Art and Experience in the Middle ages

Length: 3 pages, typewritten, double-spaced

1. Some background on the relationship between authority and tradition in the Middle Ages

Given the complexity of the issue, it is difficult to make generalizations about the nature of authority in our society and culture. But I think that it is safe to say that things were very different in the Middle Ages. We are open to the possibility of questioning authority and in fact are often encouraged to do so. Thus we entertain the possibility of change. This was not the case in medieval society and culture generally across the over one thousand year span of its history. Authority resided in clearly defined entities—the word of God (the Bible and the liturgy), the church, the emperor and the king—and it often followed a clearly defined path. That path may be thought of as tradition. Tradition represented a more or less clearly defined way of doing things based on the power imputed to authority. Under these circumstances the process of change took on an entirely different cast. Change clearly occurred in the Middle Ages, but how did it take place? How did it come about that an often deeply engrained pattern of thinking or behavior or practice was changed in the Middle Ages? One way was through the initiative of a powerful or charismatic individual who reacted to difficult circumstances in a new and original way.

2. The Assignment

What I would like you to do in this paper is to write about the relationship between tradition and innovation with regard to the architecture of one of the three patrons described below. Each of these patrons undertook major initiatives in art and architecture. Constantine built and decorated the first monumental Christian churches in Rome (St. Peter’s). Justinian is most famous for the building of St. Sophia (Hagia Sophia). Abbot Suger of St. Denis rebuilt the church of his monastery in a style that would come to be called Gothic, with lofty vaults and windows filled with stained glass. Each of these initiatives profoundly altered the visual landscape of the Middle Ages. They changed the way Christian churches looked. At the same time, these initiatives were all deeply indebted to the past. They respected and made use of tradition. Constantine’s churches took over the form of the ancient Roman basilica; Hagia Sophia followed in the tradition of Roman domed buildings, such as the Pantheon; and Abbot Suger’s church was modeled on the Early Christian basilica. Select one of these patrons and discuss these questions: How and why does the work embody something new? How and why does it make use of traditional forms?

3. Constantine

Constantine (272-337) was the first Roman emperor to accept Christianity as a legitimate religion. According to legend, he was converted to Christianity by a vision of the cross which he had on the eve of an important battle over his enemy, Maxentius, in which he was victorious. He moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople in 324. From that point on until his death in 337 much of his attention was directed toward embellishing his new capital. Before that his attention was focused on Rome and particularly on creating a new Christian presence there by building monumental churches over the graves of some of the most important martyrs of the Roman church, including, most notably, St. Peter’s in the Vatican. The building type Constantine chose as the form of the church was the basilica, a longitudinal space formed of rows of columns on the inside, with a nave, aisles and an apse (where the altar was located). Why do you think this was a good choice for a building that housed Christian services (rituals), like the Mass?


Justinian (482-565) inherited an empire and a capital city, Constantinople, which had been Christian now for over two hundred years; under him, both empire and city flourished. One of the challenges that he faced in his early career was a revolt of the citizens of Constantinople, the Nika Revolt, which ended with Justinian’s victory but a large section of the city in ruins. This allowed him, however, to rebuild the church of Hagia Sophia on a new, grand scale, focused on the stunning and dramatic element of the dome. We know the names of the architects of the project, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. Justinian’s St. Sophia was the largest church in Byzantium and never rivaled in the entire subsequent history of the Byzantine state.

5.Abbot Suger

Abbot Suger (1081-1151) was the head of the great monastery of St. Denis, located just outside of Paris, which had a special relationship to the kings of France. Many of the kings of France were buried there. During his lifetime, Sugar undertook to rebuild the main monastic church and in so doing is credited with having invented a new style of architecture we have come to call Gothic. Gothic architecture is characterized by lofty masonry vaults, large windows filled with stained glass and elaborate sculpture and decoration on the facade. The Gothic style spread from Suger’s project across Europe to influence the form of churches and cathedrals everywhere.

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