Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Early Christian Art (pt. 7)

I mentioned earlier there was widespread church construction occurring at this time.  Christians borrowed from Roman basilica designs to create their churches, designed to fit a large number of church-goers.  A Campanile (a freestanding bell tower) and Westworks (towers framing the end of a church) were added to the design.  Exteriors were plain (contrary to when we get to Gothic architecture), and the focus on these early Christian churches was the interior.  Interiors were designed for dramatic effect, to bring a sense of awe to worshippers—in fact, a nickname for churches built at this time was "Houses of Mystery."  The church builders put in mosaics, which were decorations made with small pieces of glass and stone set in cement.  The mosaics themselves were like visual sermons, complete with symbols for Christ's majesty and goodness, for viewers to admire when they were not looking at the priest.  Many of the mosaics were placed next to flickering candles, the light of which would cause them to glow.  "Houses of Mystery."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Early Christian Art (pt. 6)

Monasticism was a way of life in which individuals gathered together to spend their days in prayer and self-denial.  Monks were common during the Medieval Period.  They separated themselves from the warfare and chaos around them to devote their lives to holiness.  They built monasteries like this Monastery of San Juan de la Peña in northern Spain, deep in the forests covering the foothills of the Pyrenees and tucked away from the rest of the world.
It was built right into the cliff side.  The outside looked like a fortress, and the inside was mostly dark and only lit by torches.  There was an upper story that opened to a cloister (an open court or garden surrounded by a walkway) next to the cliff overhead.
In these monasteries, the primary activity of monks was copying ancient texts (usually the Bible).  These had to be done by hand, since this is before the printing press.  The monks wrote their books in Latin.  Along with hand-copied books, manuscript illuminations became the most important paintings in Europe for a thousand years.  They are the most classic example of Early Medieval art.  Manuscripts were decorated with gold and silver leaf, and for those who could not read the text (since, as I mentioned earlier, literacy was quite low), illustrations were put in.  A typical example of an illuminated manuscript looks something like this.
Gospel manuscripts were illustrated with small paintings of the four apostles, and symbols were given to each of them: Matthew, an angel; Mark, a lion; Luke, a bull; and John, an eagle.  This is a painting from a 9th century book in Reins, France, showing the apostle St. Matthew seated at a small table or podium.  He is holding a pen and an ink container in the shape of a horn.  He frantically records God's words to him, as his Gospel was divinely inspired.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Early Christian Art (pt. 5)

One of the reasons why the Early Medieval Period was so "dark" is that literacy was at an all-time low.  The average number of books to be found in a Medieval library was twenty.  However, during this time we see a brief glimpse of advancement.  The Carolingian dynasty emerged but only survived less than 150 years.  It was responsible for efficient government and renewed interest in learning and the arts.  Charles the Great (Charlemagne) was the best of the Carolingian dynasty.  He was King of the Franks and then elevated to the papacy on Christmas Day in the year 800 and then made the first Holy Roman Emperor.  His domain included almost all of the Western half of the old Roman Empire, and he tried to rebuild the splendors of Rome, starting at his capital, Aix-la-Chapelle in Germany.  Much like the Romans who imported Greek artists, Charlemagne brought in scholars from other countries to teach in the new schools he was constructing.  Learning and the arts sparked to life, but then Charlemagne died in 814, and the strong, central government collapsed again, sending Europe back into feudalism.
Here is a small statue that was made at the time.  It depicts the great Holy Roman Emperor, crowned, riding on a horse. Notice what he's carrying in his hand?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Early Christian Art (pt. 4)

In the 4th century A.D., Rome was on its way to total disillusionment.  The Eastern Empire became the Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople for its capital.  The West fell to barbarian invasion, and the emperors lost their power.  The fall of the leaders in the West led to the rise of the church, and in the West we see widespread construction of churches in this area during the Early Medieval Period.  (I'll get to the churches in a bit…)
The Medieval timeline is split into three parts: (1) Early Medieval, (2) Romanesque, and (3) Gothic.  The Early Medieval Period starts with the fall of Rome.  Strong, central government is gone; the ruling influence during this time is uncertainty, conflicts, open warfare, and apparent chaos.  Feudalism is pretty much the only system of order, and it entails a system in which weak noblemen gave up their lands and much of their freedom to more powerful lords in return from protection.  Serfs were the poor peasants who had no land.