The Dark Art of the Dark Ages

Historical records tell us that while much early art was religious based it was in essence pantheistic and not overly affected or influenced by the religions. Art was in fact, in most cases, an artists voluntary reflection of Man´s relationship to the God´s. Interestingly enough this facet of art was completely eliminated by the coming to power of the Christian Church at the beginning of the Dark Ages, or early Medieval Period beginning in 410 B.C. The Roman Empire was in turmoil, besieged on all sides by “barbarians” when the Emperor Constantine legalized the practice of Christianity and allowed the formation of the Christian Church. Many historians speculate that pressures from the Church were at least partially instrumental in splitting the Empire into its Western and Eastern (Byzantium) parts. For those readers who are ardent students of Art history there are a number of great easy scholarships that can be obtained for this study and understanding this period is essential to understanding the development of art itself.


The Medieval Period can be divided into two parts. The first, commonly known as the Dark Ages, lasted from approximately 410 AD to 1066 AD, or about 650 years. The next period, or Early Renaissance, lasted from 1066 to the last part of the 15thcentury, or another 400 years. While most scholars see a lessening in the Church´s influenced upon art during the latter period if we study the histories of the De Medici family in the late 15th century, especially the case of the genius Michelangelo, who was threatened with both excommunication and death if he did not work directly for the Church in Rome, we can see that this was far from true.

During the first part of the Medieval Period all artists were completely controlled by the Church and kept in Monasteries and other religious houses. All art reflected only Christian subjects, there were no real landscapes, naturalistic art, or sculptures, which the Church considered idolatry. This interpretation of Exodus seems to be a bit confusing however simply because “images” can come in many forms and a statue of God can hardly be seen to be more of an image than a painting of God. This period however only allowed art like paintings, frescoes, illuminated manuscripts, and mosaics to be produced and these were all done in very muted colors and were exclusively Church related. Violation of these strictures could lead to excommunication (essentially a death sentence), or even execution in some extreme cases.


In 1066 however, with the invasion of William the Conqueror of England, the art of the period began to slowly change. While the Church´s power spanned the entire Western world, England was several months very dangerous travel from Rome and the Vatican´s influence was not as strong as it was on the European Continent. While many credit the Italians for finally opening up the art world the initial work was actually done by the English, with the creation of Gothic Art, who finally split with Rome at about the same time as the Renaissance officially began in Italy, during the reign of Henry of Tudor, or Henry VIII. During this period brighter colors began to appear, the art of sculpting in various media from marble to bronze, and realism began to appear. Art also began to become much more developed as well. Techniques in perspective, proportion, depicting light and shadow and an actual sense of pictorial space were all in various stages of development.

The next few articles in this series will cover each of these time periods in much greater detail, beginning with the Church´s initial control of all forms of art and following the progress of substance and style until the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. During these discussions we will be covering both the artistic techniques used and the religious and political influences that shaped the art of the day.

Greek Art Was More Than Statues

Greek architecture and statuary can be so overpowering that many people, even those who really enjoy art, neglect the many other forms of visual art produced by the Greeks. The fact is that the groundwork laid by the ancient Greeks in painting were a necessary step for such painters as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. In fact, without the Greeks work with fresco painting, Michelangelo would not have been able to finish the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, which was done in fresco. Fresco is the art of mixing paint directly in with fresh, wet plaster and can be used on both walls and ceilings.

The Greeks loved bright colors and used them liberally. There is a substantial body of evidence that even when they worked stone they painted the work brightly. But they also used floor tiles to create colorful floor and wall mosaics and used the fresco process to create many wonderful wall paintings. These works were incredibly expensive however, some costing more than 10 years wages for the average citizen.

The Greeks Bronze Age works were famous throughout the Western world but most of what was created did not survive. Both Greece and Rome have been rocked by volcanoes, earth quakes, wars and conquests. Most of the work has been destroyed and the details can only be determined from written sources that happened to survive. The sad fact is that nearly all of the surviving pieces can only be found in ancient tombs and underground temples, of which there were many.


But the Greeks learned the basics of these arts from the Minoan culture. These people were actually painting murals on the walls of all of the palaces on the island nearly 4,000 years ago. Unfortunately however the island was invaded in the 15th century BC by the Mycenaean people and nearly all of the paintings were buried in the rubble of the palaces. Neither the Minoans or the Greeks actually hung these paintings from the walls. If they had, we might still have many of them today simply because invaders would have stolen them. But they were painted on walls and when the buildings were destroyed, either by war or natural disaster, the paintings were also destroyed. The has been more than one set of Federal Grants issued to study this problem.

The subjects of the paintings were far different however in each culture. The Minoans favored painting either landscapes or some sort of plant or animal. The Greeks on the other hand favored human subjects.

Absurdity to Reality and Back

From the earliest cave paintings and decorative pots, artists have striven for realism. It was not until the Greeks however that men first learned how to perfectly imitate life with art. The Greeks attempted to perfect this until they were finally successful with the “Kritios Boy”, which was the perfect visual representation of a human being yet sculpted. The Greeks would learn a lesson however, upon reaching this pinnacle. They learned that we as human beings are looking for reality in our art. We are looking for exaggeration. Reality was boring essentially and far too common to was art on it. So instead of being happy with their success Greek artists sought an entirely new way of looking at art. In the Greek mind men were all endowed with a spark of the divine. This spark should be properly represented in not only creating the truly realistic human figure but one with the exaggerated aspects of deity.


While the Greeks continued in this hyper realistic for a brief period, producing such masterpieces as Zeus of Artemiseion, the bulk of artists began looking for nearly subliminal ways to exaggerate their creations in meaningful but nearly imperceptible ways. But there are many different aspects to this that need to be understand about the time period that this was happening. The artists of the day worked in sometime brutal conditions. There were no scholarships to be had and if you were lucky enough to find a patron you might just as easily found your way into slavery. The tiny nation had recently began a novel new political experiment however and this would actually encourage the development of art.

Surrounded by three Continents, all ruled over by Tyrannical Dictators, A small City-Stateon a windswept plain decided that the best way to rule their passionate people was not with a single strong arm with with the arms of all citizens. The Greeks were by nature a very passionate people but were also a very rational people. The only way for a democracy to work was for all citizens to learn to discipline themselves and control their baser instincts. This sense of control led to perfection but it was the Greeks rationalist outlook that led to them taking the next step into abstraction-ism, which would lead to a great number of advances in art throughout the centuries.


The Greeks discovered that people do not like to look at things that look like them. So in subsequent sculptures they began to exaggerate certain features. Feet and hands sometimes became larger or smaller, noses extended, muscles bulged slightly beyond the human potential, breasts grew to sometimes immense proportions, all became the norm instead of the exception. This lead to the creation of sculptures that were human, but more than human in someways. In a sense, this was the Greeks first success in merging man´s humanity with his essentially divine nature.

Joanna Beaumont is also a guest writer today and has several blogs she writes for. Among them are , Ezine Articles, and Buzzle.

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Scholarships and the Classical Period

This article will focus on two subjects because they are interrelated. During the Archaic Period art was limited to temples and churches with small amounts, for instance pottery, drifting into households. This trend lasted until somewhat after the Greek and Roman periods and into what is known as the Classical Period. It was during this period that art began to be appreciated in its own right and different systems began to develop until today when many organizations, including government agencies, give scholarships and grants solely for studying art and art history. Prospective art students can qualify for traditional grants and loans like Perkins and Stafford, or even strange scholarships like the L. Ron Hubbard Illustrators of the Future Scholarship.

It was during the Classical period that the cultures of Greek and Rome became fully integrated and art flourished. Not only did we see a great expansion in the visual arts, painting and sculpting, but the performing arts and written arts began to fully develop. The Greeks are famous for their tragedies and playwrights like Aeschylus, Ovid, Homer, flourished in Greece and Rome, entertaining the rich and poor alike. We can still see the influence of the Greco-Roman culture in our world today and its effect was felt from the British Isles to the ancient Orient.

This process continued for nearly 1,000 years until the Christian Church seized control of the far flung Roman Empire and, protecting their teachings from any question by scholars. One of the main areas attacked by the clerics was art and any art, whether visual, spoken or written, had to by law, feature the teachings of the Church and any art that did not was destroyed and the artist in many cases put to death.

The Dark Ages lasted from about 500 AD until the late 14th century when the head of one powerful family in Florence, Italy decided to challenge the power of the Church by encouraging art and intellectualism. Cosimo de’ Medici, and later his grandson, Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492), also called “the Magnificent” sponsored such artists and scientists as Brunelleschi, who designed the first free standing dome since the ancient Greeks,Michelangelo Buonarroti, whose life was threatened by the Church to compel him to paint only religious art, Galileo Galilei, who the Church accused of Heresy for proving his Heliocentric view of Creation, and the Grand Master himself, Leonardo da Vinci , whose contributions to both art and science are still being studied today. Da Vinci was in fact the first painter to successfully incorporate shadows in his paintings.

Our next article will cover the Classical Period in a great deal more detail and cover the period on a global scale.