How can a knowledge of technique enhance our understanding of Medieval Art?
As there are very few records of critical art historians from around Medieval times, it is crucial to form our own knowledge of the techniques used to understand the art. We are not directly informed about why some of the art existed or more importantly, its meaning – apart from the large religious influence which i will discuss – making interpretation more difficult. But aside from religion there must have been other factors as to why the art at the time was created, and for what purposes. To begin to combat this lack of knowledge we can analyse instead how a work of art was made and what this involved to further our understanding and appreciation. Additionally, if we know how something was made then we can hopefully get a rough idea of the technology around the time, when it was dated, the events taking place and the artist/s relation to that and/or the influence on them. Was the inspiration to create an art object influenced by a particular event or place, does its existence in turn influence other works of art, and if it does, how does it show their links and connections over the centuries?
To give a brief religious summary as mentioned above; during Medieval times the church had become the greatest power in the realm, and its whole relationship to art had to be reconsidered. This would mean that not only would the church's – or basilica's as they were then called – interior have to change and be built upon, to make room for congregations and services in their ever increasing popularity – but that art too would also be highly influenced by religion. Monks took the lead in theological development, in icons and shaping the piety and religious practice of Byzantium in general, in which ritual, cult and symbolism were practised. This motivated the benefactors who commissioned the religious artworks to express their participation by decorating the churches with gold and silver, silk vestments and bronze lamps. People primarily came to church to be transformed, and thus art became this means of communication with the divine. There are many different kinds of art which can be analysed for their technique, but i will be looking at only two of these in this essay; they will be illuminated manuscripts and altarpieces in churches.
Illuminated manuscripts flourished between 850 and 1200, with their content mainly being very handsome and lavish. The Byzantines were typically known as depicting the first eight books of the old testament, the psalms joined with poetry and the major and minor prophets, with great care taken over the beauty and appearence. These were completed on thick parchment usually in two books. Size often gave a good indication of its intended use, for example pocket versions of the gospels and psalms were popular for private devotional reading. However illuminated manuscripts were made to a large degree for use or donation in churches, and usually made to teach the reader ‘a lesson’ or pass on wise words about their role in life. For example, Theodore Psalter copied the book of Psalms and the Odes for the local monastery’s abbot, Michael. This was intended to guide Michael on how he should show responsibility for the orthodox belief of his monks, and teach them obedience, charity and chastity. The saints in the pictures act as religious guides to help Michael. The more lavish the book, the more powerful in society was the receiver, so we can conclude that material appearances of importance, wealth and position were greatly favoured in those days.
During Antiquity, reading was done aloud and authors would dictate their work for secretaries to transcribe and professionals to copy meaning relationships between creativity and writing were weak. This changed during the middle ages, as authors became more independent and private study more commonplace. Due to this shift in the way writing was communicated, with the written word now being more important, grand letters were used and great care taken over books to make reading more ‘fun’. This extended to the pictures as well; enamel was used from around the ninth to the tenth centuries for expensive objects. Pictures and words were slightly squashed, and their depth reduced. Together these would emphasise a flat and shallow or blank plane. But why would artists use this technique? Effort must be taken to understand the demands placed on the artist to fit everything in on one page, indicating that for whatever reason it was necessary to do so.
The pictures drawn can show not only the telling of a biblical story, but as depicting something that somebody in the past had witnessed in real life. Take for example the Joshua roll and its link with the Byzantine army events in the tenth century. Historical influence therefore had a significant impact on the technique used in illuminated manuscripts, and careful time must have been taken to recreate the scenes as they appeared in reality. I shall also look at whether historical events had an impact on the other type of art in this essay.
It is hard to trace the development of altarpieces as they have been lost in time due to the poor survival of actual objects, the frequent loss of original settings and some missing documentation. The reason i have chosen altarpieces is to prove that it is still possible to learn at least a little of their technique and hence their meaning, despite the fact that are a noticable amount of gaps in knowledge. Another large problem has been the tendency to view nearly all painted wooden panels as alterpieces; this is not the case. Altarpieces were typically made of various materials, the use of stone for example in Virgin and Child, or wood in the altarpieces of Friuli. The way in which altarpieces were made indicated what use they were intended for. Another problem is the altarpieces origin and a way to combat the problem is to search for an existing form and give it a new use; the antependium (altar frontal) may have served as a background to a new ritual, namely the elevation of the main body of the altarpiece. The form and development of the altarpiece depended on local taste and fashion. Patterns of development vary though depending on whether the antependium theory is correct. If it is, then the alter would be made up of rectangular 'dossals' or 'retables' contructed with horizontal wooden planks. The downside is that this still does not explain whether some panels are retables or altar frontals. The organic process is the next step: to separate the figures, arcades or colonettes were used; and for greater height and width, the horizontal structure was replaced by vertical sections. Because some alterpieces did not reach completion, it is very difficult to know how much time it took to make or the date it was 'finished'. Despite this, surviving contracts and records of payments help us to gain an understanding of the production processes and hence to a technique insight. A proof of what patrons demanded is not only in the contracts but backed up by the amount of, or lack of, gold and blue in the alterpieces. Unfortuately though, we do not have such a great understanding of alterpieces as much as other forms of medieval art, although the knowledge isnt enitrely lacking.
Byzantine art is thought to be highly influential but it is not sure how much and whether this phenomenon can be explained better in parellelism.The Byzantine style was not static in the later twelth century, this is probably because Byzantine art was constantly renewing itself while upholding time honoured iconographies. In the last decades of the twelth centuries, it entered a dynamic fast paced phase, followed by a simplistic and calm style of form and expression. There is not a clear connection between early and middle Byzantine art.
To conclude, we can see that by knowing how a work of art was made and what this involved shapes our understanding of technique, showing us that there were reasons other than religion for making art, and how this improves our understanding of the whole Medieval artworld. Technique was also partly down to who was composing the artwork – the Georgians, the Bulgarians, the Armenians, the Crusaders or the Byzantines. The technique of one group seemed to have had largely, but not always, a domino like effect from one to the other. The evidence does seem to suggest that the inspiration to create an art object was indeed largely influenced by an external force; a particular theme, event or place, and that this in turn influences other works of art, showing their links and connections over the centuries. This is highlighted by some of the overlapping styles between all of those listed above (the Georgians, the Bulgarians eccetera) Technique was also down to social appearences, the Byzantiums, for instance, frequently encouraged by their art, made their work ever more lavish. By doing this, they received significant praise for the sheer beauty of it, and so great artists held a high place in society and received creditable amounts of respect from their people. Artwork attracted people to churches and the like as a place for social gatherings and gossip as well as a place to worship and be enlightened. Perphaps this is what the artist/s had in mind as they developed their technique, and it helps us realise why they put so much effort into their art. Yet again it reinforces the crucialness of possessing knowledge of technique to further understand art during Medieval times.