Make A Playlist: Add a video to get started!
faq  |  playlists  |  log in  |
Make A Playlist: Add a video to get started!
Add to Playlist

Sculpture, Pulpits, Altarpieces, and Relics


The greatest art of the Middle Ages was Gothic church art: jewel-filled treasuries, statues of saints with the symbols of their martyrdom, Virgin Marys radiant on their heavenly thrones, and frightening images of hell.

Complete Video Script

[89, Amiens Cathedral, 13th century] As the Church was the leading patron of the arts throughout the Middle Ages, it owned the greatest artistic treasures. And many of those treasures remain in situ…not in museums but in the churches — where they were originally designed to be seen.

[90, Toledo Cathedral altarpiece, Spain] The centerpiece of each church was the altar, generally with an elaborate single piece of art — painted or carved — featuring Christ, the Virgin Mary, a patron saint, or a particular Bible scene. Some of the altarpieces were huge and overwhelming — telling the story of Christ scene-by-scene from manger to resurrection.

[91, polyptych altarpiece by Veit Stoss, 1477-89, St. Mary's Basilica, Kraków, Poland] And many altarpieces come with panels on hinges. Some have many panels that, when opened, reveal a series of scenes designed to better inspire worship. Here, we see the end of the Virgin's life on Earth with heartbreaking medieval emotion.

[92, Giotto, Madonna and Child Enthroned, c. 1300, Uffizi Gallery, Florence] Many church altars had a painting like this one, showing Mary seated on a throne, with baby Jesus on her lap, flanked by saints with plate-like halos…it's made with real gold leaf to glow, especially in the candlelight.

[93, Duccio, Maestà, 1311, Duomo Museum, Siena] This opulent altarpiece also tells the story of Jesus like pages of a comic book ripped out and laid side by side. It wasn't terribly realistic by modern standards — Mary's throne looks cockeyed. And the food could slide right off this table — but the art brought sacred stories to life, inspiring the faithful.

[94] Imagine the power of Gothic art — emotionally, religiously, and politically. In the Middle Ages, art was the advertising of the day — a perspective-shaping tool. Artists were hired by the powerful to inspire and also to promote conformity.

[95] Church art has always had an agenda: to teach by telling stories and through symbolism. Martyrs were known by how they died: riddled with arrows — St. Sebastian…decapitated — St. Dennis…death by grilling — it's gotta be St. Lawrence. Gospel writers are shown holding a book. If a man has a cross in his halo, it can only be Jesus. And some regular person suddenly in the company of saints? Likely an important financial supporter of the church — a reminder of how people believed such patronage would help get you to Heaven.

[96] Accurate realism was not a concern. Paintings came with no natural setting, just an ethereal gold background. Buildings may have had four walls but little sense of actual depth. Bodies were flat and expressions said little. The main thing: tell the story. And if the message wasn't clear enough, the artist could literally spell it out.

[97] A hellish hot-tub taught that people from all walks — nobles, kings, even bishops — can end up in Hell. You were reminded that one day your sins would be accounted for as if written on a ledger.

[98] But it wasn't all fire and brimstone. While artists generally worked anonymously, they sometimes injected a little playfulness and personality: this man has a toothache. Another pulls a thorn from his foot. And here, a farmer clobbers a thief so hard his hat falls off.

[99] Medieval pulpits — from where the priest preached — were often masterpieces in themselves, with finely carved Bible stories and symbols that reinforced the gospel message. Readings were figuratively and literally supported by venerable leaders of the faith.

[100] Church treasuries are like museums — safely protecting jewel-incrusted gold and silver featuring dazzling workmanship, war trophies, and priceless gifts…like this gold-encrusted "unicorn tusk."

[101] Dazzling jeweled vessels, called "reliquaries," were often masterpieces of art designed to protect relics. A relic is some physical reminder of Christ or a saint, like their bones or possessions…the finger of St. Theresa…the jaw of St. Anthony…perhaps a skull of a saint, complete with jewels and silver…or better yet, a full, regally dressed skeleton.

[102, Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi] Holy relics were the "ruby slippers" of medieval Europe. To the faithful, relics had power — they helped answer prayers, win wars — and ultimately, they helped you get to Heaven.

[103] That's why pilgrims traveled far and wide to venerate relics, making the High Middle Ages a golden age of travel. In Venice, they came for the supposed bones of St. Mark. In Padova, the vocal chords of St. Anthony. An especially sought-after relic was a supposed piece of the original cross, like this one — with an actual nail hole — carried in a jewel-encrusted case by the emperors. In Paris, this entire church — so famed for its windows today — functioned as a reliquary itself, purpose-built to house the supposed Crown of Thorns in all its glory.

[104] To this day, pilgrims pray at these relics. If a request for a miracle is answered, they might leave a votive — that's a token of gratitude for the saint's divine intervention.

[105] All of these elements — from relics to statues, from soaring arches to sun pouring through stained glass — were part of a unified ensemble of art bringing the stone shell of the cathedral to life and designed to keep the Church central to people's lives. Mix in a little music, and Gothic churches created a powerful experience, inspiring Europeans during this Age of Faith.