Rick Steves' Art of the Middle Ages

After Rome fell, Europe spent a thousand years in its Middle Ages. Its art shows how the light of civilization flickered in monasteries and on Europe's fringes: Christian Byzantium, Moorish Spain, and pagan Vikings. Then, around A.D. 1000, Europe rebounded. The High Middle Ages brought majestic castles, radiant Gothic cathedrals, and exquisite art that dazzled the faithful and the secular alike.

Find names and locations for works of art listed in the Script.


[1B, Amiens Cathedral, 13th century, France] Hi, I'm Rick Steves, here with a fascinating chapter in the rich and inspirational story of Europe's art. In this hour, we're going medieval — the era of soaring cathedrals, imposing castles, splendid stained glass, and even a unicorn or two. This is the art of the Middle Ages. 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 economic stagnation. then, around the year 1000, Europe rebounded. That story — its turmoil and triumphs — is reflected in the magnificent art and architecture of the age.

[4, Montage] We start after the fall of Rome, as the flickering flame of civilization was kept alive in monasteries and fortress-like churches. We'll see how Europe was invigorated by neighbors on the fringes — from Christian Byzantium to Islamic Spain to the pagan Vikings of the north. Then we step into the High Middle Ages, marveling at formidable castles, radiant Gothic cathedrals, and art that both dazzled the faithful and celebrated secular life as Europeans approached the dawn of a new age.

[5, 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.

[6] 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.

[7, Provins, 12th–13th century, north 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."

[8, 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 some of medieval Europe's earliest 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.

[9, 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.

[10] 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.

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

[12] 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.

[13, 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 chapels like this. Its finely fitted walls — stone without mortar — still keep out the rain.

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

[15] 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."

[16] 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.

[17] 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.

[18] 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.

[19, 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.

[20] 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. Hamlets with thatched huts of wattle and daub became formidable towns fortified behind protective walls with fine buildings of stone.

[21, 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 adorned with the community's finest art…done in the first art style to feel proudly European: Romanesque.

[22, 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.

[23, 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.

[24, 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.

[25, Fontenay Abbey, 12th century, Burgundy, France] This Romanesque church in France, built by a particularly austere monastic order, is simple, with a plain façade and unadorned columns — nothing to distract from prayer. The lone statue is a reminder that the church was dedicated to Mary. An ethereal light still bathes the interior.

[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] The church honors St. Cuthbert. Pondering his coffin, embroidered sash, and exquisite cross, you remember all those monks who kept the flame of knowledge flickering through those early medieval centuries — making Romanesque marvels like the Durham Cathedral possible.

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

[30] 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 baptistery.

[31] Pisa's baptistery, like many from this period, is free-standing. Its interior is simple and spacious. The finely crafted font is plenty big for baptizing adults by immersion. Imagine: a religious service sung here, amplified by the remarkable acoustics, resulting in echoes long enough to let you sing three-part harmony…solo.

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

[33] 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.

[34, Tympanum and façade, 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.

[35] 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.

[36, 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.

[37, 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.

[38, 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."

[39, 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.

[40] 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.

[41] 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.

[42, Byzantine Empire, 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.

[43, 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.

[44] The church tried to recreate the glory of the Byzantine Heaven. The vast interior gives the impression of a golden weightless shell, gracefully disguising the massive overhead load. Forty arched windows shed a soft light on the interior, showing off the venerable building's Christian legacy that has endured the test of time.

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

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

[47, 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.

[48] By the way, the Crusades were a big deal back in the 12th and 13th centuries. Lots of important art was pillaged from Constantinople by rampaging crusaders — those Christian armies that stormed through Muslim territory in a series of religious wars through much of the Middle Ages. While their mission was to be sure Christian pilgrims had access to their Holy Land in Jerusalem, the so-called "Holy Crusades" often got sidetracked with the rape, pillage, and plunder dimensions of war.

[49] Of all the plundered art on this church, perhaps the grandest prize was a set of horses which overlooked Venice's main square. The precious originals — like so much of Europe's greatest art — are now inside, safely out of the elements.

[50, Horses of St. Mark, 300 BC–AD 400, Venice] These much-coveted and exquisitely cast ancient bronze horses — so realistic — are certainly well-traveled. According to legend, they were made for the Greek ruler, Alexander the Great, in the fourth century BC, taken by Emperor Nero to Rome, and then brought by Emperor Constantine to Constantinople, where the Venetian Crusaders stole them, took them home, and parked them here in their main church.

[51] 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.

[52] 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.

[53, Pala d'Oro, 10th–12th century, St. Mark's Basilica, Venice] St. Mark's Byzantine-style altarpiece is a stunning wall of gold, studded with precious rubies, emeralds, and pearls. Some two hundred enamels — plundered from Constantinople — depict prophets, saints, and angels. And in the glorious center of it all sits Jesus, the Ruler of the Cosmos.

[54] 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.

[55] 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.

[56, 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.

[57, 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.

[58, 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.

[59] The décor was exquisite, artfully combining both engineering and aesthetics…water and stone. In the throne room, the sultan would sit regally, under an awe-inspiring wooden ceiling. With 8,000 pieces inlaid like a giant jigsaw puzzle, it symbolizes the complexity of Allah's infinite universe.

[60] Arabic calligraphy, mostly poems and verses of praise from the Quran, is everywhere. Muslims avoid making images of living creatures in holy spaces — believing that's God's work. But decorating with religious script is fine. One phrase: "only God is victorious," is repeated thousands of times — as if a sacred visual chant — throughout the Alhambra.

[61] By the way, while churches portray people like this… in mosques, rather than images of saints and prophets, you'll see geometrical designs and calligraphy. This explains why, historically, the Muslim world excelled at non-figurative art, while artists from Christian Europe focused on painting and sculpting the human form. Artful Arabic calligraphy generally shows excerpts from the Quran and quotes from Mohammed. As a church would show portrayals of Jesus and God front and center, in a mosque, elaborate medallions of script high above the prayer niche read "Mohammed" and "Allah."

[62] 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.

[63] 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.

[64] 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.

[65, 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."

[66, 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.

[67] 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.

[68, 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.

[69] Carvings evoke the pagan roots of these early Norwegian Christians. Stylized dragons reminiscent of those that once adorned Viking ships probably functioned like gargoyles — to keep evil spirits at bay. Interiors were stark and dark with tiny windows and simple X-shaped crosses of St. Andrew — a local patron saint. The architecture guides your gaze upwards, toward Heaven.

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

[71, 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 was eventually eclipsed by an even grander style: Gothic.

[72, 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.

[73, 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 nick-named. 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.

[74, 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.

[75] 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]

[76] 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.

[77, 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.

[78] 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.

[79] 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.

[80, 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.

[81] 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.

[82] 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.

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

[84, 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.

[85, 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.

[86, 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.

[87] 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.

[88, York Minster, 12th–early 13th century, England] In England, the York "Minster" brilliantly shows that the Late Middle Ages were far from dark. This window's the size of a tennis court. The intricacy of the stone framing, or tracery, and how the tiny panes of glass are held together by lead is exquisite. The fine details, far too tiny to see from the floor, are said to be "for God's eyes only."

[89, 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.

[90, Toledo Cathedral altar piece, 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 of the altarpieces were huge and overwhelming — telling the story of Christ scene-by-scene from manger to resurrection.

[91, polyptych altarpiece by Veit Stoss, 1477-89, St. Mary's Basilica, Kraków, Poland] And many altar pieces come with panels on hinges. Some have many panels that, when opened, reveal a series of scenes designed to better inspire worship. Here, we see the end of the Virgin's life on Earth with heartbreaking medieval emotion.

[92, Giotto, Madonna and Child Enthroned, c. 1300, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] Many church altars had a painting like this one, showing Mary seated on a throne, with baby Jesus on her lap, flanked by saints and angels with plate-like halos…it's made with real gold leaf to glow, especially in the candlelight.

[93, 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.

[94] 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.

[95] 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. Dennis …death by grilling — it's gotta 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.

[96] 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.

[97] 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.

[98] 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.

[99] 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.

[100] 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."

[101] 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.

[102, 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.

[103] That's why pilgrims traveled far and wide to venerate relics, making the High Middle Ages a golden age of travel. In Venice, they came for the supposed bones of St. Mark. In Padova, the vocal chords of St. Anthony. An especially sought-after relic was a supposed piece of the original cross, like this one — with an actual nail hole — carried in a jewel-encrusted case by the emperors. In Paris, this entire church — so famed for its windows todayfunctioned as a reliquary itself, purpose-built to house the supposed Crown of Thorns in all its glory.

[104] To this day, pilgrims pray at these relics. If a request for a miracle is answered, they might leave a votive — that's a token of gratitude for the saint's divine intervention.

[105] 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.

[106, 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.

[107, 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.

[108, 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,

[109, 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.

[110, 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.

[111] 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.

[112, 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.

[113] 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.

[114] 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.

[115, 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.

[116] 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.

[117] 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?

[118, 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.

[119, 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.

[120] In his hometown of Assisi, St. Francis was challenging the corruption of his Church. His values are depicted in art, which decorates the basilica built in his name.

[121] The artists who painted these frescoes employed unprecedented realism to celebrate the life of this down-to-earth man who inspired others and challenged a Church in need of reform. Leading artists of the day, including the groundbreaking artist Giotto, depicted Francis's life story with dignity, raising this humble friar to saintly status.

[122] The artist captures the well-known episode where Francis preaches to the birds. The variety of birds represents nature and the diverse flock of humanity, all worthy of one another's love.

[123] In the compassionate spirit of St. Francis, artists here portrayed powerful emotions as never before. This angel turns her head sadly at the sight of Jesus, while another is in such anguish, she tears at her cheeks in pain. Mary — traditionally shown forever stoic — faints in despair.

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

[125, 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.

[126] 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.

[127] 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.

[128B, Amiens Cathedral, 13th century] After a thousand years of Middle Ages, Europe had been through a lot: from the fall of Rome and centuries of turmoil to the rise of Christianity and kings. And through it all, Europeans created beautiful art. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves, celebrating the art of Europe.