Accessible Art History
The Late Middle Ages
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I am wrapping up the trilogy on Medieval art! (In case you missed the Early Middle Ages and the High Middle Ages, they are linked here!). As I mentioned way back in the first blog, the medieval period in Europe was quite expansive and chaotic. That is the reason I chose to break down this era into three, separate posts. But, we’ve finally hit the end!
If I am being completely honest, the Late Middle Ages reminds me a lot of the past couple of years! It is a perfect example of how history is bound to repeat itself. This period is generally marked as lasting from between 1300-1500. During this time, western Europe was filled with social unrest, economic turmoil, and wait for it, even plagues! Nearly all of the issues stemmed from the prosperity of the High Middle Ages. This led to a population boom, which then led to job shortages, which caused economic strife. In addition, because people were living closer together and in larger families, it was easy for diseases, such as the Black Plague, to spread more quickly. (In fact, this disease killed an estimated 25-45% of the population!)
In addition to these things, the power players of Western Europe were also in turmoil. Firstly, England and France (who were arguably the most powerful kingdoms) were constantly at war. This conflict is called the Hundred Years War, though it technically lasted for 116 years. But, they weren’t the only ones. In a bid to gain an advantage, the French monarchy started to exert influence over the papacy. Eventually, there was a split, called the Great Schism, where the Papacy attempted to move to Avignon, France. But, this didn’t sit well with some of the cardinals and they elected their own pope in Rome.
Each man claimed the throne and excommunicated each other. This fighting caused people to lose faith in the once mighty Catholic Church.
The end of the Late Middle Ages is usually marked by the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Ottoman Turk forces overwhelmed the city and decimated the last vestiges of the Roman Empire. Christians were forced to flee the city and moved west. It is no wonder that this period is often referred to as a “crisis”.
To illustrate the time and culture of the Late Middle Ages, I’ve picked out a few key artworks. The first is actually one of my personal favorites. It is called the Röttgen Pietà and dates from around 1300-25. (I actually have an episode of Art History Minute about this piece and a podcast episode!) The Röttgen Pietà is from Germany and shows the Virgin Mary cradling the bloody and broken body of Christ. It is gory and violent, eliciting an emotional response from the viewer.
This type of statue is called an Andachtsbuilder. Its main purpose was for contemplation and prayer. By showing Christ and his mother suffering, it made them seem more human. Previously, Christ was always a triumphant figure, in his victory over death. But, in this work, the suffering of people during this era was understood by Jesus through his suffering.
An even more extreme view of human suffering came from the popular motif of the “Dance
of Death”. In the Late Middle Ages, skeletons were common throughout art. This particular version is by Michael Wolgemut, a German printmaker, around 1493. It is jarring to see the skeletons dancing so happily around the scene. But, to the people of this era, death was a big part of life. Whether it was from war, famine, or the plague, every family had lost someone. And because everyone had lost someone, prints like these were quite popular. Once the initial design was completed, the prints themselves were easy to make and mass produce. The supply made them affordable for the general population. Even in the fifteenth century, it was important for art to evoke an emotional response.
But, unlike the previous two works, this particular illustration is not about death and suffering. Instead this piece shows the main economic system of the Late Middle Ages. This illumination represents the month of September and is from a small devotional book called Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. These books were used for private prayer and contemplation, with specific ones for each moment of the day. This one was created by the Limbourg Brothers for the Duke du Berry, a French Nobleman. (He was just about the only one who could afford it, the amount of decoration and detail would have made this book quite expensive)
In this illumination, we can see a group of peasants tilling and harvesting a wheat field. In the distance, there is a beautiful castle, likely based on the home of the Duc du Berry. At this time, the economy was based on the feudal system. The lower classes would work the fields while the upper classes enjoyed a life of luxury. This was what partially caused the collapse of the economy. When the Black Death swept through western Europe, it hit the lower classes the hardest. Without them to work the fields, there was less food to feed the populations. Less food meant death by starvation. So, despite the beautiful decorations of the International Gothic style, this piece of art reflects the precarious nature of society.
Art is a record of human history and the Late Middle Ages clearly show this. It was a time of great pain and suffering for humanity and people used art to reflect this. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on my favorite period of art history!
Cover Image: Nativity from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Avignon Papal Palace
CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Dance of Death - Michael Wolgemut
Public Domain via the Metropolitan Museum of Art
September - Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons