Byzantine Art from the Middle Ages Essay

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Mendicant Orders and the Artwork of the 13th and 14th Centuries

The advent of the mendicant Dominican and Franciscan orders in the medieval world came at a time when European Christendom was expanding its custodial religious shield, so to speak, about the continent. The architecture of the cathedrals, the stained glass windows, the ornate altar pieces, and the stylized woodwork all indicated in elaborate and grand ways the glory of God. Yet, as art, religion, society, politics and travel began to increase and grow at this time, the mendicant orders appeared like a salve -- a reminder of the need for Christian society to be humble, to be charitable, to be Christ-like and simple. The new style and format for art that emerged during the 1200s and 1300s were infused with the teachings and ideas of the mendicant orders, which swept the continent as a result of their bold simplicity and greatness of spirit. This paper will examine three works of art from this period and show how the function of art for the viewer incorporated the idea of teaching people religious stories in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The medieval crusades spanned roughly two centuries, from the end of the 11th century to the end of the 13th century. In the midst of that tumultuous period, when religion and Christian society were so entwined with fighting, wars, death, hostility, honor, and sacredness, St. Francis and St. Dominic emerged to preach a kind of gospel that had nearly vanished -- the kind that the early apostles had preached -- one full of fervor for God, for saintliness, for absolute negation of self so that Christ could come and fill the human vessel. Francis and Dominic embodied the idea of the emptying out of self -- the idea of turning out the "old man" and putting on the "new man" in Christ, preached by St. Paul in Colossians 3:9-11 or in Ephesians 4:22-24. These two preachers and founders of their respective religious orders approached the Christian religion with a simplicity that both the Christians and artists of the era would respond to with awe.

The function of art for the viewer in 13th century Christendom was primarily narrative: it told a story, either through sequence of events depicted over an arrangement of panels, windows or walls, or through suggestive symbolism that told a tale of the subject's life, mission, teaching, or ideas (Johnson). "Form ever follows function" (Sullivan 405) then as now. Art was used to teach people religious stories about the Virgin Mary, the life of Christ, the lives of the saints, the dictates of their religion, the virtues that they should cultivate, and the vices they should avoid. The form of the art works was meant to uplift and inspire and, thanks in no small part to the Crusades, the artistic world in Europe was receiving more and more patronage -- from dukes, kings, courts, families of stature, pontiffs, churches, princes, and more. Cathedrals began to rise up and touch the sky: the enormity of the Faith was revealing itself -- it was showcasing its awesome stature -- which had really only recently come into its own, thanks in no small part to the acts of Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries (Laux).


Byzantine art had been more formal, more staid, more two-dimensional. Its iconography is unmistakable, evincing a fierceness that went hand-in-hand with the idea and concept of sanctity. With the rise of the mendicant orders, the idea of saintliness transformed from the militant resolve of the early fathers, such as the Desert Fathers, to something more human -- more Franciscan to be exact. Francis was renowned for talking to the birds, preaching to the animals when no one else was around, for loving all of life and creation with such a pure heart that it shown through in all his actions. Dominic embraced the same kind of life, though his learning and erudition was on another level entirely. Together they set the Church on a new course -- a course away from blind ambition, power, wealth and intrigue and onto the one best described as the straight and narrow -- the life of penance, of commitment to the service of God. As Europe began to be consumed by wealth and riches by the end of the Middle Ages, it needed reformers -- men like Francis and Dominic to remind it of its Christian duty.

Thus, the painting by Bonaventura Berlinghieri entitled Saint Francis of Assisi (1235) serves as a celebration of the saint's life and works. It is a wooden altarpiece that is painted in the Byzantine style but that focuses not on the ancient Church Fathers but rather on a contemporary of the painter -- one who had in fact just died not even a decade earlier. This was the artist paying homage to a man that the Christian world already recognized as a saint while he was yet still living. The icon tells the story of the saint by illustrating various points from his life or aspects of his character, while the man himself stands tall and erect in his humble habit, the Word of God cradled in the crook of his arm like a shield, and his hand exposed palm outward to reveal the stigmata that he possessed (the wounds of Jesus Christ from His crucifixion -- in this case, the wound of the nail in his palm). Francis's face is almost skull-like in its Byzantine fierceness -- it pronounces an otherworldly devotion that is made up of stark spiritual commitment. This is, the artist tells the viewer, not a soft man -- but a man who is hard as nails. Yet, at the same time, there is something friendly in the eyes, something humorous in the slightly upturned lips that suggest some of the mirth that Francis no doubt felt and exhibited in his lifelong devotion to God. Six scenes from the life of St. Francis are painted on either side of Francis, three on the left and three on the right. Each one depicts a certain moment in the saint's life that had a profound implication or that could teach the viewer a deeper lesson on the universal aspect of the faith or how the saint's own actions might apply an equally impressive education on the viewer.….....

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Works Cited

Johnson, Paul. Art: A New History. NY: Gallery Books, 2003. Print.

Laux, John. Church History. IL: TAN, 1976. Print.

Sullivan, John. "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered." Lippincott's

Magazine (1896): 403-409. Print.

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