Religious Art Versus Secular Art During the Middle Age

During the Middle Age, art in Europe was characterized as having deep and strong connection to religion. Italy, where the influence of Christianity was largely seen, holds some of the most brilliant artists of the time. These includes Giotto di Bondone and Caravaggio, two Italian painters who were critically acclaimed because of their exceptional works. Although the level of their talents are comparable, their difference with their preference in the themes of their works sets them apart from each other.

Historical Context: The Arts During the Middle Ages The Middle Age is said to have started with no exact date. Diebold, 2001). However, some scholars believe that it started after the fall of the great Roman empire, around the fifth century. The Middle Ages lasted until the 15th century, before the rise of the age of Modernity. At the fall of the Roman empire, only one institution remained to be strong–the church. It has become a universal and powerful institution. ( Lethaby, 1971). Because of this, the arts during the Middle Age was primarily a reflection of the people’s religion. Most of the themes of artistic creations were anchored with religious stories and beliefs.

However, during the early Middle Age, Christianity was a religion perceived differently by Romans and Greeks. While Christianity promotes humility and divinity, Hellenistic belief was purely earthly and towards worshipping of nature. (Tillman and Cahn, 1969). That it why artistic works with theme like Christianity this was highly forbidden. It was during the Byzantine period when Christianity has been finally accepted in the societies. It was also in this period when the arts marked its highest point during the Middle Age. Giotto di Bondone was born at this particular time.

The late Middle Age, on the other hand, was a specific point for change. People have learned the need for modern ideas and progress with their governments and societies. The arts during this point marks the decline for traditional ideas but the start of accepting modernity. Caravaggio was born during this point of transformation. Religious Art As Seen in Giotti’s Works Religious art was mostly characterized as any form of artistic creation that employs religion in style and meaning. During the Middle Age, artistic works are known because of their general characteristics.

In the field of visual arts, artists found a new way to depict their creativity. They emphasized emotion and hierarchy ( Lethaby 1971). One of the most salient characteristics of paintings with religious themes is the impressive depiction of the divine cosmos. Every icon or image in the painting plays an important role to the overall meaning of the artwork. Usually, the paintings represent a significant religious event. An example is Giotto’s “The Epiphany”, ( which depicts an important event in the Christian religion– the manifestation of Christ to the Magi as the Son of the King.

Other images present in the painting were Mary, Joseph, and the angels. Another important point that should be considered in religious paintings is the way the artist should portray the religious images. According to Diebold (2001), the artist should portray the religious icon as clearly and as visible as he could, including its personal features. In that way, the spectators would get easily connected to the image in the paintings. A good example of how this principle was applied by Giotto is his “Flight into Egypt”. This painting shows the famous picture of Mary riding in an ass during her pregnancy.

On Giotto’s version, though, Jesus the Child is already part of the picture, riding in the ass with Mary. This is probably part of Giotto’s portraying the religious icon as clearly and as visible as possible. The presence of halos in the heads of Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and the angel also proved the intention of the creator to connect easily the painting to his spectators. The use of halos was also employed to indicate the people they are representing. This only means that religious icons during the time were given a lot of emphasis.

Secular Art as Seen in Caravaggio’s Works Although Middle Age art was primarily focused with religious themes and ideas, the entrance of the late Middle Period marked new changes in this tradition. Some visual artists chose to use secular ideas as themes for their artworks. One of these artists is Caravaggio. Secular paintings in the late Middle Age were characterized as aesthetically appealing and products of the imagination and ingenuity. As compared to religious paintings, secular paintings did not use religious texts or manuscripts as reference to their works.

Basically, secular artists provided their own genuine images through their imagination. Example of this kind of painting is Caravaggio’s “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” (Kitson, 1967). The painting is an example of how Caravaggio used his pure imagination in order to depict the boy. The image was also appealing to the eyes of the viewers. With his realistic way of painting the boy, it seems that one is looking at a real person. Because of this, Caravaggio’s paintings, or secular paintings in particular, depict more of the human life rather than the divine cosmos.

Secular paintings during the period were easily recognized with the presence flowers, garlands, and beautiful background scenes. In addition,, the paintings were there to represent something that has a socio-cultural value. Caravaggio’s “Bacchus” (Kitson, 1967) was such a perfect example. The artist used images of flowers and garlands to adorn the central image– Bacchus. Giotto vs. Caravaggio Although both painters had lived during the Middle Age in Italy, they seemed to be e not colliding with each other. Both painters possess exceptional talent in the field of visual arts.

However, they were still different from each other in terms of their style, ideas, and contributions. Being a religious artist. Giotto was accustomed in doing artistic works based on the teachings of the Christian religion. Most of the images he used fell under this specific theme. When compared with those themes created by Caravaggio, Giotto’s paintings are purely founded in religion. This could be attributed to his training in Cimabue’s custody. Caravaggio’s works, on the other hand, were purely realistic.

Aesthetically speaking, those of Carravagio’s are more appealing and vividly captured. Apparently, the images he used were purely creative by his imagination and not bounded by any religious scenarios. This could be attributed to the time of his birth– the late Middle Age, which was characterized as the period before modernity fully arise. Finally, Giotto and Caravaggio were different from each other due to their orientations. While Giotto could paint religious-related images, Caravaggio could use his imagination to direct him with his works.