Middle Ages Painting in Europe (500 – 1400)

When the Roman Empire declined around the year 400, wealth decreased and war increased. The eastern part of the empire became the Byzantine Empire and was increasingly influenced by Islam and became the most important place along with China for technological and societal development for the next 800 years. Meanwhile, Europe descended into a region of smaller warring states where virtually no lasting progress of any sort occurred. There was progress, but it was destroyed every time. ‘The Dark Ages’ is an appropriate name for this period of time in Europe! The population dropped dramatically by AD 650 and slowly increased to 70 million by 1340, when it was cut in half by the plague. The Catholic Church had a tight control on much of everyday life and art was stagnant. Though there was lots of secular art, it didn’t survive well compared to the religious art, so we don’t see much from this period but religious art. Religious art from this period rarely showed the landscape except as bits of background for the characters of the Bible. So there isn’t much to be learned about landscape photography from studying painting from the middle ages other than setting a scene, which is important in many genres of photography.

Towards the end of the middle ages, signs of life began to appear in the world of art and landscape painting as well as other creative endeavors. As the population of Europe increased after the plagues, economies recovered and so did creativity.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti (Ambruogio Laurati; 1290 – 1348) Italy

The work of Ambrogio Lorenzetti was evidence that the art of Europe in the later middle ages was beginning to improve. But just as improvement begin to take hold, the plague hit and Claimed Ambrogio and perhaps 35 million others out of the 70 million total population. He produced Frescos (paint in wet plaster) which were often secular and included the landscape.

Lorenzetti_govDetails from the frescos in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, (1328)

Here are scenes of people in natural settings. It may not seem significant, but until this point, few works which depict nature had been created in Europe for nearly 1000 years! There isn’t much depth in this painting but there is color, which will become more important as time goes on. Lorenzetti was ahead of his time.

Lorenzetti_amb-effectA portion of ‘The Effects of Good Government’, a fresco in the City Hall of Siena, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, (1338)

The cityscape here is much more than just a backdrop; it’s also part of the subject. Color, perspective, and shading create depth as opposed to fog and mist. Details are important, and the eye can investigate every building and little window. Often, ‘simple is good’ in landscape photography, but if you are photographing a busy scene like this, make it clean and uncluttered, so the viewer can spend time looking at the details.

Most early European art was similar to these two examples. So we’ll move on to Renaissance painting.