The Middle Ages were the period of European history dating from the fall of the Holy Roman Empire in 476A.D. up to 1453 and started when the Ottoman Turks of the Middle East captured Constantinople. The Catholic Church grew more powerful and influential during that time. Governed by bishops and archbishops under the papal authority from Rome, the church became more dominant in the medieval society. Nuns and monks lived together in a house called monastery, devoting their lives in the service of God. In this period of turmoil and instability, many people turn to God in order to survive. Beliefs and traditions prevailed in the whole society. The architectural concept and design of the Middle Ages is focused mainly on the religion, Christianity. The arts are highly influenced by the faith and devotion of the people to the Church. Skilled artisans produced great artworks to decorate the Church. The carvings, stained glass windows, religious paintings and tapestries all depict the scenes from the life of Jesus Christ and the Twelve Apostles. In addition, David Ross, a British editor for the website Britain Express.com argues that:
“Art in the Middle Ages was inseparable from religion. It was infused with spiritual symbolism and meaning. The purpose of art was to awe and inspire the viewer with the grandeur of God. It also served to symbolize what people believed.”
The Catholic Church plays both as a religious advisor and as political governor during the Middle Ages because during that time the government does not have a centralized organization. Christianity flourished in all parts of Europe and became the continent’s official religion. The Church has the most influence over the art and architecture during these times and the Church wants the people to be familiar with the teachings in the Bible. By that time, only few people could read and write so they decided to put the Scriptures in artworks so that they can remember it easily and since all people are devoted to their religion, wealthy families belonging to the haut ton employed glass blowers, painters, carpenters and masons to create beautiful artworks that we see now. Similarly, on the Asian continent, religion is also a dominant element in art and architecture. In Japan Horyuji temple is both a monastery as well as a college. It is made out of wood and built on the Middle Ages in honor with Prince Shotoku Taishi. The basis of Horyuji’s design came from the Buddhist temples he had seen during his travel in China and Korea. During the early phase of the Middle Ages in Europe, Romanesque is the common style which resembles the Roman style of architecture that is why it is called ‘Romansque or Romanish’. This is only an extension innovation of the earliest Christian basilicas wherein the structure is light with simple flat wooden roofs. Contrary to this, the Romanesque style has very heavy walls having only a small window as an opening with a heavy stone roof arched or vaulted inside. It contains a wide nave and narrower lower side aisles. The whole building structure had a cross-like form and very massive due to the heavy walls, and columns. These cross-like designs offer extra entrances on the northern and southern sides of the building, which, like all churches, is oriented from west to east, starting from the setting to the rising sun. Romanesque churches, unlike Early Christian churches have lavish sculptural portals. This heavy style of architecture first appeared in medieval Germany, France, Spain and all throughout Europe with Italy as an exemption. In Italy, medieval architects use a lighter style in erecting buildings based on the basilica and lasted throughout the Romanesque and up to the Gothic period. A typical example of this light basilica style is the cathedral of Pisa, with the famous Leaning Tower. The delicate arcades and colorful marble stand in remarkable contrast to the powerful outside and inside arches of Romanesque structures. The Abbaye-aux-Dames at Caen, France is one of the remarkable examples of Romanesque interiors wherein stone vaulting covers the nave. Notre Dame la Grande at Poitiers has only a simple continuous canopy of stone made up of succeeding individual round arches. Prior to the Romanesque style, people developed a new architectural concept, Gothic architecture. This style started in the twelfth century and described by modern architects as an architectural style with pointed arches and thinner columns.
The heavy walls replaced by colorful stained glass windows reflecting religious subjects. The earliest Christian arts in the Middle Ages were characterized by glowing mosaics in honor of Christ, Mary and the converts. Christian symbols were used in art like the cross, lamb, fish, grapes, doves and Greek letters such as Alpha, Omega and Chi-Rho. These symbols are relevant in the Christian life of the people who lived during the period. Christ and the saints were all portrayed with halos. The familiar image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is an artistic religious representation of Byzantine art. The sharp image and clear lines, which complements the flat drawn frontal figure with the Virgin’s head, turned to a three-quarter view and the wood panel painting is decorated with precious stones and a gold background. Buildings became larger and taller due to pointed arches and the interiors include flying buttresses. Notre Dame Cathedral in Bayeux, France is the best example of a building made out of Gothic style. In general, the façade of a Gothic cathedral is a rectangle resting on the short side, and the great height is emphasized by the two towers that usually complete the design.
The Gothic cathedral often took centuries to build since medieval workers use only simple tools in building a structure. Skilled craftsmen were needed to build both castle and a church and these people such as masons to work on stone, carpenters to build floors and roofs and metal workers to make bars and fastenings for the doors. The master mason, who designed the structure, supervised all these activities, and made sure that the building was extremely strong. In addition, mosaic, stained glass and tapestry are similar with painting though on different mediums. Mosaic is made by putting together small pieces of colored glass or stone called ‘tesserae’ and is often cut into squares. The pieces are set in special cement to hold it in place whilst the underside of the mosaic is roughened to stick it to the cement. Stained glass, like mosaic is also a kind of patchwork done in glass. It is made by combining small pieces of colored glass held together by lead bands. In a large window, the lead is supported by heavy iron bars that looks like black lines in the picture. In the Middle Ages when many people were illiterate, the glass, the tapestry as well as the mosaic served as a ‘picture book’ of Christianity. Tapestries are large fabrics woven with designs and is made by hand. During the Medieval Period, these were hung on the palace walls on festivals serving as a decoration and warmth. Being firm in texture, tapestries preserve the warmth. Churches are not only structures for faith they are also act as a meeting place, market and the focus for the people. In order to familiarize people with the teachings of the Bible, they ordered skilled artists to illustrate the teachings of the Bible in the form of stained glass, tapestries and sculptures. They thought that by displaying their devotion to God, they would have more blessings. Another reason behind this is that only few people knew how to read the Bible. Medieval education is expensive and only those who belong to the higher rank such as noble families, priests and nuns can read and write. This became an instant hit among the people and the religion became the most powerful instrument to gain people’s attention. Culture during the Middle Ages is very fascinating both in Europe and in other continents. Their cultural basis came from the religion and the traditions and literature are highly influenced by the crusades. In Asian countries, most structures are created to enshrine the relics of Buddhism and Shinto. Most of these temples contain precious artworks and literary pieces.
Most countries of the world have their traditions based from their religious beliefs. In India during the Middle Ages, to honor the god Ganesha, people are hunting elephants to be tortured in the temple. This is because the Hindu god Ganesha was tortured in the temple to eliminate the people’s sins. Ganesha is an Indian deity, whose body is half-human and bears the head of an elephant. Until this modern day, elephant torture still exists in India as a form of atonement. In Japan, the Bon Festival is an ancient tradition originated during the Middle Ages and is still practiced today. The festival is celebrated in July in the Tokyo district and and August in the Kyoto Prefecture. This tradition is based on the Shinto belief that souls of the dead returns to the mortal world during the ‘Bon’ and as a welcome, the Japanese people performs religious dances such as ‘Kagura’, an ancient court dance.
Meanwhile, Europeans also had their share of culture in the Middle Ages. For the workers, life was very hard. Men spent nearly all their time tending the fields while women run the household. For children there was no school. Boys helped their fathers in the fields while the girls learn to spin, sew and cook. Sunday and religious holidays were the only days off and for some local markets sometimes circus offered a welcome break from the hardships of the daily life. Religion played a big part in most people’s lives. When a squire was to be made a knight, he often spent the whole night before the dubbing ceremony praying in the castle convent. The vigil was a sign that he will take his vows seriously to serve his King faithfully for the rest of his life. The king was the boss of the whole kingdom and everyone had to obey him. His power covered almost every aspect of life, from how his land should be farmed, and to who rode into battle with him. The only area that the lord did not control was religion, when his power was second to that of the local bishop and clergy. Knights follow a code of conduct, which is called ‘chivalry’. A knight was expected to be considerate, especially towards women and to treat enemies with respect. Many knights did not live up to this, but Middle Ages is also known as the ‘Age of Chivalry’.
During peacetime, rich people play board games like chess, which gained popularity among noblemen because chess is like a battle. Otherwise, knights and their women looked forward to visits from musicians and actors who arrived from time to time and performed in return for board and lodging. Peasant children usually played games, such as leapfrog and tag, that did not need any equipment since ordinary families could not afford toys. Noble families had more money, and a knight’s children were sometimes given toys such as wooden swords and shields or miniature models of men-at-arms. One of the most favorite pastimes was telling stories. Few people could read but popular tales were handed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth. People liked to listen to stories about the exploits and love of knights in times gone by. Some of the favorites were about the adventures of the mythical English King, Arthur and his knights of the round table. Literary works also flourished during this period, and one example of these works was Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ which describes his travel from London to Canterbury. Knights hunted animals that they could eat. They liked the best to chase large creatures that provided plenty of meat and offered a challenge to the hunter. Deer and wild boar were among the favorites whilst poor people hunt birds, rabbits or eat vegetables and bread. In the Middle Ages, there were few imported foods and everyone had to eat what could be grown on the local land. Therefore, hunting made the diet more varied and it offers knights useful riding practices for war.
For the nobles, a tournament such as jousting is a very popular combat sport. Knights needed to practice fighting, so they often engaged in mock combat as a rehearsal for war. Many people liked to watch the knights fighting. Aside from mock combats, knights and sometimes the King himself, fought one-to-one on horseback in the joust and with swords in foot battle. Every noble family, had a coat of arms that acted as its badge, A knight wore his coat of arms into battle and when competing in a tournament so that he could be easily recognized. Coats of arms are designed in a similar way, using the same range of colors and basic patterns. This coat of arms serves as a language of the bearer based on Old French. Each colors has its own name in this language for example red was called ‘gules’ and black was referred to as a ‘sable.’ Experts on heraldry still use this language to describe coats of arms today. Art and architecture in the Middle Ages influenced the people of the modern world. The intricate mosaic, ornate religious image paintings, stained glass designs and the graceful but strong arches are visible in churches and buildings found in modern communities.
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