Gateway to the Classics: When Knights Were Bold by Eva March Tappan
When Knights Were Bold by  Eva March Tappan

Architecture and the Arts

During the Middle Ages a vast amount of building was done. There were not only the castles and manor houses and town halls and monasteries which have already been spoken of, but there were also many magnificent churches and cathedrals. Three of the most famous of these are Saint Sophia in Constantinople, Saint Mark in Venice, and the cathedral at Cologne. Saint Sophia is an immense building with slender towers and a great flat dome. Within, one notices first of all rows of pillars separated by round arches, and above these other and still other rows, making long galleries. These columns are of many hues, and the walls are faced with slabs of marble of all tints. There is gilding and there is a glow of color wherever one looks. Above it all is the bold sweep of the great dome, encircled by fifty windows. This interior may not be dignified or harmonious, but it is dazzling in its luxuriance and sparkle and gorgeousness. Saint Sophia was built in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian, and the walls were then decorated with brilliant mosaics representing scenes in his life. It was a Christian church until 1453, when the Turks captured the city. Since then it has been used as a Mohammedan mosque. The Koran, the sacred book of the Mohammedans, forbids making a representation of anything having life; and therefore the Turks covered the mosaics with whitewash.


saint sophia, constantinople

The style of architecture in which Saint Sophia was built takes its name from the ancient name of the city and is called Byzantine. It is marked by domes and cupolas, and especially by long rows of round arches resting upon columns, and other arches resting upon them, making arcades, or corridors, one above another. It is always richly ornamented with gold and glowing colors.

One glance at the church of Saint Mark in Venice would show that this, too, is of Byzantine architecture, for it has so many domes and cupolas and arcades. During the century and a half that the Venetians were building it, every vessel that came to Venice from the East was required to bring pillars and marbles for the church. It is no wonder that the principal front has five hundred columns. Over the centre of the vestibule are the famous "horses of Saint Mark." When Constantinople was for a time in the hands of the crusaders, they took these horses from the hippodrome and brought them to Venice. Napoleon carried them to Paris, but in 1815 they were taken back. The interior of Saint Mark, like that of all Byzantine buildings, is rich and brilliant. The walls are lined with rare marbles, and the floor is made of tessellated, or checkered, mosaic work.


st. mark's, venice

The Moors and Saracens built many mosques and palaces. The most renowned of these is the wonderful Alhambra in Spain, which was erected in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Longfellow calls it an enchanted palace. Its courts and pavilions are marvelously beautiful. Some of its ceilings are inlaid with silver and ivory and mother of pearl and tortoise shell. Others, as well as its walls, are ornamented with most graceful stucco arabesques, or delicate tracings of plants and vines, half from nature and half conventional, but always exquisite. Here and there are quotations from the Koran; but the Arabic letters seem only a part of the ornamentation. The stucco was formerly brilliant with gold and color, and some portion of this still remains. Everywhere are columns and arches. One court is especially famous for its beauty; and it has been painted and described so many times that to thousands who have never been in Spain it is almost as familiar as their own houses. This is called the Court of the Lions, because within it is a fountain of marble and alabaster in the shape of twelve lions surrounding a basin. The Koran, as has been said, forbade Mohammedans to copy animal life. Nevertheless, here are the lions.

After the ninth century, a style of building became common which has received the name of Romanesque because it is somewhat like the old Roman fashion. The roof of the Romanesque church was vaulted, and therefore the walls had to be made thick and solid to support it. The number of windows was not large, and what there were gave little light because of the thickness of the wall. There were towers, but the building as a whole was rather low and wide, and even the towers could not give it grace. The church at Angoulême is Romanesque. It looks strong and sturdy, as if it belonged where it stands and meant to stay there, but it is not beautiful.

After the Romanesque style came the Gothic architecture; and this is generally the style meant when people speak of the architecture of the Middle Ages. Its special characteristic is a pointed rather than a rounded arch. Guesses without number have been made as to what suggested the pointed arch. They have ranged all the way from Noah's ark to the lines made by the crossing of the branches of trees planted in rows. Gothic churches, such as the cathedral at Cologne, have pointed arches at doors and windows, and the pillars are in clusters instead of standing separately, as in the Roman and Greek architecture. The roofs are vaulted. Their weight tends to push the walls outward, especially as these are high and full of windows. Instead, however, of thickening the walls, as in the Romanesque style, the architects made outside supports called flying buttresses. In the Gothic churches there are many slender pinnacles, and there is a vast amount of carving. The general effect is of richness and splendor, while the many perpendicular lines give a certain lightness and grace which no other style of architecture can produce. The Gothic church is usually built in the shape of a cross, with a spire or tower at the place where the long and the short arms of the cross intersect. In the plan, a  is the nave, b  the transept, and c  the choir. Within the choir was the chancel. The tower or towers rose at a. Here was hung the large bell, after being marked with its name and the date, and after being christened with water and anointed with oil. Sometimes in places near the coast a church tower was provided with a cresset, or iron basket in which a signal fire might be kindled. At first, the Gothic architecture was used for churches only; but later castles, bridges, palaces, and gates of cities were built in this style.


In the centuries of the Middle Ages, the Church was the great power, not only in religious matters, but even in the decorative arts. Mosaics, painting, carving, embroidery, colored glass were all of use in beautifying the churches; and this fact was a great encouragement to their production. Mosaics were made by the Greeks in very early times, and from them the Italians learned the art. The "tessellated floors" of which we read in descriptions of churches and palaces were one variety of mosaic. The kind most used in Italy was made by taking slabs of white marble as a foundation. Grooves were cut into it, which were then filled with little cubes, or "tessellæ," of colored stone to form patterns. Of course in the Byzantine mosaic work one would expect much brilliancy and color. This was obtained by using bits of glass instead of stone. A sheet of gold leaf was laid between two sheets of glass and burned in a kiln. It was then broken into bits, which served as a background for the figures or designs. These designs were made of differently colored glass or marble. The tiny pieces were firmly fixed in cement, and most elaborate pictures were the result. One of the most famous is called "Pliny's Doves." It represents four doves sitting on a metal basin, one of them stooping to drink. When altars and walls and pulpits gleamed and glittered with mosaic work in the dim light of some vast cathedral, the effect was far more rich than that produced by any other species of ornament.


the alhambra: the court of lions

Instead of covering church walls with mosaic, fresco was sometimes used, that is, painting in water color on damp plaster. This lasted well, because the colors sank into the plaster; but the drawing was stiff and the faces had little expression, until the coming of an artist named Cimabue, in the thirteenth century. The faces that he drew looked like those of real people with real thoughts and feelings. His draperies, too, were not prim and wooden, but hung as if they had been painted from real folds of cloth. It is said that when his famous "Madonna" was to be carried to the Church of Santa Maria Novella, the people formed in procession to do it honor, and shouted joyfully when the artist appeared among them. Cimabue one day noticed a shepherd boy drawing on a rock a picture of his sheep. It was so well done that the artist took the boy under his protection and taught him. This boy became the famous Giotto. The faces that he painted look as "real" as those of Cimabue; and he even painted portraits of living people and ventured to make them look like the people. It was Giotto who painted the portrait of Dante which has been handed down to us. The backgrounds, however, of Giotto's work, like those of other artists of the time, were not like nature. If there was a landscape, the trees were thin and rigid and not in the least like real, growing trees. Frequently the background was of gold. Indeed, to the artists of the time there could hardly be too much gold in a picture. To-day if an artist introduces a crown or a pair of gilded spurs, for instance, he tries to produce the effect of gold by the skillful use of lights and shadows; but the artist of mediæval times simply embossed real gold on the picture. This would hardly be called artistic, but it made a design brilliant and rich, a splendid piece of decoration.

Another famous painter was the monk Fra Angelico. He did not know that he was an artist, but in his leisure moments he covered some blank pages of a manuscript with such dainty little miniatures that his brother monks were delighted. "Paint a picture," they urged, and he painted. By and by the Pope heard what he was doing, and sent for him to paint one of the chapels of the Vatican. It was so well done that the Pope wished to make him an archbishop in reward; but the monk refused the honor. He felt that God had given him a gift which it would be wrong to neglect for the sake of a high position, and he went back to his little cell to paint. He painted many diptychs and triptychs, or two-fold and three-fold tablets. These were often used as ornaments for the altar. The triptych especially was quite elaborate. It was a wooden panel often carved quaintly in Gothic designs, and shut in by two little doors. On the outside of the doors the artist painted pictures, frequently the portraits of the donor and his wife. On the inside there were pictures of saints or scenes from the Bible. The background of the figures is usually gold, still bright and gleaming after all the hundreds of years. Hawthorne says that if Fra Angelico's imagination had not been pure and holy, he could never have painted such saints, and that he must have said a prayer between every two touches of his brush.

The painting that was done on manuscripts was called illuminating. At the beginning of the Middle Ages the parchment was sometimes dyed purple, and the whole book written in letters of gold or silver almost as regular as print. Of course such books as these were enormously expensive. In the thirteenth century, a finely written Bible was sold for enough to pay a workman's wages for twenty-six years. Of course not many books were as expensive as this, but they were all very costly. Most volumes were decorated, even those that cost no more than a house or two. The margin of the frontispiece was generally painted, and there were often borders to the pages and most elaborate initials, sometimes entwined with flowers and vines and sometimes showing pictures of saints or even of whole Bible scenes. No one thought of trying to find out how people dressed in Bible times, and therefore the illuminators simply copied the dress of their own day. Artistically, this was not very correct; but it is a great help in learning about the costumes of the Middle Ages. The reds and blues and greens in these illuminations are as fresh and bright as ever, and the gold looks as if it had been put on only an hour ago. Much expense went into the binding. The covers were sometimes of wood and sometimes of leather. They were ornamented with gold and silver filigree work at the corners, or with heavy knobs of the precious metals. Often they were set with jewels. Sometimes the covers were of ivory, most delicately carved. If a man was fortunate enough to own a book, he was exceedingly careful to whom he gave the privilege of opening its clasps. As to lending it, that was not done as a matter of friendship by any means. The borrower must give ample security that he would return it uninjured. Even kings were not excepted. When Louis XI, king of France, wished to borrow of the faculty of medicine of the university of Paris the works of a certain Arabian physician, he was not only obliged to give valuable security, but he had to obtain a wealthy endorser just as if he were an ordinary man, and not the ruler of the land.

As the style of church building changed, the fashion of decorating churches changed also. The Gothic churches had many windows and few flat surfaces, and so they afforded little space for painting on the walls. But the windows were fine and lofty; and here was the best opportunity in the world for colored glass. Throughout the Middle Ages, the common way of making these windows was to prepare glass of the various colors needed, and then cut it into the shape of the object. If a figure wore a red cloak, for instance, it was first sketched, then the red glass was cut into the shape of the cloak as it appeared in the picture, and this was fastened to the other pieces by a narrow strip of lead, so that the lead traced all the outlines of the picture. The shading and those parts of the design which were too small to be shown by separate bits of glass were painted with dark brown. The colors are sometimes brilliant and glowing, sometimes rich and dark.


cologne cathedral

Enamel was much used, with its soft gleam rather than with the flashing, glowing beauty of stained glass. To represent a figure in enamel work, the artist cut down into a plate of copper, leaving the outline of the figure of the full depth. Then into the shallow depressions of the figure he put a glassy substance in whatever color was needed and melted it in a furnace until it flowed and filled the whole depression. Then he polished the plate, and it was done. Later, artists used to make the whole figure in copper, finishing it with delicate lines of engraving, and using enamel for the background. Hanging lamps, altars, chalices, crosses, bells, and monstrances, and many articles of jewelry, such as clasps, chains, necklaces and bracelets were adorned with enamel.

A vast amount of sculpture was used in the churches. In the Gothic architecture, especially in France, statues were everywhere. Including bas reliefs and scenes portrayed on the windows, the cathedral at Chartres is said to contain ten thousand figures. Besides the statues which were a part of the church and were used expressly to adorn it, there were recumbent memorial statues for tombs, which were at first stiff and unreal, but which came to represent with considerable truth the persons in whose honor they were made. In some places it was the custom to model statues in wood or wax as true to the original as possible and lay them upon the biers of wealthy people at their funerals. Little statuettes were often made in wood or ivory for ornaments. Reliquaries were frequently made in the shape of some saint with a tiny tabernacle to hold a relic. The whole tusk of the elephant was sometimes used in a carving, and the carvers made their figures lean back in a peculiar fashion to accommodate the curve of the tusk. People were very fond of bas reliefs. The tympanum, that is, the space between the top of the door and the angle of the roof, was often carved in relief to represent a whole story. On the capitals, or heads of the columns, and on the friezes men and animals were sculptured. Diptychs and triptychs were made of ivory with minute carvings representing scenes in the life of Christ or of the Evangelists. This carving was sometimes picked out with color or with gilding.

In point of naturalness there was a vast difference between the Romanesque art and the Gothic. The Romanesque made a magnificent decoration; but it paid little attention to nature. The figures were wooden and unnatural, and the draperies stiff and rigid. Gothic art studied nature. The Gothic artists tried to make figures look like real persons, and to make the carved draperies hang as real draperies of cloth would hang. When they carved flowers and foliage, they studied those that were native to the place where the carving was to be and did their best to imitate them. In the Gothic cathedrals, this carving and painting was not wholly for beauty by any means. The work was done according to the orders of the clergy, and they never forgot that the church was the school of the common folk. That is why not only animals and plants, but scenes from the Bible and legends of saints were shown. There were carvings to represent the seasons, the arts and crafts, even stories introducing the virtues and vices in the form of persons. In the earlier times, in much of the Romanesque art, dragons and griffins and monsters of all sorts appeared; but now these were seen only as gargoyles, that is, at the end of spouts which carried away water from the roof gutters.

The amount of gold and silver and jewels used in the churches was enormous. Not only the chalices and crosses and other furnishings of the altars were of gold, but often the altars themselves. In the church built in Constantinople by Constantine in the fourth century, there were numerous lifesize figures of silver, each weighing from ninety to one hundred and ten pounds. A canopy made of polished silver is said to have weighed two thousand pounds. In making the porphyry font, three thousand pounds of silver were used, and there were also columns of gold and an image of a lamb of solid gold. Figures of the saints often had precious stones for eyes. This same beautiful work was carried into cups and spoons and salt-cellars for royal households, and into jewelry for those who could afford to possess it. Most exquisite necklaces, clasps, bracelets, and châtelaines were made and loaded with rubies and emeralds and pearls. The English were famed for their remarkable gold and enamel work. An especially well known bit of it is the "jewel" of Alfred the Great, which he lost in the ninth century and which was found again in the seventeenth. In the eighth century there was in France a famous Saint Eloy, a monk, who produced such wonderful articles in gold and silver that whole monasteries became his enthusiastic followers. To own a piece of his work was the glory of a church.


st. eloy

A great amount of embroidery was used in the churches for curtains, altar cloths, and vestments. The English were especially famed for this work also. They made most handsome vestments, stiff with embroidery and flashing with gold and jewels. In Lincoln Cathedral there were more than six hundred of such vestments, embroidered on silk or velvet or rare Eastern materials. In the thirteenth century, Henry III presented one of his bishops with a cope which was valued at nearly £20, a sum estimated to be worth about £300 to-day. Besides this rich embroidery, there was much tapestry. Tapestry is made in a loom, but it is not woven with a shuttle. The threads of the warp are fastened into place as in ordinary weaving; but instead of filling in the woof by throwing a shuttle across them, the tapestry maker uses a needle and works in his designs with threads of different colors. Tapestry was used for curtains, canopies, table-covers, hangings of walls, bench-covers, and often for street decorations when important processions were to pass. The most famous piece of "tapestry," the Bayeux Tapestry, is in reality not tapestry at all, but embroidery. It is worked with wool upon a strip of brown linen nineteen inches wide and nearly two hundred and twelve feet long. It tells the story of the coming of William the Conqueror to England, and has pictures of his going on board ship, of his landing, of battles, and other scenes in his conquest, all worked with the needle. The pictures are rude, but they are clear, and they tell the story. To embroider well was looked upon as a great accomplishment in the time of William, quite proper for the fingers of a queen, and it is possible that William's wife, Matilda, and the maidens of her household worked together on this strip of cloth.

In the Middle Ages, as has been said before, there were many kinds of musical instruments, flutes, harps, drums, trumpets, pipes, and many others; but the one best suited to church music was the organ. An organ was presented to Charlemagne by Constantine, emperor of the East, which was "small but mighty," for, according to the stories, it imitated the "roaring of the thunder, the accents of the lyre, and the clang of cymbals." For some time many bishops and priests objected to the thunderous rumbling; but organs made their way and became big and magnificent. Some had pipes of silver and others of gold, The organists certainly needed to be trained athletes, for the key plates were five or six inches wide, and the player had to wear gloves heavily padded and strike the keys with the full force of his fists.


an organ

From the splendor of the churches the people went out into the plain, simple life of every day. It is no wonder that whenever there was anything of the nature of a pageant, they enjoyed it with all their might. Most of these pageants took place to celebrate some royal marriage or the coronation of a sovereign. One of the most famous occurred in France toward the end of the fourteenth century, when Isabella of Bavaria entered Paris to become the queen of the French. She left the palace of Saint Denis in the morning. She was in a richly ornamented litter and was attended by her nobles and ladies in waiting. On either side of the way stood a body of some twelve hundred citizens of Paris, all on horseback and wearing handsome uniforms of crimson and green. A company of officers did their best to clear the way for the royal party, but "it seemed as if all the world had come thither," an old chronicler says.

At the first gate of Saint Denis the pageants began. There was a representation of a starry sky, and in this sky were children dressed as angels, who sang as the queen approached. This firmament must have been a little confusing, for in one part was an image of the Virgin Mary with the Holy Child in her arms playing with a windmill made of a large walnut, and in another were the arms of France and Bavaria, somewhat entangled in the rays of an exceedingly brilliant sun.

The next sight was a fountain which ran wine instead of water. It was decorated with fine blue cloth sprinkled with fleurs-de-lys. Handsomely dressed young girls stood around the fountain, singing most melodiously and offering wine in golden cups to all who would have it. Just beyond the fountain, a high stage had been built, and on this was represented a battle with the Saracens.

Now the queen had come to the second gate, and here was another representation of the firmament; but this time two angels descended from it and, singing sweetly, they gently placed upon her head a crown of gold rich with precious stones. A second scaffold was curtained and draped with tapestry, and on it were men playing on organs. The whole street was covered with a canopy of handsome camlet and silk. At Notre Dame Bridge there was a canopy of crimson and green made bright with stars. The street leading to the church was hung with tapestry to the very door. The procession had moved so slowly that it was now late in the evening; but the show was not over, for from the highest tower of Notre Dame a rope had been let down, and by this rope a man descended, bearing two lighted torches and playing various tricks on his way.

At the church door the Bishop of Paris and his clergy met the queen and led her through the nave and the choir to the altar. There she knelt and prayed, and then she lifted the crown from her head and gave it together with four cloths of gold to the Church. Another and richer crown was at once placed upon her head; then with an escort bearing five hundred lighted tapers she was carried back to her palace.

This was on Sunday. Monday the queen was solemnly anointed with the sacred oil. The king gave a grand banquet. He had provided several interesting devices, or dumb shows, but the hall was so crowded that hardly any one could see them, or even get anything to eat, for that matter, though a great plenty had been supplied. Tuesday there was a tournament wherein thirty knights, including the king, contended from three o'clock in the afternoon until night. Then came another splendid banquet, followed by dancing which lasted till sunrise. Wednesday and Thursday there were tilting and feasting, and Friday the guests made their farewells and went to their homes.

In all such pageants the people saw nothing irreverent in mingling religion and amusement. When the little nine-year old English king, Henry VI, had been successful, by means of his generals, in his battles with Joan of Arc, his guardians decided that he should be crowned in Paris as king of the French; and at this celebration there was a hunting scene wherein a well-trained deer took refuge under the king's horse; there was a presentation of three large crimson hearts to indicate the love borne the king by his people; there was a big fountain of hippocras, a sort of spiced wine, wherein three mermaids were swimming; and there were also mystery plays acted in dumb show. At the coronation feast there were pageants of course. One was a lady with a peacock, another a lady with a swan, and a third was the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child.

When the little royal boy returned to England, he was received by gentlemen of Kent in red hoods, by mayors and corporations, by citizens in white with the insignia of their trade embroidered on their sleeves, and by aldermen in scarlet. At London Bridge a mighty giant with a drawn sword stood in the way; but he proved to be a kindly giant, and he made a speech declaring that he was ready to defy all the little king's enemies. Next followed a moral lecture in costume; for from a tower richly draped with silk there came forth three ladies dressed in white and gold and wearing coronets. They said in rhyme that they were Nature, Grace, and Fortune, and that they had come to bestow upon him the best of gifts. Then appeared on the right seven young girls in white with blue baldrics, and on the left seven whose dresses were powdered with stars of gold. The first seven declared that they bestowed upon him sapience, intelligence, good counsel, strength, cunning, pity, and the fear of God. The others repeated the following verses:—

God thee endowe with crowne of glorie;

And with the sceptre of cleneness and pitie:

And with a swearde of might and victorie;

And with a mantell of prudence clad thou bee:

A shield of faith, for to defende thee.

An helme of health, wrought to thyne encrease,

Girte with a girdell, of love and parfite peace.

After this they sang a roundelay, or "an heavenly melodie and song."

The next sight was a sort of tabernacle wherein sat Dame Sapience with her pupils—the trivium and the quadrivium—Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Music, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Astronomy. The little boy must have been tired when he reached "Paradise." This was a place made beautiful with green trees bearing oranges, almonds, olives, pomegranates, dates, quinces, and peaches; and the small Henry could hardly have helped wishing that he was not a king, but just an everyday boy and could jump down and lie under the trees and pick the fruit which had been so skillfully fastened upon the branches. But there is no rest for kings, and he had to sit still and look interested while two elderly men preached a sermon to him in verse. At last the poor child reached his palace; and perhaps in his dreams he had the pleasure of forgetting that he was a sovereign.

Such were the people and the customs in the days when knights were bold. It was a time of contradictions, an extraordinary commingling of ignorance with an intense desire to learn, of courtesy and gentleness with utter recklessness of human life and suffering; of magnificence of dress and luxuriance of surroundings with revolting filth and wearisome discomfort; of keenness in argument and blindness in doing justice, of readiness to sin with equal readiness to endure extreme penance. The people of the Middle Ages studied by futile methods, their astronomy was founded upon a mistake, their chemistry upon a poetical fancy. Nevertheless, something closely akin to the change of one metal into another has already become an everyday matter in our laboratories, and the dream of the alchemists may yet prove true in essence.

The Middle Ages lay between the civilization of the ancients and that of the printing press. It was a time of rapid changes, of swift and mighty transitions. Human life was insecure, the laws and their execution were often bitterly unjust; and yet there must have been hundreds of thousands of people who lived their lives quietly and contentedly, perhaps thinking with pity of those who dwelt in the land before them and with sympathy rather than envy of the condition of those who would follow them. "When one is contented, there is no more to be desired; and when there is no more to be desired, there is an end of it," declares the wisdom of Don Quixote. Possibly the good folk of the Middle Ages have after all no special need of our compassion.

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