Art of the Early Middle Ages

After Rome's fall, Europe's Christians kept culture alive with art rooted in their deep faith. We visit sturdy Romanesque churches filled with art that reinforced the ruling order. Meanwhile, Europe was invigorated from the fringes: Byzantines to the East, with their dazzling mosaics; Spanish Muslims with their lush palaces; and fierce Vikings of the North — all part of Europe's rich cultural stew.


[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time, rather than a particular place, we're going thematic and traveling wherever that theme takes us. In this episode, we travel back to Europe's Early Middle Ages — its turmoil, its triumphs, and the fine art of more advanced civilizations on Europe's fringes. Thanks for joining us.

[3] The Middle Ages spanned a thousand years, from about 500 to 1500. The first half was a time of relative poverty and instability. Then around the year 1000, Europe rebounded. We'll look at the fascinating first half: the Early Middle Ages.

[4, Montage] We start after the fall of Rome, seeing how the flickering flame of civilization was kept alive in monasteries and fortress-like churches and how those churches were early patrons of the arts. We'll see how Europe was invigorated by neighbors on the fringes — from Christian Byzantium, with its exquisite mosaics…to Islamic Spain, with dazzling palaces…to the fearsome Vikings of the north, with their sleek ships, stately wooden churches, and a uniquely Nordic esthetic.

[5] From the rubble of the Roman Empire came the foundations of Europe. We visit monastic wonders in Ireland, majestic churches of the Romanesque age, and stunning sights of Byzantium, of the Moors, and of the Vikings.

[6, Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli, near Rome] Imagine: It's the year 500. The Roman Empire that had united Europe for centuries was crumbling — leaving a political vacuum. The city of Rome had been sacked and marauding tribes ravaged the countryside.

[7] After Rome fell, Europe was plunged into what used to be called the Dark Ages. The once-united Empire shattered into small warring kingdoms. Frightened people sought refuge inside crude fortresses… in towns surrounded by thick walls and moats…or atop remote hills. Tilling the fields, most lived their entire lives in a single place, poor and uneducated. For centuries, there was little travel, little trade, no building for the future…almost no progress. People were superstitious, living in fear of dark forces.

[8, Provins, 12th–13th century, north-central France] Desperate for security, they bowed down to the local warlord, who was armed with a castle and knights, and backed by the Church. The lord promised land and protection in exchange for loyalty and a tax on anything produced. This was part of a societal structure called "feudalism."

[9, Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, c. 960, Imperial Treasury, Vienna] With peasants on the bottom, nobles and bishops in the middle, and the king or queen on top, this Feudal Hierarchy would dominate the Middle Ages and produce many of medieval Europe's finest treasures: jeweled crowns, scepters, and fancy swords — the ceremonial objects that reinforced the message that the feudal order was endorsed by God and all-powerful.

[10, Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome] During those difficult times, one institution survived from ancient-Rome — the Christian Church. It provided both stability and continuity.

[11] Roman senators became Christian bishops. The Roman emperor — called the "pontifex maximus"became the Christian pope (also called the pontifex maximus). Rome's language, Latin, lived on as the language of Europe's educated elite. Towering ancient monuments were now capped not by Roman Emperors…but by Christian saints. And rather than Caesar, it was Christ ruling from the all-powerful throne.

[12] As Christianity spread across Europe, monasteries and convents — communities of men and women who dedicated their lives to the service of God — flourished.

[13] In the darkest days of the early Middle Ages, when almost no one could read or write, it was monks who were the scribes and scholars of Europe.

[14, monastic ruins; Gallarus Oratory, 10th–11th century; Dingle Peninsula, Ireland] Many of these educated elites lived in the remote western-most corner of Europe. In fact, Ireland was nicknamed the Isle of Saints and Scholars. The earliest monastic communities were small — fortified hamlets of humble huts — built like stone igloos. Twelve hundred years ago those Irish monks stacked stones to build this chapel. Its finely fitted walls — stone without mortar — still keep out the rain.

[15] Monks lived simple lives of work and prayer. More educated than most, they kept alive or developed early technology like metal-working.

[16] Their most important task was meticulously copying sacred texts. In a mostly illiterate world, these monks preserved the knowledge of ancient times with beautifully illustrated books called "illuminated manuscripts."

[17] Copying books by hand was painstaking work. Ornamenting these pages was an opportunity for the monks to exercise their artistic creativity. They went to great lengths — using powders from crushed bugs and precious stones — to get the most vivid colors. They wrote on vellum — calfskin scraped with a knife.

[18] This holy book incorporates both Christian imagery and pagan motifs from the indigenous Celtic culture. With their hard work, education, and artistic flair, these monks were keeping literacy alive for Western civilization while creating some of the finest art of the age.

[19] Eventually, the monastic movement spread across Europe, growing big, rich, and powerful. Monasteries housing thousands of monks were part of a vast Christian network that stretched from Rome to Scotland. Giving the fragmented Continent some cohesiveness, they helped set the stage for a new era.

[20, Provins, France] As the year 1000 approached, the Europe we know was emerging. Roaming tribes were settling down, starting to define the nations we've come to know. The Franks were becoming France and the Angles were becoming Angle-land, or England. People felt secure enough to plan and build for the future.

[21] Europeans were uniting around the Christian faith. People were traveling and trading more, roads and bridges were built. Industrious businessmen invested in mills, harnessing wind and waterpower. Humble hamlets with thatched huts of wattle and daub became formidable towns fortified behind protective walls with fine buildings of stone.

[22, Basilica of San Isidoro, 11th century, León, northern Spain] All this progress was reflected in the art and architecture of the age. With Christianity now dominant, the grandest structures in town were churches, and they were decorated with the community's finest art….done in the first art style to feel proudly European: Romanesque.

[23, Romanesque period, c. 1000–1150] It was called "Roman-esque" because it tried to capture the grandeur of ancient Rome. Churches featured round, Roman-style arches, Roman-style columns, and often even ancient columns scavenged from Roman ruins and recycled.

[24, Basilica Emilia, second century BC, Roman Forum, Rome] Church architects adopted the pre-Christian basilica floor plan — like the surviving footprint of this ancient Roman court of law or "basilica." It was a rectangular space with side aisles and a central nave defined by rows of columns leading to the altar. By adding transepts, the building's footprint becomes the shape of a cross.

[25, Cefalù Cathedral, 12th century, Sicily] Romanesque churches had the same basic features all over Europe. They were sturdy, with thick walls, squat towers, and small windows. They stood strong. Many even came with crenellations, as if fortresses of God.

[26, San Miniato al Monte Abbey, 11th–13th century, Florence, Italy] This church in Florence adds another Romanesque feature common in Italy: finely crafted marble in perfect geometric symmetry — symbolizing the perfection of God. The eagle on top, with bags of wool in its talons, reminds worshippers who paid for it all, the wool guild. Stepping inside, you enter an exquisite holy space…with its "carpet of marble" floor and colorfully painted wood ceiling. Asserting the Church's power over secular society, the golden mosaic shows an earthly king offering his paltry crown to the all-powerful king in Heaven.

[27, Durham Cathedral, late 11th–early 12th century, England] And, in England, for nearly a thousand years, pilgrims have set their sights on this Romanesque wonder: Durham Cathedral. Standing like a mighty fortress, the church is a classic example of the English version of Romanesque called "Norman." Named for the Normans who invaded England in 1066 from France, bringing that dominant European style with them, this style features round arches, zig-zag decorations, and soaring bell towers.

[28] Pisa's cathedral, in Italy, dating from the year 1100, had evolved beyond the traditional heavy Romanesque feel. Pisan Romanesque feels light and elegant.

[29] Pisa's cathedral complex, famous for its leaning bell tower, is a reminder that, in cities across medieval Europe, you found the same ensemble of important structures: the church, the bell tower (which, even when tipsy, set the tempo of life — marking the hours, the festivals, the call to worship), and the baptistry.

[30] Romanesque churches were filled with beautiful art. And that art served the church.

[31] As most people were illiterate, pictures and symbols were used to teach and celebrate the Christian message. The art didn't have to be realistic as long as it inspired worship.

[32, Tympanum and facade, 12th century, St. Trophime Church, Arles, France] The physical church was a sermon in stone. The entrance set the tone. Carved scenes were flat or in "low relief" and cluttered — images that told a story.

[33] While today, Romanesque churches have plain stone walls, many were originally painted. Paintings were full of symbolism, showing saints not inhabiting the dark, cold, and sinful world on earth but in an ethereal heaven.

[34, Basilica of San Isidoro, 11th century, León, northern Spain] Romanesque painting had a mystical kind of beauty. Here it's The Annunciation as the angel announces to Mary she'll give birth to the Messiah. All of nature — including goat herders in 11th-century attire — celebrates the news. Christ's life unfolds ending with the crucifixion and his return, triumphant over death, sitting on a rainbow and blessing all who gathered.

[35, Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome] At the high altar stands Jesus alongside his ever-popular mother. Known as the Virgin Mary, Madonna, or "our lady" (or Notre Dame), she was a compassionate and approachable figure — one that medieval peasants could pray to for help.

[36, Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, Sicily; Imperial Treasury, Vienna] Other imagery showed how the powerful Church legitimized the secular ruler — Christ actually crowning the king. They were partners in power and, many would say, partners conspiring to keep the masses down. This so-called crown of Charlemagne, who, in the year 800 was Europe's greatest ruler, came with a cross and the message (in Latin) "By Christ, kings reign."

[37, Hell mosaic, c. 1225, Baptistery, Florence] Throughout the Middle Ages — in the Romanesque age as well as the Gothic age that followed, art inspired. It comforted. And it frightened. Vivid Last Judgment scenes scared people into faithfulness. They show the end of the world, when Christ passes judgment on all humankind…giving the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down. The righteous rise up to Heaven, while the wicked are cast down into a horrible, horrible Hell ruled by the Devil. There, they're tormented for eternity by demons, eaten by ogres, and excreted in an eternally miserable cycle.

[38] Across Europe, and through the centuries, peasants were made fearful by this powerful art — subjected at church to such vivid visions from the moment they walked through the door.

[39] In the centuries leading up to this Romanesque Age, feudal Europe was mired in the relative darkness of the Early Middle Ages. But sophisticated societies thrived to the east and south. Shining like beacons of enlightenment, they inspired and fueled Western Europe's progress.

[40, Byzantine Empire, c. 330–1453] Way back in the 5th century, the Roman Empire had fallen in the West. But, it lived on in the East eventually becoming the "Byzantine Empire." Byzantium remained Christian and its capital was Constantinople (today's Istanbul). Throughout the Early Middle Ages — with its imposing walls — for centuries, Constantinople was Europe's leading city — ruling a vast empire that was relatively prosperous and stable.

[41, Hagia Sophia, 537, Istanbul] While Western Europe built nothing nearly as grand during this period, Constantinople constructed this magnificent church — Hagia Sophia. (The minarets were added later when it became a mosque.) Built around the year 500 on the grandest scale possible, it symbolizes Byzantium's glory days. They used ingenious technology: a massive central dome supported by half domes that was the biggest anywhere — and remained that way for nearly a thousand years. While a place of Muslim worship today, for centuries Hagia Sophia functioned as a church — perhaps the most exquisite church in all of Christendom.

[42] The Italian city of Venice is a reminder that the more advanced Byzantine culture reached westward, far into Europe.

[43] In the 11th century, St. Mark's Basilica was topped with Byzantine-style domes. Its decoration reflects that connection with the east.

[44, Four Tetrarchs sculpture, c. 300, Venice] The basilica's fanciful façade is decorated with mismatched columns and statues which were largely pillaged from elsewhere during the crusades. The style? I'd call it "Early Ransack." A good example of such plunder is this ancient Roman statue carved of purple porphyry — a precious stone quarried in Egypt and symbolic of power.

[45] The church's entire interior glitters with gold-leaf mosaic work. In good medieval tradition, it's slathered in the predictable Bible stories: The story of Adam and Eve, one of the most popular, unfolds like a cartoon strip: Adam lonely in the garden, the creation of Eve, and then trouble: from apple…to fig leaf…to banishment.

[46] The Venetians learned mosaic technique from the Byzantines, who inherited it from the ancient Romans, who paved their villas with mosaics. The Byzantines perfected the gold color, made of bits of glass with gold-leaf baked in. These reflected the light to help illuminate an otherwise dark church, giving it the golden glow of the Byzantine Heaven.

[47] With its stunning art, St. Mark's Basilica is a vision of a highly cultured world that had been established by the Romans, was preserved by the Byzantines, and was now being re-infused into Western Europe.

[48] Meanwhile, in the southwest of Europe, the world of Islam was shining a highly cultured and influential light into Medieval Europe. In the year 711, North African Muslims crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, conquering and converting. For the next seven centuries, much of Spain was ruled by these Moors.

[49, Moorish rule, 711–1492] Córdoba was the leading city of Muslim Spain. Arguably Europe's cultural capital in the 9th century, it had perhaps ten times the population of Paris.

[50, Mezquita (mosque), late 8th–10th century, Córdoba] Its massive former mosque dominates the tangled medieval city that surrounds it. Grand gates lead to the courtyard. Inside is a forest of delicate columns and horseshoe arches built ten centuries ago. The columns and arches seem to recede to infinity, as if reflecting the immensity and complexity of God's creation. Under their rule, this distinctive style of the Moors spread throughout southwestern Europe, or the Iberian Peninsula.

[51, Alhambra, 14th century, Granada, Spain] Granada's Alhambra, the last and greatest Moorish palace, shows off the splendor of that Muslim civilization. The math necessary to construct this palace dazzled Europeans of the age.

[52] Christian forces slowly pushed the Moors back into Africa and re-conquered Spain. With their "Reconquista," Córdoba's mosque became a Christian church, with a huge chapel planted in its center. Sevilla's Alcazar palace soon housed Spanish kings. But, even after the reconquest, as Moorish artisans worked for Christian rulers, that Muslim legacy lived on in Spain.

[53] With Muslims on the southern fringe, and Byzantines to the east, early medieval Europeans had one more surprisingly sophisticated culture on their northern border — the Vikings.

[54] Though best-known as fierce marauders, the Vikings were also wide-ranging sea-traders and hardy settlers with their own artful culture — one that dated back well before the 11th century arrival of Christianity, to pagan times.

[55, Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway; Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, Denmark] Their remarkable ships are icons of those days of pillage and plunder. In formidable boats like this — finely crafted of oak — the Vikings ranged far and wide from their Scandinavian homeland. Gazing up at the prow of one of these sleek vessels, you can imagine the horror peasants as far away as France, England, or Ireland felt when those redheads on the rampage sailed up their river. It's often said that, for generations, the standard close of the prayers for many Europeans was not "amen" but "and deliver us from the Norseman, amen."

[56, artifacts from Viking Ship Museum, Oslo] While feared raiders, they also had a remarkable sense of beauty and design. That's clear in the excavations of the graves of Viking rulers. The Vikings worshipped pagan gods and believed in a life after death. And they believed you could take it with you. In their graves archaeologists have found everything from jewelry to weapons — much of it with an impressive artistic flair. Viking chieftains were buried in their ships alongside their possessions — like fine leather accessories, ornately-carved sleighs, or even a horse cart decorated with scenes from old Viking sagas. Their artistic objects seemed to provide a link between this world and the next.

[57] Over time, the Vikings intermingled with the Christian people they previously terrorized. Eventually converted and tamed, Vikings re-directed their boat-building skills and, rather than sleek ships to raid in, they built fine wooden churches to pray in.

[58, Stave Church, c. 1180, Borgund, Norway] There were once over a thousand of these stave churches. Because little remains from societies that built primarily of wood, few of these churches survive. They were supported by pine poles — or staves — and slathered with a protective coat of black tar. Wood was plentiful and cheap. While the basic design reflects the simple technology of the age, more elaborate examples, like this one, stand as proud testaments to the Norse culture and its art.

[59] Carvings evoke the pagan roots of these early Norwegian Christians. Interiors were stark and dark with tiny windows and simple X-shaped crosses of St. Andrew — a local patron saint.

[60] The Vikings were yet another example of the blending of ancient pagan and Christian culture that would eventually create the Europe we know today.

[61, Amiens Cathedral, 13th century, Amiens, France] By the year 1000, Europe was on the rise: Entering a period called the High Middle Ages, it was a time of growing innovation, trade, and travel. Christianity was dominant, and people celebrated their faith by building great structures. The imposing Romanesque style [62] was eventually eclipsed by an even grander style — Gothic.

[63] Europe offers a lifetime of artistic treasures. And the more you understand its art, the more you'll appreciate the society that created it. I hope you've enjoyed our sweep through the highlights of the Early Middle Ages. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'!