Medieval Painting
Greater Realism, More Secular Themes in Illuminations, Murals and Panel Paintings.

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Maesta Altarpiece by Duccio di Buoninsegna
Maesta Altarpiece (1308-11)
By Duccio di Buoninsegna.
Note the typical flat style of Gothic
painting derived from Byzantine
traditions. Note also the relative sizes
of the Madonna, Child Jesus and
the Saints, in keeping with their
religious importance.

Medieval Painting (c.1180-1420)


Common Factors
New Patrons of Art
Artisans Not Artists
Movement Towards Greater Realism
Giotto's New Style of Realist Painting
International Gothic Style
The Renaissance
Related Articles

Detail from, The Lamentation,
A famous mural painted by Giotto
for the Arena Chapel, Padua.
Giotto revolutionized painting by
making his characters look more
human and realistic.

The Wilton Diptych (1395-99)
Left-hand Panel.
National Gallery, London.
One of the greatest paintings
of the 14th century.

For the story of painting,
see: History of Art
(800 BCE -present).
For more details, see:
History of Art Timeline.
For specific styles, see:
Art Movements.


Although the Medieval art produced between roughly the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries (c.1180-1420) was mostly Gothic in style, essentially this was a transitional period for visual arts like painting and sculpture. During these centuries the aims of artists underwent a radical shift away from the rigid formulas imposed on them by Romanesque painting - itself strongly influenced by Byzantine art - towards a realistic representation of the world and a desire to master a three-dimensional effect in painting, along the lines of new ideas introduced by Italian Pre-Renaissance Painting (1300-1400) and later by the Florentine Renaissance (1400-1512).

Common Factors

The art of this period, though varied in style, was unified by a few common factors. The most important was the continued domination of Christian art, as most Medieval artworks still served a primarily religious function, as it had done since early Christian times. Most panel paintings still featured religious subjects and were designed for religious settings - such as church altarpieces, including both diptych and triptych as well as polyptych altarpieces: see, for example, the Dijon Altarpiece (1390s, Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon) by the Flemish painter Melchior Broederlam (c.1350-1411), official painter to Philip the Bold. In addition, nearly all frescoes were still created for church interiors. Indeed, Gothic paintings are best characterized as Biblical art, since they still continue to feature subject matter drawn from the Old and New Testaments and the Calendar of Saints.

NOTE: For a wider view of the religious nature of Medieval paintings, see: Early Christian Art (150-1100) and Medieval Christian Art (600-1200), as well as Russian Medieval Painting (c.950-1100).

Most illuminated manuscripts, too, consisted of Bibical texts, designed either for public readings or private devotion. But increasingly, aspects of secular life were interwoven with the religious. Quaint and amusing figures ("drolleries") were often shown scampering along the margins of psalters. Scenes showing the elegance and finery of court life were used to decorate the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours. (See: Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry in the Musee Conde Chantilly, painted by the Limbourg Brothers in 1413.) In their different ways, these secular details reveal a desire to express all types of emotion, not just the religious, and to celebrate realistically the variety of contemporary life and the seasons. Among artists the belief was growing that all activities were created by God and were part of his scheme of things. Therefore they were all worth recording. (See also: Making of Illuminated Manuscripts.)

The second unifying principle was the continuing importance of decorative art in all its possibilities. The backgrounds of religious paintings were often of gold, on which designs were imprinted with heated tools, a process known as "tooling". Sometimes multicoloured diapering or tessellation (patterns of regular diamond shapes or checks) might be used to fill in the background. The feeling for elegant design was satisfied by curving draperies and the sway of the human body. No longer were bodies depicted as stiff and puppet-like; limbs and movements were allowed greater fluidity. (See, for instance, works by illuminators like Jean Pucelle and Jacquemart de Hesdin and the panel-painter Enguerrand de Charenton/Quarton.)

Added to these factors was the importance of architectural design. The Gothic painter often framed his pictures with an arch through which the viewer must look as if through a window. (This technique became very popular in Flemish painting and French painting during the 14th and 15th centuries.) Including architectural elements in a painting came to be just as necessary as the niche and canopy framing a Gothic sculpture.



New Patrons of Art

Artistic changes during the high and late Middle Ages were brought about by rapidly changing social conditions. Trade was increasing and towns and cities associated with trade flourished. As a result, not only were Royal Courts more affluent, but richer townspeople and merchants were able to purchase their own works of art. By the early fifteenth century every burgher would expect to have his own Book of Hours.

Towns themselves were beginning to patronize the arts. The town council of Siena, for example, commissioned in 1308 a great altarpiece by the Italian master Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319), the most famous member of the Sienese School of painting (1250-1550). Known as the "Maesta Altarpiece" (1311), it was finished three years later and, to the sound of trumpets and bells and accompanied by the dignitaries of the town and church, it was solemnly carried from the artist's studio to the cathedral where it was placed on the high altar. Simone Martini (1284-1344) created another exquisite altarpiece for Siena Cathedral, his Annunciation Triptych (1333). All this religious art was an expression of civic pride, but civic pride also began to be expressed by purely secular works. For example Siena's town council also commissioned Ambrogio Lorenzetti (c.1285-1348) to produce a series of six frescoes - entitled Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338-9) - for the town hall.

Books were sought after and the most popular, those of courtly love like the Roman de la Rose, and the works of the classical writers Terence and Ovid, were illuminated. (For more on this, please see in particular our article on: Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts and International Gothic Illuminations. For earlier works, see: Medieval Manuscript Illumination.) Artist workshops grew larger as a result of the increased demand for all types of art, and were usually grouped in the major centres of trade. Altogether, life in many towns in the fourteenth century was becoming more affluent, leisured and refined.

To the new type of arts patron, anxious to display his wealth and high position in society, the most important aspects of art were the value of the materials used, the quantity of paintings owned and the technical virtuosity they revealed. These concerns are shown in the following letter sent from Avignon to Florence by a merchant acting on behalf of a rich patron:

"Dispatch a panel of Our Lady on a background of fine gold .... making a fine show with good and handsome figures, by the best painter and with many figures. Let there be in the centre Our Lord on the cross, or Our Lady, whomsoever you find, I care not so that the figures be handsome and large, the best and finest you can purvey and the cost no more than five and a half florins."

Artisans Not Artists

From this, is it is clear that, generally speaking, Medieval artists had little of the status that was later acquired by Renaissance painters and sculptors. Indeed, the idea of an artist of the Middle Ages acting on his inspiration and painting subjects to please himself is almost unheard of during this period. Not until the sixteenth century - thanks to the efforts of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564), and others - did this view of the artist gain acceptance. The emphasis was on the painting rather than the artist who, from Romanesque times, was regarded as being rather lowly in the hierarchy of craftsmen - much lower, for example, than the goldsmith or the architect. (For more, see: Goldsmithing and the art of metalwork, as well as Gothic architecture.)

With the exception of some Italian works - for instance by painters like Simone Martini, Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Giotto - most paintings remained unsigned. Usually paintings are attributed to a certain school rather than to individual painters. Sometimes, if a master's work became famous, his workshop would continue to paint in his style after his death. But even such masters often remained anonymous, as for example the Master of Flemalle, who was only comparatively recently identified as Robert Campin (1378-1444).

The status of the artist was, however, changing. In the Middle Ages the great majority of artists were priests; by the end of the period most were laymen. Some artists who achieved fame were showered with favours by the nobility. The Limbourg brothers, for example, who illustrated the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours, were so highly valued that the Duke appointed them gentlemen of his bedchamber. Giotto, the great Italian painter living from about 1267 to 1337, was so much admired by the city fathers that he was appointed head of the cathedral works in Florence and city architect. These examples are not typical of all painters, but such recognition would never have occurred in the earlier Middle Ages.

Movement Towards Greater Realism

It is impossible to trace a smooth line of development towards realism in the art of these centuries. Innovations made in some parts of Europe might not be accepted by other countries for some time, if at all. Although by the turn of the thirteenth century a few Italian artists had made advances which were later to be recognized as the beginnings of a new age of European art, known as the Italian Renaissance, their ideas were not fully adopted until much later.

The work of the Italian painter Cimabue (c.1240-1302) had begun to show some attempts at realism, but in the paintings of the Sienese artist Duccio there is a greater flexibility of style and emotional range. His sensitive approach is revealed in the supple movements of his figures, the suggestion of depth and shade and the rich colour pigments he uses. The decorative element remains in his invariable use of gold as a background, but in his painting, seen at its height in the 'Maesta' altarpiece, a whole new expressive and dramatic range is opened up.

Giotto's New Style of Realist Painting

A new dramatic quality is uppermost in the frescoes of the most famous of early Italian painters, Giotto di Bondone (c.1267-1337). Giotto is to Italian painting what Chaucer is to English literature - a 'father-figure' and the leading artist of the trecento (1300-1400). The enormous advance he makes in mastering the effect of space, and the solidity of his figures, is matched by the emotional power his figures display. The break with earlier styles is seen most clearly here - Giotto wants to make his figures as human as possible, so that we can sympathize with them. In his Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel frescoes in Padua, executed between 1305 and 1310, the whole drama of the life of Christ is expressed solely by human beings, their gestures and facial expressions. See, for example, Giotto's Betrayal of Christ (Kiss of Judas) (1305) and the Lamentation of Christ (1305). With his use of simple, uncluttered forms Giotto achieves a monumentality which is truly memorable. It was these frescoes that largely defined the era of Proto-Renaissance art (1300-1400), and that established Giotto's reputation as the key pioneer of Renaissance art proper.

International Gothic Style

The influence of such revolutionary changes was not, however, felt immediately. Until the end of the fourteenth century, Gothic painting in the rest of Europe absorbed only some aspects of the Italian advances, fusing these with its own stylized and decorative tradition. From this fusion an elegant and sophisticated manner of painting evolved, having as its characteristics a softness of colouring and gentleness of facial expression, flowing lines and elongated, curving bodies. This refined, delicate style of art appealed particularly to courtly taste. Many books were illuminated in this style, with charmingly decorated margins and lively scenes at the base of the page. Through trade connections, through the dynastic connections of European royalty and through the flow of artists and works of art from country to country, the style spread widely. Because of this, it became known as the International Gothic style. It was practised in centres as far flung as London, Avignon, the Rhineland and even Bohemia. In northern Europe the International style remained static during the second half of the fourteenth century. Significantly, the Limbourg brothers, who worked at the Burgundian court in France and were unusually realistic for French artists in their subject matter and perspective effects, had no immediate followers. The art of the French court was too entrenched in stylization to respond. (For more about techniques involved in book painting, see: Miniature Painting, from 600.)

The Renaissance

In the early fifteenth century certain artists in Italy began to make progress towards a greater realism. (See: the Early Renaissance.) This is evident in the production of certain treatises which demanded realistic and accurate illustrations for the book to be of use to the reader. For example, during the fourteenth century a number of illustrated editions of a treatise on hygiene written by a man named Albukasem were produced. These had to accurately depict plants so that they might be recognized easily and a tradition grew up of representing them in the context of their landscape. This was the birth of realistic landscape painting and probably inspired the Limbourg brothers' remarkable landscapes in their Book of Hours.

Another trend towards realism grew up in a number of Books of Hours and psalters executed for the townspeople of Haarlem and Utrecht. These places were far enough from courts to be unaffected by the style they adopted. What these people wanted was an art reflecting their comfortable standard of living. These book illustrations consisted not of elaborate decorations in gold leaf but often of mere pen and ink drawings with a colour wash, making up for a lack of fine materials with plenty of homely details. This style of faithful depiction of everyday life was adopted by the great painter Roger van der Weyden (1400-64). His painting has some of the precision of colour and form found in the work of his famous contemporary Jan van Eyck but, compared with van Eyck, Rogier is still Gothic in his use of line, stylization and traditional religious symbolism. Nevertheless, his use of homely detail was very influential, contributing to the development of the realist school of Flemish painting (c.1400-1800). See also Greatest Flemish Painters (c.1400-1750).

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