Medieval European and Early Islamic Art and Culture

Topic 3: Medieval European and Early Islamic Art and Culture

  • Throughout the European Middle Ages, most art was produced for religious purposes. The royal courts of developing European kingdoms became important centers of patronage, but the art they commissioned was still usually religious in nature. An exception is the Bayeux tapestry, which commemorates William the Conqueror's conquest of England in 1066. The tapestry also reflects an increasing interest in northwestern Europe in depicting narrative and the human figure.

  • Central to medieval European Christianity was the cult of saints and their relic, and the related practice of pilgrimage. The physical remains of holy people became important objects of devotion, and the faithful were willing to travel great distances to make contact with them. The relics themselves were housed in elaborately worked containers made of precious materials; these are known as reliquaries. Lavish churches were built along important pilgrimage routes, most notably along the various routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. France became home to some of the most famous pilgrimage churches, such as the church of Ste Foy in the town of Conques.

  • The style in which these churches were built is known as Romanesque, as it stuck closely to Roman models, featuring rounded arches supported by columns. However, these structures were often decorated with elaborate programs of sculpture that combined Biblical and religious narratives with the kind of stylized ornament found in migratory art. Some of the first European artists known to us by name are found among the stonemasons who created these works. Many churches also contained wall paintings, though fewer of these have survived.

  • The most important sculptures were those that framed the doorway, or portal, where they could be seen by all entering the church. Most people were illiterate, and the visual arts played an important role in teaching them about their religion. The tympanum -- the semi-circular space above the doors and below the arch of the portal - was the space in which the most important sculpted narratives played out.

  • Throughout the Middle Ages, much of what is now Spain was ruled by Muslims, whose arts and court culture reflected their wealth and the range of cultures with which they came in contact (Spain itself was home to Muslims, Jews, and Christians). Islamic art and architecture also reflected Late Classical influence, but moved even further in the direction of stylization than European art. Linear motifs, related to or even incorporating Arabic calligraphy, dominated their decorative arts, in part because figurative art was discouraged on religious grounds. (However, see the carved ivory Pyxis of Al-Mughira for an exception).

  • Islamic architecture in Spain featured vast interior spaces supported by numerous arches and vaults, supported by "forests" of slender columns. Important examples include the Great Mosque of Cordoba, later converted to use as a Christian cathedral. The palace of the Alhambra, in the far south of Spain, is famous for its intricate "stalactite" vaulting, and for the elaborate hydraulic system that supplied the canals and fountains in its gardens.

Related Links:
Early Christian, Byzantine, Islamic, Romanesque, and Gothic Quiz
Gothic Art and Architecture
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes