Mimenta for Visual Arts


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Page 2Art HistoryByzantium and the Dark Ages

From the Roman period onwards, we see little change in art. As one culture with it's individual styles invaded another, the styles combined but did not evolve much until the 14th Century.

Emperor Constantine
The Emperor Constantine created the Roman
Catholic Church and a massive building program
of churches with their works began.

The Roman Emperor, Constantine converted to Christianity and summoned the Council of Nicaea in the year 325, he effectively created the Roman Catholic Church. The first task of the Church of Rome was to wipe out all opposition. There followed a massive building program of churches and Basillicas. This is the Byzantine period in art, and extends up to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (Byzantium was the original name of Constantinople).

Byzantine Art - Constantine and Madonna and Child
Byzantine Mosaics of Constantine
and (mouse over image) Madonna
and Child.

This had its roots in Roman art, and the glorification of the body was replaced by the glorification of God, Jesus or the saints. They were depicted always larger or taller than the other figures and nudity was banished in art. The church took the emphasis off naturalism and lifelike portrayals and reverted back to using stereotypes. Because the populace was illiterate, the Church needed something to remind it's flock on the days between one Sunday's sermon to the next Sunday Church sermon. Small pictures were produced for the people as pictorial prayers to focus their thoughts on the Saints and Christ.

Orthodox Church Icon
Small simple pictures of the Saints, called Icons,
were to remind the illiterate public of their
promises of piety between church sermons.

These became known as "Icons". These were made by monks, members of the abbey, as reminders for the faithful. This practice still goes on today in the Greek Orthodox and Russian Churches.

Byzantine mosiacs were a popular art form.
With the building of new huge temples, artists came to Byzantium from all
over the world. The Romans favoured the mosaic as an art form because
they knew how to make glass and the colours were so brilliant and
permanent compared to the pastel hues of frescoes. Imagine the effect these
images would have of an illilerate public.

Artists came to Constantinople for the work, from all over the known world and for the next 1300 years, the Church maintained it's stranglehold on art and science and all pursuits of knowledge, these were the dark ages as the world plunged into ignorance and superstitious fear. Travel was perilous and few ventured abroad without an armed escort.

After stamping out any religious opposition to the absolute dominance of Rome's new Christian Church, the church, then set about exterminating any member of the populace who held views that did not agree with those of the church. The church had ultimate and unchallenged power. Most scientific research and innovation had stopped for fear that the results were regarded as heresy by the church. The church even outlawed it passing a decree in 1115 (Bernard of Clairvaux at the request of Pope Eugenius III) "that all pursuit of knowledge was a sin unless directed by the church". The church, based on Ecclesiastes declared that "all that man needed to know, was already known" and considered any new search for knowledge heresy. The great University at Alexandria was ransacked and scholars were murdered. One account of a renowned female scholar, Hypatia, describe the insane mistrust of knowledge and the lengths the Roman Catholic Church was willing to go to, to suppress learning.

The destruction of knowledge
The Roman Catholic Church feared knowledge and went to great
lengths to suppress learning. Libraries were destroyed and scholars
were murdered. Here, a cardinal, eager to advertise his enforcement
of the Roman Catholic Church's decree about knowledge commissioned
this painting as proof of his adherence to the church's doctrines..

Anyone tampering with any form of science was charged with heresy and thrown into a dark damp cell and left there until the inquisitors felt it was time to consider their charges; it could be months, years or even decades, then torture and a painful execution.

Inquisition Hearing
The Inquisition hearings always extracted a
confession the Catholic Church even formalised
and documented the best torture methods in
their Inquisition manual called the Malleus Malificarum
(which translated means the hammer of evil).

Any worshiper of the black arts, witchcraft or any faith that was not of the Roman Catholic Church was to be punished. Non-repentents were consigned to the flames of hell (and the inquisitors saw it as their Christian duty to help them get there as painfully as possible). In true Roman tradition, the punishments were seen to be most effective if done publicly in a spectacle of pain and terror.

Burning at the stake
After gruesome tortures to extract the victim's confession,
they were publicly executed, Burning at the stake was the
most popular method.

It struck fear into the hearts of every citizen, afraid of a knock on their door that would spell certain torture, humiliation and a gruesome public death. Anyone could make an accusation against someone else to the inquisitor. Women fared particularly badly. The Roman Catholic Church, adopted the Roman social view that women were subservient, in fact it carried this view to the extreme and became misogynistic. All members of the church hierachy were forbidden to marry and sworn to celibacy. The inquisitions gave these power hungry sexually frustrated men justification to vent their frustrations on women. Over time the churches attitude to women deteriorated to the point where Popes instructed their acolytes that woman were the corrupters of man, more prone to corruption from the devil and more likely to become witches. This gave rise to the attitudes that since accused women were damned anyway, it did not matter what anyone did to them. Any perversion practised on one of Satan's lot was an affront to Satan and therefore acceptable to the Catholic Church. For this reason, women were often tortured more cruelly than men.

The Witches Chair and the Pear were used to extract confessions.
The Witches Chair was used frequently to extract confessions.
Mouse over to view "The Pear" a device which was inserted into
the chosen body orifice and expanded causing horrendous
internal injuries. (If you wait a moment you will see it open),

Inquisition hearings were arranged to get a confession from the suspect, who was always guilty. The cruellest tortures were devised to extract confessions of guilt and repentance to save the accused immortal soul and were conducted in specially constructed dungeon like cells below the the church.

Inquisition relics of torture
There seem no limits to the cruelty practised by the Roman Catholics. These devices are all relics
used in the process of obtaining confessions of witchcraft. From left to right: Knee splitter, Skull vice
and at far right, Thumb clamps (also known as thumb screws).

If they died unrepentant they were damned to hell and were executed slowly. If they confessed they were guilty and executed, usually by burning at the stake. With ultimate authority to make the laws, exterminate any opposition and control all learning, the church was beyond scrutiny and sank into debauchery. Each Pope was more heinous than the last.

Artists were created through an apprenticeship process. A wealthy parent surrendered their son into the care of a Master Artist who operated a workshop, along with a sum of money to help pay the child's keep until he was able to assist with tasks and earn his own keep. The apprentice lived with the artist who usually ran a studio or workshop. The apprentice would begin with the most menial chores and work their way up to grinding pigments, then mixing ghesso (painters undercoat), then preparing grounds (the boards and canvases to be painted on) and at last would be allowed to fill in the less important areas of a masters work. Over time the apprentice was allowed to paint more and more important parts of the master's work until finally he produced pictures of his own. Often the master could sign these as if they were his own. Many of the great works we attribute to master artists may really be works done by their apprentices - we can never be sure, because of the way the apprentice system worked.

Only the wealthy could afford art, especially paintings. These required an artist to produce a one-off piece of art and a single painting from a tradesman could cost up to 5 years wages. Artists were regarded as tradesmen, like we regard a good plumber of electrician today. Because art was formalised and repetitive; talent, creativity and originality were not appreciated qualities in an artist, like today. After all, you wouldn't want your electrician to get too creative with your wiring or a plumber who was too original!

Art, in the form of paintings, was a luxury not affordable to the general public. Towns were recognised for their numbers of books, tapestries and paintings. Two inventions had to happen before art became accessible to the general public: the invention of paper and the printing press.

Medieval Woodcut
A medieval woodcut portraying the Berger leading his villagers to church.

The first pictures available to the public were woodcuts, prints made by cutting an image cut into the end grain of a block of wood, ink was rubbed over the raised surfaces. Laying paper on the wet ink and pressing it to transfer the image onto the paper - like we use a stamp today, meant that you could create many images from the one block. This made the cost per print affordable to some of the public. The best prints were made using a very hard wood which allowed for finer cuts. Of course the first prints would have been religious images. The church ruled all of society, dictated all knowledge (because it had the only books) and all art.

Medieval Woodcut - a makers mark
Printers began to sign their work as the artists did,
their art but of course this wasn't "true art" as far as
the artists guilds were concerned so engravers were
discouraged from using their full names. They
evolved a system of "maker marks" to circumvent
the problem of advertising their work. This one
enterprising French engraver included his name
into such an elaborate mark that it passed scrutiny.

A new type of artist emerged - the Engraver. Originally the printer printed only text, with crude woodcut illustrations or pages of text for hymnals for the church (because the average villager could not read) and simple illustrated notices for the public who were mostly illiterate.

Medieval woodcuts of deer
Medieval woodcuts of deer
(Mouse over to change picture)

Gradually the drawings became more complex as public demand grew for pictures, until printers spawned a new trade - the engraver. This was a lowly version of the tradesman artist and Artists guilds began to regulate their trade to suppress engravers attaining the social status of artists. Art was elevated above a trade to a new standing of craftsman.

We now enter the period of the Renaissance (from the French, meaning "rebirth"). This was a time when art and went crazy. Artists threw off some of the domination of the church. Travel around Europe was less hazardous for Artists who were highly respected citizens now, elevated above tradesman status. The exchange of ideas and a new freedom to paint subjects that were not in the bible interacted with a return to the Greek ideal of realism and the invention of perspective to give art development a massive leap forward. Vast sums were spent on artwork for glorification of the church.


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