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Medieval Europe

Petrarch believed that the Dark Ages was a period of intellectual decline due to the loss of the classical learning. But characterizing the Middle Ages as a period of darkness falling between two brighter, more intellectually significant periods in history is misleading. It is inaccurate to portray the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and backwardness. This was the period during which Christianity first flourished in Europe. Christianity, and specifically Catholicism in the Latin West, brought with it new ways of seeing the world while often rejecting the traditions and learning of the ancient world. Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker of Smarthistory together with leading art historians, and our museum partners have created hundreds of short engaging conversational videos and articles, making Khan Academy one of the most accessible and extensive resources for the study of the history of art.
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A thumbnail for: A beginner's guide to medieval Europe

A beginner's guide to medieval Europe

The visual arts prospered during Middles Ages. The wealthiest and most influential members of society commissioned cathedrals, sculpture, painting, textiles, manuscripts, jewelry and ritual items from highly skilled artists. Many of these commissions were religious in nature but medieval artists also produced elaborate secular art.
A thumbnail for: Early Christian

Early Christian

The first Christians were often persecuted in the ancient Roman Empire, until—thanks to Constantine—Christianity became legal in the 4th century. Christians could then worship openly, build churches, and be buried in tombs and catacombs decorated with Christian imagery.
A thumbnail for: Byzantine (late Roman Empire)

Byzantine (late Roman Empire)

Today, we know the city of Constantinople as Istanbul (in fact there’s a song about that!). But even before it was Constantinople, it was the ancient city of Byzantium, and it was renamed Constantinople (city of Constantine) by none other than the Emperor Constantine himself (it’s good to be the emperor!). From there a succession of emperors ruled Byzantine lands as the empire in the west dissolved. For two centuries, the Byzantine Empire even included the Italian city of Ravenna, where many churches decorated with astoundingly beautiful mosaics can still be found. In Byzantine art we see a departure from the naturalism of the ancient Greek and Roman world. Figures float in ethereal gold heavenly spaces and we find intricate carvings made from ivory, a luxurious material imported from Africa.
A thumbnail for: Latin (Western) Europe

Latin (Western) Europe

Christian art, which was initially influenced by the illusionary quality of classical art, started to move away from naturalistic representation and instead pushed toward abstraction. Artists began to abandon classical artistic conventions like shading, modeling and perspective—conventions that sought to make the image appear real. Instead, many artists sought a more symbolic representation that emphasized the spiritual in place of the earthly.
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