Issue link: https://www.mheducation.com/highered/ideas/i/1174128

Contents of this Issue


Page 26 of 36

T H E M I D D L E A G E S I N E U R O P E  • 361 world of the spirit. By de-emphasizing the roundness, the weight, the "hereness" of human bodies in this world, they emphasize that what we are looking at is not in fact here, but there. The glittering gold background of the mosaics is typical, and it sets the figures in a Byzantine vision of heavenly splendor. A distinctive form of Byzantine art is the icon, named after the Greek word for "image," eikon. In the context of Byzantine art, an icon is a specific kind of image, either a portrait of a sacred person or a portrayal of a sacred event. Icons were most commonly painted in tempera on gilded wood panels. But other media were also used, including miniature mosaics, precious metals, and ivory (15.10). Ivory was a luxury material in Byzantium, and thus it is likely that this exquisitely carved image was made in Constantinople itself, perhaps for a member of the imperial court. The icon portrays Mary, called the Mother of God, enthroned in majesty, a subject that can also be seen in the mosaic we just examined. As in the mosaic, she displays her son Jesus, who blesses onlookers with his right hand. In his left hand he holds a scroll. Angels appearing from the sky in the upper corners marvel at the sight, spreading their hands in awe. Icons had a mysterious status in the Byzantine world. They were not images as we understand them, but points of contact with the sacred realm. Divine power flowed through them into the world, and through them believers could address their prayers to the sacred presence they saw portrayed. Some icons were believed to have been miraculously created; others were believed to have worked miracles. By the time this icon was carved, vast changes had occurred in the territories that Constantinople was built to rule. Constantine's vision of a unified Roman Empire did not prevail: The territory was simply too vast. His successors partitioned the empire into eastern and western halves, each with its own emperor. Within 150 years, the western empire had fallen, overwhelmed by a massive influx of Germanic peoples arriving from the north and east. Constantinople again claimed authority over the entire empire, but could not enforce it. The Western Church, based in Rome, preserved its imperial organization and religious authority, but true political and military power had passed to the local leaders of the newcomers, who settled throughout the lands of western Europe. It is to these peoples and their art that we now turn our attention. The Middle Ages in Europe The Middle Ages is the name that historians long ago gave to the period in Europe between the defeat of the last western Roman emperor in 476 and the beginnings of the Renaissance in the 15th century. To those early historians, the period was a dark one of ignorance and decline, an embarrassing "middle" time between one impressive civilization and another. Today we view the Middle Ages as a complex and fascinating period worthy of study in its own right. During these centuries, Europe was formed, and a distinctive Christian culture flowered within it. Far from ignorant, it was a time of immense achievement. The Early Middle Ages The kingdoms of the early Middle Ages in Europe were inhabited by descendants of migratory tribes that had traveled southward and westward on the continent during the 4th and 5th centuries. Ethnically Germanic, these peoples emerged, for the most part, from the north-central part of Europe, or what today we would call northern Germany and Scandinavia. The Romans referred to them as "barbarians" (meaning "foreigners"). They regarded them as crude, but they also admired their bravery and employed them increasingly as mercenaries. Nevertheless, the massive influx of barbarian tribes into Roman lands—sometimes as settlers, sometimes as invaders and conquerors—brought about the empire's ultimate collapse, near the end of the 5th century. 15.10 Plaque with Enthroned Virgin and Child. Byzantine (Constantinople?), ca. 1050–1200. Ivory, with traces of red from original gilding; 10 × 6 ⅞". The Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio. Gift of J. H. Wade/Bridgeman Images

Articles in this issue

view archives of 2018HSSL_FlipBooks - 2018_FlipBook_Getlein_LivingWithArt_12e