The following list is Part IB (400-1399 CE) of my attempt to trace the history of human artistic endeavors by finding the best, most significant, and most highly-regarded works of visual art (primarily painting and sculpture) from all times and places and presenting them in chronological order. The seven Art History 101 lists contain every work of art that was on at least two of the 24 ‘Best Works of Art’ lists that I collected from the Internet and books. Although most of the resources available to me focused almost exclusively on the art of Western Civilization, the list does identify some of the most significant artworks produced by the artists of Asia, Africa and South America. Because I believe visuals are essential for discussing the visual arts, I have included images of the art works, In most cases, you can click on the images to enlarge them. (I have tried to use public domain images where possible. In other cases, I believe this is a fair non-commercial use for educational purposes. If there are copyright concerns, please let me know.)
Each entry includes the date of the work, the artist’s name, the name (or names) of the work, the style or culture associated with the work, and the location where the work was produced. In addition, I have included a brief essay with description (including measurements), artistic materials used, background and interpretation. To see the rest of the Art History 101 series, click on the links below:
Part 1A (Prehistoric Era – 399 CE)
Part IIA (1400-1499)
Part IIB (1500-1599)
Part III (1600-1799)
Part IV (1800-1899)
Part V (1900-Present)
For a list of the greatest works of visual art organized by rank, that is, with the artworks on the most lists at the top, go here.
400 CE – 999 CE
c. 300-400 CE: Unknown Artist: Obelisk of Axum (Axum Stele)
[Kingdom of Axum; Ethiopia]
The Kingdom of Axum (also spelled Aksum) was born in the 2nd Century BCE in present-day Ethiopia and thrived into the 10th Century CE, becaming one of the first African communities to adopt Christianity. Obelisks or stelae are found throughout the Axum territories and are believed to have been markers for underground burial chambers. Most stelae are small, but those for kings and nobles were immense and were decorated with carvings of false doors and windows and other architectural features. After the adoption of Christianity in the 4th Century CE, the Kingdom outlawed the practice of making stelae. The Axum Obelisk (also known as the Axum Stele) is made of granite, stands 79 ft. tall and weighs 176 tons (see first image). In addition to two false doors at the base and numerous false windows, it has a semicircular crown that was once enclosed by metal frames. The history of the stele is complex. At some point in its history, it collapsed and broke into five pieces. In 1935, when Italy conquered Ethiopia, the Italians brought the stele back to Italy as war booty and erected it in Rome. There it remained until 2005, when, after many political discussions and practical difficulties, Italy began returning the stele to Ethiopia. It was finally restored and erected at its original location in 2008. There are several other very large stela at the same site. One, known as the Great Stele, measuring 108 ft. tall, apparently collapsed as it was being erected, and still lies broken on the ground. The largest stele that has never broken is King Ezana’s Stela, at 70 ft. tall (see second image). UNESCO World Heritage Site (1980).
c. 465-485 CE: Unknown Artist: Buddha Preaching the Law (Preaching Buddha)
[Gupta Period, Sarnath, India]
According to Buddhist tradition, after Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, he went to the Deer Park in Sarnath, India and preached his first sermon to his first five disciples, thereby setting in motion the Wheel of the Dharma, or Dharmachakra. There are many artistic representations of the Buddha preaching the first sermon, but a sandstone Preaching Buddha in the Archaeological Museum in Sarnath is one of the most highly regarded. Dating from 465-485 CE, during the Gupta Empire, the sculpture measures 5.1 ft. tall, 2.8 ft. wide and 10.6 in. deep. The Buddha sits in front of a large Wheel of Dharma with his hands in the traditional preaching position. The carvings on either side of the Buddha include deer, thus establishing the location as the Deer Park. Below the Buddha’s crossed legs are his five disciples, along with a woman and child. Commentators have noted that this representation of the Buddha combines his compassion and spirituality with his inner bliss.
200 BCE to 500 CE: Unknown Artists: Nazca Lines [Nazca Desert; Peru]
The Monkey and Spider shown above are two of the ancient geoglyphs found over a 190 sq. mi. area in the Nazca Desert (also spelled Nasca) in southern Peru. The monkey is 310 ft. by 190 ft.; the spider is 150 ft. long. In addition to 70 depictions of animals and plants, the artists drew 300 geometric figures and over 800 straight lines. The designs were made by removing the reddish iron oxide coated pebbles from the ground, uncovering the lighter lime-filled clay beneath, which combines with mist to form a hard layer that resists erosion. Although some of the shapes can be made out from nearby hills, the full effect of the figures can only be obtained from the air. The purpose of the lines is unclear: some of the lines may mark the rising and setting of the sun and other heavenly bodies; others may have been designed to communicate with gods living in the sky, to designate paths to places of worship or to plead with the gods for water. Erich von Daniken’s theory that the lines were made by alien astronauts has been thoroughly debunked. UNESCO World Heritage Site (1994).
c. 500 CE: Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Vishnu Temple (Dashavatara Temple; Gupta Temple) [Gupta Period; Deogarh, India]
One of the first stone temples of Hinduism, the Vishnu Temple was built about 500 CE, during the Gupta Empire. Statues and relief sculptures all feature the god Vishnu or stories related to his life. The first image shows the relief sculptures on the southern temple wall, in which Vishnu reclines on the many-headed serpent Shesha (Ananta). At Vishnu’s feet are his consort Lakshmi and her attendants. Below them are Madhu and Kaitabha, two demons, whose attack is about to be thwarted by Vishnu’s four personified weapons. The second image shows reliefs from over the temple doorway, in which Vishnu is sitting on the serpent’s coils with its many hoods overhead, with Lakshmi at Vishnu’s feet and flanked by two of his incarnations. The third image shows the elephant god Ganesh. The fourth image shows the northern temple wall, which shows the story of Vishnu saving Gajendra the elephant from a crocodile.
c. 527-548 CE: Unknown Artist: Mosaics, Basilica of San Vitale [Byzantine; Ravenna, Italy]
The Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy is one of the few Byzantine churches that has survived to the present essentially unchanged. Built from 527-548 CE, while Ravenna was under the rule of the Ostrogoths, St. Vitale contains some of the finest mosaics outside Istanbul. The artistic style is in the Hellenistic-Roman tradition, which includes bright colors, some perspective and vivid depictions of plants, birds and landscapes. The program of mosaics includes numerous Bible stories and figures, angels, plants, birds and other animals. The presbytery vault (see first image) contains a mosaic of Jesus, robed in purple, sitting on a blue globe and handing the crown of martyrdom to St. Vitale. On a side wall of the apse is a mosaic of Roman Emperor Justinian I and a retinue carrying the traditional gifts for a religious procession (see second image). To the right of Justinian are clergy, including Bishop Maximian, to whom the Basilica was dedicated. To the left are administration officials and soldiers. The message seems to be that the Emperor is head of church and state. The halo around Justinian’s head and the number of his retinue (12 – same as the Apostles of Christ) indicate an even closer connection between the Emperor and the deity. A nearby mosaic shows Empress Theodora, looking like a goddess, and her retinue (see third image).
c. 500-550 CE: Unknown Artist: Vienna Genesis [Early Christian; Syria]
The Vienna Genesis is an illustrated manuscript from the 6th Century containing an abbreviated version of the Book of Genesis in Greek, it was probably created in Syria. At the bottom of each page is a painted miniature. The pages are made of calf vellum dyed royal purple. The existing book consists of 24 pages, but it is believed that the original was much larger. The Vienna Genesis is the oldest extant example of an illustrated Christian religious text and contains elements of Classical and Medieval artistic styles. The book is now in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna. First image: Rebekah and Eliezer at the Well (full page). Second image: Jacob Crossing the River/Wrestling with the Angel (detail).
c. 525-550 CE: Unknown Artist: The Barberini Ivory [Late Antiquity; Turkey]
The Barberini Ivory, which is in the Louvre in Paris, measures 13 in. tall by 11 in. wide and is made of elephant ivory and precious stones, most of which are lost. There is no evidence that it was painted. Some believe it was one of two panels in an imperial diptych made in Constantinople in the second quarter of the 6th Century. The ivory, which was carved in the style known as Late Theodosian, consists of five rectangular panels fitted together in a larger panel using tongue and groove joints. The central panel shows a victorious Byzantine emperor, probably Justinian but possibly Anastasius I or Zeno, riding a horse and carrying a spear . To the emperor’s left is a conquered barbarian, being held back by the spear; below him is an allegorical figure holding his foot in submission; on his upper right is an angel crowning him with a (now missing) palm. The top panel shows Jesus flanked by two angels, while the bottom panel depicts barbarians (from the West, on the left, and the East, on the right) bringing tribute, including ivory tusks, a tiger and an elephant. The left panel shows a soldier with a victory statuette. The right panel is lost. The Barberini Ivory, which is named after a Cardinal who received it as a gift, probably celebrates a Byzantine military victory over the Persians (in 506 or 532) or the Carthaginians (in 534). The presence of Christ’s image shows a shift in Christian iconography, in which previously portrayed Jesus with a symbol such as the cross.
c. 550-599 CE: Unknown Artist: Rossano Gospels (Codex Purpureus Rossanensis)
[Byzantine; Syria/Italy (?)]
The Rossano Gospels are considered to be the earliest known illuminated manuscripts of Christian New Testament writings. Written in Greek, the existing pages (188 out of an estimated 400, part of which could be a missing second volume) contain the Gospel of Matthew, most of the Gospel of Mark and a portion of a letter regarding the concordance of the gospels. The pages of parchment, measuring 11.8 in. high by 9.8 in. wide, are dyed purple, hence the Latin name Codex Purpureus Rossanensis. The text is written in two columns of 20 lines each; the first three lines of each gospel are written in gold ink, with the remainder in silver. The 15 illuminated pages have been placed at the beginning of the manuscript instead of integrated with the text, as in later manuscripts. Twelve of the illuminated pages depict episodes from the life of Christ (including Christ before Pilate, shown in the first image), often with the evangelists pictured on the bottom half of the page. One of the illuminated pages shows the four evangelists in a circle of concordance. Another is a portrait of Mark the Evangelist, with an angel (see second image). The portrait of St. Mark is believed to be the first known evangelist portrait, although at least one scholar believes it is a later insertion. The exact date of the Gospels is disputed, with a majority of scholars dating it to the 6th Century CE. Some experts believe it must have been written in Italy after the Byzantine Empire reconquered the Italian peninsula from the Ostrogoths in 553 CE. Some believe it was produced in Syria or Palestine and brought to Italy later, perhaps by someone escaping the waves of art-destroying iconoclasm that swept the Byzantine church from 726-787 and 814-842. The Rossano Gospels are now located in the Diocesan Museum of the Archepiscopal Palace in Rossano, Italy.
c. 550-600 CE: Unknown Artist: Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels [Byzantine, Egypt]
Nestled at the base of Mt. Sinai in the Egyptian desert lies St. Catherine’s Monastery, home to many rare religious icons and illustrated manuscripts, including the 6th Century icon Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels. These works of art exist because St. Catherine’s isolation allowed it to escape persecution and repeated waves of iconoclasm over the centuries. Like all icons, Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels, also known as Virgin and Child with Angels and Sts. George and Theodore; and Virgin and Child Enthroned, was not intended to be a work of art but a focus of worship. The icon, which measures 2.2 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide, was made in the last half of the 6th Century using encaustic, in which the artist added colored pigments to heated beeswax, which he then poured onto prepared wood and manipulated with a special brush. Two soldier saints (George and Theodore), feet planted firmly on the ground and staring blankly forward, flank the Virgin Mary, who holds the baby Jesus on her lap. Behind them, two other angels, with near transparent haloes, stare in awe at the hand of God reaching down from heaven, sending a shaft of holy light onto Mary and her son, who look off to the right, failing to meet our gaze. According to one scholar, the viewer is drawn first to the soldiers, the most ordinary, then to the central Virgin and Jesus, and up to the second set of angels, who direct the gaze to the hand of God, thus showing the believer the path to salvation. St. Catherine’s Monastery and its environs were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.
c. 200 BCE – 650 CE: Unknown Artists: Murals, Ajanta Caves [Maharastra, India]
Carved into a basalt cliff in the Aurangabad district of India’s Maharashtra state are nearly 30 Buddhist temple-caves (see overall site view in the second image) that contain some of the earliest and best examples of Classical Indian mural painting. Most of the caves served as viharas, residence halls for Buddhist monks (each of which includes a small shrine), while five of the caves are chaitya-grihas, which are stupa halls containing Buddhist shrines. Each cave contains numerous works of religious art, including paintings created using a fresco technique. Most scholars believe the caves were built in two phases. The first phase probably lasted from 100 BCE to 100 CE (although some say 300 BCE to 100 BCE), during the Satavahana Dynasty, and follow the Hinayana (Theravada) form of Buddhism. The early caves are numbered 9, 10, 12 13 and 15A (see third image). The second period of cave-building probably took place from the 4th to the 7th centuries CE, during the Vakataka Dynasty, although at least one scholar believes the second phase was much shorter, from 460-480 CE. The second phase follows the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and includes caves 1-8, 11 and 14-29 (see first, fourth and fifth images). The caves were used on and off in later centuries, possibly as shelter for travelers, with scattered references to them in medieval literature and as late as a 17th Century survey during reign of Akbar the Great. The world rediscovered the caves 1819 British soldier John Smith stumbled upon them during a tiger-hunting expedition. The Ajanta Caves became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
First image: Bodhisattva Padmapani, from Cave 1 (later phase).
Second image: Overall view of the Ajanta Caves site.
Third image: A scene from the Life of the Buddha, showing two kings, from Cave 10 (earlier phase) (photo by Prasad Pawar).
Fourth image: Scene from the Mahanipata Jataka: In his palace, King Mahajanaka announces his decision to renounce the worldly life. From Cave 1 (later phase).
Fifth image: Portion of mural showing the Coming of Sinhala, from Cave 17 (later phase).
c. 650 CE: Unknown Artist: Descent of the Ganges (Arjuna’s Penance)
[Pallava Dynasty; Mahabalipuram, India]
At Mahabalipuram in India, an enormous bas relief (96 ft. wide by 43 ft. high) is carved on two boulders of pink granite separated by a fissure (first image). The carving includes over 100 figures, many of them life size, representing humans, animals, Hindu gods and other mythological figures. The reliefs were made during the reign of Narasimhavarman I of the Pallava Dynasty, who ruled from 630-668 CE. Many scholars believe the sculptures depict the story of the descent of the holy river Ganges at the order of Shiva, with Bhagiratha leading the way. In the second image, an emaciated Bhagiratha is shown doing penance outside his hermitage. As evidence for the Descent of the Ganges interpretation, the remains of a cistern have been found atop the fissure that was used to create a waterfall effect. The third image shows a serpent deity carved into the fissure. Others believe the carvings tell the story of Arjuna, one of the major protagonists of the Mahabharata, performing a penance in order to obtain a weapon called the Pashupatastra from Lord Shiva. Some have even posited that both legends are included on the boulders. In 1984, UNESCO designated the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, including the reliefs known as Descent of the Ganges reliefs, as a World Heritage Site.
c. 650-699 CE: Yan Liben: The Thirteen Emperors Scroll [Tang Dynasty; China]
In 7th Century China, painters and other artists were held in low regard socially. Yan Liben was an aristocrat and a government official specializing in architectural matters who served in the administrations of two Tang Dynasty emperors (Taizong and his son Gaozong). To Yan’s shame, however, it was his hobby of painting that made him famous at court. His most acclaimed painting, The Thirteen Emperors Scroll, covers 700 years of Chinese history through portraits of pre-Tang emperors beginning with the Emperor Zhao Di, from the Western Han Dynasty, who reigned from c. 86-74 BCE, to Emperor Yang Di, of the Sui Dynasty, who reigned from 605-617 CE. The sequence is chronological from right to left except for the 7th, 8th and 9th emperors. Each emperor is presented in a separate scene with his entourage (but with no background, which was felt to be distracting) in dignified poses that emphasize their imperial status. The scroll is made of silk and measures 1.7 ft. tall by 17.4 ft. long; it is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston but is not currently on display. The images above are: (1) Liu Bei, Emperor Zhaolie Di, Shu Han Dynasty (reigned 221-223 CE); (2) (left) Chen Bozong, Emperor Fei Di, Chen Dynasty (reigned 566-568 CE); (right) Cao Pi, Emperor Wen Di, Wei Dynasty (reigned 221-226 CE); (3) Yang Jian, Emperor Wen Di, Sui Dynasty (reigned 581-604 CE); (4) Chen Shubao, Emperor Xuan Di, Chen Dynasty (reigned 569-582 CE).
691 CE: Unknown Artist: Mosaics, Dome of the Rock [Islamic; Jerusalem]
The Dome of the Rock is an Islamic religious building that sits atop one of the most sacred and most disputed sites on earth. According to Jewish and Christian tradition, it was here, on the highest spot in old Jerusalem, that Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, and where King Solomon built the second Temple, the hub of Judaism for centuries (the same Temple from which Jesus chased out the moneylenders), until the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE. To Muslims, the site meant all the foregoing and more, for according to Islamic tradition, it was from this spot that an angel led the prophet Mohammed up into heaven, where he met Jesus and Moses and saw God. As part of their wave of conquests in the early 7th Century, Muslim armies captured this spot and all of Jerusalem in 637 CE. Fifty years later, Umayyad Caliph Abd-al-Malik ordered a shrine to be built around the holy rock at the top of the hill; historians estimate that construction of the magnificent golden-domed structure, which was based on a Byzantine model, took place between 688 and 692 CE. The decoration of the Dome on the Rock, as the shrine came to be known, consisted of multicolored mosaics made of glazed ceramic tiles. According to tradition (based in part on Islamic teachings), the designs do not include animals or human figures. Instead, the mosaics include numerous plant designs as well as inanimate objects such as vessels, crowns and jewels. Experts have noted the influence of both Byzantine mosaic technique and vegetal motifs and also Persian/Sasanian iconography, such as winged crowns. The mosaics are noted for their variety and the artist’s willingness to have the designs run counter to the underlying structure of the architecture. According to two scholars, Dome of the Rock mosaics demonstrate both the “non-realistic use of realistic shapes” and the “anti-naturalistic combination of naturalistic forms.” R. Ettinghausen & O. Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250 28-34 (Yale Univ. Press 1994) (http://thehope.tripod.com/domerock.htm). In 1099, Christian Crusaders captured Jerusalem and converted the Dome on the Rock into a church. Then, in 1187, Saladin won back Jerusalem for Islam. In the 16th Century, when Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Magnificent engaged in a series of renovations to the Dome on the Rock, including adding to or restoring much of the tilework. Much of the tilework on the outside of the building was replaced with Ottoman-style tiles from Iznik (see third image, showing Ottoman-era exterior mosaics). As for the interior, there is little evidence to indicate which mosaics are original 9th Century tiles and which were added or replaced in the 16th Century. Scholars who have studied the mosaics believe that, in the interior at least, the restoration did not significantly change the designs or patterns, but mostly replaced broken or missing tiles (see first and second images, showing interior mosaics). The next major renovations occurred in 1955-1964, sponsored by Jordan. In 1967, to complicate matters, Israel captured the hilltop and for a short time flew the flag of Israel over the Dome of the Rock. The shrine is now cared for by the Islamic community. In 1981, UNESCO designated the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls, including the Dome of the Rock, as a World Heritage Site.
c. 700-715 CE: Eadfrith of Lindisfarne: Lindisfarne Gospels [Hiberno-Saxon; England]
The illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels was produced in a monastery on Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland in the UK. Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 until his death in 721, is presumed to be the artist. The book, which measures 14.4 inches high and 10.8 inches wide, was originally encased in a leather binding covered with jewels and precious metals made by Billfrith the Anchorite, but this treasure was looted by the Vikings sometime after their first raid in 793. The original Latin text is written using insular majuscule script and the art is considered an early and prime example of the insular or Hiberno-Saxon art of the British Isles in the post-Roman period. In the 10th Century, Aldred, Provost of Chester-le-Street, inserted a word-for-word Old English translation between the lines of the Latin text and a short history of the book, noting that it was made in honor of 7th Century St. Cuthbert, an earlier Bishop of Lindisfarne. The style of the illuminations incorporates Christian and pre-Christian imagery, including Celtic, Germanic and Irish artistic traditions. Each Gospel is introduced by a portrait of the evangelist – the portrait page of St. Matthew is shown in the second image. St. Matthew’s cross-carpet page (folio 26v), with its cross surrounded by swirling knots and spirals, is shown in the first image. The Lindisfarne Gospels is now located in the British Library in London.
705-715 CE: Unknown Artist: Mosaics, Great Mosque of Damascus (Umayyad Mosque)
The Great Mosque of Damascus, or Umayyad Mosque, was built between 705-715 CE on the site of a Christian cathedral. After being conquered by Alexander the Great and then the Romans, Damascus became a Christian city during the Byzantine era, until Muslim Arabs under Khalid ibn al-Walid captured the city in 634-635 CE. When the Umayyad Caliphate began in 661, the Umayyads made Damascus the capital of the Islamic world. The sixth Umayyad caliph, al-Walid I (who reigned from 705-715) decided to build a mosque in Damascus that would accommodate the full congregation for Friday prayers. He enlisted builders and artists from the entire region. The interior and exterior of the mosque were decorated with elaborate mosaics. In addition to the geometric designs familiar from the Dome of the Rock, which had been built just a few years earlier, al-Walid’s mosaics depicted fanciful landscapes and architecture: trees, flowers, rivers, castles, houses, gardens and fountains. In keeping with Islamic tradition, no mosaics depicted men, women or animals of any kind. Not long after the completion of the Great Mosque, the Umayyad Caliphate came to an end, and their successors in the Abbasid Caliphate ignored the mosque. It was not until the 11th Century, under the Seljuk Turks, that the neglected mosque received much-needed renovations. Two centuries later, the Mamluks conducted extensive renovations, with a particular focus on restoring the mosaics. Unfortunately, the mosque was damaged by serious fires in 1339, 1400 and, most recently, 1893. While some of the original 715 CE mosaics still exist, many of the designs are restorations of varying quality. (First image: interior mosaics; second image: exterior mosaics.)
c. 100-800 CE: Unknown Artists: Portrait Vessels [Moche; Peru]
The Moche culture that flourished in present-day Peru between 100-800 CE produced ceramic vessels carved into individualized and naturalistic three-dimensional representations of human faces, known as Moche Portrait Vessels. Close to 1000 vessels have been discovered, representing nine basic mold types. The vast majority of the portraits are of adult men; they occasionally portray physical defects such as harelips, missing eyes, or in one case, an apparent paralysis. These are the earliest realistic depictions of human faces in the Americas. Although most of the vessels portray the head of the subject, some include the entire body. Many of the portrait vessels contain stirrup spouts, a feature of ceramic vessels in a number of Pre-Columbian cultures. The handle, which resembles a stirrup, forms part of the spout for the vessel. Most of the vessels are 6-12 in. tall. The smallest vessel is just over two inches tall while the largest is just under 18 inches high. The typical portrait vessel is painted with red on a pale cream background, but some are painted with white over a red and black background. The purpose of these elaborately decorated vessels is a subject of debate. While some experts believe they were designed to be placed in tombs, there is evidence that they were used in everyday life to hold liquids. The portrait vessels shown in the images above are:
(1) Portrait of a Ruler wearing headgear with two birds, Museo Nacional Antropologia in Lima, Peru;
(2) Portrait Vessel measuring 8.3 in. tall, 6.5 in. wide and 5.5 in. deep, c. 50-800 CE, at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland;
(3) Portrait Vessel, showing earflares, c. 100-500 CE, Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts; and
(4) Portrait Vessel of a Ruler, c. 100 BCE-500 CE, Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.
c. 100-800 CE: Unknown Artists: Ear Ornaments [Moche Culture; Peru]
The Moche civilization thrived in the Andean mountains of present-day Peru from 100-800 CE. Wearing ear ornaments known as earflares or earplugs was a way for the rich and powerful to distinguish themselves. Wealthy or high ranking individuals could afford elaborately decorated ornaments made of gold and decorated with mosaics using precious stones. A long tube, often of wood, would be inserted into the ear to anchor the ornaments, which could be quite large. Show in the images above are: (1) Single ear ornament showing a warrior or god and two attendants, made of gold and turquoise and dating to c. 300 CE, measures 4.75 in. in diameter and is located in the Bruning Archaeological Museum in Lambayeque, Peru; (2) A pair of ear ornaments dated from 100-800 CE, with a geometrical pattern of iquanas, made of gold with turquoise and malachite shells; each earring measures 3 in. across; they are now in the Museo Larco in Lima, Peru; (3) A pair of gold and turquoise earrings with the image of a deer, dating to 100-800 CE, is also in the Larco Museum.
c. 800 CE: Unknown Artist: The Book of Kells [Celtic Christian; Insular Art; England/Ireland]
The Book of Kells is an illustrated manuscript containing the four Christian Gospels and other writings. The book, which measures 13 in. high by 10 in. wide, was created in one or more of the English and Irish monasteries founded by St. Colomba, probably Iona, in England, and then Kells, in Ireland, where it remained until the mid-17th Century, when it was moved to Dublin and eventually to the library of Trinity College. The artist’s finest achievements are the initial pages, in which the first letter of the Gospel is elaborated into a world of figures and designs (such as with the beginning of the Gospel of John, shown in the first image), and the 10 surviving full-page illuminations, such as Christ Enthroned (see second image). The Book of Kells is considered the most extravagant and complex example of Insular Art. All 680 pages are viewable online HERE.
c. 800-820 CE: Unknown Artist: The Aachen Gospels [Carolingian, Germany]
The Aachen Gospels is an illuminated manuscript in the Carolingian style from 800-820 CE. Scholars believe it was made by a member of the Ada School, which produced at least nine other illuminated manuscripts, including the late 8th Century Vienna Coronation Gospels. The gospels are part of the treasury of the Aachen Cathedral in Aachen, Germany and are sometimes known as the Treasury Gospels. The book, which measures 11.9 in. tall by 9.2 in. wide, consists of 280 parchment leaves, which contain the texts of the four Gospels as well as supplementary material. The writing is Carolingian minuscule and there is significant architectural decoration, with some Classical elements. From an artistic point of view, the Aachen Gospels are known primarily for a full-page miniature – the only one in the book – of the four Evangelists. The portrayal is considered unusual for placing the four saints in a single landscape with hills, a horizon, trees and a pink sky. In a Classical reference, they are wearing togas as each engages in a different activity (Matthew writing; Mark dipping his pen in ink; Luke reading; and John thinking). The artist has organized the landscape so that each evangelist has his own space and appears to be working alone, but the overall composition creates the sense that the four gospel writers are engaged in a single project, serving a single purpose.
c. 815-825 CE: Unknown Artist: Animal Head Post, Oseberg Viking Ship Burial
[Viking Age; Norway]
In 1904, archaeologists discovered an intact Viking burial ship under a mound of earth in Oseberg, Norway. The ship, which dates to the early 9th Century, contained two women’s bodies and a significant number of grave objects. Among the objects were five wooden posts carved into the heads of animals. They have slots for handles indicating they were carried. They may have had some magical or religious significance. The post shown in the first and second images bears at its top the 5 in. tall head of a roaring animal (perhaps a lion) with protruding eyes, while the intricate carving shows tightly interwoven animals in an interlacing serpentine pattern. The Animal Head Post is in the Viking Ship Museum, at the University of Oslo, Bygdoy, Norway.
c. 800-825 CE: Unknown Artists: Relief Sculptures, Temple of Borobudur
[Buddhist; Sailendra Dynasty; Java, Indonesia]
Borobudur is a Mahayana Buddhist temple built in the 9th Century CE during the Sailendra Dynasty on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia. It was abandoned some time after the 11th Century and rediscovered in 1814 during the British occupation of Java. In addition to the magnificent architecture and statuary, the temple walls contain 2,672 panels of bas relief carvings, covering a total of 27,000 square feet. There are 1,460 narrative and 1,212 decorative panels. The narrative panels tell the story of Sudhana and Manohara, from the Avatamsaka Sutra, as well as the life of the Buddha (see first image), including his past lives. The panels also depict various aspects of daily life in Java. The second image, for example, shows an 8th Century wooden double outrigger sailing ship used in trade. The Temple of Borobudur was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
c. 816-835 CE: Unknown Artist: Ebbo Gospels [Carolingian; France]
The Ebbo Gospels is an illuminated manuscript produced at the Benedictine abbey at Hautvillers, France in th 9th Century. The book, which measures 10 in. tall by 8 in. wide, takes its name from a poem to Ebbo, the Archbishop of Rheims, that is printed in the manuscript. The book contains a number of illuminated pages, including portraits of the Evangelists. The unknown artist has drawn the figures in an energetic style (sometimes called the shivering style) in agitated poses, which generates a level of emotion new to Carolingian art. As a result of these innovations, the Ebbo Gospels became very influential. The figure of St. Matthew, in particular, is considered a masterpiece (see first image). He writes with one hand while the other holds an ink horn, and tiny angel hovers in the upper right corner. The pinks and greens of the portrait are new colors for Carolingian art. See also the portrait of St. Mark in the second image. The figures and landscapes have been influenced by the Late Classical style, which may have come to France from Greek artists fleeing Byzantine iconoclasm, but the frenzied energy and emotion are new. Scholars have remarked that many of the images in the Ebbo Gospels appear to be based on illustrations in the Utrecht Psalter, another 9th Century manuscript. The Ebbo Gospels are now in the Bibliothèque Municipale at Épernay, France.
300-869 CE: Unknown Artists: Relief Sculptures and Murals, Tikal [Maya; Guatemala]
Tikal was a major Mayan city in what is now northern Guatemala. The Mayans built dozens of limestone structures, including enormous temples and pyramids, over a period from 4th Century BCE to 900 CE, although the city reached its peak between 200 and 900 CE. Throughout the temples and other structures, the Mayans carved relief sculptures, with or without hieroglyphics, on limestone walls, lintels made of sapodilla wood, and standing stones called stelae. They also painted colorful murals on some of the walls. The images shown are: (1) a large stucco mask of a god installed on a platform of Temple 33, flanking a stairway; and (2) a wooden lintel from Temple IV showing Tikal ruler Yik’in Chan K’awiil seated on a litter, in celebration of a military victory. Tikal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
c. 875-925 CE: Unknown Artist: High Cross of Muiredach (Muiredach’s High Cross)
[Celtic Christian; Ireland]
The High Cross of Muiredach is one of three tall Celtic crosses located at ruins of the Monasterboice monastery, in County Louth, Ireland. Made of several blocks of sandstone, the cross is 19 ft. high (including the base). The base is an attenuated pyramid measuring 2.2 ft. tall by 4.7 ft wide at the bottom and 3.6 ft. wide at the top. The 6 ft. tall shaft is 2.1 ft. wide and 1.7 ft. deep at the bottom and tapers somewhat at the top. The top stone, or capstone, is shaped like a house with a sloping roof. All four sides of the cross are divided into panels with carvings, usually with Biblical themes, but also some geometric and abstract patterns. The central panel on the west face depicts The Crucifixion (see first image), while the central panel on the east face of the cross shows The Last Judgment (see second image). The carvings include 124 figures, who generally wear contemporary clothing and hairstyles. The ring surrounding the head of the cross contains 17 different geometric or abstract patterns. The cross gets its name from a Gaelic inscription at the bottom of the west face that reads, “A prayer for Muiredach who had this cross made.”
c. 950-960 CE: Unknown Artist: Paris Psalter [Byzantine; Constantinople; Turkey]
The Paris Psalter is a large, well-preserved Byzantine-era illuminated manuscript containing the Biblical text of the Psalms. Produced in Constantinople in the early 10th Century CE, the large 449-page book contains numerous painted miniatures, including 14 full-page illustrations, seven of which tell the life of King David. Each page measures approximately 14 inches tall by 10 inches wide. The artist refers consciously to much older Classical forms and iconography, consistent with what is referred to as the Macedonian Renaissance. Of particular note are the personified virtues and muses who sit with David as he composes the Psalms on his lyre, which appear to be based on Greco-Roman wall paintings (see first image). This conscious imitation of centuries-old styles may indicate a desire to connect the current period with a mythical past Golden Age. The imitation is so convincing that art historians originally dated the psalter to the 6th Century CE. Other full-page illustrations from the psalter include: the healing of Hezekiah (second image) and the Reproach of Nathan and the Penance of King David (third image). The Paris Psalter is now at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
c. 960-970 CE: Unknown Artist: Gero Crucifix (Gero Cross) [Carolingian; Germany]
Located in a chapel in Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, the Gero Crucifix is one of the first depictions of the dead Jesus on the cross and is the oldest life-sized crucifix known in northern Europe. The sculpture is made of carved oak, which has been painted and gilded more than once over the centuries, most recently in 1904. The figure of Jesus, which measures 6.1 ft from head to feet, and 5.4 ft from arm to arm. shows a mixture of Carolingian/Ottonian and Byzantine elements. The distracting starburst backdrop was added in 1683.
c. 997-1000 CE: Workshop of Liuthar: Gospel Book of Otto III [Ottonian; Germany]
About the year 1000, artists at the Benedictine monastery on the island of Reichenau in Germany’s Lake Constance created a number of remarkable illuminated manuscripts, including the Gospel Book of Otto III. Art historians identify this and other works as products of workers supervised by a scribe named Liuthar. Numerous Byzantine elements in the illustrations indicate a conscious attempt to hearken back to a mythical Golden Age. Near the beginning of the manuscript, a double page shows Holy Roman Emperor Otto III enthroned, holding an orb and scepter (see first image). Other full-page illustrations show the Evangelists and scenes from the life of Jesus. Each page measures 13.1 in tall by 9.5 in wide. The second image shows Luke the Evangelist. The Gospel Book of Otto III is now located at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, Germany.
1000-1001: Ibn al-Bawwab (Ali ibn Hilal): Illustrated Qur’an
[Buyid Dynasty, Persia; Iraq]
The Persian illuminator and calligrapher known as Ibn al-Bawwab (‘son of the doorkeeper’) was born Ali ibn Hilal in the late 10th Century during the Buyid Dynasty, probably in Baghdad. Despite his humble beginnings, Ibn al-Bawwab studied law and memorized the Qur’an. His interest in calligraphy was inspired by the work of early 10th Century calligrapher Ibn Muqla, who had originated the al-khatt al-mansub (“well-proportioned script”) style. Ibn al-Bawwab went on to perfect the style. He also contributed to the development of a number of early cursive scripts. Ibn al-Bawwab was said to have made 64 copies of the Qur-an during his lifetime (he died in 1022), but only one has survived intact. It is kept in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland, and dates to 1000-1001. The images of the Qur’an in the Chester Beatty Library shown above are: (1) illuminated frontispiece pages and (2) calligraphy, as well as some illuminated medallions in the margin of Chapter 28.
c. 1000-1020: Fan Kuan: Travellers among Mountains and Streams (Travelers By Streams and Mountains) [Song Dynasty; China]
Chinese landscape painter Fan Kuan, who lived during the Song Dynasty, is best known for Travellers Among Mountains and Streams (also known as Travelers by Streams and Mountains) (see first image), a hanging scroll made using ink and color on silk and measuring 6.75 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide. Little is known about Fan, who spent much of his life as a recluse in the mountains of Shanxi. His love for the mountains, and his Neo-Confucian belief that nature is the source of absolute truth, is evident in this work. The scale of the painting gives the viewer a sense of the immensity of nature, which dwarfs the human elements, including men leading a pack of mules out of a wood, and a temple in the forest on the cliff (see detail in second image). Yet Fan also manages to capture the way that all these parts fit together to form a harmonious whole. Scholars have noted a paradox in the style of the Travellers Among Mountains and Streams: on the one hand, it is a seminal work that established an ideal in monumental landscape painting to which others aspired; on the other hand, Fan Kuan’s composition, which relies on a central massive element, and his mechanical brush strokes used for the foliage are archaic techniques that look backward instead of breaking new ground. The scroll is now in the National Palace Museum, in Taipei, Taiwan.
c. 1072: Guo Xi: Early Spring [Northern Song Dynasty; China]
Guo Xi was a master 11th Century Chinese painter and highly-educated court professional. He wrote an influential treatise on painting entitled The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams and developed a new system of brushstrokes that was adopted by many succeeding painters. His 1072 masterpiece, Early Spring, is a monumental landscape, the most common type of painting in the Northern Song dynasty (see first image). Guo used ink and color on a silk hanging scroll measuring 5.2 ft. tall by 3.5 ft. wide; he signed and dated the work, which was very unusual. Although at first, the painting appears to contain only trees, water, clouds, rocks and various land formations, on closer inspection, the landscape reveals not only a temple and several other buildings, but also various human figures (see detail in second image). Early Spring is an example of Guo’s innovative technique known as floating perspective (or as Guo called it, “the angle of totality”), which allows the artist to present multiple visual viewpoints simultaneously. In 1759, Emperor Qianlong added a poem to the upper right portion of the painting, with verses describing the scene below.
c. 1075: Unknown Artist: Bayeux Tapestry [Norman Romanesque; UK]
The Bayeaux Tapestry is not a true tapestry, but an embroidered cloth 224 ft. long and 1.6 ft. tall that tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England and events leading up to it by means of an illustrated narrative. The tapestry consists of nine linen panels with fifty scenes, each with a caption in Latin, embroidered with colored woolen yarns on a linen cloth. The final portion has been lost. Although legend attributes the tapestry to French artists, scholars now believe that skilled Anglo-Saxon seamsters made the work in England in the 1070s. It was probably commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother Bishop Odo, Earl of Kent and founder of the Bayeaux Cathedral in Normandy, where the tapestry was first mentioned in a 1476 inventory. In addition to historical scenes involving William, Duke of Normandy, Harold, Earl of Wessex (later King) and King Edward the Confessor, the tapestry includes the first depiction of a harrow, a newly-invented farm implement, and the first image of Halley’s Comet, which appeared in March/April 1066. The images above show: (1) King Edward meeting with his brother-in-law Harold in 1064 at Westminster Palace; and (2) Harold crossing the Channel to Normandy. A Victorian replica of the tapestry, with explanatory narrative, may be viewed online HERE. The original Bayeux Tapestry is on display at the Centre Guillaume le Conquerant in Bayeux, France.
c. 1103-1117: Master of Estaban: Relief Sculptures, South Façade (Das Pratarías), Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela [Romanesque, Spain]
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela standing today, which was the destination of a great many medieval pilgrims, was preceded by at least two other structures. The first church was built in 829 CE but it was replaced in 899 CE by a second church, the one that began the pilgrimage tradition. An Arab-Muslim army burned the church in 997 CE. The current cathedral was begun in 1075 under Alfonso VI of Castile and was consecrated in 1211 under Alfonso IX of Leon. The cathedral was renovated and expanded in the 16th-18th centuries. From an art historical perspective, the most interesting aspect of the cathedral is the southern façade of the transept, known as the Pratarías façade (facade of the silverware). Built between 1103 and 1117 and attributed to the Master of Esteban, the Pratarías façade is the only Romanesque façade preserved in the current cathedral and contains highly-regarded relief sculptures, particularly in the tympanums over the Porta de Praterias (see first image).
c. 1100-1130: Unknown Artist: Our Lady of Vladimir (Virgin of Vladimir)
[Byzantine; Comnenian Period; Constantinople]
The Virgin of Vladimir is a religious icon that was probably painted in Constantinople about 1130. It has been in Russia since 1131 and is venerated by the Russian Orthodox Church as the protectoress of Russia. The icon is of the Eleusa type, in which the infant Jesus nestles tenderly against his mother’s cheek. It was sent to the town of Vladimir by Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky and the Assumption Church was built to house it. The icon came to Moscow in 1480. Over the years, the icon, painted with tempera on wood and measuring 40.9 in. tall by 27.2 in. wide has suffered serious damage, including fires in 1195 and 1238. Much of the painting of the clothing is from restorations in the 13th, 15th and 16th centuries. The icon has been copied many times over the centuries and is one of the few that survive from the early 12th Century. Many legends have grown up around the icon, which is also known as Virgin of Vladimir, Theotokos of Vladimir, Vladimir Mother of God, and Our Lady of Vyshhorod. It is now in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
c. 1115-1130: Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, South Portal, St. Pierre (Moissac Abbey) [Romanesque, Moissac, France]
The South Portal of the church of St. Pierre in Moissac, France – one of the pilgrimage churches along the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain – is a remarkable example of Romanesque sculpture. (See entire portal in second image.) The highlight of the doorway is the tympanum above the doors, which shows Christ in Majesty, one of the two most common tympanum themes, along with The Last Judgment (see first image). As was customary in illuminated books of the period, the four evangelists surrounding Jesus are depicted as animals or with animal features: Matthew as a man with wings; Mark as a lion; Luke as an ox and John as an eagle. The third image shows a relief sculpture of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (or possibly Isaiah) from the right side of the central column, or trumeau.
c. 1120-1132: Unknown Artist: Pentecost and Mission of the Apostles Tympanum, Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, Vézelay Abbey [Romanesque; Burgundy, France]
The Basilica Church of of Saint Mary Magdalene, in Moissac, France boasts one of the most topical (one might even say propagandistic) set of sculptural reliefs in medieval Europe. The basilica (also known as the Church of La Madeleine) served as the church of Vézelay Abbey, a Benedictine (and Cluniac) monastery in the Burgundy region, which, since the mid-11th Century, claimed to possess numerous relics of St. Mary Magdalene, who is referred to in the Gospels as one a disciple and close associate of Jesus and this claim drew many religious pilgrims to Moissac, many of whom used the church as a starting point for a journey to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Unlike most sculptural programs adorning medieval Roman Catholic churches, the tympanum of this Burgundian Romanesque-style pilgrimage church’s central portal does not depict traditional timeless subjects such as the Last Judgment, Christ Enthroned in Majesty or the Coronation of Mary. Instead, most experts interpret the reliefs as showing the moment when Jesus told his Apostles to spread the gospel throughout the world, as symbolized by the rays of light streaming from his hands to the Apostles on either side of him. Some believe the scene represents the Pentecost, when the Apostles were said to receive the Holy Spirit and the gift of tongues, but the standard iconography for the Pentecost shows a dove or other representation of the Holy Spirit, not Jesus. Art historians connect the message of the tympanum and other reliefs relating to conversion of non-Christians to that of the Crusades, the first of which began in 1095, less than 10 years before construction began on the Romanesque church at Vézelay. When Pope Eugene III decided to launch a Second Crusade, it is no coincidence that he instructed French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (later St. Bernard) to announce the Second Crusade at Vézelay, where, in 1146, French King Louis VII, Eleanor of Aquitaine and a host of nobles fell at Bernard’s feet to accept the challenge and take up the sword on behalf of the Pope. Vézelay continued to be a place of significance for crusaders when, in July 1190, England’s King Richard the Lionheart of England and French King Philip Augustus met there with their armies to set off on the Third Crusade. Random Trivia: Tensions between the abbey and the people of the surrounding town of Vézelay over taxation (the abbey taxed the townspeople but was itself exempt from taxation) and other issues regularly flared into violence. Two years after Abbot Artaud raised taxes to pay for a new, larger church to accommodate the influx of pilgrims, the townspeople rebelled, killing the abbot. Despite this and other setbacks (including a major fire in 1120 that destroyed the partly-completed church), the nave of the new church was completed by 1132.
c. 1135: Master Hugo: The Bury Bible
[Romanesque; Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England]
Master Hugo was a 12th Century lay English artist, possibly the first professional artist in English history, who spent most of his career at the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk County, England. He illuminated the first (and possibly the second) volume of the Bury Bible in about 1135, in the Romanesque style. Only the first volume of the Bible, containing the Old Testament through the Book of Job, survives. The Bury Bible, measuring 20 in. tall by 14 in. wide, had a powerful influence on English art. Scholars see the color patterns, Byzantine draperies and the haunted eyes and expressive gestures of some of the figures as evidence of a new style drawing from the art of southern Italy, Cyprus, Byzantium and possibly Palestine. The first image contains two scenes of the life of Moses. The second image is the frontispiece for the Bible with the opening initial. The Bury Bible is in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, England. The entire Bible may be viewed HERE.
1120-1140: Fujiwara no Takayoshi (attrib.): The Tale of Genji Scroll (Genji Monogatari Emaki)
[Heian Period; Japan]
The Tale of Genji Scroll (also known as Genji Monogatari Emaki) is a 12th Century illustrated version of The Tale of Genji, which was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in 1021. It is the oldest surviving story scroll and the oldest surviving non-Buddhist scroll in Japan. Although the scroll has traditionally been attributed to Court painter Fujiwara no Takayoshi, scholars now believe that the work is not his, although artists connected with Takayoshi are believed to have been involved. Scholars estimate that the original scroll was 450 ft. long, with 20 rolls, over 100 paintings and more than 300 sheets of calligraphy. Only about 15% of the original work survives: 19 paintings, 65 sheets of text and 9 pages of fragments are divided between the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya and the Gotoh Museum in Tokyo. The style of the scroll derives from the Classical Japanese tradition known as Yamato-e and not from the Chinese-influenced styles that we’re becoming popular at the time. The artists used the technique of tsukuri-e (“manufactured painting), which involves four steps: (1) select scenes from the story with visual effects; (2) draw the scene in black and white; (3) add color to the drawing and add colored details; and (4) re-draw the black outlines from the original design. The artists of the Tale of Genji Scroll frequently used two pictorial techniques: (1) fukinki yatai, or ‘blown-away roof’, which gives the viewer a bird’s eye view of the scene, from an upper diagonal perspective, with roofs and ceilings invisible; and (2) hikime kagibana or ‘slit eyes and hook nose’, a method of drawing human faces so they look almost exactly alike, and are seen in full or partial (30% angle) profile, never in full frontal view. Despite the strictures of hikime kagibana, the artist(s) manage to express a great deal of emotion by altering the size and shape of the characters’ feature and the tilt of their heads or by using inanimate objects symbolically. Shown above are four images from the Tale of Genji Scroll: (1) Chapter 39, Evening Mist (Gotoh Museum); (2) Chapter 45, Mistletoe (Tokugawa Art Museum); and (3) Chapter 36, Oak Tree (Tokugawa Art Museum).
1181: Nicholas of Verdun: Verdun Altar (Klosterneuburg Altarpiece)
French goldsmith and enamelllist Nicholas of Verdun was a master of Romanesque art and the major exponent of Mosan Art, a regional subgenre of Romanesque from the Meuse valley in what is now Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Later in his career, Nicholas began to incorporate aspects of Classical art into his work, aiding the transition from Romanesque to Gothic style. Nicholas of Verdun is perhaps best known for the Verdun Altar, in the Chapel of St. Leopold, in the Klosterneuburg Monastery in Austria. The altar consists of 45 (some say 51) decorative copper panels with Biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments, which Nicholas made in 1181 using the champlevé enamel technique. There is some confusion about when the panels were arranged and assembled into a winged three-part altarpiece seen in the first image. While some believe that Nicholas of Verdun organized the Biblical scenes into a triptych, other authorities claim this did not occur until 1331. If this is true, it is not clear how the panels were displayed in the intervening two centuries. The panels shown in the second and third images are Jonah and the Whale/Samson and the Lion; and (3) Spies Return from the Valley of Eskkola.
c. 1153-1186: Unknown Artist: Reclining Buddha, Gal Vihara
[Kingdom of Polonnaruwa; Sri Lanka]
During the 12th Century, King Parakramabahu I built the Gal Vihara temple at Polonnaruwa, in north-central Sri Lanka. The temple features four Buddhas carved deeply into a single granite rock face: two seated, one standing and one reclining. These sculptures are considered some of the finest examples of ancient Sinhalese art. The Reclining Buddha is the largest of the four figures, measuring 46.3 ft. long (see first image). It shows the Buddha in the lion posture as he attains parinirvana, or final nirvana, at the moment of death. He lies on his right side with his right arm supporting his head on a pillow and his left arm resting on his body (see detail in second image, with standing Buddha). Lotus flowers are carved on his right palm and the soles of his feet. The Buddha’s left foot is withdrawn slightly to indicate that he is not merely resting. UNESCO World Heritage Site.
c. 1180-1189: Unknown Artist: Mosaics, Cathedral of Monreale
During the 11th and 12 Centuries, the Normans (from France’s Normandy region) conquered Sicily and much of southern Italy, taking much of the land from the Arab Muslims who had come across the Mediterranean centuries before. In the 1180s, the Norman king of Sicily, William II, ordered a cathedral to be built in the town of Monreale. Monreale was significant because it was where the Bishop of Palermo had moved his church when the Arab Muslims occupied Palermo. The cathedral, which was substantially completed by the time of Edward’s death in 1189, is considered the best example of Norman architecture, but it is especially famous for its wealth of religious-themed mosaics: the most extensive mosaic decorations in Italy and second only to Hagia Sophia in the world. The mosaics, which are made of millions of tiny pieces of glass, cover 68,220 square feet of space on the walls, including the arches – the equivalent of over 13 Sistine Chapel ceilings. The largest and most highly-regarded mosaic is the half-length depiction of Jesus as Pantocrator (ruler of all) in the curved central apse of the cathedral (see first image). To give a sense of scale, the bridge of Jesus’ nose is over three feet long. The program of the mosaics includes a series of Jesus’ miracles, as well as many scenes from the Old Testament (see second image). All the scenes are depicted on a gold background. One scene shows William II giving a model of the cathedral to Mary, Jesus’ mother (see third image). In 2015, UNESCO designated Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale as a World Heritage Site.
c. 950-1200 CE: Unknown Artist: Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance (Shiva as Lord of the Dance, Nataraja) [Chola Dynasty, India]
Images of the Hindu god Shiva dancing are found in India as early as 5th Century CE, but it was during the Chola Dynasty (c. 860-1279 CE) that the classical iconography developed. Ancient Sanskrit writings tell the story of Shiva dancing as Nataraja in Chidambaram, the golden hall in the center of the universe, for the other gods. In his dance, Shiva shows with movements his power to create and destroy. In his lower right hand he holds the damaru, a drum whose vibrations created the world; in his upper right hand, he makes the abhaya gesture, which protects, preserves and removes fear; his upper left hand holds the fire of destruction, or agni, his right foot tramples apasmara purusha, the personification of illusion; he lifts his left leg and points to it with the gaja hasta gesture, to show it is a refuge for troubled souls. Surrounding the dancing Shiva is a flaming halo. The Shiva Nataraja iconography was propagated through many bronze statues produced in the state of Tamil Nadu during the Chola Dynasty and are often referred to as Chola Bronzes. Many such icons are located in temples and museums throughout the world. Most were made small enough to carry. The largest Chola bronze, dating from 1100-1200, is located at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and measures 5 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. wide (see first image). More typical is Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a Chola bronze statue from the 11th Century, measuring 26.9 in. tall by 22.2 in. wide (see second image). One variation to the basic design is a non-circular halo that tapers at the base, as in the Shiva Nataraja in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a Chola Dynasty bronze dating from 950-1000 CE and measuring 30 in. tall by 22.5 in. wide (see third image).
c. 1190-1200: Jōkei: Guardians (Nio), Kofuku-ji Temple
[Kei School; Kamakura Period; Nara, Japan]
The entrance to Buddhist temples is traditionally protected by two Buddha guardians, or Nio, who are among the few beings in the pacifist Buddhist tradition that can use physical force. The two Nio are Ungyo, who is always shown with his mouth closed (see first and third images) and Agyo, shown with an open mouth (see second and fourth images). The Nio are usually depicted in demonstrative postures with angry, intimidating expressions and gestures. The Nio at the entrance to the Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara, Japan were sculpted by Jokei, a member of the Kei school, during the Kamamura Period. Jokei was a student of Kokei and Unkei, and followed their belief in realism. The musculature of the two Nio, especially the Agyo, is very carefully carved. Both figures are carved of wood and, are painted in bright colors; each one stands about 5 ft. tall.
c. 1190-1200: Ma Yuan: Bare Willows and Distant Mountains (Bare Willows and Distant Hills) [Song Dynasty; China]
Chinese artist Ma Yuan was born into a family of painters and like his father and grandfather before him, he became a painter at court of the emperor. Ma Yuan served Southern Song Dynasty Emperors Guangzong (reigned 1189-1194) and Ningzong (reigned 1194-1224). Emperor Ningzong admired Ma’s work so much that he wrote several poems inspired by the artist’s paintings. Although Ma was adept at a number of types of painting, he excelled in landscapes. With another painter he founded the Ma-Xia school. One of the principles of Ma-Xia was one-corner composition, in which the major elements of the painting are collected on one side or in one corner, while the remainder of the picture were left mostly empty. This philosophy earned Ma Yuan the sobriquet ‘One-corner Ma.’ A popular fashion in Song Dynasty art was the painting of fans. Ma Yuan painted Bare Willows and Distant Mountains on a silk fan measuring 9.4 in. by 9.5 in. using ink and color, which was then mounted on an album leaf (see first image). A verse couplet is written on the right side of the fan. The painting on the fan is a landscape, with the mountains and willow tree balancing each other. In the lower right corner, a traveler approaches some huts (see detail in second image). In keeping with Ma-Xia principles, the landscape is idealized and rendered poetic, eliminating all unnecessary elements. Bare Willow and Distant Mountains is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, although it is not currently on display.
c. 1185-1206: Kosho: Kuya Preaching (The Sage Kuya, Saint Kuya)
[Kamakura Period; Japan]
Kuya-Shonin was a 10th Century Japanese itinerant Buddhist priest who founded the Rokuharamitsuji temple in Kyoto in 951 CE. Kuya pioneered a new way of practicing Buddhism that would become known as Jodo, or New Land. According to this philosophy, one could achieve rebirth in the New Land through faith and by reciting the name of Amida, the celestial Buddha, using a six-syllable phrase called the nembutsu: “Namu Amida Butsu.” Two hundred years after Kuya’s death, one of the great sculptors of the Kamakura Period, Kosho, created his portrait in wood. Standing 3.8 ft. tall, Kuya Preaching was originally painted and had inset crystal eyes. He is sculpted in a realistic style – even his veins are visible. Dressed as a pilgrim, he wears wrinkled peasant’s clothing and straw sandals and carries an antler-topped staff and a gong with a stick to strike it (see first and second images). Most importantly, however, Kosho depicts Kuya in the act of reciting the nembutsu, as symbolized by the six tiny Amidas emerging from his mouth (see third image). The statue is kept in the Rokuharamitsuji temple in Kyoto that Kuya-Shonin himself founded over a thousand years ago.
c. 1190-1210: Unknown Artist: Face Towers, Bayon [Khmer; Buddhist; Cambodia]
Bayon Temple, located at Angkor Thom in what is now Cambodia, was built during the reign of Khmer ruler Jayavarman VII around the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th Century CE as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine. Later rulers altered and adapted Bayon to serve as a Hindu temple and then as a Theravada Buddhist shrine. The temple contains a series of bas relief sculptures, but its most remarkable features are the approximately 200 “face towers” that rise above the main body of the temple; each tower contains one or more faces of a smiling male figure. Some scholars believe the faces represent Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, while others think they depict Jayavarman VII himself. The images above are: (1), (2) detail of the face towers; (3) overview of the ruins of Bayon Temple.
c. 1185-1215: Unknown Artist: Head of Jayavarman VII [Bayon; Khmer; Cambodia]
Jayavarman VII was king of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia from 1181 to 1218. One of the first Buddhist kings in Cambodia, Jayavarman VII adopted the Mahayana form of Buddhism as the state religion. A sandstone bust of the king from the late 12th or early 13th Century was carved in the Bayon style, which adopted a more naturalistic approach than in the idealized portraits of previous eras. The king is shown here in middle age, with some fleshiness in his face, humbly meditating with downcast eyes and what has been called the Angkor smile. The sculpture measures 16.5 in tall by 9.8 in. wide by 12.2 in. deep and is now in the Musée Guimet in Paris.
c. 1145-1220: Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Chartres Cathedral
[French Gothic; Chartres, France]
Chartres Cathedral (also known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Chartres) is a Roman Catholic cathedral located in Chartres, France. Begun in the Romanesque style in 1145, the cathedral was reconstructed in the French Gothic style after an 1194 fire, with most of the work completed between 1194 and 1220. Religious sculptures and carvings decorating the west, north and south entrances (also called portals or porches) each address separate theological subjects. The carvings in the west, known as the Royal Portals (which may have survived from the pre-1194 structure), focus on the nature of Jesus. The north entrance celebrates the Old Testament and Christ’s immediate ancestors, while the south entrance relates the history of the Catholic Church since Christ’s death. During the French Revolution, anti-clerical protesters destroyed some of the sculptures on the north porch, before being stopped by local townspeople; a plan by Revolutionaries to dynamite the cathedral was derailed by an architect who noted the resulting rubble would block the streets for months. The images shown above are: (1) the central tympanum of the Royal Portal, on the west façade, showing Christ in majesty at the Second Coming/Last Judgment; (2) the tympanum of the central portal of the north transept, depicting the Coronation of the Virgin (Glorification of Mary) and other scenes; (3) door jamb statues showing the Visitation; and (4) fanciful sculptures from beneath jamb statues.
c. 1200-1235: Unknown Artist: Stained Glass, Chartres Cathedral
[French Gothic; Chartres, France]
There are 176 windows in Chartres Cathedral, and every one is filled with stained glass. This decision by the designers of the church has resulted in a darker than usual interior (in other churches, some windows are filled with clear glass, which improves lighting inside but detracts from the effect of the stained glass), but has produced the most spectacular collection of stained glass ever seen. For much of the cathedral’s history, the multicolored light filtering through these stained glass windows was the primary light source for the interior. Despite weather, wars and revolutions, 152 of the original 176 windows are still intact. Construction of Chartres Cathedral took place in 1145, but a fire in 1194 destroyed much of the older building and required an almost complete reconstruction during the early 13th Century. The majority of the stained glass windows visible today were made and installed between 1200 and 1235, but four lancet windows contain stained glass from c. 1145-1160, including three windows underneath the rose window in the west facade: the Passion window to the south, the Infancy of Christ window in the center and the Tree of Jesse window to the north. The fourth pre-1194 window is known as The Blue Virgin, in the south ambulatory. The subjects depicted in these windows include stories from the Old and New Testament, the lives of the saints as well as typological cycles, signs of the zodiac, labors of the months and other symbols. In addition to the many tall, thin lancet windows, there are three large circular rose windows in the cathedral. The images shown above are: (1) The north transept rose window (34.4 ft. in diameter), which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the center (the oculus) sit the Virgin and Child, who are surrounded by 12 small oval windows, four of them depicting doves symbolizing the four gifts of the spirit, and the rest showing angels with candles. (2) Detail from the Good Samaritan window, a typological lancet window, in which God warns Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. (3) A portion of a lancet window (29.6 ft. high by 7.3 ft. wide) containing scenes of the life of Charlemagne, who reputedly brought a relic to the cathedral. (4) Detail from a clerestory window depicting the burial of St. Mary by Zosimus, with help from a lion.
1220-1240: Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Amiens Cathedral
[High Gothic; France]
Amiens Cathedral in Amiens, France, also known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens, is a 13th Century French Gothic structure that is home to an enormous array of relief sculptures. The three portals in the western façade of the cathedral were designed and carved between 1220 and 1240 in a simplified version of the Antique Revival style. The central portal presents the Last Judgment (see first and second images). The north portal celebrates locally-important saints, particularly St. Firmin (see third image), while the south portal focuses on the Virgin Mary. The tympanum shows Mary’s death, assumption into heaven and coronation (see fourth image). Other sculpture on the west façade includes a large number of quatrefoils in groups that highlight certain topics, such as the Prophets (see fifth image, showing Obadiah feeding the prophets hiding from Jezebel). Higher up on the western façade are larger than life size sculptures of 22 kings beneath the rose window (see sixth image). Researchers have discovered that the west façade was once painted in multiple colors. Through sophisticated technology, it is possible to project the colors onto the cathedral to approximate what it would have looked like with the painting in place. The south transept portal also has impressive relief sculptures from 1240-1260 with scenes from the life of St. Honoré.
1255-1260: Nicola Pisano: Pulpit, Pisa Baptistry [Byzantine/Proto-Renaissance; Italy]
The marble pulpit in the Pisa Baptistry by Italian sculptor Nicola Pisano is considered one of the precursors of the Renaissance, particularly in its incorporation of Classical Greco-Roman elements into the Gothic style. The heavily carved pulpit stands 15.25 ft. high on seven marble columns, three of which rest on lions (see first image). The octagonal base of the center column shows lions vanquishing prey. The columns are topped with Corinthian capitals, which in turn form the bases for deep relief sculptures of personified virtues, prophets and evangelists. Fortitude (second image) is represented by a nude Hercules, a Classical figure in a posture that might be described as proto-contrapposto. Between the columns are Gothic trefoil arches. The uppermost register consists of a hexagonal series of relief panels, separated by small columns, that represent episodes from the life of Jesus (see third image, showing the Annunciation and Nativity and fourth image, showing The Adoration of the Magi). These scenes recall the crowded carvings on Roman sarcophagi, which Nicola had studied.
c. 1280-1290: Cimabue: Santa Trinita Maestà (Madonna Enthroned; Madonna and Child Enthroned with Eight Angels, Santa Trinita Madonna)
Born as Cenni Di Pepi in Florence in about 1240, Cimabue was a key figure in the transition from Byzantine artistic styles to those of the Renaissance. The altarpiece Cimabue painted for the main altar of the Santa Trinita Church, which is known as Santa Trinita Maestà, Madonna Enthroned, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Eight Angels, and Santa Trinita Madonna, shows the Virgin Mary on a throne with the infant Jesus on her lap, surrounded by eight angels. Although the work is considered part of the Byzantine tradition, Cimabue takes steps toward a more naturalistic approach, such as softer expressions on the faces of the figures, that would blossom in the work of his pupil Giotto di Bondone. In the Santa Trinita Maestà, which was painted with tempera on wood panel measuring 12.7 ft. tall by 7.3 ft. wide, Cimabue retained many characteristics of Byzantine art, including figures that lack volume and solidity, a composition that lacks depth and consistent perspective, an abundance of gold, stylized faces and elongated noses and fingers. Unlike Giotto, Cimabue relies on line instead of modeling to define shapes. Cimabue is moving beyond the Byzantine tradition in creating a sense of depth through the architecture. The space beneath the throne from which the four prophets peer at us seems to have real dimensions. The Madonna’s right foot, resting on (and extending beyond) the throne’s step possesses a hint of three dimensionality. The Santa Trinita Madonna is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
c. 1293: Pietro Cavallini: The Last Judgment, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
As with so many churches in Rome, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere contains the artistic and architectural evidence of multiple buildings, reconstructions and renovations through the centuries. Most of what visitors see now dates to the major renovations in the 17th and 18th centuries, but remains of a mosiac in the apse date from a 9th Century Carolingian church, while the ciborium above the altar (by Arnolfo di Cambio) and the frescoes by Pietro Cavallini date to the end of the 13th Century. Cavallini’s fresco was covered up by a redesign in 1724-1725. It wasn’t until 1900, during restoration work, that Cavallini’s frescoes – now much damaged – were rediscovered. The Last Judgment, which is located on the wall facing the altar and measures 10.5 ft. tall by 45.9 ft long, is considered a masterpiece (see second image). While still firmly entrenched in the Byzantine-style, his figures show more humanity, both in expression and monumentality. Shaped by contrasts of dark and light (known as modeling) instead of line, and showing physical forms through the depiction of the robes, Cavallini’s figures set the stage for proto-Renaissance artists such as Giotto. Cavallini also anticipates the linear perspective of Renaissance art by attempting (somewhat unsuccessfully) to depict the arrangement of the chairs as receding in space from the central depiction of Jesus (flanked by angels, his mother and John the Baptist) (see first and third images). True linear perspective would not be rediscovered until the 15th Century.
c. 12th-13th Century: Unknown Artist: Capitoline Wolf (Capitoline She-Wolf)
[Medieval; Renaissance; Rome, Italy]
The bronze sculpture (measuring 2.5 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. long) of a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, has a long and controversial history. Until very recently, it was believed that the sculpture of the wolf was made by an unknown Etruscan artist in the 5th Century BCE to commemorate the founding of Rome. It has been in the Musei Capitolini in Rome since 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated it. The wolf’s Etruscan origin was supported by references to a bronze wolf sculpture in Classical literature, including Cicero’s De Divinatione, and by the analysis of Johann Winckelmann, an 18th Century German art historian. Winckelmann also recognized that the sculptures of Romulus and Remus were added in the late 15th Century, during the Renaissance, possibly by Antonio Pollaiolo. In the late 19th Century, some art historians questioned the early date, proposing a Carolingian or Medieval time frame, but their concerns were ignored. In 2006, however, Italian art experts Anna Maria Carruba and Adriano La Regina made a strong case, based on evidence that the bronze wolf was cast in one piece, that the wolf was Medieval in origin. Preliminary results of radiocarbon testing announced in 2008 indicated a 12th or 13th Century date for the sculpture. The date is of more than academic interest, as the Capitoline Wolf has been a symbol of Roman and Italian heritage for centuries. Mussolini sent replicas all over the world and the image adorns contemporary t-shirts and posters.
c. 1211-1305: Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Reims Cathedral
[French Gothic; Reims, France]
The place where France crowned its kings, Reims Cathedral (also known as Notre-Dame de Reims) was built in the French Gothic style primarily between 1211-1275, although some work continued into the early 14th Century. The exterior and interior of the cathedral are covered with hundreds of relief sculptures of religious figures and subjects, with some of the statues almost completely detached from the substrate. As one scholar observed, the sculpture of Reims Cathedral is not mere ornamentation but is integral to the architectural composition. Because the construction extended over such a long period, and because sculptors from different schools and cities were employed, the sculptures present a wide variety of styles. Shown above are: (1) the Coronation of the Virgin, in the central portal of the west façade; (2) a portion of the gallery of French kings, with Clovis being baptized in the center, was carved in the early 14th Century in the upper level of the façade, above the rose window; (3) two jamb statues from the west façade’s central portal shows the Annunciation with the Virgin Mary and one of Reims’ famous smiling angels, carved in the style of the Remois Workshop, from c. 1245-1250; (3) a depiction of the damned (including clergy) entering Hell’s cauldron, from the Last Judgment in the south portal of the west façade. German artillery shelled the cathedral in September 1914, causing significant damage, but after years of restoration work, the cathedral’s doors opened again in 1938. In 2011, the people of Reims celebrated the cathedral’s 800th birthday.
c. 1305: Giotto (Giotto di Bondone): Frescoes, Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel)
[Proto-Renaissance; Padua, Italy]
Like most 14th Century Christians who loaned money in return for interest, Italian banker Enrico Scrovegni was concerned about his salvation. The Bible contained a proscription against usury, and for many centuries the only people willing to lend money were non-Christians. By the early 14th Century, Christians had begun to enter the banking business, but with anxiety. Years earlier, Dante had assigned Enrico Scrovegni’s banker father Reginaldo Scrovegni to the Seventh Circle of Hell in his Inferno. When Enrico Scrovegni built a new family palace in Padua, he made sure that a private family chapel was attached. Because the chapel was built on the site of a former Roman arena, it is sometime referred to as the Arena Chapel. Scrovegni commissioned Proto-Renaissance Italian artist Giotto di Bondone (known as Giotto) to paint frescoes on the chapel walls, which were completed by the dedication of the chapel on March 25, 1305. Giotto painted a series of 37 frescoes – most of them 6.5 feet square – on the chapel walls. Most of the frescoes depict scenes from the life of Christ and the life of Mary, while Giotto painted a larger fresco of the Last Judgment for the wall above the entrance, and various other images throughout the room (see overview of chapel in first image). The fresco technique requires the artist to mix pigments with wet plaster and work quickly on a section of wall before the plaster dries, and the borders of the sections are visible on each fresco. The Scrovegni Chapel frescoes mark the beginning of the new, humanistic style that would blossom in the Renaissance. Giotto is breaking away from the flat, stylized representations of Medieval and Gothic art by infusing the scenes with more emotional intensity, drawing figures with greater solidity, and constructing more naturalistic environments for the characters. In the Kiss of Judas (see second image), part of the Life of Christ cycle, Giotto presents not the kiss but the tense face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and Judas, while soldiers rush in and the apostles fight back in a frenzy of action. Giotto marshals every detail – lighting, expressions, gestures, even the folds of their clothes – to heighten the drama. In the Lamentation of Christ, another panel from the Life of Christ cycle (see third image), note the way the line of the rock wall leads the viewer’s eye to Christ’s face; the emotional expressions on the faces of the mourners, including the angels; and the inclusion of figures with their backs turned to us – a realistic detail that anchors the composition. On the west wall of the chapel, Giotto painted an immense Last Judgment fresco representing Jesus sitting in judgment over the souls of the saved and the damned and measuring 32.8 ft. tall by 27.6 ft. wide (see fourth image). Although the chapel was privately-owned, the Scrovegnis allowed it to be used as a public worship space on certain occasions, such as the Feast of the Annunciation. It is clear that Scrovegni hoped that the chapel and its religious art would help him overcome the sin of usury and achieve salvation. To emphasize the point, Giotto painted a likeness of Enrico Scrovegni in The Last Judgment fresco, showing him offering a model of the chapel to the Virgin Mary.
c. 1306-1310: Giotto: Madonna Enthroned (Ognissanti Madonna)
Visitors to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence can stand in one spot and view Cimabue’s Santa Trinita Maestà (1280-1290) on the right, Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Madonna Rucellai (c. 1285) on the left, and Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna in the center (see composite photo in second image). When the large altarpieces are placed together in this fashion, the contrast between Giotto and the two other artists must be staggering. While all three paintings follow many of the traditions of the Byzantine/Gothic style, such as the gold background, and the standard iconography of Mary in Majesty with the child Jesus, a comparison of the Mary figures quickly distinguishes Giotto’s work from that of Cimabue or Duccio. His Mary is solid, substantial and of our world – real flesh and blood (note the way Mary’s breasts and knees press against her drapery), unlike the waiflike two-dimensional Marys of the other paintings, who seem more of the heavenly sphere than the earthly. Also somewhat new are the expressions of the figures, who seem more lifelike and emotional than the more staid, even generic figures of other Byzantine and Gothic art. Made with tempera on wood panels measuring 10.7 ft. tall by 6.7 ft. wide, the Ognissanti Madonna (so named because it was originally painted for the altar of Florence’s Ognissanti “All Saints” church) is now located at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
1308-1311: Duccio (Duccio di Buoninsegna): Maestà Altarpiece
[Byzantine/Gothic/Proto-Renaissance; Siena, Italy]
Duccio di Buoninsegna painted the Maestà Altarpiece for the city of Siena. The original piece, made with tempera and gold on wood panels measuring 15.4 ft. high by 16.4 ft. wide, contained paintings on the front and rear that indicated a step away from Gothic and Byzantine styles and toward a more realistic representation of people and things. The front consisted of the large Madonna and Child with saints and angels at center (see first image), with a predella containing scenes from Christ’s childhood and additional portraits and scenes above. The rear contained 43 small scenes showing the Life of Christ and Life of the Virgin (see second image). Unfortunately, in 1711, the altarpiece was dismantled and sawed into pieces, which were distributed to various locations. In 1956, an attempt was made to bring all the extant pieces back together in Siena’s Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, but it was only partially successful. Portions of the altarpiece may be found in museums around the world, including a panel entitled The Healing of a Man Born Blind, which is in the National Gallery, London (see third image).
c. 1330: Simone Martini: Equestrian Portrait of Guidoriccio da Fogliano
[International Gothic; Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy]
For centuries, the fresco on the wall of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena depicting Guidoriccio da Fogliano on horseback between two castles (and facing Martini’s Maestà) was understood to have been painted by Simone Martini in about 1330. Documents support the conclusion that Martini painted two frescoes for the public hall’s meeting room (known as the Sala del Mappamundo in reference to a map of the world – now lost – that was painted on the walls in 1345 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti). The city fathers of Siena had commissioned Martini and other artists to depict the various cities and castles that the Sienese had captured in war. The fresco featuring Guidoriccio was believed to depict the conquest of Montemassi and Sassoforte in 1328 (see first image). But in the 1970s, controversy erupted among art historians about the date and attribution of the paintings. American scholars Michael Mallory and Gordon Moran claimed first that the figure on horseback had been painted long after the rest of the fresco by someone other than Martini (see detail of fresco in second image). Later, they claimed that the entire fresco was painted in the 15th Century and later, long after Martini’s death. Although most scoffed at the theory, it gained support in 1980 when an older fresco showing a castle was found on the same wall, just beneath the one attributed to Martini (see third image showing wall with newly-discovered fresco). This finding (which may be a 1331 fresco by Martini), along with possible anachronisms in the heraldry and siege machinery and an absence of reference, have convinced some but not all experts that the famous equestrian portrait is not Martini’s work. The Equestrian Portrait of Guidoriccio da Fogliano (also known as Guidoriccio da Fogliano at the Siege of Montemassi), which measures 11.2 ft tall by 31.7 ft wide is located in the Museo Civico in Siena, which occupies the Palazzo Pubblico.
1333-1335: Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi: St. Ansanus Altarpiece (The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus) [International Gothic; Italy]
Known by various names (e.g. St. Ansanus Altarpiece; The Annunciation; The Annunciation with Two Saints; The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus), this Gothic altarpiece from the early 14th Century was painted by Simone Martini and his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi using tempera, gold leaf and lapis lazuli on wood panel for the St. Ansanus side altar in the Siena Cathedral. Measuring 8.6 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide, the Annunciation scene in the central panel is praised for its realism and symbolic detail, from the dove amidst a mandorla of angels, to Angel Gabriel’s cloak, still whirling from his flight, and the olive branch he carries, and Mary’s arabesque gown, startled expression and reading book. The St. Ansanus Altarpiece is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
c. 1337-1340: Ambrogio Lorenzetti: The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government (Good and Bad Government) [International Gothic/Proto-Renaissance; Siena, Italy]
In the early 14th Century, the City of Siena commissioned Ambrogio Lorenzetti to decorate the walls of the room where the leaders of the city-state met (known variously as the Sala della Pace, or Room of Peace, the Sala dei Nove, the Salon of Nine, or the Council Room), which was located in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s city hall, with allegorical frescoes on the topic of good and bad government. Lorenzetti painted three frescoes: (1) the Allegory of Good Government, on the north wall (see first image); (2) the Effects of Good Government on the City and the Country (sometimes called Peace), on the west wall (see second image – City – and third image – Countryside); and (3) the Allegory of Bad Government its Effects on the City and the Country (sometimes called War), on the east wall (see fourth image). Each fresco is 25.3 ft. tall, and combined, the three frescoes are 47.2 ft. long. The paintings, which are unusual in their secular subject matter, are considered masterworks of the early Renaissance. Lorenzetti, who was strongly influenced by Simone Martini, combines Byzantine and Classical forms in an original way, with more naturalism than his mentor. Scholars believe he studied the art of classical antiquity. The frescoes include experiments with perspective (for example, Lorenzetti makes an effort to reduce the size of figures that are intended to be farther away from the viewer) and to portray physiognomy realistically. Lorenzetti’s depictions of places and figures combine idealization and realism. For example, scholars have noted that the depiction of Siena in the Effects of Good Government on the City is accurate in parts, and fanciful in others. Some experts believe the frescoes contain a second narrative involving the children of the gods for whom the planets are named; this theme may explain the dancers in the center of the City, who may be interpreted as the children of Venus. With regard to perspective, experts have pointed out that the perspective of the Allegory of Good Government appears to be a mistake, unless one assumes that the scene is being perceived from the point of view of the figure of Justice. For the Bad Government fresco, Lorenzetti unsettles viewers by requiring them to read the narrative from right to left. This fresco, which was originally on an exterior wall, has suffered considerable moisture damage.
Huang Gongwang: Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (Song/Yuan Dynasty; China)
Song Dynasty painter Huang Gongwang (1269-1354) was one of the Four Yuan Masters, a group of Chinese painters who espoused literati painting, which focused on individual expression and learning rather than immediate visual appeal. As one of the older Yuan masters, Huang was also strongly influenced by the artists of the Five Dynasties period. Huang’s greatest surviving masterpiece is Dwelling in the Funchun Mountains, a landscape scroll originally measuring 1 ft. high by 22.7 ft. long, made with monochrome ink using the wash painting technique. The painting was highly regarded by later generations, but it was nearly destroyed in 1650 when its then-owner, Wu Hongyu, tried to burn it on his deathbed. A family member intervened, but not before the painting was separated into two pieces, one, the first part of the painting, is 1.7 ft. long and is referred to as The Remaining Mountain (see first image). It is now in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in Hangzhou. The larger portion of the scroll is 20.9 ft. long and is known as The Master Wuyong Scroll. (The second image shows the entire Master Wuyong scroll. The third image shows a portion of the scroll, and the fourth image shows detail of a portion of the scroll.) It is located in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The two pieces were briefly reunited in 2011 in Taipei. The scroll depicts an idealized view of the Fuchun Mountains where Huang lived, with river scenery, marshes, mountains and hills, as well as human elements such as houses. In rendering the landscape elements, Huang has reduced the buildings, plants and geographical formations to their most basic forms. Huang first laid out the composition using light ink, then finished by successively applying darker and drier brushwork. During this phase, he sometimes altered shapes, strengthened lines and added texture strokes or groups of trees. He also applied brush dots as abstract accents. Huang Gongwang completed Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains at the age of 82.
1372: Ni Zan: The Rongxi Studio [Yuan/Early Ming Dynasty; China]
Along with Huang Gongwang, Ni Zan was one of the Four Great Masters of the Yuan and a proponent of literati painting. He painted The Rongxi Studio, a paper handscroll measuring 3.1 ft. tall by 1.4 ft. wide, in 1372 at the age of 71 (see first image). The name of the piece comes from the name of the residence of Zhong-ren, a physician who received the painting as a gift from Ni Zan’s friend Bo-xuan in 1374 and asked Ni Zan to inscribe it. Like all of Ni Zan’s later landscapes, The Rongxi Studio, in which a sparse landscape is viewed from above, with trees in the foreground, defies many traditional concepts of Chinese landscape painting. The monochrome landscape is nearly barren, with little human presence but a lonely hut (see second image). Large areas of the paper are untouched. Yet, in the literati tradition, the landscape conveys personal emotions – perhaps loneliness, or a sense of peace and quiet. Experts have noted Ni Zan’s dry, refined brushwork and his careful build up of tonal variations in the trees. They have observed that Ni appears to have used an upright brush more than a slanted one, and that in modeling rocks, he used broken hemp-fiber strokes more often than washes. The Rongxi Studio is in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.
1377-1382: Jean Bondol (Hennequin of Bruges), Nicolas Bataille, & Robert Poinçon: Apocalypse Tapestry [French Gothic; Angers, France]
When Louis I, Duke of Anjou, saw an illustrated manuscript given to his brother, Charles V of France, he decided to commission something bigger and better: a huge tapestry containing an illustrated version of the Book of Revelation (also known as the Book of the Apocalypse), the final book of the Bible, which is attributed to St. John the Evangelist. The book tells the story of the end of the world, in which demons, devils and dragons wreak havoc on the population until Jesus Christ returns to vanquish the evildoers and bring the Last Judgment to mankind. Various versions of the story had been circulating throughout Medieval Europe and were very popular among the Christian populace during those times of war, plague and famine. Louis asked Flemish artist Hennequin de Bruges (also known as Jean Bondol) to design and sketch the scenes and he hired Parisians Nicolas Bataille and Robert Poinçon to weave the massive tapestry using wool, silk, silver and gold. The entire process took only seven years and was completed in 1382. The finished product was 436 feet long in six 78-foot sections and 20 feet high. The Apocalypse Tapestry originally contained 90 separate scenes. In the first image, an angel blows a trumpet, opening one of the seals of the Apocalypse and causing a shipwreck. The artists included political commentary in the piece: in the second image, the many-headed lion (the Beast of the Sea) receives the fleur-de-lis (symbol of France) from the many-headed dragon (the False Prophet), a reference to England’s domination of France during the 100 Years’ War. The depiction of Death as a skeleton-headed corpse (see third image) was an innovation in French religious iconography. The Duke and his family displayed the tapestry for about a century. In 1480, they donated it to Angers Cathedral, where it remained until the French Revolution. Anti-clerical protesters looted the tapestry, cut it up and used the pieces for flooring, to protect orange trees from frost and to fill holes in walls. In 1848, clerics began collecting the surviving fragments, which were returned to the cathedral in 1870. The reconstructed Apocalypse Tapestry is now 328 feet long; of the original 90 scenes, 71 have been found. The front has faded, but it is entirely reversible and the back side still has vibrant color. The tapestry is on display in the Musée de la Tapisserie in the Château d’Angers in Angers, France.
c. 1395-1399: Unknown Artist: The Wilton Diptych [International Gothic; UK]
Painted in the International Gothic style using egg tempera and gold leaf on panels of Baltic oak wood, the Wilton Diptych (named for Wilton House, where it was kept for many years) contains four separate paintings: two on the interior and two on the exterior. Each painting is 20.9 in. tall and 14.6 in. wide; the interior, more complex, scenes are better preserved than the simpler figures on the outer panels. Many factors lead to the conclusion that this diptych was painted for English king Richard II, who reigned from 1377 to 1399. The interior left panel shows King Richard, in a vermilion and gold cloak with his emblems of the white stag and rosemary, kneeling in prayer (see first image). Standing next to him are two English kings who became saints (Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor) and John the Baptist, Richard’s patron saint. (The presence of the three kings on the left worshiping Christ may allude to the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, which was Richard’s birthday.) Following Richard’s gaze, we look to the right panel, where Mary holds Jesus, and 11 angels surround them in a flowery meadow (see first image). Jesus blesses Richard, and an angel draws his attention to the pennant with the English flag and a tiny globe with a castle on an island in a silver seal. Interestingly, all the angels wear Richard’s white stag emblem, as if they are part of his entourage. The unusual number of the angels – 11 – may refer to Richard’s age when he ascended to the throne. The extensive use of expensive pigments such as lapis lazuli for the blue pigment of the garments in the right panel and vermilion on the left for Richard’s robe shows that no expense was spared to make this small object with both religious and political overtones. The outer panels show a white stag with a crown around its neck and a chain on one side, and coats of arms of Richard and other English kings, on the other (see second image). The existence of the Wilton Diptych, which is now in the National Gallery in London, is considered remarkable considering that few religious images survived a campaign of iconoclasm by the Puritans in the 17th Century.
c. 1393-1399: Melchior Broederlam: Altar of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy
(Dijon Altarpiece) [Early Netherlandish/International Gothic]
The only extant paintings that can be confidently attributed to Flemish artist Melchior Broederlam are the exteriors of the wings of an altarpiece commissioned by Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy for the Carthusian monastery of Champmol, France and completed in 1399. The interior of the altarpiece (centerpiece with the Crucifixion and both wings) consists of gilded and painted wood carvings by Jacques de Baerze (see third image). Broederlam’s paintings are only visible when the altarpiece wings are closed. In addition to painting the wings, Broederlam also gilded and painted de Baerze’s carved wood figures. Each wing was painted with tempera on wood panels and measures 5.5 ft tall by 4.1 ft wide. Each wing depicts two New Testament stories: the left wing (first image) shows the Annunciation and the Visitation; the right wing shows the Presentation in the Temple and the Flight to Egypt. Note the unusual depiction of the architectural elements, which are painted in an effort to show the viewer interior and exterior perspectives simultaneously. Despite the paucity of surviving works, Broederlam was a very influential pioneer of the Early Netherlandish style and an early proponent of using oil paints. The Dijon Altarpiece (Altarpiece of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy) is now located at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon in Dijon, France.
Tosee Art History 101, Part IIA (1400-1499), go here.