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Saga of Times Past >> History & Anthropology
Alighieri, craftsmanship, artistry, silversmith

Art during the Age of Faith

Author: Lena Santos

The Age of Faith is the one thousand medieval years from 400 A.D. to 1400 A.D. It must be noted though that faith was not a uniquely medieval phenomenon as medieval pursuits were not purely geared towards faith only. However, the pursuit of arts during the Age of Faith was different. As Dante Alighieri said “Art is the grandchild of God.”

What does this mean? The Medieval man was highly convinced of a relationship between the Biblical Creation and his own creativity. The Medieval man believed that since God made man whatever was created by man was only once removed from God. This implied that whatever man made must be worthy of God.

This belief was the guiding set of rules during the Age of Faith. The Age of Faith created works of superb artistry and craftsmanship not for the pursuit of “art” per se but for the greater cause of glorifying God. Art was inspired by Faith and not by anything else. The master builder set himself out to build a house for the Lord. The Age of Faith may well be the age of magnificent churches. Painters, sculptors, goldsmith, silversmith, mosaicists and other skilled wood and masonry craftsmen dedicated themselves to building and adorning the house of the Lord to the best of their abilities. It did not matter that a single church took decades to build. All that mattered was that the church was worthy of God. Musicians composed chants and songs to enhance the rites of worship. In a sense, though skills were diverse, art had one aim and that was to express the glory and greatness of God.

This was the time when great churches were built. The architectural style evolved in the thousand years of the Medieval Ages – Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic - but the dedication of artists and artisans did not wane but was “fired” each time.

Medieval man was inspired and awed by the beauty of the intricately carved altars that were surrounded by holy images bathed in the multi-colored lights of stained glass. It was art’s purpose to make Medieval men feel like this thus art inspired by faith was in a way functional.

Art served another function and that was to express the sentiments of Medieval man. “Great” thoughts were written in stones - spires, vaults, sculptures, walls, mosaics and murals. On these surfaces were written man’s beliefs, values, fantasies, hopes and fears. His knowledge of the sciences, history and gripes were also depicted on these stone surfaces.

We see that art born of faith was all about “in praise of God” and as an expression of thoughts. A third purpose was to fill in the void left by man’s pride. The Medieval man was full of pride. Through his art he wanted to prove that he and his town were more worthy of God’s grace and gifts than those who live in the neighboring town. With this in mind, each Medieval man wanted to outdo one another as they strove to build the highest spires and adorn the church’s interior with the best works of art and craftsmanship.

A thousand years is a long time. Art and architecture evolved though man’s thrust of glorifying God through art did not change.

During the reign of Constantine the Great, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire. The emperor legalized Christianity freeing them so to speak to worship outside catacombs and private homes. The basilicas that served as houses of pagan worship were converted to accommodate the new religion. The altar now faced east towards Jerusalem while the entrance relocated to the west so that worshippers face the altar as they come in.

Two centuries later, Justinian was emperor. He was a devout Christian and it was his quest to build a fitting tribute to God by building the Byzantine period’s greatest exemplar – the Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom). For five years a work force of more than 10,000 laborers and highly skilled craftsmen worked on the Hagia Sophia. Justinian’s taste in arts and architecture were evident in the Hagia Sophia but the invasion of the Moslems and other barbaric tribes halted the efforts of the Emperor. However, medieval art continued to flourish as these pagan invaders were skilled in metalworking and woodcarving.

The Germanic craftsmen favored animal motifs intricately interwoven in geometric patterns. These designs were evident in early Romanesque churches and were also found in the ornate transcription pages of Christian texts done by monastery monks. The antiquqarii did the calligraphy; the rubricatores illuminated the initials and the miniatores did the minute paintings on the margins. It was not enough to transcribe the Bible. It was necessary to regard the copies as venerated works of art fitting to glorify God.

“Do not make a picture of Christ” said Asterius of Amasia sometime in the 3rd century A.D. However when Gregory became pope in 6th century A.D. he deemed that painting can interpret to the illiterate the story of Jesus Christ. From then on, art inspired by faith had new subjects to “interpret”. Saints and martyrs became the object of murals, paintings and sculptures starting in late Byzantine period and on.

Gothic art and architecture came in the late 12th century A.D. The Gothic movement started in France where the architectural style was emphasized by pointed spires and arched windows. Gothic sculpture developed from the stiff and elongated style of the late Romanesque period into more natural-looking and proportioned ones patterned from existing ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. Religious figures possessed more life-like facial expression and naturally pose.

Later in the period sculptures were given three-dimensional realism. They were no longer incorporated in columns and walls but stood on their own seeming “free”. Painting, long the domain of miniaturists in the scriptoria and of fresco artists in churches moved into more urbanized workshops. Miniaturists and painters now had secular patrons thus ushering a new kind of art in the later part of the Gothic period.

The greatness and glory of the Age of Faith still remain.

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