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Part I

The cathedral of the High Middle Ages. The center and glory of medieval life. The history of the Church and its art mirrors the history of Western man during the Middle Ages. Thus, to understand the Middle Ages, we must understand Christianity. To understand Christianity, we ought to consider its very beginnings.

Christianity grew out of the decaying soil of classical civilization. This is Christ as the Good Shepherd, carved by an Early Christian sculptor. Notice its resemblance to this ancient Greek calf-bearer. Pagan subject matter had simply been given new, Christian meaning.

A Greek artist placed the god Dionysus in a sailing vessel. The early Christians see Christ as a fisher of men. Look at the Old Testament figure on the left. Doesn’t he resemble the classical Roman orator on the right? This Christ also shows how Early Christian style had taken over where the late classical style left off. Now look at this later medieval Christ! Centuries of non-classical influences have obscured the sense of physical beauty characteristic of classical art. Christianity, then, emerged from the classical, pagan world of the Greeks and Romans. But as the Christian era progressed, man developed new ideals, which greatly altered the classical artistic style. Unlike the Ancient Greeks, medieval man did not seem to be proud of his body. For the Christians, the body became merely a prison of the soul. The artist tried to ignore physical reality, so these saints seem to have virtually no bodies beneath their robes.

The Christians rejected the human body as pagan and this-worldly. When medieval artists did portray the human figure, it was angular and flattened out. Christ was a religious symbol, not a three-dimensional human being. This Christ seems intent on the world beyond; a soul seeking release from the physical.

In the early, illegal days of Christianity, Christ was worshipped in secret, perhaps in a typical Roman villa such as this. The open court that in front of the house has a rain basin in its center. It is likely that the rain basin was the origin of the baptismal font.

When Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century AD, there were no Christian churches and pagan religious monuments were mostly unacceptable. Yet the early Christians needed to assemble for the Mass and to listen to the sermon. Thus, early church architects modified the design of the Roman public assembly halls to suit the needs of their religion. They included the open forecourt and the rain basin – now a baptismal font - in these first churches. Most early Christian churches were extremely plain structures with simple uninterrupted enclosing walls. Inside, two rows of columns run the length of the building. The center of the long hall is called the nave, from the Latin word meaning ship. Thus, the nave was considered the ship which transported the worshipper to the altar at the far end, and by implication, to heaven.

The Greek temple with its outer columns emphasized the exterior while the Christian basilica turned inward. Likewise, Christianity focused its eyes inward, upon the soul. Let us shift our attention to the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, where a different form of church structure developed.

In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine had moved the center of the government and the church from Rome to Byzantium, whose name he changed to Constantinople. He also brought to the east the artistic style of classical Rome and Greece. But as the otherworldly character of Christianity developed and as Eastern artistic styles exerted themselves, a new architectural solution to the needs of Christian worship was found. By the 6th century, the exotic style of Byzantine architecture had found its way back to Italy. The church of San Vitale was begun in Ravenna in the early 6th century. It had no long central nave, but rather was built on an octagonal plan. A large, decorated dome crowns the center of the church.

In Constantinople itself, the famed Hagia Sophia was erected during the same period. Here, on a much larger scale than San Vitale, the central dome is the predominant feature. A complex system of half-domes and alcoves creates a huge oval nave. Although the exterior of the Byzantine-style church is as unadorned as the Early Christian basilica in the West, the interior is filled with intricate designs. These obscure the structural forms in a most unclassical way. The richly decorative mosaics and sculpture of a formal, courtly style sparkle everywhere.

They are quite unlike the Early Christian attempt to follow a classical, naturalistic style. Religious themes were not the only subjects rendered by Byzantine artists. Here we see Justinian, the emperor who commissioned San Vitale, flanked by his attendants, much as Christ is flanked by his apostles. And here is a Byzantine representation of Christ. In the East, he is a dark, bearded, spiritual young man, very different from the youthful classical type found in the West.

But as we shall see later, medieval artists in Europe turned to many sources for inspiration. The dark, bearded Christ will soon appear in the West, along with other traces of the sophisticated Byzantine culture.