Medieval Painting Characteristics

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Paintings of the medieval period -- approximately from the fall of the Roman Empire around A.D. 300 to the start of the Renaissance around A.D. 1500 -- existed across many mediums and many countries, and changed a great deal for more than 1,000 years. But in spite of its diversity, most medieval paintings used several characteristic techniques to illustrate subjects.

Religious Subject Matter

  • From church wall frescoes to painted prayer books, the common subject matter of medieval art was Christian gospel scenes. Few private individuals had money to commission paintings, so most works of art were confined to churches and church properties. As the medieval period passed and more individuals obtained private wealth, more artists painted contemporary scenes and figures. However, most of the recognizable medieval art portrayed gospel scenes.

Flat Style

  • A typical trait of medieval painting was its flat style, meaning that artists painted most scenes or figures in one dimension, lacking perspective. Painters used gold and silver leaf to add depth to medieval paintings. Paintings of the Byzantine era, which remained relatively consistent during a widely changing era, are especially notable for the flat features and stylized poses of their subjects. This same lack of dimension persists in most styles of medieval painting, until the late medieval work of Giotto di Bondone, widely credited with developing early perspective paintings.

Wall Paintings

  • Wall paintings, including frescoes and wood panel paintings, decorated many medieval churches. Artists made frescoes by applying paint to fresh plaster, then allowing them to dry together. Many Byzantine and Italian churches featured fresco cycles depicting the life of Christ or another Gospel tale along their walls and ceiling. Many panel paintings also included gilding, another characteristic of medieval painting.

Illuminations

  • Illuminations were hand-painted illustrations in medieval manuscripts, usually incorporating gold or silver leaf. Early illuminated text was typically liturgical, but by the the 12th century, many individuals were commissioning illuminated texts. The style of illuminated painting varied by locale, with Celtic-illuminated manuscripts featuring knotwork and illuminated manuscripts of the early Holy Roman Empire featuring more human figures. Although illuminated manuscripts were popular for several centuries, their creation dwindled with the printing press in 1450.

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