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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Classical Antiquity in the Middle Ages

The classical heritage flourished throughout the Middle Ages in both the Byzantine Greek East and the Latin West. The Byzantines, who called themselves Rhomaioi, or Romans, retained many of the trappings and economic, legal, and administrative institutions of the ancient Roman empire. In the West, rulers such as the Frankish king Charlemagne (r. 768–814) or the Saxon ruler Otto I (r. 936–73) sought to revive a Western Roman Empire and were crowned “Emperor and Augustus” by the pope in Rome.

The Antique Presence in Literature
The culture of antiquity played an important role in the literary and artistic endeavors of the Middle Ages. We owe much of our knowledge of classical Greek poetry, drama, and philosophy to the scribes and illuminators who produced books for the intellectuals and wealthy patrons of Byzantine society, who placed great value on classical learning. Among these, the ninth-century patriarch Photios boasted that he had read hundreds of classical texts. The writings of Cicero, Catullus, Virgil—indeed, most of ancient Latin literature—has come down to us because it was laboriously copied by medieval monks and preserved in monastic, ecclesiastical, and royal libraries. Even in a ruined state, the baths, aqueducts, and sanctuaries of the classical world provoked the people of the Middle Ages to reflect upon the grandeur of the past. Benedict, a canon of Saint Peter’s in Rome, and the Englishman Master Gregory, both writing in the twelfth century, were among many authors whose works provide us with medieval descriptions of the marvels of antiquity.

Art and the Classical Tradition
Art objects of all varieties display an awareness of classical tradition through form, decoration, and visual vocabulary. The silver plate showing the Battle of David and Goliath looks to the Old Testament for its theme, but to the classical past for its naturalistic style and use of personification (17.190.396). Medieval artists often employed ancient motifs despite their pre-Christian connotations. The imagery of Dionysos, god of wine, for example, remained popular even after Christianity eclipsed his cult (26.9.9; 17.190.56). As if to deny the distance between antiquity and the present, classical figures might appear on art objects wearing medieval dress and in medieval surroundings (17.190.173a, b; 1988.16). Sculptural and architectural fragments from antiquity were often incorporated on medieval buildings, and extant monuments such as city gates often served as motifs for medieval architects (see images of Porte d’Arroux and nave of Cathedral of Saint-Lazare at left).

In the courts of medieval monarchs, classical history and legend offered models for noble behavior. Rulers in both Byzantium and western Europe borrowed imperial imagery from their Roman predecessors to assert continuity between the classical past and their own enterprise. Greco-Roman divinities, events from the Trojan War, and the feats of Hercules, Alexander, and Julius Caesar appeared not only in illustrated manuscripts, but also in tapestries, decorative sculpture, and small objects exchanged as gifts among aristocrats (47.101.3; 16.106). Sometimes medieval artists based their representations of classical subjects on ancient works of art, such as the coins, cameos, and gems often kept in noble and ecclesiastical collections (38.150.23). These relics from antiquity might even find their way into newly crafted objects designed for religious use (17.190.1406), a vivid demonstration of the way in which medieval artists and patrons saw the pagan past as relevant to the Christian present.