Medieval Art

Religion, feudalism and lots of gold leaf.

In 476 CE a soldier named Flavius Odoacer deposed the Roman emperor Romulus and was crowned ‘King of Italy’ under the authority of the Emperor of Constantinople. Italy’s first king marked the end of the Roman Empire, now subservient to the new global superpower, the Byzantine Empire. But Constantinople was a long way from Italy, and Rome’s vast holdings fractured into a myriad of warring ‘barbarian’ tribes. Rome, for all its violence, had held the Western world together, and in their absence, everything went to shit. The chaos and evolution that followed spawned Early Medieval Art.

Early Medieval art is a weird and fragmented concept. As Constantinople developed its formal Byzantine styles, something wilder was happening in Europe. Spanning 700 years and encompassing the dark ages, the rise and fall of the Frankish Empire, and the almost complete takeover of Western art by the Christian church, it’s possible to divide Early Medieval art into many regional sub-movements. Migration art describes the work of the Gauls and Visigoths who settled in the fragments of the Roman empire, Insular art grew in Britain and Ireland after the Roman occupation ended, and Carolingian art brought a revival of classical styles that evolved into the vigourous illumination and architecture of the Romanesque style.

But for our purposes we look at Early Medieval as a whole, because it traces back to a common theme. In the political upheaval after the fall of Rome, society needed an anchor, and it landed on the rapidly growing Christian church. Throughout Europe, Christianity was able to cross political boundaries and gained a massive foothold. Churches sprang up as cultural centers, and between 430 and 570 Christian clerics brought the Rule of St. Augustine to Europe, establishing a monastic class devoted to education, art, and public service.

By 1000 CE, the Christian church was a hub for science, art and culture. Monks and nuns taught lay people how to read and write and preserved ancient literature, including works by Ovid and Aristotle. 11th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote medical texts and composed music, and abbess Herrad of Landsberg compiled the first female-authored encyclopedia, including Islamic writings alongside the Greek classics.

Early Medieval art doesn’t exactly end, it just evolves around 1200 CE. With political stability and the development of new technologies, the Gothic movement appeared in the ribbed vaults and flying buttresses of a new breed of cathedral.

Reed Enger, "Medieval Art, Religion, feudalism and lots of gold leaf.," in Obelisk Art History, Published January 26, 2016; last modified July 20, 2019,

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Pisa Cathedral

Buscheto and Rainaldo, 1063-1092


William of Volpiano, 1100

Florence Baptistery


Scivias 2.1: The Redeemer

Hildegard von Bingen, 1150

Scivias I.6: Humanity and Life

Hildegard von Bingen, 1150

Scivias I.6: The Choirs of Angels

Hildegard von Bingen, 1150

Pisa Baptistry

Diotisalvi, 1152-1153

Scivias I.3: God, Cosmos, and Humanity

Hildegard von Bingen, 1165

Hortus Deliciarum — Philosophy and the Seven Liberal Arts

Herrad of Landsberg, 1180

Hortus Deliciarum — The Holy Spirit descends on the Apostles

Herrad of Landsberg, 1180

Book of Divine Works, Part 1, Vision 1: Theophany of Divine Love

Hildegard von Bingen, 1230

Book of Divine Works, Part 1, Vision 2: The Cosmic Spheres and Human Being

Hildegard von Bingen, 1230

Book of Divine Works, Part 1, Vision 3: Macrocosm of Winds, Microcosm of Humors

Hildegard von Bingen, 1230

Book of Divine Works, Part 1, Vision 4: Cosmos, Body, and Soul

Hildegard von Bingen, 1230

Book of Divine Works, Part 2, Vision 1: The Parts of the Earth: Living, Dying, and Purgatory

Hildegard von Bingen, 1230

Book of Divine Works, Part 3, Vision 1: The City of God and the Mirror of the Angels

Hildegard von Bingen, 1230

Book of Divine Works, Part 3, Vision 2: The City of God in Salvation History

Hildegard von Bingen, 1230

The Fountain of God’s Work

Hildegard von Bingen, 1230

Book of Divine Works, Part 3, Vision 4: Wisdom and the Ancient Counsel before the City of God

Hildegard von Bingen, 1230

Book of Divine Works, Part 3, Vision 5: Divine Love upon the Wheel

Hildegard von Bingen, 1230



Malbork Castle


Maesta of Santa Trinita

Cimabue, 1280-1290

Church of St. George


Portable Icon with the Virgin Eleousa


The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri, 1320

Tantallon Castle


Leaning Tower of Pisa

Bonanno Pisano, 1173-1372

Bodiam Castle

Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, 1385

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Limbourg Brothers, 1412-1416

Procession of the Magi

Bernardo Parentino, 1450

The Black Hours


Triumph of Jupiter

Bernardo Parentino, 1490

Triumphal Procession with Elephant

Bernardo Parentino, 1490

Temptations of St Anthony

Bernardo Parentino, 1494

Hours of Henry VIII

Jean Poyer, 1500

Christ carrying the cross between Saints Augustine and Jerome

Bernardo Parentino, 1502

Tintern Abbey


Byland Abbey

Abbot Roger, Roger de Mowbray, 1155-1538
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