Medieval Art

The Early Middle Ages began with the fall of the Roman Empire and ended in the early 11th century; its art encompasses vast and divergent forms of media.


By the end of this module you will be able to:

  • Identify and describe the form, content, and context of key Medieval works
  • Define the critical terms listed below and how they relate to Early Medieval art
  • Describe animal Style I and Style II
  • Describe the four evangelists and their symbols
  • Discuss the importance of gospel books
  • Identify the various biblical scenes on the bronze doors of Bishop Bernward
  • Distinguish Anglo-Saxon, Hiberno-Saxon, Carolingian, and Ottonian works

The Middle Ages of the European world covers approximately 1,000 years of art history in Europe, and at times extended into the Middle East and North Africa. The Early Middle Ages is generally dated from the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 CE) to approximately 1000, which marks the beginning of the Romanesque period. It includes major art movements and periods, national and regional art, genres, and revivals. Art historians attempt to classify medieval art into major periods and styles with some difficulty, as medieval regions frequently featured distinct artistic styles such as Anglo-Saxon or Norse. However, a generally accepted scheme includes Early Christian art, Migration Period art, Byzantine art, Insular art, Carolingian art, Ottonian art, Romanesque art, and Gothic art, as well as many other periods within these central aesthetic styles.

Population decline, relocations to the countryside, invasion, and migration began in Late Antiquity and continued in the Early Middle Ages. The large-scale movements of the Migration Period, including various Germanic peoples, formed new kingdoms in what remained of the Western Roman Empire. In the West, most kingdoms incorporated the few remaining extant Roman institutions. Monasteries were founded as campaigns to Christianize pagan Europe continued. The Franks, under the Carolingian dynasty, briefly established the Carolingian Empire during the later eighth and early ninth century. It covered much of Western Europe but later succumbed to the pressures of internal civil wars combined with external invasions—Vikings from the north, Hungarians from the east, and Saracens from the south.

As literacy declined and printed material became available only to monks and nuns who copied illuminated manuscripts, art became the primary method of communicating narratives (usually of a Biblical nature) to the masses. Conveying complex stories took precedence over producing naturalistic imagery, leading to a shift toward stylized and abstracted figures for most of the Early Middle Ages. Abstraction and stylization also appeared in imagery accessible only to select communities, such as monks in remote monasteries like the complex at Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumberland, England.

Early medieval art exists in many media. The works that remain in large numbers include sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, and mosaics, all of which have had a higher survival rate than fresco wall-paintings and works in precious metals or textiles such as tapestries. In the early medieval period, the decorative arts, including metalwork, ivory carving, and embroidery using precious metals, were probably more highly valued than paintings or sculptures. Metal and inlaid objects, such as armour and royal regalia (crowns, sceptres, and the like) rank among the best-known early medieval works that survive to this day.

Early medieval art in Europe grew out of the artistic heritage of the Roman Empire and the iconographic traditions of the early Christian church. These sources were mixed with the vigorous “Barbarian” artistic culture of Northern Europe to produce a remarkable artistic legacy. The history of medieval art can be seen as an ongoing interplay between the elements of classical, early Christian, and “barbarian” art. Apart from the formal aspects of classicism, there was a continuous tradition of realistic depiction that survived in Byzantine art of Eastern Europe throughout the period. In the West realistic presentation appears intermittently, combining and sometimes competing with new expressionist possibilities. These expressionistic styles developed both in Western Europe and in the Northern aesthetic of energetic decorative elements.

Monks and monasteries had a deep effect on the religious and political life of the Early Middle Ages, in various cases acting as land trusts for powerful families, centers of propaganda and royal support in newly conquered regions, and bases for missions and proselytizing. They were the main and sometimes only regional outposts of education and literacy. Many of the surviving manuscripts of the Latin classics were copied in monasteries in the Early Middle Ages. Monks were also the authors of new works, including history, theology, and other subjects written by authors such as Bede (died 735), a native of northern England who wrote in the late seventh and early eighth centuries.

The use of valuable materials is constant in medieval art. Most illuminated manuscripts of the Early Middle Ages had lavish book covers decked with precious metal, ivory, and jewels. One of the best examples of precious metalwork in medieval art is the jewelled cover of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram (c. 870). The Codex, whose origin is unknown, is decorated with gems and gold relief. Gold was also used to create sacred objects for churches and palaces, as a solid background for mosaics, and applied as gold leaf to miniatures in manuscripts and panel paintings. Named after Emmeram of Regensburg and lavishly illuminated, the Codex is an important example of Carolingian art, as well as one of the very few surviving treasure bindings of the late ninth century.

Few large stone buildings were constructed between the Constantinian basilicas of the fourth and eighth centuries, although many smaller ones were built during the sixth and seventh centuries. By the early eighth century, the Merovingian dynasty revived the basilica form of architecture. One feature of the basilica is the use of a transept, the “arms” of a cross-shaped building that are perpendicular to the long nave. Other new features of religious architecture include the crossing tower and a monumental entrance to the church, usually at the west end of the building.



  • “Medieval art” applies to various media, including sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, stained glass, metalwork, and mosaics.
  • Early medieval art in Europe is an amalgamation of the artistic heritage of the Roman Empire, the early Christian church, and the “barbarian” artistic culture of Northern Europe.
  • Despite the wide range of media, the use of valuable and precious materials is a constant in medieval art. Many artworks feature the lavish use of gold, jewels, expensive pigments, and other precious goods.
  • A rise in illiteracy during the Early Middle Ages resulted in the need for art to convey complex narratives and symbolism. As a result, art became more stylized, losing the classical naturalism of Graeco-Roman times, for much of the Middle Ages.
  • Few large stone buildings were constructed between the Constantinian basilicas of the fourth and eighth centuries. By the late eighth century, the Carolingian Empire revived the basilica form of architecture.

Adapted from “Boundless Art History” LicenseCC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike



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Art and Visual Culture: Prehistory to Renaissance Copyright © by Alena Buis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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