Giovanni in Laterano (Rome), 1300's AD
The first part of the Middle Ages saw very little building
of anything but houses in western Europe, as people struggled
to adjust to the fall of Rome. Some small churches were built
here and there in the Visigothic, Vandal, and Merovingian
kingdoms, but not much else.
the eastern Mediterranean, however, the Roman emperors built
great churches and palaces, like Hagia Sophia in Constantinople
(Istanbul) about 550 AD. In Italy, the Ostrogoths built churches
and palaces too. And when the Arabs conquered the southern
and eastern Mediterranean in the late 600's AD, they also
built great mosques and palaces, like the Dome of the Rock
in Jerusalem. In 800, they built the great mosque in Kairouan.
this time, Western Europe was also doing better. Charlemagne
built himself a palace at Aachen, and a number of churches.
Under his sons and grandsons, more churches were built.
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. Pope Gregory
the Great, he of the Gregorian chants, said, "painting
can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who
read." He might have added that sculpture could serve
the same purpose.
Sculpture. The mission of the sculptor, whose work was seen
almost exclusively adorning church buildings, was to educate
as well as decorate. He brought Biblical tales and moral lessons
to life in stone. Carvings were not just religious, however.
Everywhere you look there is evidence of pre-Christian symbology
in church sculpture; animals real and fanciful, scenes of
everyday life, and the pagan "Green man" peering
out from amongst carefully wrought leaves and vines of stone.
Sculpture burst forth gloriously in the Romanesque era, with
little regard for classical conventions of proportion of figures.
Romanesque Period. At the beginning of the Norman era the
style of architecture that was in vogue was known as Romanesque,
because it copied the pattern and proportion of the architecture
of the Roman Empire. The chief characteristics of the Romanesque
style were barrel vaults, round arches, thick piers, and few
of St. John at the Tower of London - a good example of early
The easiest point to look for is the rounded arch, seen in
door openings and windows. In general the Romanesque churches
were heavy and solid, carrying about them an air of solemnity
early Norman churches were not always so stark as they seem
today, however. In their heyday the church walls were hung
with tapestries or painted richly. The statues of the saints
were gilded (on some you can still see traces of the paint
if you look closely), and the service books were inlaid with
gold, jewels, and ivory. Chalices and reliquaries were encrusted
Gothic Style. Beginning in 12th century France a new style
of architecture and decoration emerged. At the time it was
called simply "The French Style", but later Renaissance
critics, appalled at the abandonment of classical line and
proportion, derisively called it "Gothic". This
was a reference to the imagined lack of culture of the barbarian
tribes, including the Goths, which had ransacked Rome in the
twilight of the Roman Empire.
architecture is light, spacious, and graceful. Advances in
architectural technique learned from contacts with the Arab
world during the Crusades led to innovations such as the pointed
arch, ribbed vault, and the buttress. Heavy Romanesque piers
were replaced by slender clusters of columns. Window sizes
grew enormously, as did the height of vaults and spires.
A late Gothic chantry chapel at Winchester Cathedral
Sculpture became free standing rather than being incorporated
in columns. The new expanse of window space was filled with
gloriously rich coloured glass. The easiest point of reference
to look for in a Gothic church is the pointed arch, seen in
window openings and doors. Also, the later Gothic churches
had very elaborate decoration, especially the "tracery",
or stonework supporting the stained glass windows.
Building. Churches were a point of civic pride, and towns
vied to outdo each other in the glory of their churches. Money
for the church was raised by the sale of indulgences, fund
raising caravans of relics, parish contributions, and donations
from nobles. Many times a guild would pay for a stained glass
window depicting their trade. Often people would volunteer
their labour to the construction, though much of the work
was carried on by skilled workmen under the watchful eye of
the head mason and the architect.
Siting and Orientation. Churches were often sited on pre-Christian
sites of spiritual importance, taking advantage of peoples'
existing devotion to a particular place. Worship was carried
on in the same place, just with a Christian orientation. Speaking
of orientation, churches are nearly always oriented so that
the main altar is at the east end of the church, facing Jerusalem
and, not coincidentally, the rising sun. Even if the altar
end of the church is not literally in the east, that end is
still referred to as the east end. In theory, then, the east
end of an English church could face west.