The Middle Ages in Europe put Christ at the centre of art and particularly, a Christ that was suffering, recounting the Bible’s passages about the Crucifixion, providing pictures to everyday men and women who were unable to read. However, the fall of Byzantium and the East-West split of the Roman Empire had a profound effect on medieval Christian art. In the east, tolerance towards art took a nosedive although this was somewhat relaxed later on to make way for oriental-style paintings with a hint of Greek tradition thrown in for good measure.
While Byzantine art spread across Europe, in the west art was influenced by local traditions. For instance, Cologne Cathedral, Germany, carries the Cross of Gero (969-976), a 1.87m oak sculpture. The Cross of Gero can be considered as the earliest known example of the age’s preoccupation with Christ’s agony in northern Europe and the distinguishing feature of western European Catholicism.
Quite a different expression of Christ was carved in a 2.44m-high block of granite around 965-985 and is better known as the Rune Stone of Jelling, Denmark, signalling the arrival of Christianity in Europe’s northern-most regions and blending Norse religious art with the symbolism of Christianity. While the conversion of Denmark and Norway would not be carried out for another century, Nordic artistic traditions of intricate flat patterning would contribute much to western Christian art.
Travelling some distance further in space and time, but returning to Christ on the cross, Aachen’s Minster Treasury showcases the Cross of Lothar (ca. 1000), made from gold, filigree, precious stones and cloisonné enamel and an early example of “crux gemmata”. Made for the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (983-1002) it has its origins in the emblem adopted by Constantine, the first Christian emperor and depicts the head of Lothar II, king of Lorraine (855-869) and grandson of Charlemagne. It blends elements of imperial Classical imagery (the victory of Christ) and Byzantine formality (the dying Christ) as well as reflect the ambition of a union of church and state.
In terms of painting, the medieval artists reverted to the flat, angular depictions known from Egyptian times, virtually ignoring Greek and Roman traditions. While Christian art revered the life and death of Christ, secular painting reflected the battle-prone nature of the region’s rulers, but secular art retreated into the background in the 12th century in favour of religious art. Painting became replete with symbolism and a certain naivety, with painters splashing intense, unmixed colours across velum or other carrier of the time.
The rebirth of painting in Europe came with a Florentine chap, Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337). Fed up with Byzantine conservatism, he handled colour and form with an ease not seen for a long time. This Technicolor approach was also helped by the rediscovery of “buon fresco” (true fresco), a technique which applies paint directly to wet lime plaster, invented by the Minoans but lost after the fall of the Roman Empire. This meant paint would be less prone to peeling off, leaving a legacy for generations to come.
Moreover, his skill and imagination gave rise to several firsts. He was the first to create depth on a flat surface as well as making the daring move to place figures slightly in front of one another rather than all next to each other, creating thus even more depth. Rather than drawing a “standard” figure, he sought to approach reality and drew different people showing different bodies and personalities. His style was so personal and distinctive that his works can be considered the first “signed by the artist” examples rather than by the hand of yet another nameless master.
Giotto opened the door to a new era in European art, starting with Italy’s Quattrocento of the 15th century.