The medieval art of the Western world covers a vast scope of time and place, over 1000 years of art history in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. It includes major art movements and periods, national and regional art, genres, revivals, the artists crafts, and the artists themselves.
Art historians attempt to classify medieval art into major periods and styles, often with some difficulty. A generally accepted scheme includes Early Christian art, Migration Period art, Byzantine art, Insular art, Pre-Romanesque and Romanesque art, and Gothic art, as well as many other periods within these central styles. In addition each region, mostly during the period in the process of becoming nations or cultures, had its own distinct artistic style, such as Anglo-Saxon art or Norse art.
Medieval art was produced in many media, and the works that remain in large numbers include sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork and mosaics, all of which have had a higher survival rate than other media like fresco wall-paintings, work in precious metals or textiles, including tapestry. Especially in the early part of the period, works in the so-called "minor arts" or decorative arts, such as metalwork, ivory carving, enamel and embroidery using precious metals, were probably more highly valued than paintings or monumental sculpture.
Medieval art in Europe grew out of the artistic heritage of the Roman Empire and the iconographic traditions of the early Christian church. These sources were mixed with the vigorous "Barbarian" artistic culture of Northern Europe to produce a remarkable artistic legacy. Indeed the history of medieval art can be seen as the history of the interplay between the elements of classical, early Christian and "barbarian" art. Apart from the formal aspects of classicism, there was a continuous tradition of realistic depiction of objects that survived in Byzantine art throughout the period, while in the West it appears intermittently, combining and sometimes competing with new expressionist possibilities developed in Western Europe and the Northern legacy of energetic decorative elements. The period ended with the self-perceived Renaissance recovery of the skills and values of classical art, and the artistic legacy of the Middle Ages was then disparaged for some centuries. Since a revival of interest and understanding in the 19th century it has been seen as a period of enormous achievement that underlies the development of later Western art.
Gothic art was a Medieval art movement that developed in France out of Romanesque art in the mid-12th century, led by the concurrent development of Gothic architecture. It spread to all of Western Europe, but took over art more completely north of the Alps, never quite effacing more classical styles in Italy. In the late 14th century, the sophisticated court style of International Gothic developed, which continued to evolve until the late 15th century. In many areas, especially Germany, Late Gothic art continued well into the 16th century, before being subsumed into Renaissance art. Primary media in the Gothic period included sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco and illuminated manuscript. The easily recognisable shifts in architecture from Romanesque to Gothic, and Gothic to Renaissance styles, are typically used to define the periods in art in all media, although in many ways figurative art developed at a different pace.
The earliest Gothic art was monumental sculpture, on the walls of Cathedrals and abbeys. Christian art was often typological in nature (see Medieval allegory), showing the stories of the New Testament and the Old Testament side by side. Saints' lives were often depicted. Images of the Virgin Mary changed from the Byzantine iconic form to a more human and affectionate mother, cuddling her infant, swaying from her hip, and showing the refined manners of a well-born aristocratic courtly lady.
Secular art came in to its own during this period with the rise of cities, foundation of universities, increase in trade, the establishment of a money-based economy and the creation of a bourgeois class who could afford to patronize the arts and commission works resulting in a proliferation of paintings and illuminated manuscripts. Increased literacy and a growing body of secular vernacular literature encouraged the representation of secular themes in art. With the growth of cities, trade guilds were formed and artists were often required to be members of a painters' guild—as a result, because of better record keeping, more artists are known to us by name in this period than any previous; some artists were even so bold as to sign their names.
Painting in a style that can be called "Gothic" did not appear until about 1200, or nearly 50 years after the start of Gothic architecture and sculpture. The transition from Romanesque to Gothic is very imprecise and not at all a clear break, and Gothic ornamental detailing is often introduced before much change is seen in the style of figures or compositions themselves. Then figures become more animated in pose and facial expression, tend to be smaller in relation to the background of scenes, and are arranged more freely in the pictorial space, where there is room. This transition occurs first in England and France around 1200, in Germany around 1220 and Italy around 1300.
Painting during the Gothic period was practiced in 4 primary crafts: frescos, panel paintings, manuscript illumination and stained glass. Frescoes continued to be used as the main pictorial narrative craft on church walls in southern Europe as a continuation of early Christian and Romanesque traditions. In the north stained glass was the art of choice until the 15th century. Panel paintings began in Italy in the 13th century and spread throughout Europe, so by the 15th century they had become the dominate form supplanting even stained glass. Illuminated manuscripts represent the most complete record of Gothic painting, providing a record of styles in places where no monumental works have otherwise survived. Painting with oil on canvas did not become popular until the 15th and 16th centuries and was a hallmark of Renaissance art.
In Northern Europe the important and innovative school of Early Netherlandish painting is in an essentially Gothic style, but can also be regarded as part of the Northern Renaissance, as there was a long delay before the Italian revival of interest in classicism had a great impact in the north. Painters like Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck, made use of the technique of oil painting to create minutely detailed works, correct in perspective, where apparent realism was combined with richly complex symbolism arising precisely from the realistic detail they could now include, even in small works.