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Christian Influence on Roman Art Essay

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Updated: Oct 18th, 2021

Art in the Middle Ages can be seen to be dominated by themes of Christianity as the Paganism of the shattered Roman Empire gave way to the Christian belief structures of the new emperors and rulers. From roughly the 500s to the 1500s, art was dominated by a rigid interpretation offered by religious leaders rather than through any of the science or knowledge that had been gained in earlier centuries or would be incorporated into later works. Everything about the art produced during this period was dominated by the ideals of the church in the format, location, and content of the images produced by the artists of the day. As this discussion will demonstrate, while the format was largely dictated by the needs of the church itself and the content was necessarily religious, this did not preclude the influence of suppressed elements of society, such as the women who were vilified by the tenets of the church itself.

Like the Renaissance, the Middle Ages can often be broken down into three distinct periods: the early middle ages, the central middle ages, and the late middle ages. “During the early Middle Ages, most paintings were found in the form of illustrated manuscripts. This remained the chief form of painting for years.”1 A chief reason for this was because much of the art produced during this period were produced in the only place where individuals had the leisure and materials with which to produce it and where the wealth consented to support it. Manuscripts were important in preserving the knowledge of the church before the printing press was invented and the illustration of these manuscripts was encouraged by those individuals with the power and strength to encourage it but without the knowledge to read it. “During the time of Charlemagne, a large emphasis was placed on learning. Though Charlemagne could not read, he supported the development of illustrated texts.”2 Color usage was relatively muted in the earliest examples of illustrated manuscripts; however, it became more brilliant and decorative as time moved forward. Eventually, this incorporated the use of gold and silver, very expensive pigments that added the flash of reflected light that ‘illuminated’ the text, as a means of illustration. An example of this form of art can be found in illustrated manuscripts such as the Aberdeen Bestiary.

By the central middle ages, the illustrations from these manuscripts had made the jump from the pages of the book, in which they were still painted, to the walls of churches in the form of murals. Not many of these early murals can still be found today, but they are believed to have much in common with wooden panels that were painted to decorate the church altars. “By this time the gilded and painted panels of elaborate altarpieces had begun to join – and would eventually overshadow – fresco and mosaic as the principal forms of decoration in Italian churches.”3 Although the form had changed, the ideas remained relatively unchanged for much of the millennium. In keeping with its early roots, many of the images that were produced for murals, mosaics, and stained glass were designed to help educate the illiterate regarding the more important stories of the Bible through pictures, a sort of medieval comic book with serious intent.

During the Medieval period, artists took their principle inspiration from the Byzantine icons. “For Byzantine Christians – and Orthodox Christians today – the icon was a true copy of its holy model. Theologians used the analogy of a wax impression and the seal used to create it to describe the relation between an icon and its subject. Because they depict a holy and infinite presence, not the temporal physical world, icons avoid direct reference to earthly reality, to specific time and place.”4 To illustrate their otherworldly status, many of these illustrations, whether they were placed in books, on walls, or on altering pieces, typically featured dimensionless backgrounds that were filled with the glittering gold flake or silver foil that characterized the illuminated texts. Figures are depicted in differing sizes to denote hierarchies. For example, Jesus might be featured as a very large figure in the image while lesser saints and angels would appear in a smaller size. In addition, the figures all seem to be in a relatively static position without any sense of dimension involved. This was because it was believed these types of images served as a window of sorts between the material world of the parishioner and the divine word of God. While the church had a very strong influence on the type of art produced during this period, it was not necessarily the only determining factor in defining artistic endeavors, as a further exploration of the art will reveal.

In regards to the Byzantine Empire, Nicol says, “Its people and their rules were conservative by instinct,”5 which, as has been indicated, had a strong influence upon the art produced in Rome as well. The length of the period, spanning from roughly the fourth through the fifteenth centuries, provides ample evidence to be studied. Much of this study has focused upon the religious art that was produced during this time. According to the Christian worldview, the female gender was single-handedly responsible for the fall of man and had been given into man’s keeping by God himself. The degree to which a woman epitomized the ideals of genteel womanhood was the degree to which she brought honor and respectability to the man with whom she is most associated. Thus, in keeping with the spirit of the times, women were usually treated like commodities, jealously guarded and secreted away regardless of their status. Most women had their spirit destroyed by a life of unceasing servitude to their male masters, religious rigidity, and a lack of opportunity to develop their talents. The church played a powerful role in subjugating women, often containing legal stipulations which limited the actions of women as a means of preventing defilement and impurity.6 By dint of law and religious tradition, women were seen as nothing more than empty vessels to be filled and used by men, yet they still managed to find a way of gaining attention even in the strictest of religious circles by the Virgin Mary. According to the National Gallery of Art, western artists who worked on panels turned to the Christian East for inspiration. These influences can be traced through the techniques, style, and subject matter of Byzantine icons. For Byzantine Christians, as well as for medieval Romans, the icon was a true copy of its holy model.7 In addition, no holy model could be complete without the presence of the women of the Bible.

One example of how the Virgin Mary helped to establish that women had power in their own right can be found in a thirteenth-century panel in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.8

The Madonna, 13th Century
Figure 1. The Madonna, 13th Century

Within this panel, the Madonna is sitting on a three-dimensional throne with a stool for her feet, indicating her nobility. She is richly dressed in blue cloth to designate her purity. The cloth includes several delicate striations of gold that also serve to signify her divinity. This idea is then reinforced by the fact that the Madonna is pointing to Jesus and is, thus, showing the way for the world. “With her red shoes and the archangels’ imperial regalia, the elaborate throne underscores Mary’s role as queen of Heaven.”9 Since religion was one area in which women were allowed to directly participate as an outward sign of their purity and chastity, this image conveyed a great deal of female power.

In addition to depictions of the Madonna, the idea that women gained a greater share of power within the religious realm than has previously been credited to them is evident in the many depictions of female saints within those institutions where the function of the church did not otherwise preclude their inclusion. An example of where female images might have been precluded as a result of the function of the church is found in the male-centered monasteries, where women entered only upon rare occasions.10 In the church of the Virgin Blachernitissa near Arta, evidence exists that the church was once used as a nunnery and contains one of the more revealing images regarding the importance of women to the regular worship cycles of the early Byzantine. According to Gerstle11, there had been a tradition in Constantinople for the Hodegetria icon to be carried in a special procession through the city every Tuesday. This event is not only commemorated in the Blachernitissa narthex, evidence of it exists in the written accounts of pilgrims who attended the event, who often referred to the diversity of the crowds that came to watch. It is immediately clear, looking at this image, that women played an important role in this weekly celebration since the people pictured in the foreground are all women. Women also surround the icon-carriers as it makes its way through the streets, and the male onlookers that are present are only pictured at the back of the crowd. “Myrtali Potamianou has suggested that three of the women depicted in the foreground were members or relatives of the ruling family of Epiros. Their inclusion, and the artistic emphasis on female attendance at the Constantinopolotan procession, would have resonated loudly with the Blachernitissa’s nuns, who could, by visual association, undertake their own symbolic pilgrimage to the capital in order to venerate the all-holy icon.”12 Within this image, then, it becomes clear that the church influenced not only the art available but also the social activities that the people participated in as a regular part of life.

Other female saints that were frequently portrayed, most often on the north walls of cosmopolitan churches, included Saints Catherine, Helena, Barbara, Panteleimon, Juliane, Marina, and Anna, as well as other female saints that have not been identified. The fact that so many female saints were in existence helps to illustrate the fact that while women might have been expected to take a subservient position to men, they were nevertheless influential within their domesticated worlds. This is also emphasized by the idea that they were honored enough to be placed in positions that reminded not just female church-goers but male attendants as well, of the contribution of women to the Christian cause. This is evidenced not only in their inclusion in the decorations of the church, in addition to their primary role in the naming of churches, cities, and other significant social constructs, but also in their ability to become saints at all. According to Gerstel, the images of female saints that are found throughout small churches served as intercessory figures for women as well as delimiters of female space and ritual.13 While this can be interpreted that women had separate worship spaces as a means of cutting them off from the more important worship services of men, the presence of the female saints indicates that this was not necessarily the case. Instead, they demonstrate how women were frequently involved in all areas of worship. The presence of the female saints merely designated specific areas of the church reserved for the various functions that were intended to take place, such as baptisms, marriage ceremonies, and funeral services.

The content of the artwork produced in medieval Rome was dominated by the interests of the church almost to the exclusion of any other subject. The church dictated the forms of art produced based upon what was most required, transitioning from illuminated manuscripts to frescoes to wooden panels that could be transported from one location to another or celebrated on parade. In this process, the church also came to dominate daily life and activities for medieval Romans, who took much of their cues from the Byzantines. Even though the church dictated most of what was produced, this did not indicate that individual members of society had no voice at all. This can be discovered by examining the role of women in the production of art. Although they had to do it by stealing or otherwise gaining power from their husbands in most cases, women of this era can be seen through the artwork produced to have held a good deal of power and influence on the world around them. Far from being forgotten in some back room of her husband’s or father’s house, as much literature suggests, these women were able to keep their gender at the forefront of attention in political and religious circles through their patronage of the artwork used in the church. They were able to gain some of this power of influence through the church’s channels as Jesus was not possible without the vessel of the Virgin Mary to carry and care for him. Women also commissioned numerous depictions of female saints who played important roles within the Biblical stories, thus continually reminding anyone attending church services of the importance of their gender in God’s plan. While women were generally not considered to be in a position to make decisions regarding finances, spending, or art patronage, they have been proven to have done so. In accomplishing power of leadership and power of patronage, women demonstrated that while the church had almost total control over the art of the period, they were capable of taking enough control to keep their memories alive throughout the centuries.

Bibliography

  1. Gerstel, Sharon E.J. “Painted Sources for Female Piety in Medieval Byzantium.” Dunbarton Oaks Papers. Harvard University, 1998.
  2. National Gallery of Art. “Tour: Byzantine Art and Painting in Italy during the 1200s and 1300s.” The Collection. Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2007.
  3. Nicol, Donald. The Byzantine Lady: Ten Portraits, 1250 – 1500. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 1.
  4. Rymer, Eric. “.” History Link. (2004). Web.
  5. Viscuso, Patrick. “Theodore Balsamon’s Canonical Images of Women”. Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 45. 3 (2005): 317.

Footnotes

  1. Rymer, Eric. “Middle Ages Painting.” History Link. (2004).
  2. Rymer, 2004.
  3. National Gallery of Art. “Tour: Byzantine Art and Painting in Italy during the 1200s and 1300s.” The Collection. Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2007.
  4. National Gallery of Art, 2007.
  5. Nicol, Donald. The Byzantine Lady: Ten Portraits, 1250 – 1500. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 1.
  6. Viscuso, Patrick. “Theodore Balsamon’s Canonical Images of Women”. Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 45. 3 (2005): 317.
  7. National Gallery of Art, 2007.
  8. National Gallery of Art, 2007. Object 1.
  9. National Gallery of Art, 2007, object 1.
  10. Gerstel, Sharon E.J. “Painted Sources for Female Piety in Medieval Byzantium.” Dunbarton Oaks Papers. Harvard University, 1998, 89-111.
  11. Gerstel, 1998, 91.
  12. Gerstel, 1998, 91.
  13. Gerstel, 93.
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