Medieval Sculpture
History, Characteristics: Roman, Early Christian Sculptures, Carolingian and Ottonian Art.

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Biblical Ivory Carving (870).
Late Carolingian/Early Ottonian
Medieval Picardie Museum.

Art Education
Art Evaluation
How to Appreciate Sculpture

Medieval Sculpture (c.300-1000)
From Late Antiquity to Romanesque


Roman Sculpture
Early Christian Sculpture
Barbarian Sculpture and Metalwork
Carolingian Sculpture: Ivory and Goldsmithery

"Medieval" and "Middle Ages" are rather imprecise terms which refer to the period of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (c.400 CE) to the fall of Constantinople (1453). This article on medieval sculpture broadly covers the first 600 years of this era, including the work of sculptors from the final period of Late Antiquity until the emergence of the European style known as Romanesque Art (1000-1200). See also our article on Medieval Christian Art (600-1200) as well as our biographies of outstanding medieval artists such as Gislebertus (12th century), Master Mateo (12th century) and the Master of Cabestany (c.1130-1180).

Statue of Saint Faith (c.870)
Sainte-Foy Abbey Church, Conques.
A divine example of plastic art
by Ottonian artists.

Roman Sculpture

Forming the link between Christianity and the classical heritage, the civilization of Late Antiquity occupied a place between the Late Roman Empire and the Middle Ages. This period began with the long reigns of Diocletian (284-305) and Constantine (307-337) and lasted for two or three centuries, its duration varying from region to region. After Diocletian had established a tetrarchic government with two "Augusti" and two "Caesars", the system became a diarchy in 313 and then, in 324, Constantine, the conqueror of Licinius, united the Empire under Christianity. This religious liberty was soon expressed in monumental Christian art with the construction of the oldest Christian basilicas and the introduction of the first monumental decorations. In the towns, the municipal elites and the big proprietors, who often owned country residences, decorated their houses sumptuously. Public architecture strove to surpass the models of the past. The Basilica Nova in Rome was begun by Maxentius in 308 and completed by Constantine. Its three monumental aisles stood at the summit of a wide platform and were crowned by a vast western apse containing a colossal statue of the emperor.

High Cross Sculptures (c.750-1150 CE)
Romanesque Sculpture (1000-1200)
Gothic Sculpture (1150-1280)

For forms of carving, see:
Stone Sculpture.
For sculptures in wood,
see: Wood Carving.

For a list of the world's finest
works of three-dimensional art
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever

For a guide to the origins and
development of 3-D art, including
major achitectural movements,
see: Sculpture History.



A manifestation of the city's pomp, the triumphal arch of Constantine built by the Senate and the people of Rome in 315 stands near the Palatine Hill. The monument comprises three openings with freestanding columns outside and a group of sculptures, including reused features from earlier famous monuments, as if to contirm the imperial heritage. The historical frieze, in a conspicuous position halfway up, illustrates both the imperial ideology and the style of the Constantinian period. In addition to depictions of speeches to the citizens and the distribution of subsidies, a particularly noticeable feature is the setting of a hieratic court ritual in which the emperor occupies a strictly frontal position. This arrangement, emphasized by the acclaiming figures shown in profile, was adopted by consuls on ivory diptychs, by villa owners on mosaics, and even for the representation of Christ among the apostles in the semidomes of church apses.

A style common to sculpture and the arts of colour emerges during the first half of the fourth century. That is why the extremely linear and graphic rendering of the figures in the frieze on the Arch of Constantine and on contemporary sarcophagi is close to that of the figures on the mosaics of Piazza Armerina in Sicily, Santa Costanza in Rome, Aquileia in North Italy and Centcelles near Tarragona in Catalonia. The basic elements of the portrait, with wide open eyes and short hair accentuating the roundness of the head, are already observable in works produced under the Tetrarchy, the most famous of which is the porphyry group of the four sovereigns, reused in the Middle Ages on the lateral facade of the basilica of St Mark's in Venice.


Early Christian Sculpture

During the Roman Imperial period, the Christianization of society steadily increased, but we have to wait until Late Antiquity, in particular the fourth century, to see the public expression of the early Christian sculpture - at least in Rome. The first Christian images appeared in the Roman catacombs, those underground cemeteries with evocative names (Calixtus, Priscilla, Peter and Marcellinus), which, situated outside the city of the living. were the Roman equivalent of the surface necropolises located close to the entrances of the Empire's towns. We know those early Christian images, as well as the tastes and culture of the urban elites, from the sculptured decoration of the sarcophagi which were placed in mausoleums or private enclosures inside cemeteries. (See also: Christian Roman Art.)

When they were carved out of marble or porphyry, sarcophagi were ornamented with a sculptured decoration comparable in every way to the friezes of the great public monuments. These characteristic objects of Late Antiquity were sometimes "mass produced" and could be bought as standardized products by anyone who wanted to perpetuate his own memory in his lifetime or that of a close relation who had just died, as an inscription at Arles testifies: "The 17 of the Calends of April, here rests in peace Marcia Romania Celsa, a most illustrious lady, who lived 38 years, 2 months and 11 days. Havius Januarius, a most illustrious man, former consul ordinary, placed (this epitaph) to his meritorious wife." It was also possible to have sarcophagi decorated to meet individual requirements. In the second quarter of the 4th century Flavius Januarius ordered that his defunct wife should be portrayed as the praying figure situated in the centre of the main face of the sarcophagus between two apostles and Gospel scenes.

The sarcophagus relief sculpture comprises several different types: with spiral flutings, with a continuous frieze, on two registers, with colonnettes, etc. Pictorially, the large bucolic and pastoral scenes were soon followed by Old Testament scenes (Jonas, Daniel) in typological opposition to those from the New Testament such as the public life of Christ and the early events of his Passion. The death of Christ is never represented; on the other hand, emphasis is laid on his resurrection, his victory over death and the promise of his return at the end of time.

Among the most significant examples, we may mention the porphyry sarcophagi of Helen and Constantine (Vatican Museum) which, between 320 and 340, display themes peculiar to the imperial iconography or the decoration of the richest villas, such as the sarcophagus decorated with hunting scenes discovered in the Trinquetaille necropolis at Arles in 1974. Of the same provenance, a sarcophagus with two registers depicting an illustrious couple is very similar to the so-called Dogmatic Sarcophagus (Vatican Museum). In addition to Old Testament episodes (Adam and Eve), it displays scenes from the New Testament, ranging from the Epiphany to Christ's miracles. These vehicles of private propaganda tell us about the very early conversion of certain elites and also about their tastes, because the Aries sarcophagus was undoubtedly bought in Rome at great expense. The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus is a particularly good illustration of the monumental quality of these works and the concentration of Christian thought they convey.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate religious medieval sculpture, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

Barbarian Sculpture & Metalwork

From the early 5th century, the arrival in the West of different Germanic peoples and their settlement in the territories of the ancient Roman empire brought in their train the introduction of an original culture with a Roman and a Germanic component. The first inroad took place in 401, when the Visigoths led by Alaric poured into Italy. After their arrival at the gates of Rome, this people, led by Athaulf, withdrew to southern Gaul in 412. A little earlier, at the end of 406, the Vandals, Alani and Suevi crossed the Rhine at Mainz or Worms and took the road to the Iberian peninsula. The history of these peoples' movements, their conquests and progressive sedentarization covered the whole of the 5th century. Their final settlement in specific regions constituted the first adumbration of medieval historical geography. The Franks in Gaul, the Visigoths in the Iberian peninsula and the Ostrogoths in Italy produced original works of art confined almost exclusively to metalwork and goldsmithery. Architecturally, they appreciated what they found in the Romanized countries. This is why, while necropolises yield funerary furnishings of Germanic origin, the villas excavated by archeologists reveal architecture and mosaic art in the purest Roman tradition, some of which are even later than the 7th century. The symbiosis between these different artistic cultures laid the basis of the new medieval civilization.

The goldsmith's works of the period of the barbarian invasions were numerous. They consisted of liturgical objects, tableware, weapons and personal ornaments. Well known is the work of St Eligius, goldsmith of the Merovingian court and maker of liturgical objects, such as the Cross of Saint-Denis. But the goldsmithing of this period is mainly studied with the help of burial finds. The Sutton Hoo treasure is the most famous of the royal or princely burials of the early Anglo-Saxon period discovered in England. Its contents, now in the British Museum, were exhumed from the interior of a buried ship in 1939. The objects composing this treasure included imports from the eastern Mediterranean (silver and bronze dishes), Sweden (shield), Merovingian Gaul (coins) and the Rhineland (armour). The date of interment is established by Byzantine objects made of silver on which the inspection stamps of Emperor Anastasius have been identified.

The Anglo-Saxon artifacts in the treasure from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial consist mainly of arms, jewels and objects of everyday use. Gold is abundant and the enamelling - mostly cloisonné - is distributed in small differently coloured cells which articulate the surface. But while emphasizing technique, we should not neglect the decorative repertory that appears on contemporary products. Geometric forms and figurative decoration are closely fused in a tangle of curves which often describe continuous interlaces. These motifs then spread over western Europe through the circulation of artifacts and manuscripts.

In Merovingian Gaul these goldsmith's works were found in the tombs of the wealthiest individuals. Some of them still preferred burial in sarcophagi in the classical tradition. Sometimes these were local products, carved in the stone of the country, at others imports brought by way of the large rivers (Seine, Loire). Often trapezoid in shape, these sarcophagi, which went out of use during the 8th century, were adorned with crosses or geometric motifs. The plaster sarcophagi found in great quantities in the Paris region made up a special group and their area of diffusion extended from Rouen to the Yonne and from the Loiret to the Marne. In the south of France the production of marble sarcophagi was prolonged until the 5th century, if not later, while in Aquitaine in particular a group of sarcophagi with saddleback covers and an all-over decoration of foliage scrolls certainly continued in production until the end of the Merovingian period. These prestigious objects travelled but their carving was probably executed in the urban workshops of Aquitaine in connection with the exploitation of quarries. They met the demands of the great landowners of southwestem Gaul for whom hunting was still a favourite activity, as the sacrophagus in the Musee des Augustins at Toulouse demonstrates.

Among the privileged tombs is the funerary chapel discovered to the south-east of the town of Poitiers in 1878, the sculptured decuration of which is especially important. This hypogeum, know as the Hypogee des Dunes, consisted of a "memorial chamber" provided with cult installations and it stood in a necropolis. The monument, which can be dated to the late 7th or the first third of the 8th century, was a sort of family vault containing several tombs; a lengthy inscription in the righthand door jamb states: "Here Mellebaudis, debtor and servant of Christ, I have set up for myself this little cavern in which my unworthy tomb reposes. I did this in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ whom I have loved, in whom I have believed ... "

Access to the vault is by a staircase with about ten steps. The monument consists of a room enlarged by two lateral arcosolia. In addition to the colonnettes and capitals framing the entrance, the architectural sculpture extends over three steps of the staircase, the two door jambs and the step which raises the altar platform. This decoration in very shallow relief consists of omamental foliage, fish and a four-stranded plait with snakes' heads at the extremities. The monument also preserves elements of carved furniture which prove the existence of well-organized workshops. Winged figures adorn the slabs reused to close the sarcophagi standing near the altar. One of them bears the symbols of the evangelists Matthew and John and the archangels Raphael and Rachel. Near the altar was the sculpted base of a pillar adorned with two figures nailed to crosses who could be interpreted as the two thieves framing the crucifixion of Christ, now missing. Another sculptured fragment represents the lower part of a stylite identified as Simeon by an inscription.


Stylistically these sculptures resemble 7th century Visigothic works and monuments in northern Italy. Sociologically, the Hypogeum of the Dunes at Poitiers illustrates the phenomenon of the "aristocratization" of a section of a necropolis: a privileged ecclesiastical tomb which may have been a chapel originally and in any case was in private use. Indeed, a fragment of the lintel bears the following inscription: "The memory of Mellebaudis (memoria), Abbot, debtor of Christ, is here. The devout come from all sides to Him (Christ) for the offerings, and they return every year." The sculptured decoration in the Poitiers hypogeum shows, as do the lettering of the inscriptions and the vestiges of painting, that the Merovingian elites had a hybrid culture combining classical culture fostered by eastern elements and the art of interlaces which so clearly defines the plastic innovations of the early Middle Ages in the West.

Carolingian Art: Ivory and Goldsmithery

The Carolingian cultural renaissance was not produced suddenly, neither with Charlemagne's coming to power nor with his coronation by the Pope in the year 800. It had been prepared from the late 7th century in Italy, Gaul and the British Isles. From this period onward the monastic renewal of the West was under way. Corbie, Laon, Tours, Fleury-sur-Loire and Saint-Denis were cultural centres long before the Carolingian renaissance, famous for their scriptoria and their libraries, as were the Germanic abbeys of Echternach, St Gall and Fulda. (See: German Medieval Art c.800-1250.) The reigns of Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious (from 768 to 855) saw the construction of hundreds of monasteries, nearly thirty new cathedrals and close to a hundred royal residences. See Carolingian Art (c.750-900).

The desire to vie with the prestige of Rome and Byzantium was behind Charlemagne's decision to choose a permanent residence in which to install his court, treasury and library. The palace of Charlemagne at Aachen and the palatine chapel built there on the Ravennate model at the very end of the 8th and beginning of the 9th century formed a centre for religious art and for the study of letters which welcomed celebrated masters such as Alcuin. The court workshops produced illuminated manuscripts which were one of the most effective aids to the preservation of antique culture and the diffusion of contemporary artistic tastes. Among the first books illuminated at the court before the end of the 8th century was the Gospel Book of Godescalc, which reveals the growing importance of Italian and Byzantine models. The manuscripts of the Ada school, from the name of an abbess alleged to be Charlemagne's natural sister, marked a moment of diversification in the Palatine schools corresponding to Alcuin's succession by Eginhard.

Among the new artistic tendencies under Louis the Pious, the Coronation Gospels (Old Imperial Treasury, Vienna) introduced a Hellenistic or Alexandrian style. At Reims, under Archbishop Ebbo, manuscripts were illustrated in a style dominated by a movement which seems to shake the figures and their clothes. The Utrecht Psalter, written and illustrated at the abbey of Hautvilliers at the end of the first third of the 9th century, particularly characterizes this Carolingian renaissance and the school of Reims by its rapid, incisive, vibrant and nervous pen. After the death of Charlemagne and the fall of Ebbo at Reims, several artists revived the school of Saint-Martin of Tours characterized under Abbot Vivian (843-851) by the illustration of Bibles with narrative scenes arranged in superimposed registers.

The production of manuscripts created in the various specialized workshops a demand for work by the goldsmiths and craftsmen specialized in ivory carving, mainly to ornament precious bindings. This explains the close stylistic relation between illustrated manuscripts and ivory carvings. It has even been suggested that workshops were equipped to produce both genres. Thus the ivories of the Ada school are closely akin to manuscripts from the same circle. The Lorsch Gospel covers executed at the very end of the 8th century derive from Byzantine models from the period of Justinian, whereas the covers of Dagulfs Psalter find their source in Western Early Christian works. This wealth of sources also proves the role fulfilled by these workshops in the transmission of models from Late Antiquity. At Metz, under the episcopate of Drogo (825-855), ivory panels (Drago Sacramentary) reflected the movement animating the manuscripts of the same school in which contrasts with the school of Reims can be seen.

Under Charles the Bald, the workshops of Corbie, Reims and Saint-Denis were particularly active and had more stylistic affinity with the Reims manuscripts. The cover of the Psalter of Charles the Bald (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) is especially reminiscent of the interpretation the ivory-carvers made of the manuscript illustrations. In this case, the model is the Utrecht Psalter. The Munich Crucifixion, with its representation of the Resurrection beneath personifications of the sun and moon, and its antique references to Oceanus and Roma, may well be the masterpiece of this period. This ivory cover is luxuriously framed by a setting of goldwork, precious stones and enamels which invite us once again to speculate about the collaboration between ivory carvers and goldsmiths in these outstanding workshops. (For more, see also: Celtic Metalwork art.)

The development of the cult of relics and the increasing size of the main churches were the source of the luxurious output of goldsmith's work in the Carolingian period: urns, various types of statue, reliquaries of all kinds, book covers and other objects for liturgical use made up the essential part of a production destined to play an important role in the development of monumental sculpture. We find a good example of this in the reliquary called the Triumphal Arch of Eginhard known only from a drawing. It undoubtedly served as the foot of a cross and its rich decoration finds its inspiration in Roman and Early Christian triumphal programs, while at the same time heralding the monumental iconographic display of the great Romanesque church portals.

Carolingian gold work benefited by the progress made in the Merovingian period and combined the ancient practice of cloisonne with that of chasing and inlays. Among the most famous works are the binding of the Codex Aureus of Munich, with a decoration divided into five fields, and the ciborium of King Arnulf. Also outstanding for size, prestige and influence on sculpture is the gold and silver altar frontal of Milan, commissioned from the goldsmith Volvinius under the episcopate of Angilbert II. It has christological scenes on the front, while the back is reserved for the life of Ambrose, the Milanese saint. The differences in style observable between the two sides exactly match the situation of Carolingian art torn between a dazzling Antiquity and a new aesthetic. The bronze sculpture or statuette "Charlemagne" (Louvre, Paris) clearly suggests this double dimension affirming the imperial idea. It is a reflection of the activity of the bronze-founders' workshops which have left other famous works in the Aachen chapel. such as the grilles of the galleries and the doors. See also: Ottonian Art (c.900-1050).

For another influential but later school of medieval art in Western Europe, which was greatly influenced by Carolingian culture, please see Mosan Art which emerged around Liege, exemplified by the metalwork and goldsmithing of Nicholas of Verdun (1156-1232) and Godefroid de Claire (1100-1173).

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from the seminal work on European Sculpture from Late Antiquity to the pre-Renaissance era, namely Sculpture: From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Edited by G. Duby and J-L Daval (1989-91) (published by Taschen GmbH), a publication we strongly recommend for any serious students of Medieval sculpture and architecture.


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