What Are the Characteristics of Medieval Statues?

Marjorie McAtee

Medieval statues were not very common during the early Middle Ages, when sculptural art done in the Romanesque style was common. Art historians believe that free-standing statues became more widespread in the later Middle Ages, when sculptural art done in the Gothic style became more common. Romanesque sculpture is believed to have been largely influenced by the artistic conventions of the Byzantine and Roman Empires, which typically placed emphasis on a formal, idealized artistic style in which figures weren't generally depicted as showing emotion. As the Gothic style of art began to take hold in medieval Europe, statues generally became more realistic, detailed, and three-dimensional. Most medieval statues depicted Christian religious figures and themes, although some of the statues and sculptures of the era are believed to have been influenced by pre-Christian religious beliefs.

Medieval statues often depicted elements of the Christian religion.
Medieval statues often depicted elements of the Christian religion.

Experts generally agree that sculpture in the Middle Ages was largely intended to educate the public about matters of religion, since many common people at the time couldn't read the Bible for themselves or even understand the Latin church service. Many medieval statues appear on or inside of churches and cathedrals. Most depict Christian religious figures such as Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the apostles, the saints, or angels and cherubs. Tympanum scenes, which usually appeared above the front door of the church, often depicted a statue of an important religious figure, surrounded by a relief or frieze depicting a Biblical event. It is believed that these scenes served to remind churchgoers of the sacred nature of the edifice they were entering.

Coats of arms are often featured on medieval statues.
Coats of arms are often featured on medieval statues.

In addition to strictly religious figures and scenes, many medieval statues were what art historians typically refer to as "grotesques," such as gargoyles or other unpleasant-looking figures. Some suggest that these statues were intended to depict the nature of evil and sin, or the post-life punishment said to await sinners in the Catholic doctrine. Others point out that many sculptural scenes in the Middle Ages appear to have been influenced solely by pre-Christian religious culture, and that grotesques many be among them.

Although many medieval statues have some connection to religion, portraiture also experienced a revival during the later Middle Ages. While these statues generally displayed a level of realism not found in earlier medieval works, sculptors of the time often didn't place much importance on capturing a person's genuine physical appearance. Instead, portrait statues usually incorporated other identifying features, such as the subject's familial coat of arms, a personal motto, or a well-known distinguishing feature.

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