Posted: February 26th, 2023


 In what ways did people during the Middle Ages build upon the achievements of the ancient world, such as those of Ancient Greece, Rome, and/or Egypt?  Would it also be accurate to say that the Middle Ages represented a loss or weakening of achievement?  Why?  In what ways are the arts and cultures of Asia and Africa related or unrelated to the arts and cultures of the Europeans?  Discuss cultural, political, and technological aspects of medieval life.

Reading: Early Christian Art
The beginnings of an identifiable Christian art can be traced to the end of the second century and
the beginning of the third century. Considering the Old Testament prohibitions against graven
images, it is important to consider why Christian art developed in the first place. The use of
images will be a continuing issue in the history of Christianity. The best explanation for the
emergence of Christian art in the early church is due to the important role images played in
Greco-Roman culture.

As Christianity gained converts, these new Christians had been brought up on the value of
images in their previous cultural experience and they wanted to continue this in their Christian
experience. For example, there was a change in burial practices in the Roman world away from
cremation to inhumation. Outside the city walls of Rome, adjacent to major roads, catacombs
were dug into the ground to bury the dead. Families would have chambers or cubicula dug to bury
their members. Wealthy Romans would also have sarcophagi or marble tombs carved for their
burial. The Christian converts wanted the same things. Christian catacombs were dug frequently
adjacent to non-Christian ones, and sarcophagi with Christian imagery were apparently popular
with the richer Christians.

Junius Bassus Sarcophagus

Junius Bassus, a Roman praefectus urbi or high ranking government administrator, died in 359
C.E. Scholars believe that he converted to Christianity shortly before his death accounting for the
inclusion of Christ and scenes from the Bible. (Photograph above shows a plaster cast of the

Themes of Death and Resurrection (Borrowed from the Old Testament)

A striking aspect of the Christian art of the third century is the absence of the imagery that will
dominate later Christian art. We do not find in this early period images of the Nativity, Crucifixion,
or Resurrection of Christ, for example. This absence of direct images of the life of Christ is best
explained by the status of Christianity as a mystery religion. The story of the Crucifixion and
Resurrection would be part of the secrets of the cult.

While not directly representing these central Christian images, the theme of death and
resurrection was represented through a series of images, many of which were derived from the
Old Testament that echoed the themes. For example, the story of Jonah—being swallowed by a
great fish and then after spending three days and three nights in the belly of the beast is vomited
out on dry ground—was seen by early Christians as an anticipation or prefiguration of the story of
Christ’s own death and resurrection. Images of Jonah, along with those of Daniel in the Lion’s
Den, the Three Hebrews in the Firey Furnace, Moses Striking the Rock, among others, are widely
popular in the Christian art of the third century, both in paintings and on sarcophagi.

All of these can be seen to allegorically allude to the principal narratives of the life of Christ. The
common subject of salvation echoes the major emphasis in the mystery religions on personal
salvation. The appearance of these subjects frequently adjacent to each other in the catacombs
and sarcophagi can be read as a visual litany: save me Lord as you have saved Jonah from the
belly of the great fish, save me Lord as you have saved the Hebrews in the desert, save me Lord
as you have saved Daniel in the Lion’s den, etc.

One can imagine that early Christians—who were rallying around the nascent religious authority
of the Church against the regular threats of persecution by imperial authority—would find great
meaning in the story of Moses of striking the rock to provide water for the Israelites fleeing the
authority of the Pharaoh on their exodus to the Promised Land.

Christianity’s Canonical Texts and the New Testament

One of the major differences between Christianity and the public cults was the central role faith
plays in Christianity and the importance of orthodox beliefs. The history of the early Church is
marked by the struggle to establish a canonical set of texts and the establishment of orthodox

Questions about the nature of the Trinity and Christ would continue to challenge religious
authority. Within the civic cults there were no central texts and there were no orthodox doctrinal
positions. The emphasis was on maintaining customary traditions. One accepted the existence of
the gods, but there was no emphasis on belief in the gods.

The Christian emphasis on orthodox doctrine has its closest parallels in the Greek and Roman
world to the role of philosophy. Schools of philosophy centered around the teachings or doctrines
of a particular teacher. The schools of philosophy proposed specific conceptions of reality. Ancient
philosophy was influential in the formation of Christian theology. For example, the opening of the

Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God…,” is unmistakably
based on the idea of the “logos” going back to the philosophy of Heraclitus (ca. 535 – 475 BCE).
Christian apologists like Justin Martyr writing in the second century understood Christ as the
Logos or the Word of God who served as an intermediary between God and the World.

Early Representations of Christian and the Apostles

Christ, from the Catacomb of Domitilla

An early representation of Christ found in the Catacomb of Domitilla shows the figure of Christ
flanked by a group of his disciples or students. Those experienced with later Christian imagery
might mistake this for an image of the Last Supper, but instead this image does not tell any story.
It conveys rather the idea that Christ is the true teacher.

Christ draped in classical garb holds a scroll in his left hand while his right hand is outstretched in
the so-called ad locutio gesture, or the gesture of the orator. The dress, scroll, and gesture all
establish the authority of Christ, who is placed in the center of his disciples. Christ is thus treated
like the philosopher surrounded by his students or disciples.

Comparably, an early representation of the apostle Paul, identifiable with his characteristic
pointed beard and high forehead, is based on the convention of the philosopher, as exemplified
by a Roman copy of a late fourth century B.C.E. portrait of the fifth century B.C.E. playwright

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Reading: Gothic Architecture
Forget the association of the word “Gothic” to dark, haunted houses, Wuthering Heights, or
ghostly pale people wearing black nail polish and ripped fishnets. The original Gothic style was
actually developed to bring sunshine into people’s lives and especially into their churches. To get
past the accrued definitions of the centuries, it’s best to go back to the very start of the word
Gothic, and to the style that bears the name.

The Goths were a so-called barbaric tribe who held power in various regions of Europe, between
the collapse of the Roman Empire and the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire (so, from
roughly the fifth to the eighth century). They were not renowned for great achievements in
architecture. As with many art historical terms, “Gothic” came to be applied to a certain
architectural style after the fact.

The style represented giant steps away from the previous, relatively basic building systems that
had prevailed. The Gothic grew out of the Romanesque architectural style, when both prosperity
and peace allowed for several centuries of cultural development and great building schemes.
From roughly 1000 to 1400, several significant cathedrals and churches were built, particularly in
Britain and France, offering architects and masons a chance to work out ever more complex
problems and daring designs.

The most fundamental element of the Gothic style of architecture is the pointed arch, which was
likely borrowed from Islamic architecture that would have been seen in Spain at this time. The
pointed arch relieved some of the thrust, and therefore, the stress on other structural elements. It
then became possible to reduce the size of the columns or piers that supported the arch.

So, rather than having massive, drum-like columns as in the Romanesque churches, the new
columns could be more slender. This slimness was repeated in the upper levels of the nave, so
that the gallery and clerestory would not seem to overpower the lower arcade. In fact, the column
basically continued all the way to the roof, and became part of the vault.

In the vault, the pointed arch could be seen in three dimensions where the ribbed vaulting met in
the center of the ceiling of each bay. This ribbed vaulting is another distinguishing feature of
Gothic architecture. However, it should be noted that prototypes for the pointed arches and ribbed
vaulting were seen first in late-Romanesque buildings.

The new understanding of architecture and design led to more fantastic examples of vaulting and
ornamentation, and the Early Gothic or Lancet style (from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries)
developed into the Decorated or Rayonnant Gothic (roughly fourteenth century). The ornate
stonework that held the windows–called tracery–became more florid, and other stonework even
more exuberant.

The ribbed vaulting became more complicated and was crossed with lierneribs into complex
webs, or the addition of cross ribs, called tierceron. As the decoration developed further, the
Perpendicular or International Gothic took over (fifteenth century). Fan vaulting decorated half-
conoid shapes extending from the tops of the columnar ribs.

The slender columns and lighter systems of thrust allowed for larger windows and more light. The
windows, tracery, carvings, and ribs make up a dizzying display of decoration that one encounters
in a Gothic church. In late Gothic buildings, almost every surface is decorated. Although such a
building as a whole is ordered and coherent, the profusion of shapes and patterns can make a
sense of order difficult to discern at first glance.

After the great flowering of Gothic style, tastes again shifted back to the neat, straight lines and
rational geometry of the Classical era. It was in the Renaissance that the name Gothic came to be
applied to this medieval style that seemed vulgar to Renaissance sensibilities. It is still the term
we use today, though hopefully without the implied insult, which negates the amazing leaps of
imagination and engineering that were required to build such edifices.

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Reading: Romanesque


southwell )

The name gives it away–Romanesque architecture is based on Roman architectural elements. It
is the rounded Roman arch that is the literal basis for structures built in this style.

All through the regions that were part of the ancient Roman Empire are ruins of Roman aqueducts
and buildings, most of them exhibiting arches as part of the architecture. (You may make the
etymological leap that the two words are related, but the Oxford English Dictionary shows arch as
coming from Latin arcus, which defines the shape, while arch-as in architect, archbishop and
archenemy-comes from Greek arkhos, meaning chief. Tekton means builder.)

When Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 C.E., Europe began to take its
first steps out of the “Dark Ages” since the fall of Rome in the fifth century. The remains of Roman
civilization were seen all over the continent, and legends of the great empire would have been
passed down through generations. So when Charlemagne wanted to unite his empire and
validate his reign, he began building churches in the Roman style–particularly the style of
Christian Rome in the days of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor.

After a gap of around two hundred years with no large building projects, the architects of
Charlemagne’s day looked to the arched, or arcaded, system seen in Christian Roman edifices as
a model. It is a logical system of stresses and buttressing, which was fairly easily engineered for
large structures, and it began to be used in gatehouses, chapels, and churches in Europe. These
early examples may be referred to as pre-Romanesque because, after a brief spurt of growth, the
development of architecture again lapsed. As a body of knowledge was eventually re-developed,
buildings became larger and more imposing. Examples of Romanesque cathedrals from the early
Middle Ages (roughly 1000-1200) are solid, massive, impressive churches that are often still the
largest structure in many towns.

In Britain, the Romanesque style became known as “Norman” because the major building scheme
in the 11th and 12th centuries was instigated by William the Conqueror, who invaded Britain in
1066 from Normandy in northern France. (The Normans were the descendants of Vikings –

Norse, or north men – who had invaded this area over a century earlier.) Durham and Gloucester
Cathedrals and Southwell Minster are excellent examples of churches in the Norman, or
Romanesque style.

The arches that define the naves of these churches are well modulated and geometrically logical
– with one look you can see the repeating shapes, and proportions that make sense for an
immense and weighty structure. There is a large arcade on the ground level made up of bulky
piers or columns. The piers may have been filled with rubble rather than being solid, carved
stone. Above this arcade is a second level of smaller arches, often in pairs with a column between
the two. The next higher level was again proportionately smaller, creating a rational diminution of
structural elements as the mass of the building is reduced.

The decoration is often quite simple, using geometric shapes rather than floral or curvilinear
patterns. Common shapes used include diapers – squares or lozenges – and chevrons, which
were zigzag patterns and shapes. Plain circles were also used, which echoed the half-circle
shape of the ubiquitous arches.

Early Romanesque ceilings and roofs were often made of wood, as if the architects had not quite
understood how to span the two sides of the building using stone, which created outward thrust
and stresses on the side walls. This development, of course, didn’t take long to manifest, and led
from barrel vaulting (simple, semicircular roof vaults) to cross vaulting, which became ever more
adventurous and ornate in the Gothic.

The third and fourth images on this page are from Gloucester Cathedral; all other images depict
Southwell Minster.
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Reading: The Islamic World
Islamic Art: The Caliphates (Political/Religious Dynasties)

The umbrella term “Islamic art” casts a pretty big shadow, covering several continents and more
than a dozen centuries. So to make sense of it, we first have to first break it down into parts. One
way is by medium—say, ceramics or architecture—but this method of categorization would entail
looking at works that span three continents. Geography is another means of organization, but
modern political boundaries rarely match the borders of past Islamic states.

A common solution is to consider instead, the historical caliphates (the states ruled by those who
claimed legitimate Islamic rule) or dynasties. Though these distinctions are helpful, it is important
to bear in mind that these are not discrete groups that produced one particular style of artwork.
Artists throughout the centuries have been affected by the exchange of goods and ideas and
have been influenced by one another.

Umayyad (661–750)

expansion )

Map showing Islam expansion from 622 to 750

Four leaders, known as the Rightly Guided Caliphs, continued the spread of Islam immediately
following the death of the Prophet. It was following the death of the fourth caliph that Mu’awiya
seized power and established the Umayyad caliphate, the first Islamic dynasty. During this period,
Damascus became the capital and the empire expanded West and East.

Dome of the Rock, 687, Jerusalem (photo: author)

The first years following the death of Muhammad were, of course, formative for the religion and its
artwork. The immediate needs of the religion included places to worship (mosques) and holy
books (Korans) to convey the word of God. So, naturally, many of the first artistic projects
included ornamented mosques where the faithful could gather and Korans with beautiful
calligraphy. Because Islam was still a very new religion, it had no artistic vocabulary of its own,
and its earliest work was heavily influenced by older styles in the region. Chief among these
sources were the Coptic tradition of present-day Egypt and Syria, with its scrolling vines and
geometric motifs, Sassanian metalwork and crafts from what is now Iraq with their rhythmic,
sometimes abstracted qualities, and naturalistic Byzantine mosaics depicting animals and plants.


Interior of the base of the dome,
Dome of the Rock

These elements can be seen in the earliest significant work from the Umayyad period, the most
important of which is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. This stunning monument incorporates
Coptic, Sassanian, and Byzantine elements in its decorative program and remains a masterpiece
of Islamic architecture to this day.

Remarkably, just one generation after the religion’s inception, Islamic civilization had produced a
magnificent, if singular, monument. While the Dome of the Rock is considered an influential work,
it bears little resemblance to the multitude of mosques created throughout the rest of the
caliphate. It is important to point out that the Dome of the Rock is not a mosque. A more common
plan, based on the house of the Prophet, was used for the vast majority of mosques throughout
the Arab peninsula and the Maghreb. Perhaps the most remarkable of these is the Great Mosque
of Córdoba (784-786) in Spain, which, like the Dome of the Rock, demonstrates an integration of
the styles of the existing culture in which it was created.

Abbasid (750–1258)

The Abbasid revolution in the mid-eighth century ended the Umayyad dynasty, resulted in the
massacre of the Umayyad caliphs (a single caliph escaped to Spain, prolonging Umayyad work
after dynasty) and established the Abbasid dynasty in 750. The new caliphate shifted its attention
eastward and established cultural and commercial capitals at Baghdad and Samarra.

( )

Bowl, 9th century, Susa, Iran, Earthenware, metal lustre
overglaze decoration, opaque glaze

The Umayyad dynasty produced little of what we would consider decorative arts (like pottery,
glass, metalwork), but under the Abbasid dynasty production of decorative stone, wood and
ceramic objects flourished. Artisans in Samarra developed a new method for carving surfaces that
allowed for curved, vegetal forms (called arabesques) which became widely adopted. There were
also developments in ceramic decoration. The use of luster painting (which gives ceramic ware a
metallic sheen) became popular in surrounding regions and was extensively used on tile for
centuries. Overall, the Abbasid epoch was an important transitional period that disseminated
styles and techniques to distant Islamic lands.

The Abbasid empire weakened with the establishment and growing power of semi-autonomous
dynasties throughout the region, until Baghdad was finally overthrown in 1258. This dissolution
signified not only the end of a dynasty, but marked the last time that the Arab-Muslim empire
would be united as one entity.
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Reading: Mosque Architecture

Mimar Sinan, courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque, İstanbul, 1558

From Indonesia to the United Kingdom, the mosque in its many forms is the quintessential Islamic
building. The mosque, masjid in Arabic, is the Muslim gathering place for prayer.Masjid simply
means “place of prostration.” Though most of the five daily prayers prescribed in Islam can take
place anywhere, all men are required to gather together at the mosque for the Friday noon prayer.

Mosques are also used throughout the week for prayer, study, or simply as a place for rest and
reflection. The main mosque of a city, used for the Friday communal prayer, is called a jami
masjid, literally meaning “Friday mosque,” but it is also sometimes called a congregational
mosque in English. The style, layout, and decoration of a mosque can tell us a lot about Islam in
general, but also about the period and region in which the mosque was constructed.

Diagram reconstruction of the Prophet’s
House, Medina, Saudi Arabia

The home of the Prophet Muhammad is considered the first mosque. His house, in Medina in
modern-day Saudi Arabia, was a typical 7th-century Arabian style house, with a large courtyard
surrounded by long rooms supported by columns. This style of mosque came to be known as a
hypostyle mosque, meaning “many columns.” Most mosques built in Arab lands utilized this style
for centuries.

Common Features

The architecture of a mosque is shaped most strongly by the regional traditions of the time and
place where it was built. As a result, style, layout, and decoration can vary greatly. Nevertheless,
because of the common function of the mosque as a place of congregational prayer, certain
architectural features appear in mosques all over the world.

Sahn (Courtyard)

The most fundamental necessity of congregational mosque architecture is that it be able to hold
the entire male population of a city or town (women are welcome to attend Friday prayers, but not
required to do so). To that end congregational mosques must have a large prayer hall. In many
mosques this is adjoined to an open courtyard, called a sahn. Within the courtyard one often finds
a fountain, its waters both a welcome respite in hot lands, and important for the ablutions (ritual
cleansing) done before prayer.

Mihrab and minbar, Mosque of Sultan Hassan, Cairo, 1356-63 (photo: Dave
Berkowitz, CC BY)

Mihrab, Great Mosque of Cordoba, c. 786
(photo: Bongo Vongo, CC BY-SA)

Mihrab (Niche)

Another essential element of a mosque’s architecture is a mihrab—a niche in the wall that
indicates the direction of Mecca, towards which all Muslims pray. Mecca is the city in which the
Prophet Muhammad was born, and the home of the most important Islamic shrine, the Kaaba.
The direction of Mecca is called the qibla, and so the wall in which the mihrab is set is called the
qibla wall. No matter where a mosque is, its mihrab indicates the direction of Mecca (or as near
that direction as science and geography were able to place it). Therefore, a mihrab in India will be
to the west, while a one in Egypt will be to the east. A mihrab is usually a relatively shallow niche,
as in the example from Egypt, above. In the example from Spain, shown right, themihrab’s niche
takes the form of a small room, this is more rare.

Minbar (Pulpit)

Mimar Sinan, Minaret, Süleymaniye
Mosque, Istanbul, 1558

The minbar is often located on the qibla wall to the right of the mihrab. A minbar is a pulpit from
which the Friday sermon is delivered. Simple minbars consist of a short flight of stairs, but more
elaborate examples may enclose the stairway with ornate panels, doors, and a covered pulpit at
the top.

Minaret (Tower)

One of the most visible aspects of mosque architecture is the minaret, a tower adjacent or
attached to a mosque, from which the call to prayer is announced. Minarets take many different
forms—from the famous spiral minaret of Samarra, to the tall, pencil minarets of Ottoman Turkey.
Not solely functional in nature, the minaret serves as a powerful visual reminder of the presence
of Islam.

Qubba (Dome)

Most mosques also feature one or more domes, called qubba in Arabic. While not a ritual
requirement like the mihrab, a dome does possess significance within the mosque—as a symbolic
representation of the vault of heaven. The interior decoration of a dome often emphasizes this
symbolism, using intricate geometric, stellate, or vegetal motifs to create breathtaking patterns
meant to awe and inspire. Some mosque types incorporate multiple domes into their architecture

(as in the Ottoman Süleymaniye Mosque pictured at the top of the page), while others only
feature one. In mosques with only a single dome, it is invariably found surmounting the qibla wall,
the holiest section of the mosque. The Great Mosque of Kairouan, in Tunisia (not pictured) has
three domes: one atop the minaret, one above the entrance to the prayer hall, and one above the
qibla wall.

Mosque lamp, 14th century, Egypt or Syria,
blown glass, enamel, gilding, 31.8 x 23.2
cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Because it is the directional focus of prayer, the qibla wall, with its mihrab and minbar, is often the
most ornately decorated area of a mosque. The rich decoration of the qibla wall is apparent in this
image of the mihrab and minbar of the Mosque of Sultan Hasan in Cairo, Egypt (see image higher
on the page).


There are other decorative elements common to most mosques. For instance, a large calligraphic
frieze or a cartouche with a prominent inscription often appears above the mihrab. In most cases
the calligraphic inscriptions are quotations from the Qur’an, and often include the date of the
building’s dedication and the name of the patron. Another important feature of mosque decoration
are hanging lamps, also visible in the photograph of the Sultan Hasan mosque. Light is an
essential feature for mosques, since the first and last daily prayers occur before the sun rises and
after the sun sets. Before electricity, mosques were illuminated with oil lamps. Hundreds of such
lamps hung inside a mosque would create a glittering spectacle, with soft light emanating from
each, highlighting the calligraphy and other decorations on the lamps’ surfaces. Although not a

permanent part of a mosque building, lamps, along with other furnishings like carpets, formed a
significant—though ephemeral—aspect of mosque architecture.

Mosque Patronage

Most historical mosques are not stand-alone buildings. Many incorporated charitable institutions
like soup kitchens, hospitals, and schools. Some mosque patrons also chose to include their own
mausoleum as part of their mosque complex. The endowment of charitable institutions is an
important aspect of Islamic culture, due in part to the third pillar of Islam, which calls for Muslims
to donate a portion of their income to the poor.

Mihrab, 1354–55, just after the Ilkhanid
period, Madrasa Imami, Isfahan, Iran,
polychrome glazed tiles, 343.1 x 288.7 cm
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The commissioning of a mosque would be seen as a pious act on the part of a ruler or other
wealthy patron, and the names of patrons are usually included in the calligraphic decoration of
mosques. Such inscriptions also often praise the piety and generosity of the patron. For instance,
the mihrab now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bears the inscription:

And he [the Prophet], blessings and peace be upon him, said: “Whoever builds a mosque for
God, even the size of a sand-grouse nest, based on piety, [God will build for him a palace in

The patronage of mosques was not only a charitable act therefore, but also, like architectural
patronage in all cultures, an opportunity for self-promotion. The social services attached the
mosques of the Ottoman sultans are some of the most extensive of their type. In Ottoman Turkey
the complex surrounding a mosque is called a kulliye. The kulliye of the Mosque of Sultan
Suleyman, in Istanbul, is a fine example of this phenomenon, comprising a soup kitchen, a
hospital, several schools, public baths, and a caravanserai (similar to a hostel for travelers). The
complex also includes two mausoleums for Sultan Suleyman and his family members.

Kulliyesi (view of kitchens and caravanserai), Istanbul

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