Art and Architecture of the High Middle Ages
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog. Today, I’m bringing you the next part of my trilogy on medieval art. This time around, it’s all about the High Middle Ages! Contrary to popular belief, this was actually a time of immense social, political, and economic growth! So to find out more, then keep on reading! (If you would like a refresh from the post on the Early Middle Ages, please click here.)
The High Middle Ages lasted from (roughly) 1000 - 1250 CE. By this time, the barbarian invasions had effectively ended and towns started to spring up all over Europe. Political, social, and economic growth was jump started by the Carolingian Renaissance, which I discussed in the last post. This brought more power for the Catholic church and created the perfect climate for the Crusades to occur. With that came more money, which led to bigger and better churches. Both the Romanesque and Gothic styles developed during this period. For many people, this is what they think of when they hear the term “medieval architecture”.
Renaissance of the 12th Century
In the middle of the High Middle Ages period, the third and final of the medieval renaissances occurred. It has the highly original name of the “Renaissance of the 12th century”. Before I describe what happened, it is important to note that this in no way means the rest of the medieval period was uncultured. The term Dark Ages is a common misnomer and it is clear that people during this period still wanted to learn and grow, just as in every other period of history.
At this time, the Crusades brought knowledge back from the eastern half of the Roman Empire, centered in Byzantium (modern day Constantinople). In addition, contact with the Islamic world brought new ideas, trade opportunities, and expanded wealth. And then, we have to consider how popular pilgrimages came, especially when western Europe held control in the Holy Land. Pilgrims would bring back ideas they encountered to their friends and family. In order to understand all the new knowledge that was coming in, universities began to pop up all over Europe. There was a true demand for knowledge and understanding!
One of the most interesting developments of this period was the cultivation of beans. They were nutritious and a source of protein that did not involve tending to animals. It helped people to grow stronger and live longer, which led to a population boom. Towns grew larger, which led to the development of a middle class. People were no longer divided into just nobles and serfs. Now there were guilds, town councils, and many more new social structures.
The Romanesque Period
The first style of the High Middle Ages is called Romanesque. It lasted for about a century, more or less depending on the region. This was the first international style since antiquity, showing the unification of the culture of western Europe during this period. It is important to note that the term “Romanesque” is not contemporary to this period. In fact, it was made up by 19th century scholars who saw the similarities between this construction style and the style of the Roman Empire.
During the Romanesque period, churches were built on a far grander scale than seen previously. The Roman basilica continued to be adopted and enlarged, in order to make room for the scores of pilgrims that traveled to different churches. Images during this period tended to be dark and dramatic. There was a preoccupation with the Last Judgment and the despair of the end of days. The Romanesque style was heavily influenced by the art of the Byzantines, with dramatic draping and rich jewel tones.
To showcase the Romanesque style, let’s take a look at the Autun Cathedral. Located about 180 miles southwest from Paris, Autun Cathedral is one of the most stunning examples of Romanesque architecture. It was built between 1120-1146 and houses relics of St. Lazarus. Autun is located on the road to the most important pilgrimage site in Western Europe,
Santiago de Compostela. So, it had to be built large enough to accommodate masses of pilgrims. As mentioned before, architecture of this period utilized the basic basilica form. However, a transept was added to make the church into a cross shape. The nave was large and there was also a three step choir. This allowed for plenty of space for anyone who wanted to worship.
One of the most remarkable parts about the Autun cathedral is the sculpture program. There are dozens in and on the building, highlighting different stories and moments from the Bible. The most famous is, hand’s down, the Last Judgment scene from the tympanum. (Note, the tympanum is the rounded part above the doorway of a cathedral). This one was created by Gislebertus around 1130. It was one of the first monumental sculptures of this period! Because the majority of the population was illiterate, this was a way they could learn the stories of the Bible.
In this piece, Christ is the largest figure and in the center. This means that he is the most important. We can see the influence of Byzantine art His elongated body and heavily draped robes. Christ is flanked by his mother the Virgin and His apostles. They serve as witnesses for
his judgment. To his left are the damned souls that are going to hell. Demons force them into line while St. Michael weighs their souls. It is a violent and terrifying scene! To Christ’s right, we see the blessed going to heaven. Angels are ushering them in and everyone is happy and carefree. This work is filled with emotion and would have made quite the impression on pilgrims. Make sure to note that all the souls are shown in the nude. This was done to indicate that they had moved on from the mortal realm.
After the Romanesque period, we have the Gothic period. It developed in France and slowly began to spread to other parts of western Europe. Again, it’s important to note that people in this period did not call their art “Gothic”. It was coined by Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century. He meant it as an insult because it differed so greatly from the revered classical styles of the Romanesque and antique periods. During this period, art tended to focus on the prefiguration. This is when stories of the Old Testament predicted/prophesied what would happen in the New Testament. There was also an increase in devotion to the Virgin Mary.
One of the best examples of Gothic art and architecture is St. Denis in Paris, France. In fact, it is considered to be the first Gothic cathedral ever built. It was finished in 1144 and was built on the orders of Abbot Suger. St. Denis is the patron saint of France and the cathedral served as the burial place for the French Royal family. Like Romanesque churches, St. Denis
was built on a cruciform plan. However, the invention of the flying buttress (a brace on the outside of the building) opened up the interior and allowed for more windows to be added. In addition, the opened interior allowed for more space for pilgrims, an always important factor in the construction of cathedrals.
Perhaps the most famous element of Gothic art is the beautiful stained glass rose windows. Like a lot of terms in medieval art, rose window was not used at the time. But, it is fairly common nowadays. These windows were often one of the largest in the cathedrals. They are circular and divided into sections with either stone or metal. Symbolism played a huge part, again because the general population was illiterate. The rose window of St. Denis is chock full of different scenes: God the Creator, the Days of Creation, the Order of the
Heavens represented by the Zodiac and the Order of Earth as represented by the Labors of the Months, and finally, the fall of man. Each scene is further highlighted by geometric designs. The rose window is full of rich colors, which would have sparkled brilliantly in the sun.
The High Middle Ages were a time of new understanding and immense growth. It was not the “dark ages” as historians once claimed. Instead, there was an interest in experimenting and pushing the boundaries of art, architecture, politics, and social norms.
14th-century miniature of the Second Crusade battle from the Estoire d'Eracles - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Autun Cathedral. - CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Last Judgment by Gislebertus in the north tympanum - Autun Cathedral - CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
St. Denis - CC 4.0 via Wikimedia
Rose Window - St. Denis - CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons