuthbert (634-687 AD), Bishop of Lindisfarne, and the Venerable Bede (c.672-735 AD) author of ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, Durham Cathedral is considered to be the finest example of Romanesque architecture in England. Notable for its all-stone construction during a period when most English churches were still at least partially reliant on timber as a core building material, the stone vaulted ceiling is of particular architectural importance, being the oldest example in existence on such a large scale. The technical audacity required to realise such a construction was beyond anything that had preceded it – previous examples of stone Romanesque architecture relied on thick, load-bearing walls which restricted the insertion of windows. The use of an internal corridor of columns to disperse the weight of the vaulted ceiling enabled the realisation of an ambitious roof height and meant that far more windows could be inserted, allowing for the plentiful entry of natural light. Thanks to such developments, the cathedral is regarded as an important precursor to the subsequent Gothic architectural style. Although the building was added to in the centuries following its initial construction, the original Romanesque architecture remains largely intact, allowing for true appreciation of the colossal architectural ambition of the Normans. Marvel at this mighty architecture in the company of expert guide Dr Sally Dormer on our study tour to Durham.
Sort by :