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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.
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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.
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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.
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.
All content in “Latin (Western) Europe”

Early medieval

In the fifth century C.E., people from tribes called Angles, Saxons and Jutes left their homelands in northern Europe to look for a new home. They knew that the Romans had recently left the green land of Britain unguarded, so they sailed across the channel in small wooden boats. The Britons did not give in without a fight, but after many years the invaders managed to overcome them and were to rule for over 500 years.

Carolingian

Charlemagne, King of the Franks and later Holy Roman Emperor, instigated a cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance that continues to impact the way European languages are written, the structure of modern law and the very notion of Europe itself.

Ottonian

Otto I (who became emperor in 962) lends his name to the “Ottonian” period. He forged an important alliance with the Pope, which allowed him to be crowned the first official Holy Roman Emperor since 924.

Romanesque

Visogoths, Ostrogoths, and Vikings, oh my! Western Europe was not a peaceful place during the 600 years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Western Europe (what is now Italy, France, Spain, England, etc.) had been repeatedly invaded. The result was a fractured feudal society with little stability and less economic growth. It was only in the 11th century that everything began to change. Peace and prosperity allow for travel and for the widespread construction of large buildings. The faithful set out on pilgrimages in great numbers to visit holy relics in churches across Europe. This meant that ideas and styles also traveled, towns grew and churches were built and enlarged. These were, with rare exceptions, the first large structures to be built in the west since the fall of the Romans so many centuries before. We call the period Romanesque (Roman-like) because the masons of this period looked back to the architecture of ancient Rome.

A beginner's guide to the Late Gothic

Italian art from the late 13th and 14th centuries was once known as primitive or proto-Renaissance because it was seen largely as a transition from Medieval abstraction to the naturalism of the Renaissance (with a dose of Byzantine influence thrown in for good measure). Despite the Black Death, we now study the brilliant artist's of Florence and Siena in their own right.

Florence, the Late Gothic

When Vasari wrote his enormously influential book, Lives of the Artists, in the 16th century, he credited Giotto, the 14th century Florentine artist with beginning "the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years." In other words, for Vasari, Giotto was the first artist to leave behind the medieval practice of painting what one knows and believes, for what one sees. This tutorial looks at painting and sculpture in both Pisa and Florence to highlight some of the most influential art of this century.

Siena, the Late Gothic

When we think of the Renaissance, we tend to think of Florence (and Rome). But the city of Siena also deserves our attention. Today, the lovely walled city of Siena is one of the best preserved Medieval cities in Europe and it was chosen by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. In the 14th century, Siena was a wealthy independent nation and often at war with its neighbor, Florence. Some of the most important art of the 14th century was commissioned for Siena’s Cathedral and town hall. Duccio and his students, the Lorenzetti brothers and Simone Martini produced large-scale painting with an intricacy and subtle coloration that is unique in the Renaissance.