Art of the High Middle Ages

As Europe passed AD 1000, its growing prosperity was reflected in soaring Gothic cathedrals graced with colorful altarpieces, lacy stonework, and radiant stained glass. We visit luxurious castles to see exquisite tapestries showing a new secular love of worldly pleasures and, end in Italy, where pioneering artists like Giotto were mastering realism and pointing the way to the future of art.


[1, Amiens Cathedral, 13th century, France] 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 anywhere that theme takes us. In this episode, we travel back to the High Middle Ages — the era of soaring cathedrals, imposing castles, inspiring stained glass, and even a unicorn or two. Thanks for joining us.

[3] The Middle Ages spanned a thousand years, from 500 to 1500. The first half was a time of relative poverty and economic stagnation. But then, around the year 1000, Europe rebounded, fueled by strong religious faith. That story — its turmoil and triumphs — is reflected in the awe-inspiring art of the age.

[4 Montage] The last half of the Middle Ages left us plenty to both see and celebrate. With the Gothic Age radiant cathedrals were towering ever higher and decorated ever richer. Their art inspired the faithful — from lovingly carved stonework to stunning stained glass. We'll explore stony castles and fortified palaces warmed by tapestries and ornamented with art that celebrated secular life. And we'll see how paintings ever more realistically tell the stories of the so-called "Age of Faith" as Europeans approached the dawn of a new age.

[5] 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 was eventually eclipsed by an even grander style: Gothic.

[6, Gothic Age, mid-12th–mid-15th century] Gothic was an architectural leap forward with taller and taller churches reaching for the heavens and filled with more and more light. Fueled by their faith, Europeans built towering cathedrals to the glory of God. Each community tried to outdo the other. With churches featuring soaring naves supported by elaborate pointed arches and flooded with light, Gothic seemed to be emblematic of a Europe moving upward and onward.

[7, Chartres Cathedral, early 13th century, Chartres; Notre-Dame Cathedral, late 12th century, Paris] The Gothic style was born in France in the 12th century. The cathedral in Chartres, one of the first, greatest, and most influential Gothic churches, captures the spirit of this Age of Faith, as the Middle Ages were nicknamed. Magnificent structures were built by the sweat of peasants, construction projects that dominated entire communities for generations…all for the glory of God. Towering churches like this became sights which, for centuries, broke distant horizons, heartening the weary spirits of approaching pilgrims.

[8, Amiens Cathedral] Gothic churches were taller and brighter than the earlier Romanesque. They were made with a skeleton of support. The key to Gothic is the pointed arch. A Romanesque church is built with round arches. With a round arch, the weight pushes down. But with a pointed arch, the weight pushes not down but out. As a tour guide, it's fun to demonstrate this by building a Gothic cathedral out of tourists.

[9] You start with six columns. These will support the roof with ribs (ignore the elbows) coming together with pointed arches. The key to Gothic is the pointed arch. A Romanesque church is built with round arches. With a round arch, the weight sits squarely on the wall and it needs to be thick and strong. If a round arch collapses, it falls down. But, if you point the arches, suddenly the weight of the roof pushes not down but out. So, rather than thick walls you need to buttress the building by adding support pushing in. So, you need six more tourists to be buttresses. With buttresses rather than thick walls supporting the church, the walls are freed to become window holders — letting in more light. To free up even more wall space, you can make the buttresses "flying buttresses" with their support "flying" in with more arches.

Rick: Are you guys ready for a spire?

Tourists: Yes, we are!

Now, when the spire is raised, because of the pointed arches, the weight goes out rather than down and, with buttresses in place, everything is solid — windows can fill the spaces between the columns — and you've built a Gothic church out of tourists.

Rick: Alright, thank you! That was good!

Tourist: One more time! One more time! [laughter]

[10] As the Gothic style spread outward from France, Europe was soon dotted with magnificent cathedrals. While each had its own personality, all were fundamentally Gothic: with pointed arches, lots of stained glass, and stately statues. Grand entrances came with a heavenly host offering a stony welcome. And multi-tasking gargoyles served as fancy rainspouts while busy scaring away evil spirits.

[11, King's College Chapel exterior and fan vaulting, 1446–1515, Cambridge, England; Duomo, Milan] The style evolved. Over time churches grew taller and more elaborate. In England the final flowering of Gothic is called "Perpendicular," with an emphasis on vertical lines. The original simplicity of ribbed vaults was replaced by elaborate fan vaulting. And this cathedral in Milan illustrates the final stage of Gothic — called "flamboyant" for its flame-like spires and over-the-top features.

[12] Bathed in the light of a Gothic interior, we appreciate how this style — with its huge windows filling the sacred space with light — is such an improvement over the darker Romanesque style.

[13] Most medieval churches are built to look like a Latin cross — with columns defining a long central nave and short arms called transepts. As the church generally faced east, the entry is the west portal, there's a north transept and a south transept and the altar is in the east — symbolically facing Jerusalem.

[14, Amiens Cathedral] Religious pilgrimages were a big deal in medieval Europe. And the greatest churches were designed to handle large crowds during holy days and festivals. This space was the ambulatory — it was designed for pilgrims, who may have walked for weeks to get here, to amble through the church.

[15] They'd circulate — behind the high altar around the semi-circular far end or apse — worshipping at the various side chapels that fit their needs.

[16] Many Gothic churches have an enclosed space, called the "choir" — often elaborately carved — where monks or VIPS could gather for more intimate services in an otherwise vast space. In a time when daily life was pretty bleak, attending Mass provided a needed escape, a peek at the promised glories that awaited the faithful.

[17] Even today, attending a service — especially in the choir — can spark a church to life by filling it with both worship and music.

[18, Sainte-Chapelle, 1248, Paris] These huge caverns of stone needed to be decorated…and they were filled with the most glorious art of the Gothic world — towering altarpieces, inspiring statues, and the triumph of Gothic: exquisite stained glass.

[19, Sainte-Chapelle, 1248, Paris] Sainte-Chapelle, in Paris, is a fine example. In typical Gothic style, the church is a skeleton of support with buttressed columns, ribs, and pointed arches supporting the stone roof and freeing the walls to be window frames…in this case to hold Europe's best original 13th-century glass. In the Bible, it's clear: light is divine. And with Gothic, light pours through stained glass turning dark stone buildings into colorful lanterns of light.

[20, Chartres Cathedral, early 13th century] Chartres cathedral is beloved for both its stained glass and statues which, together, weave a unified Christian story. In "The Book of Chartres" — as some nickname the church — the text is the sculpture and windows, and its binding is the architecture. The nave is vast, lit by magnificent 800-year-old stained-glass. The light pouring through these windows was mystical and encouraged meditation and prayer.

[21] The stained glass was used to help teach Bible stories to the illiterate faithful and it gave worshippers images to focus on as they prayed. Windows can be read from bottom to top as if from earth to heaven. The brilliant color is from minerals mixed into the glass as it's made — such as cobalt for the dazzling blue. The windows lead the reader through a series of dramatic scenes: For example, the Last Supper. Jesus washing his disciples' feet. His betrayal with the kiss of Judas. And the Crucifixion. The amazing thing, in the 21st century, Chartres is perfectly intact and can be read like a book today as it was eight centuries ago.

[22, Amiens Cathedral, 13th century] As the Church was the leading patron of the arts throughout the Middle Ages, it owned the greatest artistic treasures. And many of those treasures remain in situ…not in museums but in the churches — where they were originally designed to be seen.

[23, Toledo Cathedral altarpiece, Spain] The centerpiece of each church throughout the ages was the altar, generally with an elaborate single piece of art — painted or carved — featuring Christ, the Virgin Mary, a patron saint, or a particular Bible scene. Some altarpieces were huge and overwhelming, telling the story of Christ scene by scene from manger to resurrection.

[24, Duccio, Maestà, 1311, Duomo Museum, Siena] This opulent altarpiece also tells the story of Jesus like pages of a comic book ripped out and laid side by side. It wasn't terribly realistic by modern standards — Mary's throne looks cockeyed, and the food could slide right off this table — but the art brought sacred stories to life, inspiring the faithful.

[25] Imagine the power of Gothic art — emotionally, religiously, and politically. In the Middle Ages, art was the advertising of the day — a perspective-shaping tool. Artists were hired by the powerful to inspire and also to promote conformity.

[26] Church art has always had an agenda: to teach by telling stories and through symbolism. Martyrs were known by how they died. Riddled with arrows? St Sebastian. Decapitated? St. Denis. Death by grilling? It's got to be St. Lawrence. Gospel writers are shown holding a book. If a man has a cross in his halo, it can only be Jesus. And some regular person suddenly in the company of saints? Likely an important financial supporter of the church — a reminder of how people believed such patronage would help get you to Heaven.

[27] Accurate realism was not a concern. Paintings came with no natural setting, just an ethereal gold background. Buildings may have had four walls but little sense of actual depth. Bodies were flat and expressions said little. The main thing: tell the story. And if the message wasn't clear enough, the artist could literally spell it out.

[28] A hellish hot-tub taught that people from all walks — nobles, kings, even bishops — can end up in Hell. You were reminded that one day your sins would be accounted for as if written on a ledger.

[29] But it wasn't all fire and brimstone. While artists generally worked anonymously, they sometimes injected a little playfulness and personality. This man has a toothache. Another pulls a thorn from his foot. And here, a farmer clobbers a thief so hard his hat falls off.

[30] Medieval pulpits — from where the priest preached — were often masterpieces in themselves, with finely carved Bible stories and symbols that reinforced the gospel message. Readings were figuratively and literally supported by venerable leaders of the faith.

[31] Church treasuries are like museums — safely protecting jewel-incrusted gold and silver featuring dazzling workmanship, war trophies, and priceless gifts…like this gold-encrusted "unicorn tusk."

[32] Dazzling jeweled vessels, called "reliquaries," were often masterpieces of art designed to protect relics. A relic is some physical reminder of Christ or a saint, like their bones or possessions…the finger of St. Theresa…the jaw of St. Anthony…perhaps a skull of a saint, complete with jewels and silver…or better yet, a full, regally dressed skeleton.

[33, Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi] Holy relics were the "ruby slippers" of medieval Europe. To the faithful, relics had power — they helped answer prayers, win wars, and ultimately, they helped you get to Heaven.

[34] All of these elements — from relics to statues, from soaring arches to sun pouring through stained glass — were part of a unified ensemble of art bringing the stone shell of the cathedral to life and designed to keep the church central to people's lives. Mix in a little music, and Gothic churches created a powerful experience inspiring Europeans during this Age of Faith.

[35, Bruges, Belgium] Religion served art and art served religion throughout the Middle Ages. But in the later centuries, with rising prosperity, secular art — art which had nothing to do with God — was becoming increasingly common. It was art that served not the church but Europe's rich and powerful.

[36, Siena City Hall] And this included architecture. In an increasingly secular society — from Brussels to Siena — it was the Gothic city hall, not the church, that towered over the main square.

[37, Warwick Castle (England), Château de Beynac (France), Château de Chillon (Switzerland), Schönburg Castle (on Germany's Rhine), Eilean Donan Castle (Scotland), Carcassonne (France)] And the elites of the High Middle Ages built Europe's magnificent castles and fortresses not for their salvation but for both their protection and their pleasure. From Switzerland to the Rhineland and from distant Scotland to the south of France.

[38, Burg Eltz (Germany), knights battle at Warwick Castle (Warwick), heraldry at Westminster Abbey (London), folk show in San Marino] Castles and palaces provided a stage for the festivities of the medieval world — of chivalrous knights in shining armor, dazzling heraldry, and tournaments with flags flying.

[39, Reifenstein Castle, Vipiteno, Italy] And, with Europe's new-found wealth, these fortified palaces were decorated with increasingly secular art. Rather than saints and Bible lessons, this noble family wanted voluptuous swoops and curls — a fantasy of elves, jesters, archers, and fruity symbols of fertility.

[40] Tapestries on the wall both warmed the stone rooms and brightened the atmosphere, with colorful scenes that shared the feudal lord's perspective on current events, taught morals, and told folk tales.

[41, Flemish tapestry: Story of Gombaut and Macée, 17th century, Gruuthuse Museum, Bruges] This series of tapestries (from a slightly later age) gives us a peek into the everyday lives of ordinary people. With captions in Old French, it cleverly spins a story of youthful lustiness that shatters stereotypes of medieval piety.

[42] A shepherd girl cradles a bowl of soup in her lap. The flirtatious shepherd cuts a slice of bread and — as the text reads — saucily asks if he can "dip into the goodies in her lap." Another woman brazenly strips off her socks to dangle her feet in water. Couples freely dance together under the apple tree of temptation and around a bagpipe — symbolic back then of hedonism. Where does all this wantonness lead? Marriage. Music plays, the table is set and the meat's on the BBQ, as the bride enters with her groom. The bride smiles bravely, closely escorted by two men, while the scared groom gulps nervously.

[43] Tapestries were designed by Europe's best artists and woven from the finest thread in high-tech-for-the-day factories. They became a distinctly medieval art form.

[44, The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry, c. 1500, Cluny Museum, Paris] This exquisite series captures Europe's blossoming appreciation for sheer beauty at the end of the Middle Ages. It's a celebration of all the senses.

[45] There's taste: A woman takes candy from a servant's dish to feed to her parakeet…while the little dog licks his lovingly woven chops. Hearing: The elegant woman plays sweetly on an organ, calming an audience of wild beasts. In this fanciful world, humans and their fellow creatures live in harmony in an enchanted garden. Sight: The unicorn cuddles up and looks at himself in the lady's mirror, pleased with what he sees. The lion turns away and snickers. Touch: That's the most basic and dangerous of the senses. Here, the lady "strokes the unicorn's horn…and the lion looks out at us to be sure we get the double entendre. Medieval Europeans were enjoying the wonders — and physical pleasures — of life.

[46] The words on our lady's tent read: "To My Sole Desire." What is her only desire? Is it jewelry? Or is she putting the necklace away and renouncing material things? Is it God? Love? The unicorn and lion open the tent. Is she going in to meet the object of her desire? Or just stepping out to embrace the world?

[47, Piazza della Signoria, Florence] Toward the end of the Middle Ages a new spirit was blossoming. People were stepping out of medieval darkness. And art was changing with the changing times. Artists now celebrated not just God but the beauty of the created world, done in a style that was more realistic than ever.

[48, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good and Bad Government, 1338–39, Civic Museum, Siena] Nowhere was that new spirit stronger than in Italy. With its close connection to ancient Rome and as the center of the Christian faith, Italy was home to both scholars and pilgrims. Cities buzzed with free trade, strong civic pride, and budding democracy, as they broke free from centuries of feudal rule. As this allegory from the 1300s illustrates, once run-down towns with chaos in the streets were becoming places where the shopping was brisk, construction's booming, students are attentive, and women dance freely in the streets.

[49] This later period of the Middle Ages saw the rise of the ground-breaking artists like Giotto who incorporated unprecedented realism and emotion into religious paintings for a church in need of reform.

[50, Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, 1305, Padova, Italy] Near Venice in Padova, Giotto covered this glorious chapel with frescoes telling Bible stories with a realism that was astonishing for its day.

[51, Giotto, 1267–1337] Moving beyond the medieval norm with the standard gold leaf background, Giotto sets his scenes in the real world — rocks, trees, animals. His people, with their voluminous robes, are as sturdy and massive as Greek statues. Their gestures are simple but expressive: Arm raised shows anger, head tilted down says dejection, and a tender kiss? Caring love.

[52] He captures the dramatic moment when Jesus was arrested. Amid the chaos, Giotto skillfully throws the focus on the central action: Judas looks Jesus straight in the eyes and betrays him with that infamous kiss. After his execution, Jesus is taken down off the cross, and his followers weep over his lifeless body. John spreads his arms and wails, his cries echoed by anguished angels above. Each face is a study in grief, of the vulnerability and strong emotions of these almost believable angels.

[53] Giotto, considered the first modern painter, created scenes that were beyond anything that had been done in the entire Middle Ages. By painting Biblical themes with a new realism, Giotto was embracing centuries of medieval tradition while pointing the way to an exciting, more modern, future to come.

[54 OC] 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 second half of the Middle Ages. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'!