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.
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.
It 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.