The Medieval Mind & the Reemergence of Art & Architecture after the Fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe
“Religious leaders bore a deep distrust of the intellect and declared that the pursuit of knowledge, unless sanctified by a holy mission, was a pagan act and therefore vile. Medieval Christians, knowing the other cheek would be bloodied, did not turn it.”
– William Manchester: A World Lit only by Fire
(Chancery of the Basilica Cathedral of Saint Denis, Saint-Denis, France, Begun 1135 CE)
Western Europe engaged in nine Crusades spanning nearly two centuries (1095 CE – 1291 CE). Although only a handful of these excursions can be considered as having had beneficial outcomes for the Western monarchies and ever-aggrandizing Holy Roman Empire, they were necessary in the eyes of the Church in solidifying its prestige and power on the continent in the second millennium moving forward. The word “Katholikos” was derived from the Greek word meaning “universal,” and is where the word “Catholic” evolved from. It was the term chosen by theologians in the second century CE to distinguish Christianity from other religions, and by the end of the 13th century CE, it had indeed proven prophetic.
Since the fall of Rome, centuries earlier, the Holy Roman Empire, which arose from its ashes, built a new empire, slowly, over time, that would finally realize its full potential in the second millennium CE. The entirety of the preceding centuries had taken on an aspect of “triumphant Christendom” as Western Europe evolved. As aristocracies arose from the barbaric mire, newly anointed kings and princes would owe their legitimacy to this “divine authority.” Newfound sovereigns, courting popularity with the Roman Catholic Church, were leading crusades to the Holy Land to ensure long-lasting good favor with the Vatican. Church law superseded secular law, and sinning against the Church could be a capital offense. For the less privileged, sacrilege could mean imprisonment or worse; for the more powerful, it could mean excommunication. The Church became the wealthiest landowner on the continent, and the life of every European, from baptism through matrimony to burial, was governed by popes, cardinals, prelates, monsignors, archbishops, bishops, and village priests. The clergy cast the decisive votes in determining where each soul would spend the afterlife.
With Western Europe firmly secure in its new social order, the Roman Catholic Church could flex its already powerful muscles in unifying its rites. These crusades gave them a sense of uniformity, or “universality” throughout its empire.
What the omnipotent Holy Roman Empire and its leaders could not have foreseen were some of the side-effects their nine Crusades into the Islamic East would have on Western Europe. These Crusades would open the door to non-Western thinking in a way the West hadn’t seen since the fall of the Roman Empire more than half a millennium earlier. Little by little, but earnestly over time, books and literacy, universities, complex math, and advanced medicine would follow these Crusaders back to their homes throughout the European continent.
The effects of the Crusades on Western Europe in the Middle Ages were crucial in the history of the progress of civilization there. These forays into the Islamic East not only influenced the wealth and power of the Roman Catholic Church, but they also affected Western Europe’s political matters moving forward; its commerce and trade systems; the eventual collapse of feudalism; and intellectual development independent of the Church. These social and material effects would be the catalyst that would begin to bring this era to a close by the end of the 14th century CE.
One of the more immediate effects that could be seen between the First Crusade in 1095 CE and the last Crusade in 1291 CE was an increased presence of Christians in the Levant, which today is comprised of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. With this presence would come an increase in xenophobia and intolerance between Christians and Muslims, Christians and Jews, Christians and heretics, and Christians and pagans. A polarization of the East and West based on religious differences would create an enduring mistrust and animus between Christians and these groups as well as the souring of relations between the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire resulting, ultimately, in the latter’s fall and destruction to the Ottoman Turks by the dawn of the Renaissance.
Until about 1125 CE, medieval thinkers, basically comprised of the clergy, had access to only a few texts of ancient Greek philosophy. In the later Middle Ages the form of discourse that would become characteristic would evolve from a university environment in its infancy in Western Europe and would focus not on particular texts but on specific philosophical or theological issues. It thereby allowed medieval philosophers to gather together relevant passages and arguments scattered throughout this authoritative literature and to adjudicate their competing claims in a systematic way. It is the highly technical nature of these academic, or scholastic, modes of thought that would later provoke the hostilities of the Renaissance humanists whose attacks brought the period of medieval philosophy to an end.
Since it applied his teachings to its theology, throughout the first millennium of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, the Church adopted a Platonic, or more specifically Neoplatonic, philosophical view of its empire: it was a world of absolutes – right and wrong had no gray areas. Plato’s theories of “goodness” and other virtues were theoretical “Forms” conceived of only in the mind and were made imperfect once corporeal. His philosophy fit the Church’s ideal of man, who being mortal, was imperfect in his corporeal life. Only God, the ideal “Form,” was perfect, and he existed only in the minds of the people who strove to dwell in his absolute perfection one day.
“The Church is independent of any earthly power, not merely in regard to her lawful end and purpose, but also in regard to whatever means she may deem suitable and necessary to attain them.”
– William Manchester: A World Lit only by Fire
Bringing the Church around to different concepts of its theological doctrines would not be easy. The Holy Roman Empire, through its popes, declared that God had made the Vatican “a sharer in the divine magistracy, and granted her, by special privilege, immunity from error.” Even to “appeal from the living voice of the Church” was “a treason,” wrote a cardinal, “because that living voice is supreme; and to appeal from that supreme voice is also a heresy, because that voice, by divine assistance, is infallible.” A fellow cardinal put it even more clearly: “The Church is not susceptible of being reformed in her doctrines. The Church is the work of an Incarnate God. Like all God’s works, it is perfect. It is, therefore, incapable of reform.” These statements are the very essence of Neoplatonic theology.
It was between the First and Second Crusade that new texts, many not seen in centuries, began making their way West by Crusaders returning home from the East. Clergymen, who could read both Latin and Greek, began to read about or rediscover alternate philosophies to Platonic thought. Aristotle, especially, who took a very different philosophical approach to the world than Plato did, wrote of the empirical concepts of observation and experimentation that were the basis for a more scientific approach to the world – an approach not sanctioned by the Holy Roman Empire until theologians of the later Middle Ages began using his concepts in ways that benefitted the Church.
Thomas Aquinas (1224 CE – 1274 CE), a Dominican priest, is the best known philosopher and theologian of this era to show his willingness to employ empirical argumentation generally, and the metaphysical and epistemological teachings of Aristotle in particular, to mark a significant departure from the Platonic tradition that had dominated so much of the Middle Ages. Aquinas showed the Church that it was possible to incorporate many of the “new” teachings of “the Philosopher,” as Aristotle was sometimes derisively referred to as, without falling into the mistaken excesses of other, newer, and in particular Islamic thinkers of the time. This argument became the basis for a lasting synthesis between the ancient Greek philosophers among Church scholars.
Aquinas applied Aristotle’s concept of the “Unmoved Mover” to God and made an empirical, as opposed to rational, argument to prove His existence. The Unmoved Mover was the term Aristotle used to refer to the first uncaused cause of existence’s causal chain, or the first cause to produce an effect in the universe. In a more modern parlance, the Unmoved Mover can be likened as something akin to the “Big Bang,” the “mover” of all the motion in the universe that began all existence.
The theory that Aquinas proposed to the Church hierarchy was rather simple: He first stated that there is and always has been something moving (cause). He then stated that everything that moves is put into motion by something else (effect). He posited, however, that this series of antecedent movers cannot reach back infinitely; therefore, there had to be a first mover, which was God. Since its empirical basis lies in our understanding of the operation of nature, this line of reasoning tends to become more compelling the more thorough our scientific knowledge is advanced. As the agent of knowledge, the human intellect comprehends the essences of things (Platonic rationalization) directly, making use of sensory information (Aristotelean empiricism) only as the starting-point for its fundamentally rational determinations. Although not all of Aquinas’s contemporaries recognized, understood, or accepted this view of human knowledge, it provided ample room for the development of empirical investigations of the material world within the context of traditional Christian doctrine.
A generation later, William of Ockham (1285 CE – 1349 CE), an English Franciscan philosopher, would build on Aquinas’s theories and further defended the logic, physics, and metaphysics of Aristotle. Ockham supposed that mere belief that is based solely on sensory information, that which is purely empirical or Aristotelian in nature, is prone to error because our senses can and do deceive us. However, he insisted that an empirical or Aristotelian approach to existence was adequate for our ordinary, corporeal needs since man is already an imperfect being. His defense of scientific thought and observation kept him within the Church’s teachings since it placed the burden of proof of more extraordinary and incorporeal things firmly on the side of those who would defend a more complex view of the world.
So why are the Crusades, let alone Aristotelean philosophy, important to the art and architecture of the Late Middle Ages? Simply put, the Islamic arch, advanced mathematics, and empirical thought gave way to the production of the more advanced architecture that evolved in the second millennium CE as well as to the development of linear perspective in the visual arts of the Late Middle Ages.
Beginning around 1150 CE, the styles of architecture changed and formed what historians later termed the Gothic period. This change was characterized by a synthesis of religion, philosophy, and art. Unlike the Romanesque architecture that was popular until this point, Gothic architecture would require the need of the newer, more advanced, and different concepts which were now becoming a byproduct of the ventures East that the Holy Roman Empire and its people had undertaken.
What became most representative of the ‘Gothic City” in the late Middle Ages were the soaring cathedrals that would come to dominate a long empty European landscape. The meaning of the word cathedral is derived from the Latin word cathedra, which means “seat.” The “seat” referred to was the seat of the bishop, who was the leader of a given group of churches that were related to any given cathedral. The bishop’s seat, or throne, was both a literal and metaphorical seat of power within the church.
These cathedrals were designed to take the minds of the common people away from earthly concerns and raise them towards the sky to contemplate heavenly matters. The people regarded these cathedrals as the real images of the city of God: its “Heavenly Jerusalem” represented on earth. In the New Testament book Apocalypsis from the Vulgate Bible, the Latin Bible used in the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages – (later named the Book of Revelations in the King James Bible) – it describes the Heavenly Jerusalem as having gates of pearls, priceless jewels, streets of pure gold and transparent glass. The magnificence of the cathedrals in combination with their intricate stained glass windows symbolized this Heavenly Jerusalem. For the people of the twelfth century onward, these cathedrals acted as symbols of their faith.
The key to opening up these spaces, allowing for thinner walls, larger windows, and higher ceilings had everything to do with “modern” technology and the Holy Roman Church embraced these scientific, these empirical, advances because they raised its own profile in the Western Empire. The key to all of this modernization seems simple now, but it was a revelation for medieval man: the pointed arch.
The rounded arches of the Romanesque style created pressure outwardly, horizontally, to the right and left of the arch. It required something solid and sturdy next to it to keep it from collapsing. This accounts for the cascading arches one sees today when looking at Romanesque architecture of this time period. Each arch supported the one to either side of it. This style architecture did not allow for tall buildings unless they had no roofs to support and only allowed for small, narrow windows since more open space in a wall would compromise the structure. As a fortress, the style of architecture was very efficient, but as a Cathedral, it made for dark churches devoid of much natural sunlight.
The pointed arch originated in the Byzantine and Sassanian empires where the two centuries of the Crusades occurred. It was subsequently adopted and widely used by Muslim architects becoming the characteristic arch of Islamic architecture. This architecture would have appeared in parts of Western Europe prior to the Crusades in Islamic controlled areas like the Iberian peninsula and Sicily, but most non-Christian people would not have access to or an interest in going to these parts of the world before the second millennium CE.
(Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo, 884 CE)
(QUTB Complex Quwwat Ul-Islam Mosque Arch Ruin, India, 1192 CE)
The pointed arch, which the Church likened to praying hands pointing to heaven, had a center keystone which shifted the weight of the arch from spreading horizontally to vertically, literally putting the stress of the arch on a plane that directed all its pressure straight down into the earth below it. These arches, aided by the addition of external flying buttresses, or stone beams extending from the walls, took the stress and weight of the building off the walls and placed the burden of structural support on the outside instead of the inside of the building. This enabled these structures to have walls that could be thinner allowing space for stained-glass windows and light-filled interiors. Unlike the Romanesque architecture before this, these arches, walls, and windows could exist independently of each other because of this.
(Stress Displacement on Romanesque & Gothic Arches)
The Crusades allowed multitudes of people from all social classes the opportunity to see this new architecture and adapt it to the needs of the Western Empire. In the eyes and minds of the Church, these arches allowed the architects to build higher ceilings than the rounded arches of the Romanesque period, thus producing more open and spacious interiors. The development of exterior buttresses, thanks to the use of newly incorporated complex mathematics, allowed for these larger open spaces in the building’s interior. These new dimensions deleted anything human and petty in the minds of the people who entered the cathedrals. A Gothic Cathedral, thanks to 12th century CE science and technology, brought Heaven to Earth.
The first significant Christian Gothic structure in Western Europe occurred in the 1130s and 1140s CE when the Basilica of St. Denis in France was renovated by its abbot, Suger. First built in the 8th century CE, it was sorely in need of reconstruction. The basic idea was to create a church with enormous windows which would admit more light, which Suger saw as a symbol of God, and allow him space to tell stories from the Bible in the glass. His earliest panel was a large wheel, or rose window, made in 1137 CE, in the choir, or chancel of the cathedral. The most common window shapes in Gothic architecture are the tall, spear-shaped “lancet” windows. Circular, or “rose” windows, were created in a round pattern and used for the specific purpose of radiating light outwards and onto the cathedral walls and floors.
(Basilica Cathedral of Saint Denis, Saint-Denis, France, begun 1135 CE)
Stained glass has been produced since ancient times. Both the Egyptians and the Romans excelled at the manufacture of small colored glass objects. After the fall of the Roman Empire the manufacture of colored glass all but disappeared in Western Europe, but with the advent of the Crusades opening up the West to trade and commerce again, guilds of craftsmen were now producing the colored glass needed for the construction of the windows for these new churches, monasteries, and elite households.
While there are examples of stained glass windows in churches dating back to the 9th century CE such as in those recovered in excavations at the Abbey of San Vicenzo in Volturno, Italy, and those found in England, at the monastic sites of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, this would be the first new commission of this scale since the stained glass windows of Augsburg Cathedral, a Romanesque cathedral, in Germany constructed in the late 11th century.
The Medieval church funded most of the stained glass windows of the time and Abbot Suger of Saint Denis used the wealth of the abbey to make his windows larger and more beautiful than those ever seen before. The St. Denis glass is remarkable for its use of blue. The deep, diaphanous sapphire blue of Abbot Suger’s windows was used in various elements of their biblical scenes, but more significantly, it was used in their backgrounds. Prior to the abbot’s innovation, backgrounds were clear, white, or a rainbow of colors. Blue was next to black in the color palette, and deep blue contrasts with God, the “father of lights,” as a being of super-light, unlike the rest of us, his followers, who dwelled in “divine gloom,” eternal darkness, and eternal ignorance.
(Rosette Window, Basilica Cathedral of Saint Denis, Saint-Denis, France, begun 1135 CE)
Because light was considered the manifestation of God himself, the subjects of stained glass windows made during this time were mostly religious in nature and served to tell Biblical stories to the lay people that could not read. It has been speculated that the stained glass windows probably had a more profound impact on the people than the sermons themselves.
(Three Rondels (Triple Window) attributed to the Master of the Life of Saint John the Baptist, Rouen, France, 15th – early 16th century, CE, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
The attraction to the lightness in a church called for taller ceilings and yet still larger windows: it has been argued that architects attempting to put larger windows into cathedral walls in part invented the flying buttress for that purpose. Certainly moving heavy architectural support to the exterior of the buildings opened up cathedral walls to larger window space.
Suger wanted to create something spectacular: something befitting the abbey’s status as the burial site for the kings of France. He succeeded. As a result, Gothic architecture began to spread. The huge windows, the brightness of the interiors, and the unprecedented height of the buildings appealed to the civic pride and bishops’ egos across northern France and, eventually, to the rest of Western Europe.
(Gothic Architecture Diagram & Glossary)
Once cities began competing to see who could build the tallest possible church, Gothic was really the only option. Romanesque buildings couldn’t be as tall as Gothic buildings without sacrificing the large windows to make way for thick walls and massive columns. They also would have been much broader than Gothic churches and, as a result, would have looked heavier and bulkier. Romanesque buildings, ironically, may even have been more expensive to build simply because more stone would have been required in their construction. By contrast, Gothic churches felt surprisingly light and elegant for buildings of their size.
Despite Suger’s notoriety, one of the most baffling, elusive, yet in many ways significant dimension of the medieval mind was in its invisibility and silence: it was medieval man’s total lack of ego. Even those with creative powers had no sense of self. No individual identity. Each of the great soaring medieval cathedrals, some of the most treasured legacies from that age, required three or four centuries to complete. Canterbury was twenty-three generations in the making; Chartres, a former Druidic center, took eighteen generations. Yet we know nothing of the architects or builders. They were glorifying God. To them their identity in this life was irrelevant. Noblemen had surnames, but fewer than one percent of the souls in Christendom were wellborn. Typically, the rest—nearly 60 million Europeans at this time—were known as Hans, Jacques, Sal, Carlos, Will, or Will’s wife, Will’s son, or Will’s daughter. Slowly and over time as feudalism began to break down and travel opened up more and people began moving in greater numbers to larger cities, if only a first name was inadequate or confusing, and a nickname wouldn’t do, these people would begin to adopt the surname of their local lord, or they would take the name of an honest occupation (Miller, Taylor, Smith), or even use a geographical location (da Vinci, de Cervantes, Van Eyck, Townsend), or some other physical or personal attribute (Truman: trustworthy, Grant: tall, Stern: harsh), as a surname to complete their identity.
Cathedrals were still the main source of work for sculptors during the Gothic period. Gothic sculptures recaptured the old Roman Empire style of showing the form of the body underneath the draping of their clothing and began to capture more realistic facial expressions. Gothic sculptors, while still commissioned by the church for their work, were no longer interested simply in what their figures represented, but in how they represented them. They wished to tell these religious stories in a manner that were both more convincing and that bore more emotional impact.
(Angel with an Instrument of the Passion, Northern Netherlands, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Late 15th Century)
The gestures had more variances, the faces more expression. These sculptures possessed more relaxed poses, and the form of the body was evident underneath the drapes of their clothing. These sculptures gave natural human qualities to the Saints, qualities that the artists had previously portrayed in pattern form, without a sense of human individuality. Artists of this era would further these details bringing man, not just these divine images, back to life.
(A Kneeling Knight with Saint John the Baptist, Burgundy, France, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1370-80 CE)
A gothic cathedral is traditionally shaped like a crucifix, it has what’s called a cruciform plan which is created by an apse: a semicircular ending to the chancel (choir), a transept: the area of the cathedral that lies at right angles to the principal axis. (The bay at which the transept intersects the main body of the church is called the crossing … the transept itself is sometimes simply called the cross), and a nave: the central part of a church, stretching from the main entrance or rear wall to the transept.
(Gothic Cathedral Floor Plan)
The apse was first a semicircular space covered with a hemispherical vault whose original purpose was to serve as radiating chapels at the head of the cathedral. They existed well before Gothic architecture.
The transept, the transverse section placed across the main body of the building, was meant to separate the laity (the people) from the clergy and the apse. In old rectangular churches built before the reemergence of Romanesque architecture, the transept did not exceed the sides of the building. Once more permanent and grandiose structures began to reappear on the Western European landscape, the transept would stretch beyond the rectangular church creating the shape of a cross. When this shape retained its rectangular base, it is referred to as a “Latin Cross.” Churches in the East often opted for a more symmetrical square shape whose floorplan is referred to as a “Greek Cross.”
The earliest known specifications for the shape of a church date back to the 4th century CE where the Apostolic Constitutions, the largest collection of ecclesiastical law that has survived from early Christianity, prescribed that its shape should be oblong, so that it would resemble a ship, or ark. Before the construction of a new church, the foundations of the building were marked out and a wooden cross placed where the altar would be and then the cross was placed in the ground where the local bishop would then bless the foundation stone of the new construction. Until the reemergence of more permanent structures in Western Europe, churches were generally wooden structures smaller in size with ample draft and little light.
The earliest churches in Rome in early Christianity had its main entrance facing east and the altar to the west which had the priest celebrating Mass standing behind the altar, facing east and so towards the people. There are those who suggest this was out of practicality so that the clergy would not be taken unawares by attack or pillage during the early years of the Middle Ages. The First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE had no knowledge of the origin of the practice. In early Christianity, the practice of praying towards the east did not result in uniformity in the orientation of the buildings in which Christians worshipped until the 8th century CE. As the growing Holy Roman Empire continued to distance itself from its pagan past, the church used biblical accounts of how the temple of Jerusalem, built by Solomon, was destroyed by the pagan Romans. Believing in a second glorious coming of Jesus Christ, the Christians saw the sunrise as the universality of God and a symbol of resurrection and ordained that its churches orient its sanctuaries Eastwards, or ad orientem. By the 9th century CE the position of churches changed universally throughout the Holy Roman Empire, and the priest began to face the apse, not the people.
The Gothic church, in keeping with this tradition, was designed to look to the future: to the “holy city, new Jerusalem, which like Rome and the Sunrise, lie to the east of the Empire. Somewhere between the 10th and 12th centuries CE, a change occurred in which the altar itself was moved and fixed against the east wall of the church leaving the priest to stand before it, also facing east, with his back to the people.
This change in the mass and the placement of the altar would give rise to a new architectural element in the church: The altarpiece.
An altarpiece is a painting, sculpture, or relief representing a religious subject that was made for placing behind or above the altar and was created to reinforce the understanding of Christian doctrine as well as inspire devotion among its populace. Though its invention came about in the Middle Ages, the altarpiece is rooted in the ancient Church tradition. The Council of Nicaea in the 4th century CE approved the employment of sacred imagery like crucifixes, statues, and candlesticks, etc. to enhance the liturgy with visual aids for the instruction of its faithful. Before the advent of the altarpiece, the antependium, the covering that draped and hung over the front of an altar, was the most elaborate piece of visual interest on which a congregation could occupy its attention. Often made with precious metals, ivory, wood, or rich brocades, and usually bejeweled, the principal subject of early medieval altar coverings was ‘Christ in Majesty’ often flanked by angels, the Evangelists, and the Apostles. In the ninth and tenth centuries CE, the repertory grew to include the Virgin and Child, as well as titular saints. Episodic narratives from the life of Christ or a saint were then often disposed symmetrically, in panels, on either side of the principal subject setting the precedent for the template of the triptych and polyptych altarpieces that would eventually follow. The lavish and analogous sacred imagery of these early medieval Gospel covers in parallel decorative formats were intended to stress the liturgical relationship between Christ’s presence in the Word of God presented at mass and the Eucharistic validation the clergy’s role of Christ’s presence on earth.
The provision of an altarpiece has never been canonically obligatory. Rather, the altarpiece came into existence as a means to an end: it was the result of evolving customs that affected the liturgical practice and became a necessary focal point in a church for the clergy and its parishioners.
(Allegretto di Nuzio, Virgin and Child, with Saints Mary Magdalene, James Major, Stephen, and a Bishop Saint, Italy, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1346 CE)
Historically, most altarpieces date from about 1000 CE onwards when cathedral design relocated the main altar of the church by enshrining it to make it the focal point of the structure. By the 15th century CE, altar panel-paintings had become commonplace. Created using either oil paint or egg tempera on wooden panels, most altarpiece iconography is closely linked to Biblical art typically featuring Saints and members of the Holy Family.
The earliest forms of the altarpiece that emerged between the 9th and 11th centuries CE were used to identify the saint or figure associated with the altar or church in which it appeared. Other early examples were simple paintings on rectangular wooden panels usually depicting Jesus or the Virgin Mary. But with the advent of Gothic architecture, altarpieces became larger and more elaborate, and the inclusion of painted panels on them grew in popularity and created a demand for painters not seen previously. Most painting before this period was done by the clergy and most of that was limited to the adornments added to illuminated manuscripts, prayer books, and other small devotional materials.
By the 1200’s CE, layman artists, like the Italian painter Cimabue, would begin carving out names for themselves in a previously anonymous occupation by creating large-scale altarpieces that were grander and more elaborate than previously seen. Mimicking the Gothic architecture, Cimabue was among the first to create an altarpiece with a gabled, a pointed or roof-shaped, frame around panels covered in ground gold and gold leaf. By using tempera, or egg yolk, paints he, and an emerging class of lay artists, could render the most vibrant reds, blues, greens, and others hues upon these brilliant gold leaf backgrounds. Works like this would pave the way for a craftsman, an artist, to gain an identity in a previously nameless and faceless world.
The altarpiece is a broad category that includes both fixed and portable works of art, as well as painted or sculpted works. There are two basic types of altarpiece. The first, the Reredos, (pronounced rare-ray-dos), is a large and often elaborate construction in wood or stone typically rising from the floor behind the altar. Literally translated the word means “at the back” and was used to connote the fixed, screen-like type of altarpiece into which the altar itself was engaged. Examples include the St Mary Altarpiece in Krakow, Poland (1477 – 1489 CE) carved by Veit Stoss and the St Jakob Kirche Altarpiece, Rothenburg, Germany (1499 – 1504 CE) carved by Tilman Riemenschneider.
(Veit Stoss, Saint Mary Altarpiece, Krakow, Poland, 1477 – 1489 CE)
The second type, the Retable, (pronounced ree-table), is a “simpler” structure featuring relief sculpture or painted panels, standing at the back of the altar itself or on a surface behind it. Derived from the Latin retro tablum, it literally means at the rear of the table. Retables, like reliquaries, were usually set in place on a gradine, a shelf at the back of an altar, as opposed to a Reredos which was freestanding or attached to a wall.
(Diptych, Triptych, & Polyptych Diagram & Glossary)
Though the base, body, and frame that typically comprised the fundamental structure of a Retable or Reredos altarpiece was consistent throughout Gothic architecture in the late Middle Ages, the form, media, and content of these altarpieces would vary culturally according to local traditions of religious devotion and artistic convention. The altarpieces in France are as unique and different to those of the Netherlands and Germanic States which vary greatly from those of the Iberian Peninsula from those of England or the Italian States. Examples of a Retable altarpiece include The Dijon Altarpiece (1394 – 1399 CE) by Melchior Broederlam and The Ghent Altarpiece (1432 CE) in Saint Bavo Cathedral, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck.
(Dijon Altarpiece, Musée des Beaux-Arts, France, 1393 – 1399 CE)
Most Retable altarpieces of painted panels are either in a triptych (three-panel) form, or polyptych (more than three panel) form. According to some art historians, the winged altarpiece, primarily with the polyptych, was invented as a device for detaching images, particularly carved ones, for acts of intimate veneration such as touching or kissing. However, hinged wings would also have afforded the capability of concealing the full extent of carved or painted imagery during Lent or even most of the year while providing opportunities for solemn revelation during the Eastertide or the titular feast day of that particular church or altar. The polyptych shifted focus from a single holy figure to a narrative of Salvation history attended by a multitude of holy figures, often, but not always, in the symbolic number of twelve, which relates to divine government, God’s authority, perfection, and completeness, and is associated with the priesthood since it relates to the original twelve apostles in the bible. In the Medieval mind, the number served as a perfect narrative foundation between heaven and earth. The comprehensive program of a polyptych served to edify the faithful in the sacramental and institutional mysteries of the Church.
(Altarpiece with Scenes of the Passion, Antwerp, Southern Netherlands, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1502 – 1535 CE)
The two panel form of altarpiece, known as a diptych, was typically created for personal veneration, rather than public worship and generally not used as cathedral altarpieces. A diptych has two hinged panels that fold together and have been used for personal use since Roman times. In the Early Christian Art era, they served as devotional religious items. Some personal diptychs could be quite small and were also known as “travelling icons” and were popular in early Flemish painting among artists like Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Hugo van der Goes. They could be comprised of secular portraiture as well as portraits of the Holy Family or scenes from the Bible. Early examples include the Wilton Diptych (1395 – 1399 CE) by unknown artists and the The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning Diptych (1460 CE) by Rogier van der Weyden.
(Rogier van der Weyden, The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, Netherlands, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1460 CE)
Like the stained glass window, the altarpiece engaged the intellect and the heart. Everyone from the aristocrat to the common man were enjoined together as worshippers to enter into the rapturous mystery of the Mass. Thus, in its liturgical and devotional roles, the altarpiece was both a window and a mirror, simultaneously permitting a glimpse of heavenly realities while reflecting the countenance of Christ in His saints and martyrs who united their sacrifices to Him for medieval man to contemplate and learn from.
By the 14th & 15th centuries CE, Western Europe was beginning to question its place in this world more seriously. The rediscovery of ancient civilizations and writings by Greek and Roman philosophers would open the Medieval mind to other viewpoints ushering in an era of Humanism.
Writers like Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Chaucer would be dead by the early 1400’s CE, but their ideas, written not in Latin but their own colloquial tongues, will have already reached the hands of an emerging class of people just learning to read for themselves again.
Other late medieval figures, religious and secular, like Saint Francis of Assisi and the painter Giotto de Bondone, also gone by the dawn of the 15th century CE, had already infused a new humanistic spirit into a population eager to want and know more. These men are seen as forerunners of a reawakening of thoughts and ideas in Western Europe.
Gothic art and architecture would soon fall out of style. Once Roman styles came back into fashion with the Italian Renaissance, Romanesque churches would become popular again, particularly in Italy. The empirical concepts ushered in centuries earlier would make it possible for Renaissance architects to erect structures in the Roman style that could rival the old gothic ones.
Gothic would lose its popularity there simply because it wasn’t Roman. Soon other parts of the Holy Roman Empire, eager to move forward into this new frontier of enlightenment, would follow suit. Renaissance thinkers, linking the Fall of the Roman Empire with the Ostrogoths a millennium earlier, viewed this late medieval architecture as “barbaric.” Giorgio Vasari, Italian painter, architect, writer, and historian would be the first to use the term “Renaissance” in print, as well as disparagingly deem this medieval architecture as “Gothic.”
The impact these men would have upon events at the close of the Middle Ages, tremendous as it was, would not be felt until later. As a merchant class grew in power and influence, craft guilds would evolve into legitimate places of learning a trade and studios would be sought after for their talents and expertise. Artists, led by the greatest galaxy of painters, sculptors, and architects ever known to the world at this point in history would emerge to redefine the meaning of art. Among these new artists would be immortal figures like Botticelli, Fra Filippo Lippi, Piero della Francesca, the Bellinis, Giorgione, Della Robbia, Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens, the Brueghels, Dürer, Holbein, and Leonardo da Vinci.
The Middle Ages would fade away and the world grow beyond its horizons in directions never seen before … and man would be anonymous on this earth no longer.
– Richard Di Via
Resources (Parts I & II)