(Third in a series)The highlights of art history, as usually taught, go:
2. Greece and Rome
3. the Renaissance
4. the mainline of Western painting (Caravaggio, Rembrandt, etc)
This offers a pretty easy-to-follow story: from humble beginnings, realism steadily increases until (around 5) photography is invented, history ends, art explodes with Picasso-shaped fireworks, and here we are now and we can just watch movies instead.
It's also taught this way for another reason: the cultures involved represent a simple history of improving ideas. Egypt is a tyranny, but it is undoubtedly a civilization--it has laws and stuff, it's well-documented and explicable. Then we have Greece and Rome where we have democracy (occasionally) and individuality and philosophy and all that. Then the Renaissance with humanism, and then the Enlightenment, which leads (via a familiar paper-trail) to the wonderful now. It's not that all of history was great, but it was at least necessary. This is a very complacent philosophy: Everything's fine now, right? It's that way because of millennia of refinement.
|Meaux Cathedral gargoyle|
|Gargoyles are so distinctive a form that even though|
they're just carved images of demons, in D&D & other games they're actually
their own class of monster
|Case in point: This isn't Medieval at all. The flowing lines and naturalistic ear give this away|
as being, like many famous gargoyles, a product of
the 19th century Gothic Revival. The Gothic keeps getting revived for
Unlike the oldest eras, The Middle Ages have a great many markers of civilization in abundance: writing, fortresses, machines, churches, philosophies, domesticated animals, politics, steel, towns, cities. But unlike the Renaissance, they're using them all wrong. And that's amazing.
|This is the Moneymusk Reliquary. That tracery lets you know its|
from Scotland or Ireland. Reliquaries are special expensive boxes
to keep the body parts of saints in. This is a dumb idea.
1. There was actually a great deal of intellectual and technological progress made in the Middle Ages,
2. Several of the tropes we associate with D&D and the traditional "fantasy" era are actually more Renaissance or Age of Exploration than strictly Medieval.
|Another dumb reliquary.|
Well that doesn't matter: we're talking about how people view history, not how it is. And in our minds we associate the Middle Ages with warfare and superstition. And warfare and superstition is fighters and magic-users. And those things are fun.
Some Irish monk spent all this time painting ("illuminating")
this one page of a copy of the bible. Like as if they had
nothing better to do.
If we view the history of art as a history of philosophy (that is: a search for truth) then the Middle Ages are meaningless. If we view the history of art as a history of the imagination (that is: a history of human emotions and inventions) then the Middle Ages are absolutely essential to who we are today. Few people in any walk of life even now go longer than a week without using words like "king" or "knight" or "witch" or "wizard" or "demon" and the very linguistically convenient concepts these words encapsulate.
|Painting in the Middle Ages raised the pattern established in ancient art of|
"animals drawn well and lots of ways, people drawn poorly and always the same"
to the level of a fetish.
|The entrance to Hell (dumb idea) was frequently depicted as|
being a big mouth called…a 'hellmouth'.
And, yes, it says 'penis'.
|Classic Greek column capitals are divided into three orders:|
Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. All of which are a subset of
the Not As Cool As These order.
No matter what was actually going on in the hearts and days of the millions of Europeans that lived and died after the influence of Rome abated and before the Renaissance reached them, what we see in the art--in the best of it anyway--is bad ideas. Bad ideas made beautiful and touching and compelling by effort, by intensity of belief, by invention.
|The Roettgen Pieta|
|Ivory chess pieces from different sets.|
We know for a fact that, for example, Dante Alighieri was genuinely a religious man. He would likely feel really bad--blasphemous, in fact--if he got the details of what Hell was like wrong. And Jesus fuck he had a lotta details.
|Again: Monsters done well. People done poorly.|
|This is Scandinavian knotwork on this staff-end,|
it's chunkier than Celtic tracery
No: here's what he and thousands of Medieval Christian artists probably thought "If I'm having this idea, it's probably because God gave it to me". Which is marvellous, as terrible ideas go: If you get an art idea, it's because you should get it.
|Hey guys, lets make folding Marys!|
God tell you to do that?
Alright. On it.
Everything, even a new thing, belongs. Something higher has ordained it. Mallory, Wagner and Tolkien mined the echoes of this idea very hard: everything, even the pettiest handicraft, even the pies and mutton, is mythic. Everything is, was and always will be basically this way. The only "future" (conceived as a time when things in general look different than they do now) is apocalyptic.
This is a strange psychoaesthetic trick: portraying the Middle Ages--which is actually a very distinct moment in the development of politics and technology on a very specific continent--as a sort of platonic eternal. It seems very natural to us, but it takes a certain kind of sleight of hand to look at something as complex and specific and historical as, say, a crossbow, and read it as a weapon in a mythic conflict. You couldn't imagine a fairy tale with an arquebus in it.
|We don't know whether people back|
then thought this guy looked funny.
But they might've: Chess is less
important than God, so the
chess piece carvers had a
If the Lord meant for me to not Hobo and thence to Murder why would he put the idea in my head?
|More Irish graphomania--|
The Book of Kells
|Hey let's keep water in a lion!|
|These shaped jugs are called "aquamaniles"|
|Often these unimportant domestic objects are|
the most interesting. Art historians hate that.
|The Tara Brooch. More insane Irish intricacy. This was before|
whiskey had come to the Isles.