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3.1: Introduction (1400 - 1600)

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    The Middle Ages or Medieval period in Europe began after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century until the start of the Renaissance in the 15th century. Plagues, religious wars, and Crusades marked the long, dark period. Great religious churches and cathedrals were constructed during the period supporting religious organizations as they defined the rules to control people's lives. Most women of the time toiled in the fields or worked in family shops, had numerous children, and died early. Childbirth was the most hazardous part of a woman's life, and the mother's and child's mortality rate were exceptionally high. Lack of sanitation in the villages and cities created disease-infested environments across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The Greek ideals of athleticism and daily bathing disappeared.

    Art in Europe was usually based on religious concepts and images to teach biblical stories to the illiterate masses. These took the form of paintings in churches or illustrated manuscripts. Artistic endeavors were usually family-run workshops or nuns in the convents. Much of the documentation about women comes from those of noble rank or nuns; both groups had access to education and books. Nuns also had the luxury of not worrying about a male-dominated society's activities and controls or childbirth's consequences. Much of the surviving information about art from female artists was about those from the convents. Art in Europe was usually based on religious concepts and images to teach biblical stories to the illiterate masses. These took the form of paintings in churches or illustrated manuscripts. 

    Rinascita, Italian for "rebirth," was a period marking the end of Europe's feudal systems and entering a new form of a cultural and political society built on commerce. The shift from the Middle Ages in Europe to the Renaissance was a revival act of the classical styles of Greek and Roman art, highlighting humanists' progression. Humanistic learning dominated philosophy and the sciences, leaving medieval values behind. Humanism was a mode of inquiry studied through the education of influential philosophies from the past. However, it is difficult for historians to define; they have settled on "a middle-of-the-road definition... the movement to recover, interpret, and assimilate the language, literature, learning, and values of ancient Greece and Rome".[2] Moving from the academic Middle Ages study of Latin, natural science, and mathematics, the Renaissance concentrated on the human instead of a higher being to resolve tribulations and rationalize knowledge. The Renaissance spread from Italy to other regions of the continent, creating an artistic, political, cultural, and economic Rinascita.

    The beginning of the Renaissance was the Quattrocento (1400-1499), the Italian word for the number 400, which encompassed artists' innovative, creative styles. The quattrocento art centers leading the transition included the Republic of Florence, the Papal States, Milan, and Venice. Shedding decorative mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, and stained glass of the Gothic period, artists painted on wood panels and fresco walls using linear perspective to create realistic art.

    Europe was in a cultural rebirth of art, and its development of linear perspective, Latin for "to see through," accelerated the realistic aesthetics of painting. Linear perspective became important, using receding parallel lines to create movement and the illusion of three-dimensional space on a piece of paper or painting. Gone were the large gold halos, elongated figures, and static, flat holy people's painted bodies of the Gothic period. The Renaissance gave way to the beauty of nature, representing human forms by artists who were part of the vibrant culture of realism in paintings and the rich culture of authenticity in paintings. The expanding trade along the Silk Road created an influx of money and an insatiable need for luxuries from the East.

    The Cinquecento (1500-1550) (five hundred) encompassed the high Renaissance, Mannerism, and early Baroque art styles. Giorgione and da Vinci's development of chiaroscuro and sfumato became the norm in painting, leading to dark and expressive paintings. The manipulation of light and dark created a bold contrast between the subject matter and the background, emphasizing essential areas. The High Renaissance was a short period yet profoundly influenced by the artist of the 15th century and paved the way for the new up-and-coming artists of the Mannerism movement. The High Renaissance was a period of enormous achievement and continuing political turmoil throughout Italy.[3]

    Churches created the greatest need for art with a boom in the church building and the ultimate adornment of those buildings. The art was typological, with the doctrine expressing the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. There was a resurgence in the devotion to the Virgin Mary, and art took on a hieratical appearance with Mary present in most art. A new way to create art for churches, and even small pieces for homes, was oil paint on panels, allowing artists to make small, realistic works. The churches required monumental altarpieces with hinged panels that opened and closed, depending on the religious story the artist was portraying.

    The controls and issues of Medieval times still plagued women. They were controlled by their husbands, lived with a male relative, or in a convent. It did not matter what class a woman belonged to; at the time, they were considered the sinful daughter of Eve and carried her sins of lust and debauchery. Therefore, the women needed to be controlled by their male family members, the church, and the state. The other alternative for Catholic women of all classes was the convent, where a woman was free from marriage and childbirth and had the opportunity of an education. The holy life also allowed the corrupted daughter of Eve to transform herself into the flawless daughter of Mary. Those women who were Protestant only had the choice of marriage as the Protestant Reformation closed all the convents. During the Renaissance, some women emerged and changed to available opportunities. Depending on their societal position, they became queens, scholars, artists, writers, or a patron of the arts. Women in wealthy families commissioned paintings, buildings, or sculptures. The advent of the printing press also allowed more women to become educated and write poetry. However, the limited abilities of women to become active artists were based on their position in a wealthy family or as part of the church hierarchy.  

    Illuminated Manuscripts

    Medieval illuminated manuscripts encompassed diverse artifacts such as bibles, hymnals, choir books, classical literary works, patents of nobility, grants of arms, and beautifully adorned addresses. Each region had different styles and techniques.[1] The manuscripts were handwritten and decorated during the Medieval period and illustrated with gold, silver, and other bright colors. The pages of the manuscripts were made from parchment or vellum. Parchment was made from skins of any age animal, usually sheep, goats, or cows. The skins were stretched and held on a frame, then scraped and dried. Vellum was highly refined and made of much more delicate skins from baby goats, lambs, or calves. After the skins were cut into pages, text and illustrations were added before binding them into a book. The printing press was not invented in Europe until the 1400s.

    The illuminated manuscripts ranged from small handheld to large enough for a group to read. The design for the illuminated manuscript was usually drawn on the animal skin, with guidelines for the lettering drawn with thin ink lines. Paint colors were made with mixed pigment and binders. Red was a standard color as multiple pigments were available to make reds. Blue was the second choice of color, a pigment found in azurite in most European countries. The prized blue was lapis lazuli, found only in Afghanistan, an expensive import. The yellow part of the egg was an effective binder for the pigment. The book was supplemented with elaborate initials, detailed borders, and miniatures. The work as an illuminator demanded great artistic skill to design and create the desired decorations.

    Interactive Element: How to make manuscripts.

    An illuminated manuscript is a book written and decorated entirely by hand. Illuminated manuscripts were among the most precious objects produced in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, primarily in monasteries and courts. Society, emperors, kings, dukes, cardinals, and bishops--commissioned the most splendid manuscripts.

    Medieval Embroidery

    A symbol of wealth and power, highly embroidered textiles were a luxury of the elite, religious, and ruling classes. The textiles were generally complex and detailed. The embroideries from England were especially sought after and crucial to English trade during the Medieval period. Embroidery styles from England were called Opus Anglicanum (English work) and were highly prized throughout Europe. Embroidery for church and secular use was made with metal threads, giving the garments the shine of wealth. Goldwork was even used in banners and horse decorations.

    The base fabric was usually linen or dark silk. For velvet, the embroidery was worked first on linen and then applied to the velvet. The Opus Anglicanum was made with a split stitch and couching using a gold or silver thread on silk. By the 13th century, most exceptional work was done in London workshops. The designs were seen in manuscript illumination and architectural structures. The designs featured spirals, scrolls, and figures of royalty and saints framed by geometric shapes.

    Interactive Element: How to embroidery.

    Medieval embroidery was a detailed and precise art form performed by skilled embroiderers – both men and women – primarily based in London. This film shows contemporary embroiderer Rosie Taylor-Davies recreating a detail from a 700-year-old fragment of English embroidery. Working entirely by hand, she demonstrates the intricate process and skill of 14th-century embroiderers, who created some of England's beautiful and elaborate textile art.


    Interactive Element: Renaissance Art

    An overview of the Renaissance art period by whiteboard.

    Oil Paint in the Renaissance and Mannerism Periods

    Artists made paint with a colored pigment mixed with a transparent medium having a gummy quality that acts as a binder. Twenty thousand years ago, people created cave art using pigment mixed with animal fat, blood, spit, or water. Over time, techniques improved, and in the European Middle Ages, the pigment was mixed with egg yolk as the binder, producing bright colors. The colors did not mix well, and the paint was prone to flaking.

    During the Renaissance and Mannerism periods, oil paint replaced egg tempera paint. Pigment mixed with linseed oil from the flax plant gave the paint flexibility with minimal cracking, although the paint yellowed with age. Walnut, poppy, and safflower were other oils used to mix paint; however, they were not as viscous and tended to crack over time. Oil paint was slow to dry, and the thickness of the paint determined how long it took to dry. The painters created layers with glazing by adding a minimal amount of pigment to the oil and applying a thin layer of paint to the surface. The coating dried quickly, and other layers of glaze could be used, building up the paint with subtle colors. The light was also reflected in the different layers of paint moving through the colors to create the luminosity in oil paintings. The plasticity of oil paint and the luminosity of light allowed the artists to create realistic images in a diversity of color palettes.

    The Renaissance and Mannerism painters mixed their colors. They had a wide range of minerals besides the primary Naples yellow, smalt, carmine lake (cochineal), vermilion, and madder lake used by Medieval painters. Now they had greens from verdigris, green earth, and malachite; yellows from orpiment, lead-tin yellow; browns from umber; whites from gypsum, lime; and blacks from carbon and bone. These colors, and the ability to apply layers, allowed a painter to paint chiaroscuro's deep, dark shadows, shafts of illuminating light, or bright red vermillion.

    Interactive Element: Oil Painting in Venice

    A review of fresco and tempera and the development of oil paint by artists in Venice.

    Interactive Element: Oil Paint

    Oil painting and the importance of knowing your materials.

    Frescoes in the Renaissance

    Frescoes (from the Italian word affresco) were typical in the ancient world until mosaics became the preferred art form. Around the 1300s, the use of frescoes returned, particularly in monumental architectural structures. Frescoes were a medium able to be created quickly over large surfaces. Fresco meant wet; pigments were applied on the damp wall plaster. A secco is pigment added to a drywall. The advantage of damp plaster was based on calcium carbonate or lime paste and air trapping the color on the wall.

    Painting the large frescoes required scaffolding to cover the distances of the painting. In the 14th century, an artist drew outlines of the design with plaster. By the 15th century, artists drew images on paper, made small holes with a needle, and held the pattern on the application, pouncing a small bag of carbon to produce the background. When the plaster was ready for the pigment to be applied, the artist had to select earth pigments that were chemically stable and did not react with oxygen, discoloring over time. When Michelangelo painted the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, he only mixed enough color to apply to small sections. Sometimes, he had to make several samples to achieve the subtle color he needed, a repeated process. The entire process was labor-intensive and time-consuming; however, the frescoes and their colors lasted centuries unless they were damaged by pollution or water.

    During the Renaissance, artists moved from labor-intensive fresco painting to oil painting on canvas for significant works. With the growth of wealthy merchants buying artwork and the economic force of churches as substantial supporters of artists declining, the use of frescoes faded away.

    Interactive Element: Fresco Technique

    The real Fresco Technique using a reproduction of a 14th century fresco. Includes the stratigraphy of a fresco painting.

    Marble in the Renaissance

    The Renaissance brought a period of renewal in classical art and an interest in marble sculptures. The surviving sculptures from the classical Greek and Roman periods were made of marble. Other cultures melted the spectacular Greek bronze statues throughout the ages. Generally, only marble survived, becoming the signature of classicalism.

    Marble is formed from calcite, changed by heat or pressure into calcium carbonate. The stone is relatively easy to work with when first quarried, is shatter-resistant, and hardens with age. Calcite is ranked low on the refractory index allowing light to enter the stone and produce the transparency and appearance of human skin. With the exceptionally fine grain in the marble, artists can sculpt fine details in the stone. Carrara in Italy was the favorite quarry of Renaissance sculptors to procure marble.

    Before carving the marble, most artists usually made an accurate, small sample or maquette by constructing an armature and covering it with clay or wax. The artist used measurements on the maquette as reference points on the large block of marble, inserting tacks in specific locations. Today, artists use power tools. Renaissance artists used a mallet and different chisels, first making a rough version of the model, then using more sophisticated tools to carve the detail. When the statue was completed, the marble was sanded and polished to generate a reflective shine. Significantly few female artists were sculptors. The works were done in workshops where women were not allowed.

    Interactive Element: Quarrying and Carving Marble

    Quarrying and carving Carrera marble in the Italian Mountains.

    [1] Retrieved from:

    [2] Burke, P. (1990). The spread of Italian humanism. The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe. Goodman and MacKay, London. (2)

    [3] Adams, L. (2001). Italian Renaissance Art. Westview Press. (p. 291).


    This page titled 3.1: Introduction (1400 - 1600) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (Open Educational Resource Initiative at Evergreen Valley College) .