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What Is Medieval Art?

King's College Chapel at the University of Cambridge was built in the late medieval period.
Heraldry, a type of personal art that is used to represent a person or family, was developed in the medieval period.
A stained glass window.
To compensate for their spartan design, Medieval castles were often decorated with mobile and temporary artworks like tapestries when they were still inhabited.
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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 23 June 2014
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Medieval art generally refers to art produced in Europe during the Middle Ages, the period from about the fifth century to the 17th century CE. There were many types of medieval art, ranging from painting and sculpture, to textile arts, illuminated manuscripts, metalworking, mosaics, and stained glass windows. Medieval art can differ widely in its conventions and characteristics, depending on time period and region. Early medieval works of art from the Roman Empire, for example, often followed Roman conventions, while art from the northern regions of Europe usually followed Germanic conventions. Islamic influences can be seen in some types of art from the Middle Ages. In later centuries, the various artistic influences can generally be seen to blend together somewhat, and certain regions of Europe are believed to have come up with distinctive artistic conventions of their own.

Several schools of medieval art appeared throughout the progression of history. Art done in the Late Antique style is considered the earliest of these schools, and it is believed to largely mimic the artistic conventions of the Romans. This style of art probably persisted longest in southern Europe. In northern Europe, England, and Ireland, however, Late Antique art is believed to have been practically non-existent, since these people never fell fully under the influence of the Roman Empire. In Spain, where Islam rather than Catholicism was considered the dominant religion for many centuries, medieval art is believed to have developed facets reminiscent of Arab culture and artistic conventions.

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Other styles of art prevalent in the Middle Ages included Romanesque and Gothic art. Romanesque art preceded Gothic art, in about the 10th century CE. Art historians typically believe this style of art co-mingled the many cultural and religious influences present in Europe at the time. Though it incorporated elements of Islamic convention, it mostly dealt with Christian subject matter. Gothic art is believed to have first emerged in about the 12th century and had probably spread throughout Europe by the 16th century.

Much of the art created in medieval Europe was religious in nature. The Catholic Church used paintings, sculptures, and other forms of art during this period to help educate the largely illiterate public about matters of religion. Some forms of art, such as illuminated manuscripts, often contained marginal doodles and sketches with no apparent purpose other than, possibly, entertaining those who created and viewed them. Some examples of medieval art, such as the Bayeux Tapestry, are believed to have recounted important historical events. Metalwork, especially in precious metals like silver and gold, is believed to have become important during this time, perhaps because the Catholic Church believed only valuable metals were suitable for fashioning the implements used during religious worship.

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