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.