The Medieval World, C. 400–1300

Early Medieval Art from Northern Europe

Why is medieval European painting so “bad”?

There is no question—medieval painting is not particularly realistic. Much of it is simplistic, flat, and lacks natural proportion. What happened? Did the medieval artists forget how to draw? Is this a result of the so-called “Dark Ages”?

Looking at medieval art from a contemporary perspective occasionally raises questions about quality—but it is important to remember that medieval artists, including painters, were highly skilled craftsmen who worked meticulously on their designs. Medieval artists made specific choices about their work and were motivated not by realism, but by religion. In the sixth century, a debate arose amongst Christian church leaders as to whether or not figurative imagery was appropriate for religious art. Then, Pope Gregory the Great declared, “Painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read” (as quoted in Gombrich 135). The goal of medieval art, according to Pope Gregory, was to simply and clearly depict religious themes. The quality of the artwork was not supposed to overshadow its religious content for fear of idol worship.


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