Works of Art

Modern art history owes to the Victorians the separation of the arts of the Middle Ages into monumental art forms, which include architecture and its wealth of sculptural and painted decoration, and the so-called "humbler and minor crafts," sometimes conveniently called the applied or decorative arts. Whereas these categories may be misleading because they imply that quality and style are directly related to size, they remain useful rubrics.

It is worth bearing in mind that monumental art from the Middle Ages is best studied in situ at the sites of monasteries, cathedrals, and parish churches scattered throughout Western Europe. At extant buildings such as the largely intact Abbey of Fontenay in Burgundian France the relationship between the ritual of monastic life and art can be more readily understood. Before the great Gothic Cathedrals of Chartres or Notre-Dame the impact of the visionary design of the Gothic church and its architectural innovations becomes clearer. At best, "monumental" works of art available today to collectors are highly fragmentary. They include heads or figures from tympana or facades, capitals from church naves or monastic cloisters, and other ornamental fragments once integral to the structure of the architecture. Not until the High Middle Ages, after about 1300, are independent sculptural figures that once adorned high altars, private chapels, or even homes plentiful. Wall painting survives as another form of monumental art from the Middle Ages, but fragile and ethereal, susceptible to the changes in the weather, often painted over during later remodeling projects, only fragments of wall painting exist in museum collections. The interest of Gothic patrons and artists in the properties of light helps explain the innovations in stained glass during the early Gothic period.

Objects from church treasuries comprise a large category of medieval works of art designed to "enshrine ... the transcendental revelations of the mystery of the liturgy and of the relics." Most of these are composed of precious materials, made out of gold and gemstones, gilt bronze, enamel and sometimes ivory. The more precious the materials the more honor the object bestowed on Christ and the saints. Medieval reliquaries of all types, chalices, ciboria, pyxis, censors, bishop's croziers, liturgical candlesticks, patens, book covers, and crosses readily fit this group of objects. The artistic importance of such works can partly be gauged from the fact that individual artists signed such works--this in a period of overwhelming anonymity--such as Nicolas of Verdun, Welandus, Master Alpais, and Roger of Helmarshausen.

By the later Middle Ages, the "minor" arts include objects for personal use. Ivory diptychs, writing tablets, boxwood combs, jewelry boxes, ivory belts and buckles, metalwork plates and bowls, these are just a few of the types of works of art that have come down to us from the period.

Further Reading:

Art History Resources Online

http://witcombe.sbc.edu/ARTHmedieval.html#general_Metropolitan

Museum Collection of Medieval Art Online

http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/department.asp?dep=17