The Medieval Mind & the Reemergence of Art & Architecture after the Fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe
“When the cartographers of the Middle Ages came to the end of the world as they knew it, they wrote: Beware: Dragons Lurk Beyond Here … The Church was indivisible, the afterlife a certainty; all knowledge was already known. And nothing would ever change”.
– William Manchester: A World Lit only by Fire
There is a vast mental and psychological distance between the twenty-first century and the Middle Ages. Entering a mind drenched in mysticism and dominated by religious and aristocratic hierarchies can be difficult for twenty-first century man. The very name “medieval,” which literally means “the in-between time,” the time from about 400 CE to 1400 CE, or the period roughly between the fall of Rome and the dawn of the Renaissance, was a time of violent stratification, rampant illiteracy, and high mortality in Western Europe. Certainly, to medieval man, relief lie only in the afterlife.
The concept of free will had all but disappeared in the minds of these men and women. Only the aristocracy, taught to believe they were graced by God, and the Church, God’s emissaries on earth, were spared some of the hardships the common folk, more than 85% of Western Europe’s nameless and faceless population, had to bear during these centuries of intellectual oppression and hierarchal domination.
The Roman Empire flourished for over a millennium before it began to collapse under the weight of its own successes. It was an advanced and well-educated society for its time. As cracks began to appear in it, opportunistic tribesmen and their leaders from outside the empire began to chip away at it. From the Latin word barbarus, which means “foreigner,” and “barbar” which the Romans used to refer to any uncivilized man who didn’t speak Latin, European clans, or “Barbarians,” began fighting for territorial control of the weakening Roman Empire. Throughout Western Europe powerful warlords began carving out territorial empires for themselves which would evolve into powerful families. Fighting would become more violent. Permanent structures would disappear. Large cities would vanish. And fortified, territorial provinces would emerge as the continent would redefine what it would evolve into. Chaos would replace order allowing obedience to replace reason as a means to an end.
There are those that argue that the Roman Empire, in essence, never went anywhere. Constantine, who foresaw the benefits of control and unity within a monotheistic belief system that offered an eternal reward in an afterlife for a strict obedience in this one, was first Roman emperor said to convert to Christianity, (likely on his deathbed if at all). He played an influential role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in 313 CE which decreed tolerance for Christianity in the Roman Empire. In 325 CE, he called the First Council of Nicaea at which the Nicene Creed was professed by Christians stating the belief that, “I believe in one God,” was to become the law of the empire. The empire’s belief in polytheism would fade as it aligned itself to a monotheism that would be used as a structure to control a fragmenting population into a more manageable obedience. Declaring political allegiance to a single God that was at once almighty and omniscient, (the Father), human and compassionate, (the Son), and spiritually aware, active, and present, (the Holy Ghost), Constantine would manage to weaponize this new belief system in a way that even the aristocracy, the emerging heads of clans across Europe, would have to obey and cede to for centuries.
(Tapestry showing the Baptism of Constantine, Peter Paul Rubens, 1622, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Powerful newly converted Romans would become popes, bishops and cardinals, and the religious hierarchy that the Roman Catholic Church of this era was evolving into would ensure that no one, not even the new aristocracy, would have access to or a need for literacy and rational thought. The writings of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid, and all the great Greek and Roman philosophers and writers, while not lost, would be silenced in the West for hundreds of years. Most philosophers during this period would seek to establish and reaffirm an orthodoxy, the adherence and conforming to the Christian faith as represented in the creeds of the early Church as truth.
Philosophy suggests the tendency of modern thinkers to skip rather directly from Aristotle to the Renaissance, but Medieval philosophers are the historical successors of the philosophers of antiquity and are, in fact, tenuously connected with them. The most significant philosophical influence on medieval philosophy throughout its thousand-year history was Christianity. Christian institutions like churches and monasteries sustained medieval intellectual life, and Christianity’s texts and ideas provide rich subject matter for philosophical reflection. Most (not all) of the greatest thinkers of this period in Medieval Europe were highly trained theologians, and their work addressed perennial philosophical issues that took an ideological approach to understanding the world through a theological lens.
Early medieval philosophers like Augustine (354 CE-430 CE) professed a form of Christian Platonism in his writings decreeing, not unlike Plato’s own “Noble Lie” in his Republic, that man was sinful by nature, or born sinful, and that we can do nothing but wait for God to work with us in the production of a worthwhile life. Medieval man knew only one thing: obedience to your aristocratic lord (chosen by God), the church (earthly representatives of God), and to God Himself were the only means for salvation in a better afterlife.
Centuries later, Anselm of Canterbury (1033 CE-1109 CE), whose ontological argument was based on the theory of atonement, (confession, penance, and forgiveness), promised relief from the strict demands of divine justice. He defended a notion of the relation between philosophy and theology that, like Augustine’s, emphasized the methodological priority of faith over reason, since truth is to be achieved only through “fides quaerens intellectum” (“faith seeking understanding”). This allowed medieval man more hope for a better afterlife despite being sinful, imperfect beings in this one. The enterprise of philosophical theology is one of medieval philosophy’s greatest achievements.
It is important to note that the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, never suffered the disarray and hardships to the extent that the Western European Empire did during this time. Even though Emperor Justinian I is said to have closed down the Athenian Academy founded by Plato centuries earlier because of its pagan roots in 529 CE, schools and institutions of higher learning still flourished and advanced with subjects like medicine, philosophy, astronomy, literature, and mathematics still being taught and learned throughout the Eastern Empire.
(Ambrosian Iliad, 5th Century illuminated manuscript depicting Homer’s Iliad, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan)
Romanesque architecture, which would only begin to be rediscovered in the Western Empire in the 9th and 10th centuries CE, was alive and abundant in the Eastern Empire since the collapse of Rome. Commonly referred to there as Byzantine architecture, its most famous surviving structure is, arguably, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople completed in 537 CE under the direction of Emperor Justinian I.
(Hagia Sofia Illustration, Istanbul)
Byzantine Art, too, was notable in the statues, mosaics and frescoes, all art forms popular in Rome for centuries, and could still be found throughout the Eastern Empire and even into parts of Italy, especially Ravenna. The Justinian mosaics at the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy consecrated in 547 CE, in particular, show just how differently these two divergent branches of the former Roman Empire were evolving into in terms of culture and politics.
(Empress Theodora and Attendants, San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, 547 CE)
As interesting and fascinating as this dichotomy is, this essay’s focus will remain on the redevelopment of Western Europe during this time period.
By the turn of the first millennium, Western Europe had begun to come out of its period of invasion with the cultural hegemony of the Vikings in England, France, and Europe’s more northern countries. More permanent structures would begin to appear on the European landscape around this time with Romanesque churches and castles starting to replace more fragile wooden structures throughout these newly formed territories and countries. Romanesque architecture became the predominant style of architecture here from roughly 800 CE to 1100 CE. The name comes from the borrowing of the old Roman style ruins of the rounded, cascading arches and the barrel-vaulted style ceilings and walkways of the buildings that survived the centuries of warring and still dotted Western Europe’s landscape. The name Romanesque, ironically, was coined in Catalonia in the late 10th century, though, and by not the Romans at all.
The early Western European style of Romanesque architecture was one of the first to be made entirely of stone instead of wood since the fall of Rome centuries before. With towns and communities taking root around Europe again, these buildings would become markers and fortresses supported by the strongest and wealthiest aristocrats of the era as well as the ever-aggrandizing Roman Catholic Church throughout the Roman Catholic Empire.
Some of the earliest origins of Romanesque architecture in Western Europe can be found with Edward the Confessor, in England, who commissioned many of his country’s original churches and abbeys, including the original Abbey at Westminster in 1042, in this style. After his death in 1066, and over the next century, it is estimated that seven thousand churches were built in the Romanesque style in England alone, though many, sources say, had to be redone because the Saxon builders, under the guidance of their new Norman overlords, were not trained architects or mathematicians and were still learning how to make towers and buildings that would not collapse under their own massive weight.
(The Pyx Chamber, Westminster Abbey, London, England, 1070 CE)
Romanesque architecture may have seen a substantial reemergence in Norman England, but it also experienced a resurgence across Europe to areas that include present day Germany, France, and Italy. The Italian peninsula had many ancient Roman Era ruins and Byzantine structures still on its landscape and easily took to the style. These builders altered their style somewhat by utilizing marble, which was local, abundant, and readily available to them. Italian Romanesque architecture was also characterized with higher arches and more brightly colored facades as seen in the Pisa Cathedral begun in 1093 CE: the entire building is faced with locally quarried marble striped in white and gray. On the facade this pattern is overlaid with blind arcading, a series of arches that have no actual openings applied to the surface as a decorative element.
(Pisa Cathedral, Pisa, Italy, 1093 CE)
In Germany, Romanesque architecture took on a slightly different look with tall spires and a more streamlined appearance as seen in the Maria Laach Abbey, a Benedictine abbey, begun in 1093 CE and situated on the southwestern shore in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of the country. As with other geographical locations, the Northern Europeans would build from the stone locally available to them allowing them to develop a style and appearance discernible from their neighbors.
(Maria Laach Abbey, Laacher See, Germany, 1093 CE)
Romanesque architecture also moved to France and Normandy where beautiful, but hard looking, cathedrals like the Portal from the Abbey Church of Saint-Laurent (1120-50 CE) from central France was built. Cathedrals, churches, abbeys, and monasteries of this era served as more than just places of worship; they provided sanctuary to travelers. Religious pilgrimages, journeys undertaken by men and women seeking out those places that have been sanctified with a divinity of some kind – usually a reliquary, a remnant, or remains of a saint, martyr, or other holy personage – in the hopes that praying in its presence would aid them in their own salvation or the salvation of one they held dear, began to grow in popularity as larger towns and cities began to appear again on the European landscape and the roads connecting them made traveling in numbers safer.
(Portal from the Abbey Church of Saint-Laurent, France, 1120-50 CE, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
The three portal entrances to a church became increasingly common as these religious pilgrimages grew in popularity across Western Europe. The buildings of the Romanesque period were meant to be huge, and more often than not, awe inspiring as they were created to house these religious reliquaries and allow hundreds or even thousands of pilgrims to view them. The central, and largest door on a church or cathedral was for the clergy, the parish, and official ceremonies. The smaller doors to either side were pilgrimage entrances granting access to smaller chapels for travelers and visitors to rest and pray. The periods of 800 CE to 1100 CE were characterized by heavy religious fervor and pilgrimages and the showing of artifacts that held Godly significance for many people was becoming commonplace. These structures were meant to give the people a glimpse of salvation and what awaited them in the afterlife.
(Romanesque Cathedral Floor Plan with Pilgrimage Aisles and Entrance)
Romanesque buildings were not just churches and monasteries, however; they also encapsulated the castles that we think of when the word comes to mind. These castles were used as power bases for wealthy and powerful leaders and they were built to be sturdy and long lasting in times of war.
Because of the weighty materials used, windows had to be small in order to maintain the stability of the building as a whole. As in religious structures, Romanesque castles and fortresses were also characterized by the use of heavy materials and solid design, such as the use of square and circular towers, often with the central one being the highest. As with all construction happening in this period, locally sourced stone was also the predominant material used in their construction which affected their appearance, strength, and endurance by geographic region.
(Castille de Loarre, Huesca Province, Aragon, Spain, 1020-97 CE)
All Romanesque fortresses, whether they were meant to be a defensive or an offensive structure, were often built near a source of water for strategic purposes as well as to make a statement of power and wealth with its very presence when seen. Unlike in more modern, recent, or present-day architecture, medieval architects were not the most important part of the design: instead it was the powerful aristocracy that was focused upon over the course of the commission. This meant that buildings were serviceable, durable, defensive, and strong, but not very creative. Since their primary purpose was as a fortress, they were poorly lighted and often foul smelling inside because of poor ventilation and little desire for more decorative or airy structures. Occasionally, a practical object like a tapestry would be commissioned to insulate their walls, but more decorative embellishments like panel paintings were not yet the norm. One of the most impressive tapestries from the Romanesque era that survives today is the Bayeux Tapestry – although technically not a tapestry since it is embroidered and not woven – which illustrates the conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy in 1066. A piece like this was expensive to produce and simply not the norm for this era.
Bayeux Tapestry, originally Canterbury, England, 1070, now Bayeux, Normandy, France)
Although many fortresses and castles were constructed in the Romanesque style before, during, and just after the first millennium CE, there were far more churches and monasteries that were built in this style than any other structure. This period in the history of Western Europe was one characterized by a wealthy and powerful core centered in Rome and are attributed with much of the stabilization of the previous warring centuries that occurred between clans through religious conversions. Rome’s ability to grow and maintain power while converting newly emerging leaders throughout Western Europe to Christianity would assure its hold and power on its people and followers for centuries to come.
(Cloister with Elements from the Abbey of Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines, France, c. 1270-80 CE, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
To address art in its more traditional sense, it was still limited during the Romanesque period to ornamentation: metalwork in armor, weaponry, and jewelry was common as was the religious iconography that was incorporated into these larger, more permanent structures as architectural embellishments seen on the carvings on columns, around windows, and on the structure’s own facades. Art of this nature accounts for a majority of the craftsmanship as Western Europe began to grow and rebuild itself. These embellishments weren’t superficial but necessary components on the architecture needed to support the walls and roof of the building. Painted panels and altarpieces, while beginning to make their appearances in Western Europe as early as the 11th century, would not come into their own for at least another century or more.
(↑Enthroned Virgin, Ile-de-France, c. 1175-1200 CE, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
(Capital with Demons Punishing the Sins of Avarice and Blasphemy, 1175-1200, Philadelphia Museum of Art ↑)
Romanesque Architecture did sometimes contain painted frescoes, a technique dating back to the Roman Empire, though most have been lost to time, weathering, and, in England’s case, destruction during the Reformation centuries later.
(Sacred Sunday, Romanesque Fresco, Former Benedictine Abbey, Lavaudieu, France, c.1220 CE)
As stated, these artists, artisans, architects, and builders, for the most part are generally anonymous and unknown today: their talents eclipsed and in service to a higher power. What remains is their craftsmanship and testament to the durability of their work. Change, though, was on the horizon as social evolution, as inevitable as life and death itself, was on the horizon.
In 1095, Pope Urban II would launch the First Crusade, the first “Holy War,” by the Roman Catholic Empire and all its kingdoms and principalities of Western Europe in allegiance to Rome against the Seljuk Muslims in the East following an appeal from the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from a growing Islamic threat there. What began was, in part, an earnest interest to repel a non-Christian threat from these territories, to unify the now powerful but fragile Western monarchies and noblemen under the allegiance of the Roman Catholic Church, and to seize parts of the weakening Byzantine Empire for the West. Pope Urban II, however, could never have foreseen what else he would be opening up Western Europe to when these faithful and powerful Christian soldiers returned from this and subsequent Crusades to their respective homes in Western Europe.
… to be continued in “Between Heaven and Earth, Part II”
– Richard Di Via
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