Egyptian mummy portraits marked the incorporation of Greco-Roman
style into Egyptian art.
Gradually, gods and heroes disappeared from painting. In their
place emerged the Christian figures who dominated art for
the next thousand years. In medieval art, the spiritual world
reigned over the earthly world.
At first glance, it appears that European medieval artists
painting between 500 and 1300 lost all knowledge of the advances
made by the Greeks and Romans. Dominated by Christianity,
medieval art seems worlds apart from the light, fluid, earthly
world of Greek art. But medieval artists actually absorbed
Greco-Roman styles into their works. Even the golden halo
that surrounds nearly every image of a saint, the Virgin Mary,
or Christ has its artistic origins in the golden orb that
surrounded images of Roman gods.
Fusion of Rome and Christianity
Remains of paintings from the Roman Empire are scarce. Wall
paintings that date to the beginning of the first millennium
in Pompeii and Ostia demonstrate the splendor of the Empire.
This form of artistic expression, however, appears to have
lost its popularity in favor of mosaics by the 3rd century.
In the dry deserts of the ancient Near East — Egypt,
ancient Palestine, and Syria — many more paintings from
the Roman period are preserved. Incredible Egyptian mummy
portraits with penetrating eyes neatly illustrate a new fusion
between the realism of Greco-Roman art and the spirituality
of Egyptian funerary practices.
This map of the Roman Empire during the reign of Trajan (98-117
C.E.) shows the extent of Rome's influence. Christianity and
its artistic influences arose in Palestine, from where it
spread westward to the rest of the Empire.In
fact European medieval art develops out of the Roman Near
Mosaics were far more common than paintings. This 2nd century
Roman mosaic from Tunisia exemplifies Greco-Roman art at this
time. Some of the features, such as the golden circle around
the god Poseidon's head, can also be found in Christian art.
No culture escaped the influence of Greco-Roman art. And Rome
could not escape the influence of the Near Eastern religions,
such as Judaism and Christianity. While religious doctrines
of both Jews and early Christians forbade creating images
of living beings, paintings of biblical stories began to appear
on the walls of synagogues and churches by the 3rd century.
most spectacular paintings are found in remains of the synagogue
in the ancient city of Dura-Europos in modern-day Syria and
in the Christian catacombs in Rome. However, these early religious
wall paintings appear crudely drawn in comparison with other
Roman art of the time.
and more, the purpose of art became to portray the spiritual
world. There was no longer any interest in depicting three-dimensional
figures. Rather, the new Christian philosophy scorned attention
to the material body and encouraged its followers to focus
on the soul. Painting mirrored this ideology.
The Purim Triumph, a 3rd-century fresco was found in the Dura
Europos synagogue. The frescoes at Dura Europos fuse Roman
and Near Eastern styles of painting.
Without any real precedents for painting in the Jewish and
Christian religions, these early artists borrowed motifs from
both Roman and Near Eastern styles. From Near Eastern art,
Christian and Jewish painters used the size of figures and
primary colors to indicate their importance. Often, figures
are clothed in Persian garb. Intense eyes and furrowed brows,
both noticeable in the Egyptian funerary portraits, become
common motifs to capture piety.
the paintings clearly copy styles from Greco-Roman art, too.
Greek and Roman poses are adopted. Priests generally wear
togas and important buildings are almost lways depicted as
The wall paintings in the catacombs, including this one depicting
Christ with his apostles, exemplify the style and role of
painting in the first eight centuries of Christianity.
With the rise of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century,
the political life of the Roman Empire shifted from Rome to
the eastern city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).
As Christianity became the official religion throughout the
Mediterranean world, Christian art spread to the far reaches
of the Empire.
By the 5th century, the Christian popes were sending out into
pagan Europe envoys carrying illuminated manuscripts, derived
from formal pattern books filled with hundreds of poses copied
from original Greco-Roman works. Meant to spread Christian
teachings and promote order, these books were sacred texts
and carefully guarded works of art.
Debate still raged in the eastern Byzantine Empire over whether
Christians should even be allowed to depict images at all.
Iconoclasts (from the Greek for "image breakers")
in the Byzantine Empire destroyed sculptures and paintings
that depicted Christ. Churches and monasteries were the only
nominally safe havens for art.
Written around 800, the Book of Kells is one of the oldest
surviving examples of illustrated manuscripts in Europe.
a wonder anything survived.
the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great reinvigorated the
creation of art as a holy act when he declared, "Painting
can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who
can read." This statement served as the guiding justification
behind painting throughout the Middle Ages.
Irish monks were the most skillful in teaching the Gospels
through images in their illuminated manuscripts. Their paintings
were as spiritual as the texts. The famous Book of Kells and
Book of Durrow of the 7th and 8th centuries combined complex
interlaced patterns from the local Celtic culture with the
symbolism of Christianity. Colors continued to be used to
separate some figures from the rest of humanity: Saints were
in gold, and bold reds and blues surrounded kings. Art increasingly
focused on the supernatural, asserting complete independence
from the material world. While the paintings lacked any effect
of depth, they were rich in symbolic meaning.
Supernatural: That which may exist beyond the visible, observable
universe. Especially relating to a god, demigod, or spirit.
Artists of the early Middle Ages were not always famous masters.
In fact, very little is known about most of them. They were
first and foremost monks and craftsmen whose work was valued
simply not for its artistic rendering but for its spiritual
The icon of St. John the Evangelist from the Dionysiou Monastery,
dates to the 11th century. The Orthodox Church of the Byzantine
Empire began construction of monasteries along Mount Athos
as early as 971.
Not until the year 1000 did Europe start to gain political
stability. Interest in the arts and other cultures flourished.
Trade was ignited in Italy, and the Crusades to Jerusalem
from 1095 to 1200 exposed Europeans to ancient Roman, Byzantine,
and Middle Eastern artistic styles. All along the pilgrimage
route, Romanesque ("Roman-like") churches —
with their characteristic round arches and barrel vaults —
sprang up. In France alone some 2000 churches of this period
remain, and it is estimated that about 25,000 were built.
The buildings were covered with sculptures and frescoes for
the edification of illiterate pilgrims.
colors, suspended angels, penetrating eyes, and intricate
symbols were the prevailing, motifs used to represent the
supernatural world throughout the early Middle Ages.
the rules were changing. The heavenly figures of medieval
art would soon come off their golden thrones and be put back
into an earthly perspective.