Museum Report – The Cloisters January

In medieval Europe, religion formed the center of life for almost everyone, and it created a unifying force throughout the continent. The church governed every aspect of life, and people viewed it with equal parts reverence, fear, and awe.

The dominance of the Church is reflected in the art of the period. Almost all of the art of the time revolves around religious themes, and much of it was created for display or use in the church. While religion was almost invariably the subject of art, changes in society brought about changes in the aspects of religion portrayed and the light in which it was interpreted.As technology developed, advances were evident in art as well as churches and monasteries. Painters developed techniques that allowed them to represent their subjects with more realism and precision.

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Paintings began to appear lifelike, and even three-dimensional. New methods of construction allowed stone structures to be built higher and with more intricate details, as the concern of collapse under the weight of the stone was alleviated.The mention of architecture raises the question of art versus craft, and it is a valid concern. While in today’s industrialized world, there is a fairly clear distinction, this has not been the case in all societies. We typically think of art as something that is created for aesthetic pleasure or to express the artist’s feelings or make a statement. It is generally signed and attributed to the individual, and is usually produced for profit.

Craft, on the other hand, tends to be more utilitarian. While it may be ornately decorated or exquisitely detailed, it serves a purpose beyond the aesthetic. By this classification, a painter or sculptor would be considered artists, while a silversmith or glazier would be seen as craftsmen. A silversmith may create a lavishly ornamented set of goblets that are beautiful to see, but their primary purpose is utilitarian, and not aesthetic.In pre-industrial societies, the distinction was much harder to find, as there was not generally enough leisure to allow for indulgences in the arts. Craftsmen, however, often produced products that were so beautiful that we would consider them works of art.

The Antioch Chalice, for instance, was probably created as a lamp, but it is exquisitely decorated and beautiful to see.Symbolism was common in the medieval art, as can be seen in the tapestries of the age. In one fragment of a German tapestry dating to the early fifteenth century, a lion-like beast is used to represent man’s lascivious urges, and is depicted as being subdued under man’s pious care. “The Unicorn in Captivity,” probably the most famous of the medieval tapestries, uses the unicorn to represent Christ, and the scene depicts him as content and pleased with his surroundings. Combined with the plentiful vegetation, specifically the pomegranate, which was a symbol of marriage and fertility, and several herbs that were used as fertility aids at the time, the scene is a celebration of God, life and fertility.

Much of what we consider to be symbolic today was taken very literally in medieval times. For example, when modern Catholics receive the Eucharist, they are participating in a ritual of great importance, but they do not believe they are consuming the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. In the Middle Ages, however, most people took such ceremonies literally, and believed wholeheartedly in the power of the Eucharist. Similarly, many believed that God, or more specifically, the Holy Spirit, actually resided in religious crafts or works of art.