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How to Read Medieval Art

Stein, Wendy A.
136 pages
141 illustrations
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The intensely expressive art of the Middle Ages was created to awe, educate and connect the viewer to heaven. Its power reverberates to this day, even among the secular. But experiencing the full meaning and purpose of medieval art requires an understanding of its narrative content.

This volume introduces the subjects and stories most frequently depicted in medieval art, many of them drawn from the Bible and other religious literature. Included among the thirty-eight representative works are brilliant altarpieces, stained-glass windows, intricate tapestries, carved wood sculptures, delicate ivories, and captivating manuscript illuminations, all drawn from the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum, one of the world's most comprehensive collections of medieval art. Iconic masterworks such as the Merode Altarpiece, the Unicorn Tapestries, and the Belles Heures of the duc de Berry are featured along with less familiar work. Descriptions of the individual pieces highlight the context in which they were made, conveying their visual and technical nuances as well as their broader symbolic meaning.

With its accessible informative discussions and superb full-color illustrations, How to Read Medieval Art explores the iconographic themes of the period, making them clearly recognizable and opening vistas onto history and literature, faith and devotion.

Ring, Gold, Celtic
4th–5th century BCE
Leaf from a Beatus Manuscript: Christ in Majesty with Angels and  the Angel of God Directs Saint John to Write the Book of Revelation, Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, Spanish
ca. 1180
Bowl Fragments with Menorah, Shofar, and Torah Ark, Glass, gold leaf, Roman
Panel with Byzantine Ivory Carving of the Crucifixion, Silver-gilt with pseudo-filigree, glass, crystal, and sapphire cabochons, ivory on wood support, Byzantine (ivory); Spanish (setting)
Byzantine (ivory); Spanish (setting)
10th century (ivory); late 11th century (setting)
Virgin and Child, Dieric Bouts  Netherlandish, Oil on wood
ca. 1455–60
The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, Queen of France, Jean Pucelle  French, Grisaille, tempera, and ink on vellum, French
ca. 1324–28
Enthroned Virgin and Child, Birch with paint and glass, French
ca. 1130–1140
Chalice, Silver, gilded silver, niello, and jewels, German
ca. 1230–50
Arm Reliquary, Silver, gilded silver, niello, and gems; wood core, South Netherlandish
South Netherlandish
ca. 1230
Reliquary Bust of Saint Yrieix, Silver and gilded silver with rock crystal, gems, and glass, French
ca. 1220–40, with later grill
Reliquary Shrine, Jean de Touyl  French, Gilded silver, translucent enamel, paint, French
ca. 1325–50
Triptych with the Passion of Christ, Mother-of-pearl, gilt wood frame, silk backing, and tooled leather covering, South German
South German
ca. 1475–85
Tabernacle of Cherves, Copper (plaques): engraved, scraped, stippled, and gilt; (appliqués): repoussé, chased, engraved, scraped, and gilt; champlevé enamel: medium blue, turquoise, medium green, yellow, red, and white, modern wood mount, French
ca. 1220–1230
Situla (Bucket for Holy Water), Elephant ivory with gilded copper-alloy mounts and foil inlays, Carolingian
Four Icons from a Pair of Doors (Panels), possibly part of a Polyptych: John the Theologian and Prochoros, the Baptism (Epiphany), Harrowing of Hell (Anastasis), and Saint Nicholas, Tempera and gold on wood, Byzantine
early 15th century
Diptych with the Coronation of the Virgin and the Last Judgment, Elephant ivory, with metal mounts, French
ca. 1260–70
Plate with the Battle of David and Goliath, Silver, Byzantine
Plate with the Presentation of David to Saul, Silver, Byzantine
Abiud, Pot-metal glass, vitreous paint, and lead, French
Joshua and David (from the Heroes Tapestries), Wool warp, wool wefts, South Netherlandish
South Netherlandish
ca. 1400–1410
Showing 20 of 59

View Citations

Stein, Wendy Alpern. 2016. How to Read Medieval Art. How to Read Series. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.