Tag Archives: Middle Ages


I’ve been interested in them ever since I first saw the Disney show of the same name. I hardly remember any specifics about the cartoon, but I did think it was amazing. The main reason I chose gargoyles to search was because I originally intended for this to be an art blog, though within its first month or so chance ended up with me unwittingly taking a very different route with it. That’s for the better I think, because all the art history posts I did were cut and pasted from homework essays of an art history class I took and I found myself with very little time or energy to produce anything new. I still have quite a few that I never posted on here, and I don’t care to get around to it. I like what my blog ended up being.

Anyway, here is the eleventh result for “gargoyle:”

I like gargoyles because they are a vividly diverse lot. The first ten results were fairly conventional with wings and or horns, but this one is rather unusual. He appears to be just a man, granted one who is either very horrified at something or in a lot of pain. Proper gargoyles act as waterspouts to divert rain off the buildings to protect from erosion, it doesn’t look like this one has this function and it certainly doesn’t look like it would do the secondary job of scaring off evil spirits very well. The picture comes from a good Huffington Post article with several other unusual testimonies to gargoyle diversity: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/17/spooky-church-gargoyles_n_5315933.html



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Charles the Great

The most fitting more distant family member I can think of is Charlemagne. I don’t know for an undisputed fact that I am descended from him, but it is thought that ALL European people (more accurately anyone with European DNA) living today is descended from him. Unless you have no European ancestors whatsoever, highly unlikely in the Western Hemisphere, that would make him your ancestor. That and probably pretty much everyone you know. Maybe even every singe person you know. That’s a lot to think about, and the implications are very interesting.



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Knight One Day, a Cowboy the Next

When I was young I was decidedly indecisive about my future, the title pretty much says it all; the careers mentioned being the favorites. Knights and cowboys fascinated me growing up, I thought they were really cool so I thought it would be cool to be one. Most little boys like those sorts of jobs and buy into the romanticized pop culture images. I am no closer now to realizing my dream for either than I was back then, chiefly because now I have no desire. Knighthood is out of the question for fairly obvious reasons, at least the shining armor variety. I suppose it is technically possible for me to be knighted I would have to live a lifetime of truly exceptional greatness, especially since I am an American. The United States doesn’t have any knighthood orders; most countries that do only give them to prominent foriegners, usually heads of state and high end military officers. Being a cowboy is considerably more plausible, surprizingly so considering that I live in a rural area in close proximity to horses and cattle. However I do not like riding horses and I can’t stand the smell of livestock. That and I don’t like to risk physical harm, which is also a reason why I wouldn’t have been a good knight. As unlikely and unfit as I was and am for these careers, they were much more realistic than my other dream job: Men In Black agent.





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Review of Häxan

During this weekend I went home and caught up on my DVR. One film that I watched was a 1922 Danish production called Häxan or Witchcraft Through the Ages. Häxan is a docudrama providing an in depth look at Medieval beliefs about witches, which is dramatized though a series of vignettes. The conclusion about these beliefs is that witches and people suffering from demon possession are merely misunderstood sufferers of mental disorders. Contemporary sequences about the now discredited disease “hysteria” are added to draw parallels between ancient superstition and modern quack medicine. Each segment is wondrously realized with stunning visuals, brought to life with costumes, makeup, and visual effects. Do be warned that Häxan is silent, if you wouldn’t watch a movie simply because it doesn’t have sound than this isn’t for you. However, if you have watched any silent classic (Charlie Chaplin doesn’t count) like Metropolis or Nosferatu you will understand just how visually arresting silent era movies can be. Highly recommended and available free online via public domain.


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Review of Purgatorio

I have just finished reading Purgatorio, the second part of The Divine Comedy. While Inferno was excellent, I found Purgatorio to be even better. Purgatorio is a much more tangible setting than Inferno was. Inferno was mostly just very creative fire and brimstone, but Purgatorio is about Dante’s ascent up a mountain; which is a spiritual journey as well as a physical one. Purgatorio is an island mountain at the bottom of the globe, which in the Comedy’s cosmology is the only land in the Southern hemisphere. It is where the dead souls go to atone for their sins, with a terrace for each sin and every one is easier to climb than the last becuase the burden of Sin gets lighter and lighter. If you have already read Inferno and ejoyed it, read Purgatorio. I wouldn’t reccomend reading Purgatorio with having read Inferno first, but I imagine that its possible. As I said in my review of the former work, the Divine Comedy provides a lapidary summary of Late Medieval thought. Unfortunately I will not be able to move on the Paradiso, the last part. We don’t have time to do so and the course is now on The Faerie Queen, but I intend to read Paradiso once I can. Purgatory is excellent, I can’t stress enough how much of a shame it is that people only read Inferno.

purgatory procession beatrice

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Inferno: A Review

I have finished reading Inferno. No not the Dan Brown novel, I read the original poem by Dante Alighieri. It is easily the most rewarding thing I have read in quite some time. Reading it is part of a school course as I did is probably the best way to read such a work, that way the full meaning (interpretation anyway) of the text is dissected. That is necessary because of The Divine Comedy is a culmination of roughly five hundred years of Catholic thought. It was written during the hight of the Gothic era, though many view Dante’s work as the first step towards the Renaissance. Of course, eras are divided much later after the fact and when one starts and ends is a matter of opinion and not fact.

Much is made of the elaborate layout of Hell in the poem. While that is rather fascinating I find the language of the poetry to be what makes it so amazing. Every canto and tercet is meticulously written, and the lines are worded brilliantly. No wonder Dante’s output of writing became the basis for modern Italian and made Florence and Tuscany the center of Italian culture.

As much as I hated getting to the end it was comforting to know that the next item on the course was Purgatorio, the second part of the Comedy. We have read the first three cantos and so far so good. Hardly anyone has read Purtatorio, let alone Paradiso (the last part); which I think is a shame because Inferno is merely the first part of the sequence. It would be akin to read the Fellowship of the Ring and giving it praise and meticulous attention without bothering with The Two Towers and Return of the King.

If you decide to read it, make sure you pick up an annotated copy; you probably won’t know the names of 90% of the individuals appearing in it or alluded to. The edition I read was Mark Musa’s translation for Penguin Classics, although apparently they now have a more recent one.

Geryon barque Minotaur



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The Epic of Sundiata: A Review

This week I finished reading a book most of you have probably never heard of (unless you are from West Africa), The Epic of Sundiata. It is Mali’s national epic and is a fictionalized biography of Mali’s first emperor, Sundiata Keita. He turned Mali into the strongest empire in the region, creating a formidible trade power profiteering off of Mali strategic location. Because his story passed orally from generation to generation, many obvious embellishments exist within the narrative. Western scholars have dissmissed oral accounts as being unreliable, however any discerning reader should be able to sort fact from fiction and The Epic provides a rare look into life in 13th century West Africa.


The entire narrative follow’s closely with the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. For those of you not aware, the Hero’s Journey is a lazy ass formula used in multimillion dollar franchises such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, recently with the Hunger Games, and too many other stories to count. One noted example is Lion King, which some Sundiata readers have even accused Disney of copying from. I and many other classmates noticed the resemblance, however there are a couple major differences which lead me to conclude they are merely to monomyths set in Africa. Sundiata’s father was known as the “Lion”, so I guess he was a literal Lion King.


I really enjoyed the Epic of Sundiata. It is a quick read at only 85 pages, so it is well worth your time.

horse mosque archer

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Review of the Consolation of Philosophy

I have finished the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Boethius was an Gothic philosopher who lived during the fall of Rome and the rise of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in the Italian peninsula. He served as a trused advisor to King Theodoric until a turn of events resulted with Boethius on death row. There he wrote the Consolation, and trust me the story behing how the book was written is far more interesting than the book itself. The entire book consists of one giant dialogue between him and Sophia, the feminine personofication of God’s wisdom, on the nature of reason, fate, providence, neccesity, time, fortune, and a bunch of other things that would have been quite interesting if there was some form of narrative. While it is one of the most influential books ever written, I found it to be mindnumbingly dull and only finished it because it was required reading. Unofortunately, it is foundational to Medieval and Renaissance thought; meaning I may be at a deficit for my later study of those eras. One thing that was rather interesting was the concept of the “Wheel of Fortune” (not the show) where the King sits at the top, the poor on the the bottom, and commoners hanging on the sides of the Wheel. That went on to become a very common theme in illuminated manuscripts, and for centuries the Consolation was one of the most copied books other than the Bible.

philosophy wheel Boethius

Other than that allegory, I didn’t get much from the Consolation. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have spent 27 straight hours translating it from Latin to English, so it is pretty obvious that some people have a LOT out of it. Perhaps I would have been able to enjoy it if it weren’t for the fact that I have like two or three other books I need to juggle reading at any given time. Whatever the case, I did not enjoy The Consolation of Philosophy and wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you have to.

Now we are on Dante’s Inferno, I’m only two cantos in and I already find it infinately more interesting than the Consolation.

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Illuminating Manuscripts and Staining Glass

For many people two art forms define medieval art, illuminated manuscripts and stained glass windows. The former was a product of the Dark Ages, while the latter appeared in the Romanesque period. Around the 13th century the European art scene began to shift from Romanesque to Gothic. Like it’s predecessor, this new style built upon previous art forms to create works unique to this time. By this time bookmaking was as prosperous as ever, and books were increasingly diverse. History began to flourish again as bookmakers were not merely copying primary sources, they were writing secondary sources. Like with the Bibles and Psalters, these history books were decorated with full color illustration that could tell the story to those who couldn’t read (or know Latin). Non-fiction in general became commonplace, providing invaluable information on how people saw the world. Bestiaries provide information about all manner of animals, most of which are none existent while others real but with misinformation. Though prose fiction as we know it today hadn’t really developed yet, poetry was widespread and many manuscripts are filled with new poems. So much secular literature hadn’t been common since Roman times and they show that while the Middle Ages were very religious, it was also an earthy time when people had a raw sense of humor.

Chron unicorn serpent wife

Though stained glass begun during the Romanesque era, the art matured in the Gothic era and that is when we start to see some very notable work. Unlike illuminated manuscripts, stained glass was still confined largely to the cathedrals so the content remained primarily religious. All (or almost all ) of the Gothic cathedrals utilize stained glass, so it is easy to see how the windows swiftly became so sophisticated. The primary goal of the windows was to tell Biblical stories to the illiterate; the “Poor Man’s Bible” I discussed last week. Abstraction also became common, sometimes embellishing scenes and other times dominating an entire window. These abstract designs make stained glass an interesting parallel with illuminated manuscripts. Perhaps one reason we find stained glass so captivating is because we use windows to see outside and let light in, not to decorate the interior of a room.

window window2 window3It is often said the art is a reflection of the time and place it was created in. I think for the Middle Ages that is especially true. While books were produced it is important to note that they are one of the few available media forms. The number of books made is miniscule by later standards. Many later books and resources have been written about the time, but they are often filled with errors. This leaves art as vital voice for Medieval beliefs. Yes books were filled with art, but not everyone knows Latin. However, anyone can look at art; and scholars and art historians have made understanding it fairly easy.






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Architecture During the Romanesque Era

When the millennium turned Europe was beginning to leave the Dark Age and enter what many consider to be Medieval times (though some lump the two together). A cornerstone of Medieval progress was the development of Romanesque period art and architecture. Romanesque work originated as imitation of Imperial Roman architecture and was an attempt to restore Europe to it’s pre-Fall glory. Defining characteristics were rounded arches and vaults. The movement actually took influences from a wide variety of sources, leading to much regional diversity. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Romanesque buildings are how they ambitiously combine several different art forms, making Romanesque churches into a form of master art. Every visible part of the building was a potential art space, meaning even practical architectural elements could double as sculpture. Columns are a perfect example of Romanesque art because they are an obvious influence from Greco-Roman architecture and Medieval builders built upon past usage of columns and used and integrated sculpture into the practical design. Portals (the area around the main door) are another important element that were turned into sculpture:

cathedral sculpture Judas Christ in his majesty 

Romanesque art is also responsible for many innovations that were unheard of in Roman times. Stained glass windows are one of the most important examples as for many they are synonymous with Medieval art. The colorful, two dimensional, windows provide a nice counter to the often colorless (granted some were painted but it has faded away) and three dimensional sculptures. The art remained important well into the Renascence and there was revival of stained glass in Victorian times which continues to some extent today. Most of the examples I could find were Gothic or later, but here are some Romanesque stained glass windows:


During the Romanesque period almost anything could be made into art. The diversity is stunning with each building different than the next. Depending on the location influences (aside from namesake Roman) could include Celtic, Saxon, Islamic, Norse, Mozarabic, Visigothic, Ostrogothic, or Byzantine just to name a few. Visual style aside, all Romanesque art is unified with common elements. The chief of these is a Biblical worldview, or more accurately the Biblical worldview endorsed by the Catholic Church. Close examination of most pieces will reveal the most common theme are Biblical stories, depictions of extra-Biblical Saints are also popular. The reason for this was to make the content of the Bible accessible for the illiterate. Scholars have dubbed this the “Poor Man‘s Bible” and it can be seen in sculptures, stained glass, and murals (which I have chosen not to write about as they are not uniquely Romanesque). Local flavor can be seen in depictions of that areas rulers and history. We can also see much about how Medieval people saw the world in their depictions of grotesque beasts meant to protect the building from evil. Taken as a whole, Romanesque cathedrals and churches can be viewed as elaborate art museums, because they showcase the contemporary art in a region represented by almost every form of art.





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