The purpose of this paper is to differentiate the Medieval Art from Renaissance Style. The way to study the present is to first study the past; hence, the Renaissance style that flourished in the beginning of the 15th century was nothing more than a rebirth and continuation of the classical styles whilst breaking free from the traditional religious concepts of the Medieval Period. The Middle Ages or commonly known as the Medieval Period is a part of the European history dating from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. Erstwhile, in 395 A.D., the Roman Empire was divided into two; the Western Roman Empire which ruled from Rome whilst the Eastern Roman Empire ruled from Constantinople, now part of the modern day Istanbul in Turkey. After the downfall of the once greatest empire ever built in the world, Europe was plagued by constant barbarian attacks mainly the Teutonic tribes of Germany who went to every part of the European mainland to gather their own part of the land. Scholars believed that the Middle Ages to be very melancholic and dark, due to famine, deaths and ignorance that was prevalent in the medieval society. Quite the contrary, artists, craftsmen and scholars thrived in this period of darkness, ignorance and famine. By the 13th and 14th centuries, Europe managed to established trade links with India and China. The economic prosperity made the towns’ boom. Towns such as the Chipping Campden of the Cotswold in England thrived in the Medieval Period during the successful days of the wool trade. Cotswold Hills were fat, grazing grounds for sheep (Geis, 1969).
Likewise, the medieval period is also popular of its distinct architectural and art styles. Because of the frequent barbarian attacks, people relied heavily on the Church and God’s teachings. Thus, the Catholic Church grew more powerful during the Middle Ages. Bishops and archbishops ruled the land aside from the king with a granted permission from the Pope of Rome. Some men and women entered the abbey at a tender young age in order to serve God and to devote their lives in the service of the others. The influence of Christianity also propelled man’s interest in books. The early printed books of the Medieval period is the Bible which was commonly used in church masses. Unlike the books today that is manufactured through a high-speed printing press, books written in the Medieval period are masterpieces and were created by hand. Beautiful calligraphy and pictures of saints and the Messiah are drawn in vellum. Books are bound together and covered by a leather jacket to preserve its contents (Davies and Kennedy, 2009). Meanwhile, architectural style also flourished in the medieval period. The erection of prayer houses such as monasteries were inspired by Christianity and the people’s extreme faith in God. They thought that by building great churches illuminated with designs and adorned by beautiful tapestries is the key for the salvation of the soul (Davies and Kennedy, 2009). Gothic architecture is the pre-dominant architectural style during the medieval period and one good example of it is the Salisbury Cathedral in England. It was constructed between 1220 until the year 1258 A.D (Davies and Kennedy, 2009). Salisbury Cathedral reflects the genius and artistry of man as the builder. Now we can see this creation to its fullest flower and here we stand at the awesome beauty he can create (Geis, 1969).
Most medieval churches and cathedrals are seldom crowded. They stand and isolated in a park like close wherein the growth of fine old trees shadowing a green lawn; whilst the miracle of the Gothic stone and glass rises from the earth like a growing thing. In terms of painting, an expert connoisseur of art will be able to determine the work dating back since the Middle Ages. Paintings done during this time period are two-dimensional figures of men and women clad in loose-garments and comical figures despite the solemnity of their expressions. Additionally, subjects of paintings such as frescoes, mosaics and stained glasses were strictly tied with religion. Few paintings of common people are depicted in medieval paintings that shows the life in that era. Moreover, the Renaissance period is the ‘rebirth’ from the classical period of the Greco-Roman culture. Although at some point these periods overlapped each other, the revolutionary art movements presented by the Renaissance artists is rebellious compared the quiet and serious portraits and murals drawn by medieval artists (Pacht and Alexander, 1994). The most beautiful and recognizable feature of Renaissance paintings is the in-depth study of the human anatomy. Whilst the Middle Ages is somewhat ‘God-centered’, the Renaissance is ‘Human-centered’ (Davies and Kennedy, 2009). More portraits of people were drawn using the vivid details of human body, producing life-like and recognizable portraits of people unlike to vague portraits drawn during the Middle Ages. Although there are still paintings that reflect the religious views of people, still the Renaissance gave way to the new invention of painting techniques and styles to achieve aesthetic perfection. On the other hand, books such as the bible are highly illuminated and richly colored. The Nuremberg Bible from the Monastery of St. Gallen in Switzerland was created in 1599 with texts translated in twelve different languages aligned in parallel columns‒English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Polish, Moravian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Syrian. This polyglot Bible is aptly housed in Switzerland, a country whose interests range over all the world (Geis, 1970).
The Renaissance encouraged free thinking and liberalism. Artists became more inventive on their paintings. The well-proportioned figures were appropriately dressed. The facial expression are similar to those of a real human being. Most of the paintings are done in tempera and acrylic and several water based pigments derived from plant extracts. The most popular is the tempera because it produces deep and rich colors which can last for hundreds of years. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a mixture of tempera and oil mixed with acrylic. Da Vinci’s vivid usage of warm and dark colors resulted into a bold, and lively image of a woman smiling mysteriously to the viewer. The main feature of Mona Lisa is the accurate depiction of a woman’s realistic facial features which includes the soft-rounded chin, aristocratic nose, and high forehead. Additionally, charming characteristics of Da Vinci’s work is Lisa’s dainty candle-shaped fingers and expressive serene eyes. Moving forward, painting Mona Lisa incorporated an advance study on the human anatomy; unlike the Middle Ages paintings, the value in regards to human physique and liberalization from religion is not contemplated. One specific example of this painting is Legend of St. Francis created by Giotto di Bodone, a painter of the late Middle Ages. At a glance, Giotto’s painting is quite an advanced style from the traditional style. In his painting, he depicted the St. Francis naked, draped only with a blue linen which is securely held by the archbishop. Giotto’s characters in the painting have a well-shaped bodies but their dual tone colorings does not seem to sport realism. His work was entirely dominated by religion and he rarely did some portraits of people including Dante Alighieri but again, compared to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, his work is no match at all (Davies and Kennedy, 2009). Giotto did not thoroughly studied the human anatomy this was especially true of St. Francis and most of the people in his painting. Their figures are not that muscular and well-built compared to Da Vinci’s paintings. Giotto used a rather dull coloring in his work, unlike Da Vinci who used a warm color palette to liven up the portrait of Lisa.
However, many false assumptions are taught in regards to the differences between Renaissance and Medieval society. First of all I would like to point out that, although the Medieval society is God-centered, they are not that superstitious. For example, under the Carolingian law, witch hunting is forbidden as this was against the law of God to kill a person. The belief in witches as a representation of evil became more notorious upon the Renaissance period in Europe (Davies and Kennedy, 2009). The Renaissance, although it encouraged free thinking is clearly not free from the influences of superstitions. Although they encourage free thinking and became daring in choosing subjects for painting, the Renaissance also became a period of turmoil during the later period. The invention of the printing press sped up the process of producing books to be circulated in the masses. The Malleus Maleficarum, a book written by two monks James Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer in 1487 spearheaded the witch trials during the Renaissance period. The fear of the devil and the ignorance between the difference of science and religion did not became a matter of importance. The witch trials were held in public spaces, especially in the market wherein people can see the victim being tortured or burned at the stake (Pacht and Alexander, 1994). Nevertheless, the Middle Ages is the past of the Renaissance. It served as a bridge in renewing the public’s interest for the classical antiquities of Greco-Roman culture. Until today, the art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance shaped today’s society. Both periods, despite of the conflicting philosophies and styles are still fascinating to study because these two periods serves as our reflection of humanity’s rich cultural heritage.
Davies, G., & Kennedy, K. (2009). Medieval and Renaissance art. London: V&A.
Geis, D. (1969). Let's Travel in England. Chicago: Children’s Press.
Geis, D. (1970). Let's Travel in Switzerland. Chicago: Children’s Press.
Pächt, O., & Alexander, J. (1994). Book Illumination in the Middle Ages. London: H. Miller.