Late Medieval Art


Giotto, Crucifixion from the Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, c. 1305 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Late Medieval period, the late 13th and 14th centuries, was a time of great change in Western Europe. This is often pointed to as the rise of the proto-modern period because of the development of banking, the increase in mercantilism, and the shift to Humanism. Italy was a center of many of these changes because of higher rates of literacy, larger cities, and the continued presence, albeit in decreased form, of Roman culture. As Humanism became the dominant philosophical force, people began establishing libraries; artists began to study the forms of antiquity; and the general population became more literate because of an increased focus on education and learning. Literature, as we would define it in the 21st century, also became a force, with authors such as Dante Alighieri, Boccaccio, and Geoffrey Chaucer writing in the vernacular, or common, language, making their books more accessible to people, although these books were still handmade objects as the printing press would not be invented for another 100-150 years.

Art in this period was governed by the guilds, and artists were thought of as craftsmen, not sublime geniuses (that concept comes into being in the High Renaissance). If a boy (sorry ladies) wanted to become an artist, he typically spent years apprenticing under a master artist, and this would be after he showed artistic talent, or family wanted them to be artists. These boys usually came from the artisan class, and often from a family of artists. The entire process, from apprenticeship to master in the guild, usually took anywhere from 5-10 years, and the boy would begin on the lowest rung of the ladder. As he progressed in his studies, he would learn drawing from the master, as well as the specific art, painting, sculpting, goldsmithing, that he was studying. Once the master deemed the apprentice ready, he could submit his journeyman work to the guild, and, if accepted, he would begin accepting commissions. He would still be working from the master’s workshop, though, until he submitted his masterpiece (and now you know where that word comes from), and it was accepted by the guild. At that point, he could found his own studio, and begin accepting commissions and apprentices. This was the way artists were trained for centuries until the development of the arts academies in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Many of the artists in the Italian city-states in this period began to look back to Roman art for inspiration, a source that was more easily available to them than to artists in other parts of Western Europe. One example of this is the Pulpit from the Baptistry of the Cathedral Complex in Pisa, sculpted by Nicola Pisano, and completed c. 1260. In the sculptures and reliefs on the pulpit can be seen the influence of the Classical Roman reliefs and sarcophagi in the city’s Campo Santo and walls. The figure of Fortitude is a reimagining of Heracles as a Christian virtue, and the reliefs, such as the one depicting the Annunciation and Nativity offer direct quotations of those Classical examples. The figure of Mary at the center of the relief is a quotation from the relief of a Roman matron on one of the sarcophagi, and the figure of Heracles can be linked to other Roman reliefs and sculptures, especially with his classical, heroic nude form and contrapposto stance.

Nicola Pisano, Pulpit of the Bapistry of Pisa with details of Fortitude, the Annunciation and Nativity, and the Adoration of the Magi, completed c. 1260 (photos by By No machine-readable author provided. JoJan assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, and By No machine-readable author provided. JoJan assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain,

Nicola’s pulpit can be compared with that of his son, Giovanni, completed in 1301 for the church of Sant’Andrea in Pistoia. Giovanni’s, completed only 40 years later, shares many characteristics with that of his father, but the carvings have become more elaborate and emotional. Most of the sculptures that divide the scenes are in the classical contrapposto stance, with suggestions of the bodies beneath the drapery, and the relief scenes are filled with less static figures than those of his father. Giovanni is obviously taking more chances with this new classicizing art, and is not relying on direct quotations of his sources.

Giovanni Pisano, Pulpit from Sant’Andrea Pistoia and detail of the Annunciation and Nativity, completed 1301

Architecture in Italy in the Late Medieval period also reflected the growing interest in classicism, while retaining many of the Gothic characteristics of earlier churches. The Cathedral of Orvieto, for which Lorenzo Maitani served as capomaestro, or building master, is one of these churches. The façade of the cathedral shows the influence of the French Gothic in the rose window and the tripartite layout, although the zebra banding of dark green and white marble is a purely Italian innovation. What makes this church truly unique are the relief carvings by Maitani that surround the bays of the doors, and depict scenes from the Old Testament, as well as the Last Judgment. Although the relief of the Scenes from Genesis follows medieval conventions, and is framed by the Tree of Jesse, the supposed family tree of Jesus, the relief of the Last Judgment is extraordinary in its treatment of the nude human form and emotion. The image of a person being devoured by a demon is a powerful image of Hell that, while retaining the medieval intent of instilling fear, offers naturalism in its form and feeling.

Lorenzo Maitani et al, Duomo di Orvieto, begun 1310, with details of the reliefs of Scenes from Genesis and the Last Judgment (photos by By Pavel Satrapa – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Marcok / – Own work, CC BY 2.5, and By Sailko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Detail of Last Judgment by Lorenzo Maitani, Duomo di Orvieto (photo by Sailko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, dedicated to the newly canonized St. Francis, contains a fresco cycle painted by Pietro Lorenzetti, a student of Duccio di Buoninsegna in Siena, which begins to combine the Italo-Byzantine style previously popular with the new Gothic naturalism of central Italy. This combined influence is probably because it is possible Giotto di Bondone was also working there on frescoes. Other important artists from the period were also working on the decoration of San Francesco, which was also the main monastery of the new Franciscan order. These included Cimabue, the leading painter in Florence, who may have been the teacher of Giotto, the leader of the new painting style in central Italy. The frescoes at this site show the coexistence of the Italo-Byzantine and new Proto-Renaissance styles, especially when comparing the frescoes of Cimabue, still very Byzantine in style, with flat spaces and elongated figures with almond-shaped eyes and faces, with those attributed to Giotto or his follower, which have more depth and landscape, as well as heavier, more naturalistic figures.

Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi, consecrated 1253 (photos by By zyance – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, and By Starlight – Own work, Public Domain,

Giotto or follower, St. Francis Mourned by St. Clare, before 1337 (photo by By Giotto, Public Domain, and Pietro Lorenzetti, Madonna and Child with St. Francis and St. John the Baptist, c. 1320 (photo by By I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, and Cimabue, St. Luke the Evangelist, crossing vault fresco, c. 1277-80

Cimabue was a master of the Italo-Byzantine style, which incorporated the stylization of the Byzantine with some naturalistic Western European elements. A comparison of his painting of the Madonna Enthroned with Angels (The Santa Trinita Madonna) with that of Giotto, The Ognissanti Madonna. Cimabue’s Madonna is flattened, and does not really seem to inhabit the space, while Giotto’s has a suggestion of breasts and a lap beneath her drapery, and seems to inhabit the space of her throne. Also, when Giotto moved the prophets said to foretell the coming of Jesus from underneath the throne to the back, he allowed for more depth in the representation of the throne itself, as well as the stairs leading up to it. There are certainly some similarities, in that both portray the child as a homunculous, or little man; both are isocephalic, with the heads of the surrounding figures lining up in neat rows; and both are altarpieces that were once part of larger works, and are painted in tempera on panel with gold-leaf backgrounds.

Cimabue, Santa Trinita Madonna, c. 1260-80 (photo by Cimabue [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Giotto, Ognissanti Madonna, c. 1310 (photo By User Rych on en.wikipedia (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Giotto’s most famous work is the Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel in Padua. It is possible that he also served as architect for the building, which served as the private family chapel of the Scrovegni family. The interior, painted c. 1303-1306, is filled with frescoes that depict the Life of the Virgin, the Nativity and Life of Jesus, and the Passion, as well as the Virtues and Vices and the Last Judgment. The ceiling has images of the sky and Heaven with God, and at the top of the triumphal arch over the apse is inset the only thing in the chapel not painted by Giotto, an icon of God. Enrico Scrovegni’s father, Reginaldo, was placed into Hell in Canto 17 of Dante’s Divina Comedia for the sin of usury, or money lending, which Enrico also practiced. It is possible that the chapel was commissioned as a means of completing penance for the practice of what was considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins in the Medieval period. Certainly, he spent a lot of money on the chapel, as the primary color is blue, the specific shade of which was made with Lapis Lazuli in the Late Middle Ages, and was the most expensive pigment.

Giotto, Arena Chapel, Padua, c. 1303-1306 (photos by By No machine-readable author provided. Piroddi.andrea assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, )

The frescoes, mostly done in the buon, or true, technique, with the paint being applied to wet plaster in sections called giornatas, are painted in registers, or bands. The Virtues and Vices are painted at the bottom en grisaille, or black, white, and gray; with the scenes from the Passion above them; followed by scenes from the Nativity and Life of Jesus and The Life of the Virgin in the top register. On the back wall is a large scene of the Last Judgment, which covers the entire wall. The paintings are set up so that the stories in the registers coincide with each other, and all of the scenes show attempts at landscape and depth, as well as emotion and solidity in the figures. Although the scene of the Crucifixion pictured at the top of this page follows many Christian conventions, the fact that the figures show a great deal of emotion changes the impact of the painting, and the figures with their backs to the viewers in the Lamentation draw the viewers into the scene and make them part of the action. The stone wall with the dead tree on it receding back in a diagonal in that painting also serves to give depth to the work. The Last Judgment, although arranged in the traditional manner, does show an attempt at depth with the semi-circular arrangement of the Apostles around Jesus in his mandorla, and the diagonal, upward movement of the saved on the lower right. In the center of the scene is an image of Enrico Scrovegni presenting the model of the chapel to the Virgin Mary, reinforcing the idea that this is a penitential piece.Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-36-_-_Lamentation_(The_Mourning_of_Christ)

Giotto, Lamentation, c. 1305 (photo by By Giotto – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,


Giotto, Last Judgment, c. 1305 (photo by Giotto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Virtues and Vices are presented in pairs, with the Virtues to the right as you enter the chapel, and the Vices to the left. These are painted en grisaille to make them seem as if they are sculptures, and conform to Christian morality in Italy in the period as well as the political realities of the time. Italy was divided into a series of city-states, ruled either by princes, dukes, or another aristocratic tyrant or as republics, ruled by a council of the elite chosen by a small number of the (male) citizens. Many of the republics saw themselves as the heirs to the Roman Republic, and positioned themselves in art as superior to tyrannical rule. This can be seen in Giotto’s depiction of Justice and Injustice in the chapel, especially considering that Padua was one of the republics. Justice sits on a throne similar to that of the Ognissanti Madonna, and everything around her is neat and orderly. Injustice sits before a decaying crenelated fortress, ignoring the chaos around him.

Giotto, Justice, c. 1305 (photo By Giotto, Public Domain, and Injustice, c. 1305 (photo By Giotto – Seven VicesChapelle Scrovegni, Public Domain,

Painting in Siena was influenced by the Byzantine tradition, as can be seen in the works of Duccio di Buoninsegna, the leading painter in Siena in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. His Maestá was a monumental altarpiece made for the Duomo di Siena, and made up of over 50 panels, several of which are now lost. The piece reflects Duccio’s importance as well, as he was allowed to sign the piece on the front of the lower step of the throne of the Virgin. On the front, was the central panel of the Virgin Enthroned, with scenes from the Nativity in the predella, or base, and scenes from the death of the Virgin above. One the back were scenes from the Passion cycle. The central work on this altarpiece is painted in a very Italo-Byzantine style, with isocephalic heads and a homunculous instead of a baby, but yet there is depth in the throne and body of the Virgin, and many of the saints and angels around her have suggestions of form beneath their drapery.

Conjectural Reconstructions of the Maestá, front and back (photos by Duccio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and By Duccio –, Public Domain,

duccio_maestaDuccio di Buoninsegna, Virgin Enthroned from the Maestá, 1308-1311 (photo Duccio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

This push and pull between the new and older styles can be seen in a comparison of the scenes of the Betrayal in the Garden by Duccio from the Maestá and Giotto from the Arena Chapel. Both have an attempt at landscape, although the plain backgrounds of each end up distracting from the depth. The solidity of Giotto’s figures adds to the illusion of naturalism, as does the figure with his back to the viewer, while Duccio’s do not really seem to be able to stand on the rocks in the garden.

Giotto, Betrayal in the Garden, c. 1305 (photo By Giotto – [dead link], Public Domain, and Duccio, Betrayal in the Garden and Prayer on the Mount of Olives, 1308-1311 (photo By Duccio – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Siena is also the site of one of the largest secular frescoes produced after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and before the Renaissance. The frescoes, located in the (at the time) newly constructed Palazzo Pubblico, or City Hall,  are in the Sala Dei Nove, or Room of the Nine, the room in which the governing body of the Late Medieval Republic of Siena met. These depict the Allegory of Good Government, The Effects of Good Government in the City and Country, and The Allegory of Bad Government and Effects of Bad Government in the City and Country. In these frescoes can be seen the secular, Humanist ideal of the Republic as the correct form of government, in which there is Justice, as well as the rest of the Virtues, which can be seen in the Allegory, surrounding the figure of Good Government, who is wrapped in the flag of Siena. On the wall to the left, is the effect of this Good Government, where the city is filled with commerce and building; the countryside is harmonious; and the people joyful, as can be seen in the group of young women that have begun to dance in the streets. Opposite this is Bad Government, which is in worse shape, but shows Bad Government as a devil-like tyrant, surrounded by the vices, and with a bound Justice at his feet. In the city, the buildings are decaying; people are attacking and killing each other; and the countryside is in flames. The purpose of this was to remind Il Nove of the correct rule.Ambrogio_Lorenzetti_-_Allegory_of_Good_Government_-_Google_Art_Project

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government, 1338-1339 (photo by By Ambrogio Lorenzetti – owH6OsVYalFGMw at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government in the City and Country, 1338-1339 (photos By Ambrogio Lorenzetti – WAFg-CSkcQJsMw at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, and By Ambrogio Lorenzetti – 1QEdJ3E935Z8-A at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,


Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of Bad Government and The Effects of Bad Government in the City and Country, 1338-1339 (photo By Ambrogio Lorenzetti – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

The competing style of the Proto-Renaissance artists that was new was the International Gothic Style, which was really a convergence of styles made possible by the wealth of the courts of fourteenth-century Italy and France, with the best examples executed under French patronage. One of the leading artists associated with this style in the French and French-allied courts of Italy was Simone Martini, who was originally from Siena. His Maestá in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, just outside the Sala Dei Nove where Lorenzetti’s frescoes are, shows the differences in the styles, especially when compared with Duccio’s Maestá from the Duomo. The figures here are softer, and more elongated, and the colors, which have faded some due to technique and instability of pigments, are softer. This reflects the tastes of Martini’s main patrons at the courts. Here the saints and prophets, as well as God, form parts of the elaborate frame around the central scene.simone_martini_-_maestc3a0_-_google_art_project

Simone Martini, Maestá, 1315, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena (photo by Simone Martini [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Another of Martini’s International Gothic works is his depiction of the Annunciation (1333), the frame of which is a 19th century recreation. The central figures of the Virgin and the Angel Gabriel interact on a gold background, without an attempt at depth or space. Both of these figures, as well as the saints on either side are formed from elongated, stylized bodies, with unrealistic poses. These poses and figures mimic the French Gothic sculptures on the cathedrals of Île-de-France, and can be compared to other International Gothic pieces, such as Jean Pucelle’s miniature manuscript painting of the Annunciation from The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, Queen of France, painted between 1325 & 1328. Here, Mary and the angel interact within the space of a Gothic church, with angels around them and figures of children playing below. They are in similar swirling, elongated, elegantly swayed poses to that of Martini’s figures, although painted much smaller on the page. The small hints of color in the otherwise grisaille palette help to draw the eye to the elements Pucelle considered important. This work also shows the importance of manuscript production in Paris in the 14th century.

Simone Martini, Annunciation, 1333 (photo by Simone Martini [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Jean Pucelle, Page from The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, Queen of France, 1325-28 (photo by Jean Pucelle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Another important figure with patronage from the courts of the kings of France was Christine de Pisan, the daughter of the Court Astrologer to Charles V of France, who went on to be a celebrated author in her own right. Her most famous book was Le Tresor de La Cité des Dames (The Book of The City of Women), which gave women a city of their own, and reads as a tract against misogyny. She had herself depicted in the dedications for other books written by her presenting them to Louis of Orléans and Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, and it would seem that she preferred to use female manuscript artists, which tells us something about women in the arts in the Late Medieval Period.

Christine de Pisan Presenting her Manuscript to Louis of Orleans, 1410-1411 from “L’Epître d’Othèa‘ (photo by By Anonymous –, Public Domain, and Christine de Pisan presenting her manuscript to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, from The Book of the Queen, c. 1410-1414 (photo by By Master of the Cité des Dames – This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. It is also made available on a British Library website.Catalogue entry: Harley 4431This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.বাংলা | Deutsch | English | Español | Euskara | Français | Македонски | 中文 | +/−, Public Domain,

The royal family of France were great patrons of the arts in general. Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy, brother of King Charles V of France, commissioned a Carthusian monastery, the Chartreuse de Champmol, in Dijon. He commissioned Claus Sluter, a sculptor from Haarlem in the Netherlands, then a part of the Duchy of Flanders, part of Philip’s land by marriage to Margaret of Flanders, to decorate the monastery. Some of the sculptures survive to this day, even though the site was heavily damaged in the French Revolution. Many of the sculptures on the portal of the church remain, including the central image of the Virgin and Child on the trumeau, which is surrounded by images of Philip and Margaret on the jambs with their patron saints. The central image of the Virgin and Child represents the high point of the International Gothic. The body of the Virgin is in a contrapposto stance, and she is interacting with the child in a realistic manner. Although the drapery on the figure is heavy, it is one of the most naturalistic works created in the North to this point. The portraits of Philip and Margaret are also naturalistic, and do not really show idealization, as they are both obviously middle aged.

Church of Chartreuse de Champmol, Dijon, Portal sculpture by Claus Sluter, 1383-1406

Sluter also created the crucifixion scene, now more commonly known as the Well of Moses, for the central well of the cloister of the monastery. Originally capped with a large crucifixion scene, only fragments of which remain after it was smashed in the Revolution, the base has images of 4 Old Testament figures, Moses, David, Zachariah, and Isaiah, around it. There is evidence that David is a portrait of Charles V, which has led scholars to posit that the other figures may be portraits of other family members. Each figure holds his attributes, scrolls for 3 and the tablets of the 10 Commandments for Moses, which were originally gilt and painted, as was the rest of the work, fragments of which remain. It is thought that Melchor Broederlam, one of the other artists working at the site did the painting. The angels above the Old Testament figures are depicted as crying and mourning as the focus was the central scene. The fragment of Christ’s head and torso that remains shows what an emotional and naturalistic tour-de-force that piece was. Moses, by the way, has horns because of St. Jerome’s mistranslation of the Bible from Greek that would not be corrected for another 100 years or so when Erasmus of Rotterdam retranslated the Vulgate Bible from Greek, and realized that Moses came down from Mount Sinai surrounded by light, not with horns!

Claus Sluter and Claus de Werve, The Well of Moses and Fragment of Cavalry, 1395-1406

The other brother of Charles V was Jean, Duc de Berry, who was known for his collection of manuscripts. It would seem that he hired the Limbourg Brothers away from his brother Philip, possibly after his death, and they produced a number of important manuscripts for him. The most famous of these is Les Trés Riches Heures du Jean, Duc de Berry, which was left incomplete at their death in 1416, possibly from the plague. Although the pages are unfinished, the Limbourg brothers were taking the exploration of the natural even further in the pages of this book with their illustrations. Their image of the Annunciation has the Virgin interacting with the angel from inside of the Gothic space, and their image of the Crucifixion in the Darkness of the Eclipse reveals a masterful use of grisaille with small areas of color to tell a dramatic story. These pages document the further evolution of manuscript painting from that of Jean Pucelle in the early 14th century.

The Limburg Brothers, Annunciation from Les Trés Riches Heures du Jean, Duc de Berry, 1413-1416 (photo by By Limbourg brothers – IRHT-CNRS/Gilles Kagan – Bibliothèque du château, Public Domain, and Crucifixion in the Darkness of the Eclipse (photo by Public Domain,

The Labors of the Months depicted on the calendar pages alternate between the lives of the wealthy and the lives of the poor, but always with a castle owned by Jean or one of his brothers in the background, which allows modern historians to locate the figures within a specific time and space. October has the medieval Louvre in the background, which tells us that the peasants are sowing seeds outside of the city walls of Paris. In these, there is an attempt at realistic landscape and interaction of figures within that space, but they are not universally successful. Often, the figures appear to be larger than the buildings around them, which was the convention for showing depth before the reintroduction of linear perspective to Western art.Labors_of_the_months_in_Tres_Riches_Heures_du_Duc_de_Berry1

Limbourg Brothers, Labors of the Months, Les Trés Riches Heures du Jean, Duc de Berry, 1413-1416 (photo by By Limbourg brothers and others – Image:Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Janvier.jpg, Image:Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry aout.jpg, Image:Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry avril.jpg, Image:Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry décembre.jpg, Image:Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry février.jpg, Image:Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry juillet.jpg, Image:Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry juin.jpg, Image:Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry mai.jpg, Image:Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry mars.jpg, Image:Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry novembre.jpg, Image:Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry septembre.jpg, [[:]], Public Domain,

All of these artists laid the foundation for the Renaissance and the beginnings of the Modern Era in western history.


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