Medieval Art

Late Medieval German Sculpture: Images for the Cult and for Private Devotion

Protestant Reformation

How Medieval and Renaissance Tapestries Were Made

Death in the Middle Ages

List of Rulers: Europe

Byzantine Art

The Crusades

Animals in Medieval Art

Arms and Armor

The Cult of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages

Art of the Book in the Middle Ages

The Face in Medieval Sculpture

The head was the chief symbolic part of the body for Western culture in the Middle Ages, from the waning days of the Roman empire to the Renaissance. Since antiquity it signified not only the intellect, the center of power, but was also regarded as the seat of the soul. The face is not only central to identity, but is also the primary vehicle for human expression, emotion, and character. As such, the depiction of the head becomes a true test of the quality of the artist and a telling indicator of style. Sculptured heads in museums have lost their original context, whether by violent breaking from their bodies and from the monuments they once adorned, or simply by being removed and placed in a museum. By focusing on this one genre of object, the Middle Ages can be seen in a new light. [MMA]

The Age of Justinian

The nearly forty-year reign of Emperor Justinian I (527–65) heralded extensive territorial expansion and military success for the Byzantine state. Seeking to recover regions lost to foreign invaders, particularly Germanic tribes in Italy and North Africa, Justinian launched one of the most aggressive military programs in medieval history. As a result of his reconquest of the western territories, he restored Ravenna's status as a capital in Italy. Mosaic portraits of Justinian and his empress Theodora appear there at the church of San Vitale. By his death in 565, the empire bordered nearly the entire Mediterranean Sea, a size unrivalled in Byzantine history from that point onward. Conquest and territorial reorganization were paralleled by reforms in state taxation and legislation, the latter codified in the Corpus Juris Civilis (Corpus of Civil Law), a text that today forms part of the foundation of the Western legal system. [MMA]


In 330 A.D., the first Christian ruler of the Roman empire, Constantine the Great, transferred the imperial capital from Rome to the ancient city of Byzantion, renaming it Constantinople. The state ruled from that city would come to be called Byzantium, although the citizens described themselves as Rhomaioi rather than Byzantines, as they considered themselves the inheritors of the ancient Roman empire. [MMA]

MMA's Byzantium Exhibition

Fordham's Byzantine Icons Resource

Icons and Iconoclasm in Byzantium

In Byzantine theology, icons allowed the viewer direct communication with the sacred figure(s) represented and, through icons, an individual's prayers were addressed directly to the petitioned saint. Miraculous healings and good fortune were among the requests. [MMA]

The Reformation

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian, (c.482-565) and Retinue, c. 546 CE

With Justinian in the center it is easy to see the symbolism of twelve men flanking him as if he is Christ and they are his twelve disciples. [...]On our right, mostly clerical power is assembled at his left arm whereas this is balanced by secular political power on our left but at his right. If it is possible to reconstruct some understanding of significance, the leaders of the procession would be clerical not only because it is a sacred place they are about to enter vicariously but also because Justinian needs to emphasize from where his earthly power derives and where it proceeds. But to make it certain his imperial power is very much backed up by military strength, the retinue of six soldiers (count six heads) is armed and ready. Again emphasizing religious continuity, the Chi-Rho shield reminds of Constantine's legendary dream and victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE as well as where earthly authority rests on a militant Christ. Click the source for more information on this and the next image.

The Empress Theodora and Retinue.

Opposite the Justinian mosaic is the Empress Theodora and her retinue. She too is wearing the purple royal robe. She is also crowned with a halo. She is bringing a gift, echoed by the three magi bearing gifts.

Theodora was known for her ravishing beauty as well as her ruthless manner and haughty disposition. She was responsible for Justinian's victory in Constantinople, he was going to flee, to give up, she refused, and so he stayed and consequently was victorious. Framed in huge, towering tiara with emeralds, pearls, diamonds, and sapphires, Theodora peers out, the proud queen. She died a year after this portrait was made. Click the source for more information.

San Vitale, Ravenna -
the above mosaics are installed in this section of the basilica.

Although the construction of San Vitale began under Archibishop Ecclesius (521-534), it was not finished until 547, and the mosaics were made under the authority of Justinian, whose general Belisarius took the city in 540. Click here for more info from the source.

The personification of Ktisis - the personification of the act of generous donation or foundation, 6th century, BCE.
Fragment of a floor mosaic.

The bust of a richly bejeweled woman stares from this fragment of a floor mosaic that was once part of a large public building. The partially restored Greek inscription near her head identifies her as Ktisis, the personification of the act of generous donation or foundation. To emphasize her role as donor, she holds the measuring tool for the Roman foot. On her right a man extends a cornucopia toward her as if offering a gift; the Greek word for "good" is near his head. Originally a similar figure probably appeared to her left, and an inscription by his head would have completed the legend "Good wishes." [MMA]

Silver Plate with David and Goliath, 629–630. Silver, Byzantine. [MMA]

Plaque with the Crucifixion and the Stabbing of Hades, mid-10th century CE, ivory, Byzantine. [MMA]

Plaque with Agnus Dei on a Cross between Emblems of the Four Evangelists, 975-1000 CE, ivory, German or Northern Italian.

This ivory plaque depicts the Lamb of God surrounded by the four writers of the Gospels. Matthew is represented by the winged man, Mark by the winged lion, Luke by the winged ox, and John by the eagle. [MMA]

Virgin and Child in Majesty, 1150–1200 CE, French.

This type of sculpture, with the Christ Child seated in the Virgin's lap in a frontal pose, is known as a Sedes Sapientiae (Throne of Wisdom). These seemingly straightforward images convey complex theological ideas. Mary serves as Christ's throne. Like his ancestors King David and King Solomon, Christ possesses wisdom and justice. He would have held a Bible, the divine wisdom that he himself embodies.

From the 1100s, Mary was increasingly revered as a nurturing, merciful intercessor. Such statues were used as devotional objects, and were carried in church processions. This image might have also functioned as a container for holy relics, since it has two cavities—one behind the Virgin's shoulder, the other at her chest, probably added later. [MMA]

Processional Cross, late 11th–early 12th century CE, Spanish, Silver, partially gilt on wood core, carved gems, jewels.

Christ flanked by the mourning Virgin and Saint John. An angel appears at the top, and the first man Adam rises from his grave at the bottom. A rock crystal above Christ's head covered a cavity meant for a now-missing relic. Gilded silver bars attached to each of the four arms of the cross served as settings for an array of gems, including antique intaglios. Most have disappeared, but two remain: one showing an ancient Victory figure and the other a male nude with a fish and spear—venerable embellishments for a sumptuous object. [MMA]

Pieta, 1375 CE. Pieta is where the word pity (sorrow and compassion) comes from.

Virgin and Child, ca. 1420 CE. Attributed to Claus de Werve (Franco-Netherlandish, ca. 1380–1439)

Icon with Christ Pantokrator (Greek - All Sovereign) Byzantine, mid-14th century.

Warhol, Gold Marilyn, 1962.
Warhol may have been influenced by the icons of the faith he was raised in.

Lion from a Frieze, after 1200

This fresco depicting a lion with the face of a mustached man once adorned the walls of the chapter house of the monastery at San Pedro de Arlanza in northern Spain. It and a second lion flanked the entrance of a large room—34 feet square with 12-foot ceilings—covered from floor to ceiling with paintings. The color scheme and background composition of the frescoes link it to Spanish manuscript illuminations of the time, such as the Cloisters' illustrated commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Lièbana. [MMA]

In the Middle Ages, it was thought that two kinds of lions existed: The short ones with curly manes were peaceful while the tall ones with plain hair were fierce. (By the way, this observation in the Bestiary may truly reflect nature.) Unlike the large and ferocious African lion, the smaller, curly-haired Asiatic lion was mentioned in the Bible. Lions were supposed to be compassionate—they spared those who prostrated themselves before them; they spared prisoners; they ate men before women, and only ate children when they were starving. The lion was thought to dwell in the mountains and to use his tail to sweep away his trail (actually, his spoor) so that he could not be hunted. Though the lion was considered brave, it feared fire, the human hunter, the creaking of wheels, and the white rooster. The male lion was thought not to have many wives. Another medieval belief was that the lioness gave birth to lifeless offspring; three days later, the lion roared or breathed upon the cubs and they revived. Lions supposedly slept with their eyes open. Lions were harassed by the sting of a scorpion and could be killed by a snake's poison. If a lion was sick, it cured itself by eating a monkey. If a lion was full, it supposedly reached into its mouth and pulled out the extra food. [MMA: Cloisters]

Narbonne Arch, 12th century

This intricately carved arch is said to have come from a twelfth-century church in Narbonne, in southwestern France. It is composed of seven blocks of marble on which are carved eight fantastic beasts, comprising an abbreviated visual bestiary.

Moving from left to right, we see: a manticore with a man's face, a lion's body, and a scorpion's tail; a pelican, who pierces her own breast so that her blood feeds her young, symbolizing Christ's death and resurrection; a basilisk, a cross between a cock and a scorpion that can kill with its looks; a harpy luring men to their doom with her beautiful voice; a griffin, which has the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion; an amphisbaena or dragon, which can form its body into a circle; a centaur with drawn bow; and a lion, who erases his tracks with his tail to elude hunters, symbolizing Christ's incarnation. All of these creatures, whether imaginary or realistic, were familiar to many people during the Middle Ages, and all had their specific lessons to impart.MMA]

The Unicorn in Captivity, 1495–1505 The Unicorn Tapestries at The Cloisters.
Click above link for interactive features.

The seven individual hangings collectively known as The Unicorn Tapestries, are among the most beautiful and complex works of art from the late Middle Ages that survive. Luxuriously woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads, the tapestries vividly depict scenes associated with a hunt for the elusive, magical unicorn. The Unicorn in Captivity may have been created as a single image rather than part of a series. In this instance, the unicorn probably represents the beloved tamed. He is tethered to a tree and constrained by a fence, but the chain is not secure and the fence is low enough to leap over. The unicorn could escape if he wished but clearly his confinement is a happy one, to which the ripe, seed-laden pomegranates in the tree—a medieval symbol of fertility and marriage—testify. The red stains on his flank do not appear to be blood, as there are no visible wounds like those in the hunting series; rather, they represent juice dripping from the bursting pomegranates above. Many of the other plants represented here, such as wild orchid, bistort, and thistle, echo this theme of marriage and procreation: they were acclaimed in the Middle Ages as fertility aids for both men and women. Even the little frog, nestled among the violets at the lower right, was cited by medieval writers for its noisy mating. [MMA]