Medieval Europe & the Byzantine Empire: c. 400 – 1300

The Middle Ages lasted nearly 1000 years. The era began when persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ended with the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century. Early Christian churches, tombs and catacombs from this period can still be visited in Rome. Constantine also established a new capital for the Empire far from Rome in the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul). The Empire after this time is known as the Byzantine Empire and is the last phase of the Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire was Christian and lasted for a thousand years. Byzantine art is known for its ethereal mosaics, ivories, and metalwork. In Western Europe, extraordinary art was made by the Anglo-Saxons, under Charlemagne, and during the periods known as Romanesque and Gothic.

Thumbnail. Marble Portrait Bust of a Woman with a Scroll, late 4th–early 5th century C.E., pentelic marble, 53 x 27.5 x 22.2 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection)
An Early Byzantine sculpture of a woman with a scroll at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Woman with Scroll

Panel with a Griffin, 1250–1300, made in Greece or the Balkans (possibly), marble, 59.7 x 52.1 x 6.5 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
A panel with a Griffin (a lion and an eagle — the king of birds and the king of animals — combined).

Byzantine Griffin Panel

Cimabue, Maestà or Santa Trinita Madonna and Child Enthroned (detail), 1280-90, tempera on panel, 385 x 223 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)
Set against gleaming gold, Mary and Christ sit on an intricately carved throne studded with gems.

Cimabue, Maestà

St. Mark from the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary, folio 1v., c. 781-83
Thanks to Charlemagne, religious reform and cultural revival swept 9th-century Europe. We call this period “Carolingian.”

Carolingian art, an introduction