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The Art of Illustrating Medieval History and Warfare

The Art of Illustrating Medieval History and Warfare

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A lot of what we know from history has been written down, whether in letters, diaires, documents or books. These sources help us conjure-up imagery from the past and get a sense of what it was like living in those times. Nevertheless, the old adage that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is certainly true, especially when that picture is a result of thorough historical research to help convey detail from the time.

Matthew Ryan is a historical illustrator. His work is detailed and painstakingly researched. His drawing style is naturalistic and descriptive, giving both an impression of the historical event yet also the humanity and landscape behind it – helping the viewer feel part of the scene.

Here Matthew talks us through his creative process.

Relive the heroic feat of Henry V and his heavily outnumbered army at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415! This print, painted in an early 15th century manuscript style, depicts Henry V leading his army to what will become known as the battlefield of Azincourt, Nothern France. Each Print is hand signed by the artist, Mathew Ryan.

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How much research is needed in historical illustration?

“Overall, half of my time is spent on historical research, and half on actually creating the art itself”.

Matthew has been interested in archery all his life, and even makes his own replica medieval and Tudor arrows. “Books are great for research, but making my own arrows is hands-on – it’s constructive archaeology. We don’t know how things were done back then, but by making the arrows you can rediscover techniques” – which helps him draw them more accurately.

“The arrows I make are based on the only known surviving medieval arrow, known as the Westminster Arrow as it was found in the roof of Henry V’s Chantry in Westminster Abbey. The only other near-medieval arrows are the many that were reclaimed from the Mary Rose shipwreck. Other than that we have archeology of arrow heads, several written descriptive accounts and various pieces of 2D and 3D medieval art showing representations of arrows”.

If Matthew is asked to illustrate a subject he already has knowledge on, he uses his own folder that is full of research and can generally get on with painting straightaway.

If it’s a subject he doesn’t know much about, Matthew gets information from books and other secondary sources, and also tries to find first-hand accounts used by historians. Sometimes he can even discover information from stylised manuscripts, which Matthew says can still reveal elements of truth in them, even in cartoon-style drawing. He likes to find out information on “what we know and why we know it”, and generally has a plan in his head of the scene he’d like to create.

Initial sketch of medieval town, by Matthew Ryan (Image Credit: Matthew Ryan).

When illustrating something like a town, Matthew can use maps, google or archaeological records from the time.

If illustrating a battle scene, he enjoys looking into the details, for example “what did the horse bridle look like?” and “what weapons were used and how?”. He even researches the ethnicity of the soldiers involved in the battles to get the detail as historically accurate as possible.

Producing medieval battle reconstruction paintings

“As part of my research into producing medieval battle reconstruction paintings I often study and draw military figures and equipment from manuscript art of the various periods” says Matthew.
“My love and appreciation for the various styles of this medieval art grew and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to illustrate specific medieval events in art styles that were contemporary to the period that I was illustrating”.

Relive the demise of Simon de Montfort with this amazing signed print of the Battle of Evesham in 1265! This print, painted in an early 15th century manuscript style, depicts the bloody scenes on the battlefield located in the West Midlands. Each Print is hand signed by the artist, Mathew Ryan.

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“My first painting in this technique was of the death of Simon Montfort at the 1265 Battle of Evesham” (a print of which is available to buy in the Our Site shop). “The style of art I very much based on the exquisite art found in the Morgan Bible, created in France, during the mid-13th century. This was layer used by Rick Wakeman for his album Softsword.”

“The mediums I use are a range of modern paints, acrylics, inks and enamel paint.”

Matthew Ryan illustrating his Battle of Crecy reconstruction painting. (Image Credit: Matthew Ryan).

“Since then I have used various other medieval manuscript-style illustrations to produce work for places such as The King Richard III Visitor Centre, The Tower of London for the Agincourt 600 Year Commemorations and the Royal Armouries Leeds.”

Display of Matthew’s work at The Tower of London (Image Credit: (c) Richard Lea-Hair Photography).

Do photographs from modern eras make historical illustration easier?

Time periods such as World War One mean there are photos and details of things such as the uniforms worn available, along with supplementary material Matthew uses for reference, such as catalogues that tailors would have used – aiding the historical accuracy in his work.

“In one way it’s a blessing…” Matthew says, “but there again it means you have to be even more on your game. The further back in time, you can often be more subjective”.

Painting by Matthew Ryan – Belgium during the opening of World War One (Image Credit: Matthew Ryan).

Illustrating ambiguity

If illustrating an event from an era such as the medieval period, sometimes Matthew “just has to take a stand on how something would look like”, using the evidence he has available, as often things are not always clear-cut. “It’s similar to being a writer – you look at a painting as a book, but you’re using pictures to do it”.

While there may be various conflicting sources, Matthew describes his work as “more like working in television, in that you can’t say ‘there’s indecisiveness’ about an issue if some of the information about an event is missing. For example, ‘Henry V got an arrow in the face’ – we know it was removed from his face, but we don’t know by that description if he was wearing a helmet or used a visor etc. Things like this can cause controversy”.

Example: Palfrey horse artwork

To draw his palfrey horse artwork based on the Forester guards, Matthew referred to Chaucer’s Knight in a 1532 edition of The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s Knight in a 1532 edition of The Canterbury Tales. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Matthew noted that the horses were drawn with one hoof always in contact with the floor – which identified them as palfrey horses, which he used in his own artwork.

This ‘breed’ (now extinct) were highly valued riding horses in the Middle Ages as they ambled rather than trotted, meaning they were able to travel for miles. As their movement was steady (and not as much an up-and -down motion like most horses), they were thought to be a comfier ride and were thus used by the nobility. Visually, palfrey horses looked closer to the ground, and are similar to modern Icelandic ponies.

Matthew was therefore able to convey this detail in his resulting artwork to add historical authenticity:

Forester Guard, by Matthew Ryan (Image Credit: Matthew Ryan).

Despite conducting such thorough research, Matthew received comments about the piece saying the pony looked wrong and more ‘like a dog’, highlighting how people have a pre-conceived idea in their head of what things are like. Matthew sees his role as being to confront them with the historical evidence and educate people to help dispel myths.

What type of mediums work best for illustration?

Matthew starts with a line drawing, then adds colour using gouache paint. This paint dries instantly which means that unlike oil paint, he can build up layers easily.

“When acrylic paint dries it sets, but with gouache paint, you can re-work it (a bit like oil paint) and thus re-work a layer you’ve laid down. You can put a dry layer over dry layer – if the paint gets wet, you can brush it and reignite the paint and blend it more. For this reason, gouache paint is quick. You can do large, flat areas of bold colour. It’s also flat and matte, so when you scan the picture or take a photo of it you don’t get glare.”

The downside is the medium’s potential posterity. “Pictures using gouache paint are more prone to get damaged, yet old manuscripts were made from this, so they do last”.

Matthew likes using oil paints as well as they’re good for detail. He enjoys drawing the details and “putting humanity in the faces of the characters” so people can connect with the character more.

Matthew Ryan using oil paint to define details in his reconstruction painting of the Battle of Crecy. (Image Credit: Matthew Ryan).

The finished work:

Relive another famous Hundred Years’ War clash with a print of the Battle of Crecy in 1346! This print, painted in an early 15th century manuscript style, depicts English Longbow Archers combatting Genouese Crossbow men on the battlefield in Northern France. Each Print is hand signed by the artist, Mathew Ryan.

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Illustrating the humanity in history

“People in history are human. Throughout history some things have not changed” says Matthew. “You can still paint nature with accuracy, such as trees and the different seasons. These people were real people, who had real lives, and similar thoughts to us. The human soul is the same as it was 10,000 years ago really. Times were different but fundamentally we’re the same. People still love their family, and have needs of food, shelter and warmth”.

Matthew explains how some illustrations and views of history talk about the people involved as if they were sub-human somehow – “they were not”. Matthew doesn’t want people to feel alienated by history. “Depicting history through art can help make it more approachable and accessible”.

Buy signed prints by Matthew Ryan

Matthew Ryan’s medieval battle reconstruction paintings in an early 15th century manuscript style are available to buy in the Our Site shop.

Each Print is hand signed by the artist. Battles decpited include the Battle of Evesham, the Battle of Crecy, the Road to Agincourt, the Battle of Agincourt, and As His Own Champion the Battle of Bosworth.

Relive the fierce rivalry between the House of York and House of Lancaster at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485! This print, painted in an early 15th century manuscript style, depicts King Richard III’s charge in battle toward enemy forces, led by Henry Tudor. Each Print is hand signed by the artist, Mathew Ryan.

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For more information on Matthew Ryan and his work, visit

Main article image: Battle of Agincourt Signed Print by Matthew Ryan. (Image Credit: Matthew Ryan).

Time Periods

Early humans used symbols, ideograms, and drawings to record their world and to aid in the practice of ritual.

Early Civilization

Farming and trade in Egypt and Mesopotamia form large competing cultures.

Classical World

Art and illustration of the Mediterranean and Aegean civilizations.

The Middle Ages

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Europe sank into a 700 year period of instability and then began a gradual recovery that led to the Renaissance.


The Renaissance brings a division between fine art and craft.

Early 18th Century

Illustrations in prints and books reflect society.

Late 18th Century

Illustration at the time of the Industrial Revolution becomes a more common part of the printed materials that are seen daily.

Early 19th Century

Social and political illustration reaches the public through satirical prints, newspapers and journals. Illustrated novels become more common as does fiction intended for children.

Late 19th Century

Illustrated children's literature and illustrated magazines bring the beauty and pleasure of art into daily life.

The Decade 1900-1910

Magazines extend their media dominance and take advantage of new color printing capabilities.

The Decade 1910-1920

Full-color printing is adopted by all the major magazines, and book publishers produce novels and classic literature with illustrated plates.

The Decade 1920-1930

New illustration stylizations join traditional ones to portray post-war American culture in the "Roaring Twenties."

The Decade 1930-1940

The illustration profession in the 1930s was radically affected by the Great Depression and new forms of entertainment.

The Decade 1940-1950

Illustrators depict war-time adventure and romance stories in magazines and use their talents to help support the war effort.

The Decade 1950-1960

The decade of the 1950s is a bridge between pre- and post-war illustration and the new illustration styles of the 1960s.

The Decade 1960-1970

Contemporary social and political issues dominate American culture and are reflected by the art of illustration as the post-war generation comes of age.

The Decade 1970-1980

The 1970s were the beginning of a two-decade long "renaissance" in illustration.

The Decade 1980-1990

The illustration profession changes as new communication technologies affect the ways that art and business are conducted.

The Decade 1990-2000

Illustrators take up new digital tools and struggle in an economy adjusting to technological change.

The Decade 2000-2010

Technological innovation opens up new opportunities for illustrators.

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William Morris Artworks

Although this painting has been listed since its creation as 'unfinished', it is the only easel painting by Morris to reach this level of near-completion, and a quintessential work of Pre-Raphaelite-era portraiture. The model for the painting was Jane Burden, Morris's soon-to-be wife, and it is believed that he started work on it very early during their courtship. The artist reportedly struggled during the composition process with the proportions of the human body, which he was never able to execute as effectively as his peers. It is rumored that when he stopped working on the painting, he scribbled a note on the back to Jane: "I cannot paint you, but I love you".

Jane poses as the female protagonist of the story of Tristram and Iseult (Tristan and Isolde), a legend of Celtic origin made popular during the medieval period by the treatment of Thomas Mallory, on which Morris based his composition. The narrative of doomed lovers contains all the aspects of Medieval romance - thwarted desire, chastity, honor, chivalry - that attracted the Pre-Raphaelites to the literature and art of the period. In the scene depicted, Iseult is mourning the exile of Tristram - a knight sent to fetch her from Ireland to marry King Mark of Cornwall, only for the two to fall in love en route - from her husband's court. The tale was one that Morris had previously represented in the Oxford Union Murals, and the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite artists with whom he undertook that project, particularly Rossetti, is obvious. At the same time, we might trace a thread of affinity with the nascent Symbolist movement in continental Europe, given the heavily allegorical nature of the composition. The dog on the bed, given to Iseult by Tristram in Mallory's story, stands for loyalty, the rosemary in her crown for remembrance.

The painting also alludes in various ways to Morris's artistic and personal biography. Whilst figural painting would never be his true calling, we can sense clues as to his future endeavors as a designer and craftsman in the finer details of the scene. On the bed is an illuminated manuscript similar to those Morris would produce with Kelmscott Press, while the lavish textiles and tapestries are reminiscent of those Morris would spend most of his career creating. As for his model, Jane's strong, striking features, which epitomized the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty, also caught the attention of Morris's friend and mentor Rossetti, with whom Jane embarked on a lifelong affair, grudgingly tolerated by her husband.

Oil on Canvas - Tate Britain, London

Red House

Created in collaboration with the architect Philip Webb, many consider this building the jewel in Morris's crown. After his marriage to Jane, Morris longed for a country home for the family, a place where he could live out his visions of medieval romance and collaborative creativity. The result was a strange and magnificent red brick construction which brought together the pointed arches of Gothic religious architecture, the gabled roofs of a Tudor mansion, and turrets from a medieval fairytale. This was not just a house to be lived in, but to be explored and experienced: for Rossetti, it was "more a poem than a house".

Everything in the creation and decoration of Red House was carefully considered. Perhaps in a nod to Morris's growing socialist principles, the red bricks of working-class housing were favored over the stone blocks that would have befitted his class status. He also abandoned bourgeoise taste by filling the garden with native British trees and flowers - those which inspired his decorative designs - rather than the exotic plants favored by the upper classes.

The decoration of the house has become as famous as its architecture, a collaborative endeavor involving not just Morris and Webb, but all of their artistic friends as well. Apparently, whenever a guest arrived to view the completed building, they would be invited to assist with its decoration. Morris would even prick out his designs in plaster, for less creatively inclined friends. The result is a work of interior decoration which showcases the talents of some of the best-known artists of the era. Murals, painted panels and chests, stained-glass windows and textiles: all were created in the spirit of collective joy and industry that Morris so valued.

Red House has been seen as the ancestral home of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. Its construction also marked a decisive shift in architectural aesthetics, one whose effects were still playing out in the early twentieth century. In 1904, the German critic Hermann Muthesius described Red House as "the first house to be conceived and built as a unified whole, inside and out, the very first example in the history of the modern home". This concept would be hugely influential on architects of the Art Nouveau era such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and modernists such as Walter Gropius. 150 years after its construction, the building, now owned by the National Trust, continues to fascinate and excite visitors.

Green Dining Room

This Green Dining Room (also knonw as the Morris Room) is one of three refreshment rooms created for the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) during the 1860s. This commission was not given to Morris alone, but to Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., the company known as The Firm. The prestige of this commission was a testament to the critical and commercial success that Morris and his collaborators had been enjoying since establishing The Firm in 1861. The individuals chiefly involved in this project were Morris, Philip Webb, and Edward Burne-Jones. As with their other joint-endeavors, each worked on the sections of the room that best suited their skills. The Green Dining Room thus embodies the spirit of collaborative artisanship which the company championed.

As the resident architect of the group, Webb designed the window frames, working with Morris on the floral and geometric designs pricked into the plaster of the ceiling. Burne-Jones painted the paneled frieze along the walls of the room, and, as an accomplished stained-glass designer, filled the window panels with scenes of medieval domestic bliss, including the ubiquitous, lissome Pre-Raphaelite beauties. The patterns inscribed into the green-painted plaster walls were the work of Morris alone, however. Olive boughs, raised up in the plaster, wrap around the room in an endless pattern, punctuated by the splashes of color introduced by flowers and berries. While these walls were created as reliefs, the designs pre-empt those Morris would later create for wallpapers and furnishing fabrics, particularly Willow. The latter is one of Morris's best-known designs, a simple pattern of intertwined willow leaves that gives the "unmistakable suggestions of gardens and fields" within a domestic setting.

Plaster, paint, wooden panel, and stained glass - Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Strawberry Thief

Strawberry Thief is the best known of Morris's decorative textile designs, one on which he worked for several months before finding a way of printing it successfully. The fabric was intended to be used for curtains or hung along walls, a medieval style of decoration which the artist advocated. The pattern, meanwhile, was based on the thrushes that would steal strawberries from the kitchen in his country home at Kelmscott Manner, and was therefore imbued with nostalgic sentiment. Whilst the foliate designs are complex and eye-catching, and the design provides little depth between foreground and background, the birds remain a focal point due to their light color and the naturalism of their rendering. They also create an element of narrative interest, as the mischievous protagonists of a story that plays out across the surface of the fabric, entertaining with their song while they make away with the precious berries.

These themes are redolent of the natura naturans spirit of much medieval textile art, and loosely evocative of the romance and fantasy narratives of the same era. In practical terms, Morris took a great deal of interest in the practical craftsmanship of the Strawberry Thief design, learning the theory of fabric-dyeing and block-printing in order to create a pattern amenable to his chosen production process. Eventually, he settled on the ancient technique of indigo discharge, in spite of its costly and laborious nature, applying bleached blocks to dyed fabric. His main concern was the depth of color in the finished product, and the artisanal authenticity of the creative process.

This design has attained extraordinary commercial success since its release in the late nineteenth century, and continues to sell widely, with English department stores having featured it in several high-end fashion collaborations. Its popularity has recently led the Victoria and Albert Museum's designer-in-residence to create a digital game based on the design, while contemporary artists continue to look back to it. The conceptual and video artist Jeremy Deller, for example, has named an exhibition after the work, and created the piece Strawberry Thief (2014), a neon light depicting one of the birds with a captured berry, in homage to it.

Indigo-discharged and block-printed cotton - Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Woodpecker Tapestry

Most of Morris's best-known tapestry designs were created in collaboration with artists, such as Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones. The classic design for Woodpecker Tapestry, however, is the product of his imagination and technical skill alone. Standing at three meters high, the work was devised on a grand scale, originally intended to be hung in a billiard room in London. It depicts a woodpecker and songbird in a tree above and below are two scrolls, bearing an inscription that would later be published as one of a series of "Verses for Pictures" in Morris's Poems By the Way (1891): "I once a king and chief/ now am the tree bar's thief/ ever twixt trunk and leaf/ chasing the prey". This playful little poem is based on a tale from the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which the sorceress Circe curses King Picus to become a woodpecker, after he spurns her sexual advances.

The extent to which Morris drew from medieval sources is abundantly clear from the design of this work: not only in its gothic lettering and busy pattern-work, but from the decision to employ tapestry as an artistic medium. Whilst hand-woven textiles had lined the halls of royal courts in the Middle Ages, by the nineteenth century tapestry had fallen far from fashionable taste. Morris remedied this not only by creating various modern takes on medieval tapestry patterns, but also by learning the craft himself. Synthesizing these ancient sources of inspiration with a modern attitude to nature, he created a decorative design that is as complex in thematic association as it is beautiful.

The combination of words and image, that is, means that the viewer is not only invited to follow the curves of trunk and branch, but also to contemplate the allegorical value of the illustration. Perhaps the poem contains a kernel of Morris's socialist worldview. The king appears to mourn his fall from power, but it is easy to question the validity of his lament: how can he mourn in such a beautiful natural setting?

Wool on Cotton - William Morris Gallery, London

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer now Newly Imprinted

The Kelmscott Chaucer, as it is widely known, is one of the defining achievements of the last great artistic project of Morris's life, the Kelmscott Press. For over two decades, Morris had enjoyed translating and illustrating medieval narratives, and he had gifted several hand-made manuscripts to family and friends. In 1891, he decided to set up a business that would produce beautiful handprinted books, spending months sourcing the correct handmade papers, woodblock carvers, and typefaces for the Kelmscott Press to use. In the case of the Kelmscott Chaucer, the medieval-style typeface originally chosen did not create the desired visual effect, and so an entirely new typeface, "Chaucer", was created solely for the project.

The Kelmscott Chaucer was the result of several years' labor involving Morris and his close friend Edward Burne-Jones. Morris designed foliate patterns for the pages, whilst Burne-Jones lent his decorative skills to the illustrated panels. The two then collaborated on the overall format and design of the book, while the artist and engraver William Harcourt Hooper etched the pages for printing. Less than 500 copies were made, each costly to produce and buy. They turned reading into a luxurious experience, to be appreciated visually as well as intellectually. Each page was to be savored, the words of the fourteenth-century poet placed in an aesthetic space inspired by the world in which they were written. Burne-Jones described The Kelmscott Chaucer as the culmination of the ideas that he and Morris had shared since they were students, finally brought to fruition "at the end of our days". Morris only just lived to see the release of the book, dying just a few months later in 1896.

The pages of the Kelmscott Chaucer have provided enjoyment and inspiration for artists and craftsmen ever since they were published. For his 2015 installation work Announcer, the contemporary artist David Mabb covered the walls of a gallery space with facsimiles of the Kelmscott Chaucer and the Russian Constructivist artist El Lissitzky's edition of the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky's For the Voice. Both books are the product of utopian socialist ideals, and of an approach to book-making that was both artisanal and avant-garde.

Main Article

The Byzantine Style

Byzantine visual art remained sufficiently static throughout the Middle Ages to allow for the sweeping term Byzantine style (although subtly distinct phases can indeed be discerned). 16 The transition from Roman art (which is quite realistic) to the Byzantine style (which is quite stylized) occurred during the Early Christian period (ca. 200-500 see Early Christian Art). 4 Throughout the Middle Ages, the influence of the Byzantine style pulsed steadily into Western Europe, especially Italy.

The central concern of the Byzantine style is the awe-inspiring presentation of holy figures. To this end, figures are portrayed in stylized postures (as though they were posing for the picture), serene of expression and often halo-crowned. (The halo originated in Greek art, gracing the head of Helios, god of the sun. 19 ) Three-dimensional depth is largely shunned in favour of a single plane this flatness is especially striking when robes are drawn with complex folds (such that the robe takes on the appearance of a curtain). F98,2,4

Byzantine Mosaics and Murals

The principal canvas for Byzantine mosaic and painting was the church interior. Large surfaces were graced with biblical figures, while narrow spaces were adorned with intricate patterns. The interior as a whole was often united as a hierarchical composition , conveying the hierarchy of beings in the Christian universe. 29

The domed, central plan design of Byzantine churches (see Medieval Architecture) was ideally suited to hierarchical composition. The top of the main dome was typically devoted to a glorious representation of Christ often, angels were positioned immediately beneath him, and saints beneath the angels. Sub-domes were occupied by other primary Christian figures, such as Mary and the apostles. 4

A recurring feature of Byzantine mosaics is a gleaming gold background. 30 Gold and silver tesserae (mosaic tiles) were produced by coating a sheet of glass in a layer of leaf (namely gold leaf or silver leaf), then breaking the sheet into cubes. Glass tiles in other colours were similarly produced using powdered metal oxides. 25

Most Byzantine art and architecture is found in the lands surrounding the eastern Mediterranean. The Byzantine culture sphere did extend, however, to parts of Italy, most famously the cities of Ravenna and Venice (both of which lie on the east coast of northern Italy). Given their location, these cities were subject to strong Byzantine influence (and were even part of the Byzantine Empire for a few centuries), and produced much Byzantine style art throughout the medieval period.

Byzantine Icons

Apart from architectural decoration, the foremost medium of Byzantine visual art was the icon : a panel painting of one or more holy figures. While most icons are simply portraits, some feature narrative scenes. Icons, which (like their mosaic and mural cousins) feature the Byzantine style, were intended to help Christians understand spiritual realities by providing visual intermediaries they were not meant to be worshipped, for that would constitute idolatry (object worship, which is forbidden in Christianity). 17

At several points in Byzantine history, however, religious authorities decided that icons were indeed idolatrous, and had them destroyed en masse. The term iconoclasm (Greek for "image breaking"), which denotes the purposeful destruction of religious objects, springs from these campaigns of destruction.

Dark Age Painting

As in Eastern Europe, the painting of Western Europe experienced a shift from ancient realism to medieval stylization. The fractured and chaotic political landscape, however, prevented Western Europe from being united by a single aesthetic. Instead, a patchwork of regional styles developed, known as the barbarian styles .

The barbarian styles, which flourished roughly throughout the Dark Ages (ca. 500-1000), are all quite flat and stylized, and focus on decorative patterns rather than human figures. This reflects the unfamiliarity of Germanic artists with either figures or realism the primary form of native Germanic art was intricately-patterned work in metal and wood.

In the field of manuscript illumination, the most successful barbarian style was the insular style of Britain and Ireland. ("Insular" simply means "relating to an island".) Developed jointly by the Celts and Anglo-Saxons, this aesthetic is also known as the Hiberno-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic style. H354,2,26

The predominant feature of insular art is knotwork , which consists of interlacing cords. Knotwork art culminated among the Celts, and is consequently often referred to indiscriminately as "Celtic knotwork". Yet the Anglo-Saxons were also major contributors notably, they introduced zoomorphic motifs. The invention of knotwork has been traced to the late Roman Empire, from which it radiated to Britain and Ireland. D133,6,34,35

The foremost insular style manuscript is the Irish-made Book of Kells . 8 This book is filled with staggeringly intricate knotwork frames and initials. Human figures, when present, are flat and highly stylized.

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The Medieval and Renaissance Altarpiece

Every architectural space has a gravitational center, one that may be spatial or symbolic or both for the medieval church, the altar fulfilled that role. This essay will explore what transpired at the altar during this period as well as its decoration, which was intended to edify and illuminate the worshippers gathered in the church.

The Christian religion centers upon Jesus Christ, who is believed to be the incarnation of the son of God born to the Virgin Mary.

During his ministry, Christ performed miracles and attracted a large following, which ultimately led to his persecution and crucifixion by the Romans. Upon his death, he was resurrected, promising redemption for humankind at the end of time.

The mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection are symbolically recreated during the Mass (the central act of worship) with the celebration of the Eucharist — a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice where bread and wine wielded by the priest miraculously embodies the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the Christian Savior.

Rogier van der Weyden, Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, 1445–50, oil on panel, 200 cm × 223 cm (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp)

Detail of the Eucharist, Rogier van der Weyden, Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, 1445-50 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp)

The altar came to symbolize the tomb of Christ. It became the stage for the sacrament of the Eucharist, and gradually over the course of the Early Christian period began to be ornamented by a cross, candles, a cloth (representing the shroud that covered the body of Christ), and eventually, an altarpiece (a work of art set above and behind an altar).

In Rogier van der Weyden’s Altarpiece of the Seven Sacraments, one sees Christ’s sacrifice and the contemporary celebration of the Mass joined. The Crucifixion of Christ is in the foreground of the central panel of the triptych with St. John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, while directly behind, a priest celebrates the Eucharist before a decorated altarpiece upon an altar.

Though altarpieces were not necessary for the Mass, they became a standard feature of altars throughout Europe from the thirteenth century, if not earlier. One of the factors that may have influenced the creation of altarpieces at that time was the shift from a more cube-shaped altar to a wider format, a change that invited the display of works of art upon the rectangular altar table.

Though the shape and medium of the altarpiece varied from country to country, the sensual experience of viewing it during the medieval period did not: chanting, the ringing of bells, burning candles, wafting incense, the mesmerizing sound of the incantation of the liturgy, and the sight of the colorful, carved story of Christ’s last days on earth and his resurrection would have stimulated all the senses of the worshipers. In a way, to see an altarpiece was to touch it—faith was experiential in that the boundaries between the five senses were not so rigorously drawn in the Middle Ages. For example, worshipers were expected to visually consume the Host (the bread symbolizing Christ’s body) during Mass, as full communion was reserved for Easter only.

Saints and relics

Bonaventura Berlinghieri, St. Francis of Assisi, c. 1235, tempera on wood (Church of San Francesco, Pescia)

Since the fifth century, saints’ relics (fragments of venerated holy persons) were embedded in the altar, so it is not surprising that altarpieces were often dedicated to saints and the miracles they performed. Italy in particular favored portraits of saints flanked by scenes from their lives, as seen, for example, in the image of St. Francis of Assisi by Bonaventura Berlinghieri in the Church of San Francesco in Pescia.

The Virgin Mary and the Incarnation of Christ were also frequently portrayed, though the Passion of Christ (and his resurrection) most frequently provided the backdrop for the mystery of Transubstantiation celebrated on the altar. The image could be painted or sculpted out of wood, metal, stone, or marble relief sculpture was typically painted in bright colors and often gilded.

Germany, the Low Countries , and Scandinavia were most often associated with polyptychs (many-paneled works) that have several stages of closing and opening, in which a hierarchy of different media from painting to sculpture engaged the worshiper in a dance of concealment and revelation that culminated in a vision of the divine.

Rhenish Master, Altenberger Altar, c. 1330 (wings are in the collection of the Städel Museum, Frankfurt)

For example, the altarpiece from Altenberg contained a statue of the Virgin and Christ Child which was flanked by double-hinged wings that were opened in stages so that the first opening revealed painted panels of the Annunciation, Nativity, Death and Coronation of the Virgin (image above). The second opening disclosed the Visitation, Adoration of the Magi, and the patron saints of the Altenberg cloister, Michael and Elizabeth of Hungary. When the wings were fully closed, the Madonna and Child were hidden and painted scenes from the Passion were visible.


Rood screen of St. Andrew Church, Cherry Hinton, England (photo: Oxfordian Kissuth, CC BY-SA 3.0)

English parish churches had a predilection for rood screens, which were a type of carved barrier separating the nave (the main, central space of the church) from the chancel . Altarpieces carved out of alabaster became common in fourteenth-century England, featuring scenes from the life of Christ these were often imported by other European countries.

Altarpiece of Saint Eustache, Saint-Denis, Paris, 1250-1260 (Musée de Cluny, Paris)

The abbey of St.-Denis in France boasted a series of rectangular stone altarpieces that featured the lives of saints interwoven with the most important episodes of Christ’s life and death. For example, the life of St. Eustache unfolds to either side of the Crucifixion on one of the altarpieces, the latter of which participated in the liturgical activities of the church and often reflected the stained-glass subject matter of the individual chapels in which they were found.

Gothic beauty

The altarpiece of the Church of St. Martin, Ambierle, 1466 (photo: D Villafruela, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Detail of a donor with St. John the Baptist, Altarpiece of the Church of St. Martin, (photo: D Villafruela, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In the later medieval period in France (15th–16th centuries), elaborate polyptychs with spiky pinnacles and late Gothic tracery formed the backdrop for densely populated narratives of the Passion and resurrection of Christ. In the seven-paneled altarpiece from the church of St.-Martin in Ambierle, the painted outer wings represent the patrons with their respective patron saints and above, the Annunciation to the Virgin by the archangel Gabriel of the birth of Christ. On the outer sides of these wings, painted in grisaille are the donors’ coats of arms.

Turrets (towers) crowned by triangular gables and divided by vertical pinnacles with spiky crockets create the framework of the polychromed and gilded wood carving of the inner three panels that house the story of Christ’s torture and triumph over death against tracery patterns that mimic stained glass windows found in Gothic churches.

The altarpiece of the Church of St. Martin, detail of the Passion (photo: D Villafruela, CC BY-SA 3.0)

To the left, one finds the Betrayal of Christ, the Flagellation, and the Crowning with the Crown of Thorns — scenes that led up to the death of Christ. The Crucifixion occupies the elevated central portion of the altarpiece, and the Descent from the Cross, the Entombment, and Resurrection are represented on the right side of the altarpiece.

There is an immediacy to the treatment of the narrative that invites the worshiper’s immersion in the story: anecdotal detail abounds, the small scale and large number of the figures encourage the eye to consume and possess what it sees in a fashion similar to a child’s absorption before a dollhouse. The scenes on the altarpiece are made imminently accessible by the use of contemporary garb, highly detailed architectural settings, and exaggerated gestures and facial expressions.

One feels compelled to enter into the drama of the story in a visceral way—feeling the sorrow of the Virgin as she swoons at her son’s death. This palpable quality of empathy that propels the viewer into the Passion of Christ makes the historical past fall away: we experience the pathos of Christ’s death in the present moment.

According to medieval theories of vision, memory was a physical process based on embodied visions. According to one twelfth-century thinker, they imprinted themselves upon the eyes of the heart. The altarpiece guided the faithful to a state of mind conducive to prayer, promoted communication with the saints, and served as a mnemonic device for meditation, and could even assist in achieving communion with the divine.

Chalice, mid-15th century, possibly from Hungary (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The altar had evolved into a table that was alive with color, often with precious stones, with relics, the chalice (which held the wine) and paten (which held the Host) consecrated to the blood and body of Christ, and finally, a carved and/or painted retable: this was the spectacle of the holy.

As Jean-Claude Schmitt put it:

this was an ensemble of sacred objects, engaged in a dialectic movement of revealing and concealing that encouraged individual piety and collective adherence to the mystery of the ritual. J.-C. Schmitt , “Les reliques et les images,” in Les reliques: Objets, cultes, symbols (Turnhout: 1999)

The story embodied on the altarpiece offered an object lesson in the human suffering experienced by Christ. The worshiper’s immersion in the death and resurrection of Christ was also an engagement with the tenets of Christianity, poignantly transcribed upon the sculpted, polychromed altarpieces.

Additional resources

Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. Edmond Jephcott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Paul Binski, “The 13th-Century English Altarpiece,” in Norwegian Medieval Altar Frontals and Related Materials. Institutum Romanum Norvegiae, Acta ad archaeologiam et atrium historiam pertinentia 11, pp. 47–57 (Rome: Bretschneider, 1995).

Shirley Neilsen Blum, Early Netherlandish Triptychs: A Study in Patronage (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969).

Marco Ciatti, “The Typology, Meaning, and Use of Some Panel Paintings from the Duecento and Trecento,” in Italian Panel Painting of the Duecento and Trecento, ed. Victor M. Schmidt, 15–29. Studies in the History of Art 61. Center for the Advanced Study in the Visual Arts. Symposium Papers 38 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002).

Donald L. Ehresmann, “Some Observations on the Role of Liturgy in the Early Winged Altarpiece,” Art Bulletin 64/3 (1982), pp. 359–69.

Julian Gardner, “Altars, Altarpieces, and Art History: Legislation and Usage,” in Italian Altarpieces 1250–1500: Function and Design, ed. Eve Borsook and Fiorella Superbi Gioffredi, 5–39 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Peter Humfrey and Martin Kemp, eds., The Altarpiece in the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Lynn F. Jacobs, “The Inverted ‘T’-Shape in Early Netherlandish Altarpieces: Studies in the Relation between Painting and Sculpture” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 54/1 (1991), pp. 33–65.

Lynn F. Jacobs, Early Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces, 1380–1550: Medieval Tastes and Mass Marketing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Justin E.A. Kroesen and Victor M. Schmidt, eds., The Altar and its Environment, 1150–1400 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009).

Barbara G. Lane, The Altar and the Altarpiece: Sacramental Themes in Early Netherlandish Painting (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

Henning Laugerud, “To See with the Eyes of the Soul, Memory and Visual Culture in Medieval Europe,” in ARV, Nordic Yearbook of Folklore Studies 66 (Uppsala: Swedish Science Press, 2010), pp. 43–68.

Éric Palazzo, “Art and the Senses: Art and Liturgy in the Middle Ages,” in A Cultural History of the Senses in the Middle Ages, ed. Richard Newhauser, pp. 175–94 (London, New Delhi, Sidney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).

Donna L. Sadler, Touching the Passion—Seeing Late Medieval Altarpieces through the Eyes of Faith (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

Beth Williamson, “Altarpieces, Liturgy, and Devotion,” Speculum 79 (2004): 341–406.

Beth Williamson, “Sensory Experience in Medieval Devotion: Sound and Vision, Invisibility and Silence,” Speculum 88 1 (2013), pp. 1–43.

Kim Woods, “The Netherlandish Carved Altarpiece c. 1500: Type and Function,” in Humfrey and Kemp, The Altarpiece in the Renaissance, pp. 76–89.

Kim Woods, “Some Sixteenth-Century Antwerp Carved Wooden Altar-Pieces in England,” Burlington Magazine 141/1152 (1999), pp.144–55.

The Hutchinson dictionary of ancient & medieval warfare

The Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Warfare provides a comprehensive guide to the battles and wars, commanders, tactics, formations, fortifications, and weapons of war in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, India, China, and Japan from the beginning of recorded history to the 16th century. More than 3,000 entries, written by expert military historians, cover all aspects of warfare from the emergence of the earliest walled cities in the Ancient Near East up to and including the period of European discovery of the New World. The Dictionary is unique, the only work to cover 3,500 years of military history. Expert authors writing in their specialty have created the most comprehensive and accessible reference work ever produced on this subject

Includes bibliographical references (pages 359-365)

The Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Warfare provides a comprehensive guide to the battles and wars, commanders, tactics, formations, fortifications, and weapons of war in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, India, China, and Japan from the beginning of recorded history to the 16th century. More than 3,000 entries, written by expert military historians, cover all aspects of warfare from the emergence of the earliest walled cities in the Ancient Near East up to and including the period of European discovery of the New World. The Dictionary is unique, the only work to cover 3,500 years of military history. Expert authors writing in their specialty have created the most comprehensive and accessible reference work ever produced on this subject

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Mysterious origins

Today, the map&rsquos makers remain unknown, yet it&rsquos widely agreed that the work was created by a small team of designers as opposed to a single artist. Since the handwriting in the map is consistent, Firman and other scholars believe it was labelled by one scribe, while two or three artists may have drawn the illustrations.

It&rsquos also a mystery how the Mappa Mundi actually came to be at Hereford Cathedral (pictured). Some scholars believe it may have been created in Hereford, but small clues link it to Lincoln Cathedral in the East Midlands, where the map&rsquos commissioner, Richard of Haldingham, is believed to have worked. The city of Lincoln and its cathedral are also depicted in vivid detail on the map, while Hereford appears to have been added near the River Wye almost as an afterthought.

Bitter fighting

The disproportionate number of casualties at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 seemed exceptional at the time, but late medieval conflicts were often savage. At the Yorkist victory at Towton, North Yorkshire (1461), possibly the bloodiest battle ever fought in England, total fatalities have been estimated at 28,000.

The most bitter hand-to-hand fighting was done by ‘men-at-arms’. These were nobles and gentry, often wearing suits of elaborate plate armour, and their retainers, who wore quilted ‘jacks’ and helmets. English armies rode to battle but nearly always fought on foot. Agincourt had confirmed that cavalry charges against archers were disastrous.

Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

A love of riddles

The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

Style I

Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th and 11th centuries, but puzzles and story-telling remained central. The early art style of the Anglo-Saxon period is known as Style I and was popular in the late 5th and 6th centuries. It is characterized by what seems to be a dizzying jumble of animal limbs and face masks, which has led some scholars to describe the style as an “animal salad.” Close scrutiny shows that Style I is not as abstract as first appears, and through carefully following the decoration in stages we can unpick the details and begin to get a sense for what the design might mean.

Decoding the square-headed brooch (top) © Trustees of the British Museum

One of the most exquisite examples of Style I animal art is a silver-gilt square-headed brooch from a female grave on the Isle of Wight. Its surface is covered with at least 24 different beasts: a mix of birds’ heads, human masks, animals and hybrids. Some of them are quite clear, like the faces in the circular lobes projecting from the bottom of the brooch. Others are harder to spot, such as the faces in profile that only emerge when the brooch is turned upside-down. Some of the images can be read in multiple ways, and this ambiguity is central to Style I art.

Decoding the square-headed brooch (bottom) © Trustees of the British Museum

Once we have identified the creatures on the brooch, we can begin to decode its meaning. In the lozenge-shaped field at the foot of the brooch is a bearded face with a helmet underneath two birds that may represent the Germanic god Woden/Odin with his two companion ravens. The image of a god alongside other powerful animals may have offered symbolic protection to the wearer like a talisman or amulet.

Turning the brooch upside-down (above) reveals four heads in profile on the rectangular head of the brooch, highlighted in purple.

Decoding the great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo © Trustees of the British Museum

Style II

Style I was superseded by Style II in the late 6th century. This later style has more fluid and graceful animals, but these still writhe and interlace together and require patient untangling. The great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo is decorated in this style. From the thicket of interlace that fills the buckle’s surface 13 different animals emerge (above). These animals are easier to spot: the ring-and-dot eyes, the birds’ hooked beaks, and the four-toed feet of the animals are good starting points. At the tip of the buckle, two animals grip a small dog-like creature in their jaws and on the circular plate, two snakes intertwine and bite their own bodies. Such designs reveal the importance of the natural world, and it is likely that different animals were thought to hold different properties and characteristics that could be transferred to the objects they decorated. The fearsome snakes, with their shape-shifting qualities, demand respect and confer authority, and were suitable symbols for a buckle that adorned a high-status man, or even an Anglo-Saxon king.

The five senses on the Fuller Brooch © Trustees of the British Museum

Further transformations

Animal art continued to be popular on Anglo-Saxon metalwork throughout the later period, when it went through further transformations into the Mercian Style (defined by sinuous animal interlace) in the 8th century and then into the lively Trewhiddle Style in the 9th century. Trewhiddle-style animals feature in the roundels of the Fuller Brooch (above), but all other aspects of its decoration are unique within Anglo-Saxon art. Again, through a careful unpicking of its complex imagery we can understand its visual messages. At the centre is a man with staring eyes holding two plants. Around him are four other men striking poses: one, with his hands behind his back, sniffs a leaf another rubs his two hands together the third holds his hand up to his ear and the final one has his whole hand inserted into his mouth. Together these strange poses form the earliest personification of the five senses: Sight, Smell, Touch, Hearing, and Taste. Surrounding these central motifs are roundels depicting animals, humans, and plants that perhaps represent God’s Creation.

Sight and wisdom

This iconography can best be understood in the context of the scholarly writings of King Alfred the Great (died 899), which emphasized sight and the “mind’s eye” as the principal way in which wisdom was acquired along with the other senses. Given this connection, perhaps it was made at Alfred the Great’s court workshop and designed to be worn by one of his courtiers?

Throughout the period, the Anglo-Saxons expressed a love of riddles and puzzles in their metalwork. Behind the non-reflective glass in the newly opened Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe 300-1100, you can do like the Anglo-Saxons and get up close to these and many other objects to decode the messages yourself.

Watch the video: 1000 AD - A Tour of Europe. Medieval History Documentary (August 2022).