Religion and spirituality have always had extremely close ties with the art world. Massive amounts of paintings, sculptures and architecture have been created in the name of or have been inspired by religious icons and their beliefs, and in no time period was this more apparent than that from the late Roman Empire to the Dark and Middle Ages. During this time, nearly all art was entirely Christian in design, and this would continue on at least to some degree for many hundred years even after the Middle Ages.
The art of the Christians began in the Catacombs, which were the tombs under Rome where Christians were forced to meet in secrecy due to Christianity being illegal. The original Christian art was very abstract and linear, and it showed a great likeness to that of the Sumerians and Egyptians. It was infused with the Christian focus on the next world, a theme which would continue on into the next thousand years of Christian (and world) art. After Constantine passed the Edict of Milan (making Christianity legal), the supporting of Christians became popular, thus much money was given for churches. These churches were built in the old Roman Basilica architectural style, which consisted of a central nave with aisles on the side and an apse at one end on which the clergy would sit. From this style of church-building the architects of the Dark and Middle Ages would conjure up the ideas for the soaring cathedrals they would build in abundance. Later, when Christianity was made the only legal religion in Rome by Theodosius, a great deal of the literature and art of ancient times were destroyed in Christian “purges,” which remains a great blow to the arts to this day. This focus on purely Christianity in not only religion but all other aspects of life set the tone for the next thousand or so years, and it would spread all over Europe very soon.
As the Western Empire waned in importance and power, the Eastern was just getting into swing. The Byzantines were rich, powerful, and extremely Christian-based. The architect Anthenius created the beautiful Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) during the reign of Justinian, whose groin vault topped by a dome, intersected-pendentives, and stunning mosaics would set the standard for church-building in the futures. Another important church of this time was the San Vitale, which had an octagonal shape as well as mosaics and icons, and it too would help further the architecture of the time. The art and issue of icons, artistic depictions of Christian holy men and women, also arose during this time, as many believed they were idols and turned worship from God to the icon itself. These icons became such an issue that there was even a successful revolution staged in support of them, thus many Christians use icons to this day. The art of the Byzantines, especially the architecture, set a foundation for the Dark and Middle Ages, upon which some of the most beautiful buildings in existence would be built.
The Dark Ages were some of the most utterly miserable years in recorded human existence. With chaotic anarchy, roaming tribes of barbarians, and the black plague all following the fall of the Roman Empire, people turned to religion and the after-life to save them from their horrid lives. They believed that if they could touch or see a holy relic, an item related somehow to a holy person in Christianity, they would surely be saved, so churches were built to hold these holy relics. The more important the relic was the more important the church was, and soon thousands upon thousands were making pilgrimages to visit these places. This tide of humanity soon became too much for the meager church buildings, so they were forced to expand. This expansion became an architectural style called Romanesque, and this consisted of interior supports, chapels radiating off of ambulatories, barrel vaults, and asymmetrical steeples on a crucifix floor plan that consisted of a nave, a transcript and a high altar at the end. It soon became more important to have a large, high church than to have valuable relics, and the height of a church quickly became the measure of its importance. One church, Beauvais, was built 158 feet high in an attempt at prominence, but this proved too high and the building collapsed. Another famous church of this type was St. Denis, built by Bishop Suger in Paris. In a twist, the English favored length of building instead of height, creating the strainer arch and fan vaulting for their purposes of extended length. Soon, even more architectural techniques were discovered and the Gothic method of building was introduced. Gothic churches were similar to Romanesque in their steeples, ambulatories and crucifix-shaped ground plans, but they expanded on the beauty and strength of the structure of a church by bringing in flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, pointed arches, outside décor and by having the walls no longer bear the heaviest part of the load, freeing them up to be used for openings. These openings were filled with stained glass windows, illuminating the church and “creating a unique place of light between heaven and earth.” Now, the amount of luminosity became more important than height, and the cathedral was born in all its glory. The final improvement on the church came with the Rayannont style, which introduced floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows, as seen at St. Chappelle. With the rise of the cathedral came the rise of the university, and with the rise of the university came Goliardic literature. This was literature written by male students, and, as in modern times, its fixations were those of sex and drink. Carl Orff collected many of these into the Carmina Burama, which is listened to widely today. Religion, unsurprisingly, also made its mark on music, with song after song composed in the name of God. The composer Hildegard wrote in this time, becoming the first female composer in history. Also, the monks of this time contributed to music through the chanting they frequently used in their religious ceremonies. All of these massive and very Christian contributions to the arts would be long considered perfection, and it would take a very long time for secular art to rise.
Religion has often been the muse of artists of every ilk, and in no time period was this more so than in the years between the late Roman Empire and the Dark and Middle Ages. With the rise of Christianity came a boom in art of all manners, though architecture was definitely the most greatly benefited of the time. Though much was destroyed in the name of Christianity, and though the Christian mold was hard to break once it sat into the arts, it is indisputable that this time was a time of great advances, and without it art would be at a great loss indeed.
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