Early medieval artists were mostly monks or persons closely related to the church. And the work of such artists was marked with spiritual elements and mystification. Later medieval artists came from different backgrounds and their inclination, over the course of centuries, was from spiritual depictions to realism in art.
Medieval artists were painters, illuminators, calligraphers, sculptors and builders of architectural structures. In the early Middle Ages, these arts were promoted solely by the Church which commissioned different artists for different works. Over the centuries, many new influences shaped Europe, coming from the Frankish Empire, Visigoths and numerous Germanic tribes. This gave birth to many new styles in painting, sculpting and architecture. Understandably, most of the very early artists in the medieval era were nuns and other such figures either a part of the Christian parish or directly associated with it.
A majority of the most famous medieval male artists hailed from Italy, which is really where the Renaissance began. Among them was Donatello, an Italian sculptor who introduced many innovations and fresh techniques in the art of sculpting; Giotto, an Italian painter who was commissioned both by The King of Naples and the Pope to work on different frescoes; Cimabue, who has the teacher of Giotto and was a noted painter himself who worked in the Byzantine tradition but was the forerunner to subsequent realism; Filippo Brunelleschi who was a painter, architect and a sculptor and worked on many major architectural works of his time.
Among the major names of medieval women artists is Claricia, a 13th century German artist who illuminated a religious book and drew a self-portrait of herself in the manuscript; Herrad of Landsberg who was a nun and wrote and compiled a major part of the book Hortusdeliciarum and much of the art in the book was done under her direction; Ende was a nun in Spain who illustrated manuscripts in 10th century; Guda was a 12th century nun and illuminator who created a signed self-portrait; Diemoth was a recluse in Germany who earned the title of “the beautiful scribe” due to her beautiful handwriting which she used to copy nearly 45 books; Hildegard of Bingen who was a polymath, writer, composer and philosopher.
Early medieval paintings comprised nearly entirely of illustrations in religious manuscripts and frescoes in churches and chapels. It was in the later medieval period that individuals began to paint different subjects and their works came to be identified with them.
Among the most famous paintings from medieval artists are “The Last Supper”, painted by (Leonardo da Vinci), “Crucifixion and The Life of the Magi” as painted by Giotti di Bondone. Although orthodox subjects, Bondone made the paintings with an innovative use of light and brighter colours.
The Adoration of the Shepherds is another famous 14th century painting, created by Bartolo di Fredi. Fredi used innovations in perspective and planes in this piece.
During the early medieval period, Christianity was the driving force behind most sculptures in Europe. The Byzantine Empire excelled in creating sculptures of holy figures which were usually done with carved ivory. Carolingian ivory panels of the in the 8th and 9th centuries were done with a greater eye to realism. It was finally in the Gothic art that sculptures were restored as a key element of Western art. Gothic sculptures stressed on physical realism and were mostly used as architectural ornaments.
Medieval architecture passed through many phases. The Byzantine architecture followed in the footsteps of the classical Roman traditions. A notable example of medieval Byzantine architecture is Hagia Sophia. Elsewhere Germanic tribes borrowed from Roman architecture but added “verticality” by increasing the heights of the architectural structures. Under the Carolingian Empire, Church architectures were a blend of Roman proportions and Germanic verticality. An example of this is the Palatine Chapel commissioned by Charlemagne. Later, Gothic architecture introduced many innovations in construction and became widespread all over Europe. This phase left many architectural wonders, among these Notre Dame.
The Church was a frequent patron to medieval artists such as painters, sculptors and architects and their work was mostly utilised for religious purposes such as illuminated manuscripts, construction of chapels, sculptors of holy figures, frescoes of biblical scenes. In some cases, notable aristocratic families and rulers of different kingdoms also patronised various artists. Most of the individual medieval artists with notable contributions to art were from Italy.
Medieval painters got the colours for their palette from a number of natural sources. Some of the colours were imported from far-off countries. Burnishers, punches and styluses were used to add gold leaf for gilding purposes to an illuminated panel or manuscript. Binders from natural sources were used in the paints. In sculpting, stone was the most popular medium with ivory often used for smaller medieval sculptors especially the early ones. In some cases wood sculpting was also done. Tools commonly used by sculptors included chisels, gouges and mallets.
Medieval painters first prepared the ground and then incised lines on the ground to define the outlines of different figures. Tempera paint, mixed with egg yolk and a binder such as the sap of fig trees, was prepared. Finally, thin consecutive layers of paint were applied over and over again, helping bring contrast. Particular attention was given to faces which were given various shades and colours depending on the age and personality of the figure. Sculptors in medieval times elevated the medium of their sculpting, be it stone or wood, at a workbench and then worked on it with various tools. Different kinds of chisels, mallets and axes were used to trim the sculpture. Wood sculptures were easier to shape compared to stone sculptures.
Medieval artists focused on three key areas: sculpting, painting and architecture. All three forms were promoted at the beginning of the medieval age by the Church. Frescoes for churches, paintings, illuminated manuscripts, sculptures of holy figures and architectures for religious buildings were commissioned by the Church. Medieval artists, in turn, were influenced by the various cultural currents of the era, including the Byzantine, Roman, Catholic and Gothic influences. Artists in later medieval era were able to find ready patronages both from the Church and the State.