Medieval European Art: The Legacy of Rome and Constantinople (55+)

Medieval art grew as Christianity became the Roman Empire’s state religion and as artists sought to embody Christian ideals that opposed the old humanist values of the classical world. The solution these artists found—symbolic rather than naturalistic art—took shape as the Empire collapsed, entirely in the West and partially in the East. European art in the medieval world was divided between the Orthodox East and the Roman Catholic West, at first by the West’s relative poverty and vulnerability to barbarian invasions, but finally by the West’s partial return to pre-Christian classical humanism for inspiration.

We’ll survey the development and diffusion of the two main branches of medieval style, one patronized by the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe, and the other by the Byzantine Empire throughout Eastern Europe.

Note: Back by popular demand, from summer 2017.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Describe the difference between the humanism of the classical period and the religious perspective of the medieval period, and why this difference led to a revolution in artistic style
  • Explain how the collapse of the Western Roman Empire affected the material culture of Western Europe and the production of art.
  • Discuss the differences between the art of the early middle ages and the high middle ages
  • Discuss the difference between the art patronized by Roman Catholicism and that patronized by Eastern Orthodoxy

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: After Rome: Christianity and the end of the Classical World c. 400 AD-550 AD.

Christian art largely rejected the Classical tradition and succeeded in creating a new artistic style through an innovative symbolism that represented Christianity’s supernatural concerns and ideals, including its “other-worldly” belief that God, not humanity, is “the measure of all things. 

Week 2: The Time of chaos and decline (c. 550 AD - 850AD)

With rare exceptions this period merited the title ‘The Dark Ages”.  The art of the Barbarians, the early Christian monastic tradition, the Carolingian Empire, and the embattled Byzantine Empire will be compared.

Week 3: The Medieval-Romanesque West and the Byzantine East (c. 850 AD–1100)

Although the Byzantine style largely triumphed over the Carolingian in pictorial representation, even in Western Europe, there were still important differences in architecture and sculpture, making for difference in the look of art in Western and Eastern Europe. A revived Byzantine Empire and a more stable West saw a rebirth of painting, sculpture, and monumental architecture.

Week 4: The Medieval–Gothic Period in the West (1100–1400)

Gothic artists revived some of the humanistic elements of the Classical tradition, combining these with the other-worldly elements of the Romanesque to create a style that synthesized both the Classical and the Christian traditions. They also developed new forms, such as Gothic arches and stained-glass windows.

Week 5: Medieval Russia and the art of the last Byzantine diffusion (1300-1700)

As the Byzantine Empire went into terminal political decline, its religious and cultural diffusion continued unabated.  Russia and neighboring areas became the repository for the developing art of Eastern Europe.

Week 6: Towards the Italian Renaissance (1400–1500)

The Italian Renaissance marks the Classical tradition’s rebirth and the rejection of the Medieval tradition, particularly the Romanesque. Renaissance artists attempted to revive the Classical past as the model for present life and art. We will focus on the art of this audacious attempt as it gradually severed the ties it had with the art of the late Gothic period.

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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