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The Effects of Politics and Culture on Medieval Christian Art

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SUNY Geneseo

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  1. Christian Art.
    1. Early Christian art was already emerging by the second century AD and could be found in cemeteries and catacombs.
    2. The stylistic differences between classical forms and the new Christian style continued into portraiture.
    3. With the legalization of Christianity and its establishment as the official state religion, churches were needed to hold all the new worshippers.
  2. Migration Art.
    1. The artistic tradition of the migration tribes was therefore completely unrelated to that of the Romans and their classical artistic forms.
    2. The Crown of Recceswinth from the 7th century AD in Spain shows the degree of intricacy typical of Migration metalwork and jewelry.
    3. An effect of the influence of Migration art on early Christian art can be seen in the Maiestas Domini altar from 731-744 AD in Italy.
  3. Hiberno-Saxon Art
    1. Another page from the Book of Durrow is titled the Symbol of Saint Matthew.
    2. Hiberno-Saxon art is characterized by flat picture planes and abstracted images that border on the unrecognizable.
  4. Carolingian Art
    1. The Equestrian Portrait of a Carolingian Emperor, assumed to be Charlemagne, from the 9th century AD, illustrates the slow reemergence of classical styles.
    2. No longer is the primary figure floating on a background of flat color.
    3. Carolingian art was remarkable for its time as it formed a resurgence of classical styles applied to Christian subjects.
  5. Charlemagne
    1. Charlemagne was born around the year 748.
    2. Charlemagne's kingdom encapsulated much of Central Europe, stretching from the border between modern-day Spain and France, and east across France and to Germany.
    3. In 813 AD Charlemagne crowned his only surviving legitimate son, Louis the Pious, as emperor.

While Christianity could be argued to have started somewhere between the years 1 and 33 AD, it was not the official religion of the Roman Empire until the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, though by then it had extended throughout the empire and its social structure, thus necessitating the official conversion. So during its early years, it had to practiced in secret, and its art created in secret, independent of any stylistic influences of the time. As it became more established, there was a reaction against the pagan art of the Romans, and Christian art intentionally continued in a different style in order to differentiate itself. While Greco-Roman art was very idealized and aesthetically pleasing, medieval Christian art leaned away from realistic depictions and instead relied on subject matter and symbolism, and therefore concept as its basis. Figures became more abstracted in sculpture and painting, though not for lack of skill on the part of the artists. As the third dimension was denied, the art was more spiritualized, and was meant to be understood as a picture, rather than a direct representation.

[...] It is preceded by the Early Christian style, a less exacting and skillful style of art that came about in opposition to the pagan Greco-Roman style. There are similarities between the two in their ways of representing human figures as more abstracted (compared to the aesthetically pleasing classical figures), but the Hiberno-Saxon style takes it to the next level with the incredible detail and technical precision found in its works. The Hiberno-Saxon style takes its cues from Migration art, which are its roots. [...]

[...] The Carolingian Renaissance initiated in his court at Aachen saw a resurgence of classicism in art and architecture that harkened back to the times of the Christian emperors, as well as presented a blend of Byzantine and Greco-Roman styles that suggested political ties between the Eastern and Western empires a union that was never to be, but made for good pro- Charlemagne propaganda. There was also a great resurgence of learning and culture. In the library at Aachen were collected numerous Christian and classical manuscripts that were kept and copied. [...]

[...] The art had to be made in a way so that it would not immediately stand out as Christian and tip off the Romans. What emerged was an idea of a coded representation, using images already used in classical symbology, such as the depiction of Christ as a shepherd, Mary with the Christ child, poses of prayer, Christ in the temple teaching, and so on. Only other Christians, people familiar with the gospels, would be able to correctly identify the subject matter as Christian. [...]

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