Such was the wealth and power of the Church between the 12th and 17th centuries that it impacted on all aspects of life at the time. The Church has influenced a wide variety of art forms: literature, visual, music and even architecture and I would like to examine exactly how these developments occurred. The Church saw art as a way of upholding its ascendancy and broadening the message that God was to be regarded as an omnipotent figure, ostracised from Mankind because of the sins, which had tainted the original purity of earth. In terms of visual art, the Church commanded a didactic way of portraying the key ideologies of Christianity.
Christianity consisted of complex abstract notions for which a new language of symbols was adopted in order to convey their meanings. The Church realised that with a mostly illiterate population, spreading the word of God through texts was not a feasible option. As a result, the symbols, which express such ideals, became an ingenious way of passing on the notions of the Bible to a largely illiterate Christian laity. A good example of the church branding visual art with its own ideals is Duccio’s “The Annuncciation” (1308-1311).
It portrays the Immaculate Conception – one of the key beliefs of Christianity – the moment the Virgin Mary is told by the Arch-Angel Gabriel of her fate, to give birth to the Son of God. The first thing to notice about this painting is its clever use of symbols. The white lilies in the painting symbolise the ‘immaculate’ nature and virginity of Mary. The dove represents the Holy Spirit and is painted in an “emblematic or heraldic” manner that symbolises its importance. It is placed perfectly at the picture’s central axis, canopied by an “emphatic arch”.
The use of the white dove, like the lilies, aids the representation of purity and virginity in the painting. The building makes a powerful contribution to the painting, as well as reinforcing the omnipotence of God and heaven. There is a clear partition between Gabriel and Mary, made obvious by the grey pillar, which stands between the two figures. The building appears to be open to the sky on Gabriel’s side, yet roofed with “coffered timber” on Mary’s side. It is as if Mary will never be able to transcend the boundaries of human nature, while Arch-Angel Gabriel has limitless opportunities.
Even the colours of the pillars on each side vary, with the pillars on Gabriel’s side being a warm shade of terracotta, whilst on Mary’s side they are a cold, gloomy inescapable shade of grey; such is the inevitability of her fate. This idea of division extends beyond the physical aspects of the building, which separate these two characters. Gabriel appears to have a kind of spring in his step and his entry is given “kinetic energy” by the way his right leg is outstretched and by the way his hand seems to be projecting towards Mary in an act of greeting.
These actions certainly create the impression of forward propulsion on the Archangel’s part. Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s bold entrance is a stark contrast. She seems to raise her right elbow in recoil as a defence mechanism. In doing so, her cloak acts as a “protective shield” to fend off the advancing Gabriel. By illustrating such clear divisions between Gabriel and Mary, Duccio fortifies the Church’s belief that the supernatural exceeds the natural and that heaven is a place where all Christians should aspire to be, through abiding by the laws of Christianity.
The book that Mary is depicted to be holding is, according to John Drury, open at Isiah’s prophecy of her destiny “Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitur”, which translates, ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel. ‘ These powerful words highlight the inevitability of her destiny and reiterate how unavoidable it is. The fact that she is seemingly trapped between the pillars and walls again emphasise that she has to face up to her challenges. By showing this, Duccio is stressing the power of God and Christianity, a message clearly aimed at the Christian public.
The Church also had a huge impact on music, especially at around the time of the Reformation. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Christians from across Europe (from Poland to Spain and Italy to Scotland) all shared loyalty to a single church, which was centred in Rome and supported by political leaders. By the middle of the sixteenth century, the unity of belief and practice, which had been commonplace since the early Middle Ages, was crushed. This caused much disturbance. The Protestant Reformation threw the entire European society into turmoil and the result was a century of religious wars between central and Western Europe.
Leaders of the Reformation disagreed with how the “corrupted” Roman Catholic practices denied ordinary people access to the basics of their faith. They sought for ways in which they could allow worshipers to readily engage and participate in services. This was achieved through congregational singing and ceremonies presented in the vernacular as opposed to Latin. As a result of these alterations, new varieties of religious music began to emerge in the differing divisions of Protestantism. John Browne’s Salve Regina is an example of a pre Reformation piece of music.
Before the radical change in the running of churches across England, music had several unique characteristics. The first thing to note is that the pieces would only have been performed by men (tenors and bases) and boys (trebles and altos). The singers each had to sing high and low within their own range and so as a result they had not only to be highly skilled, but also well trained. Secondly, Browne employs the technique of melisma, by which he stretches the syllables across many notes to create a seamless piece of music.
Besides the Salve chords, the quality of the music is polyphonic with each of the voices seemingly working independently of one another. The song is written in Latin and would have been almost completely intelligible to the churchgoers of the time. Things were further complicated due to the fact that there are nine separate vocal parts to follow. The Reformation brought about a multitude of fundamental changes to the way religious music was presented. This was due to a variety of reasons. To start with, a large amount of pre-Reformation music was destroyed.
Adding to this, the number of skilled choir members began to depreciate, as there was no money to pay the male singers. Monastic schools closed down, resulting in there being fewer skilled boys to sing in the choir. Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, transformed the arrangement of church services; rolling the previous nine daily monastic services into just two: Morning Prayer and Evening prayer, for which music was not required. If music were to be used then it had to be uncomplicated, performed in English and related to the Bible.
Thomas Tallis (c1505 – 1585) is widely regarded to have been the “most important mid-century English composer”. His works encompass a wide variety of sacred works, which echo both the religious and political disturbances, which occurred in England during his lifetime. If ye love me (1565) is a fine example of a post-Reformation piece of church music – an adaptation of the simple text: If ye love me, keep my commandments. Wildly contrasting with John Browne’s Salve Regina, Tallis’ piece consists only of four parts; two altos, one tenor and one bass – clearly it was difficult to find trained boys who would be able to sing treble parts.
Furthermore, the vocal ranges are very small: each part has a range of just one octave. The voices seem to imitate each other, giving the listeners the chance to fully understand what is being sung. As a result of Edward VI’s ruling to the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, the piece is set out syllabically: one syllable to every note. There are no complex harmonies within the song and the piece is short (just over two minutes in length), meaning that it would be easy to listen to.
In a similar way to visual art, the Church tried, through music, to make itself more accessible to religious followers who did not understand complex pieces of music written in Latin. The changes made to religious music had a huge influence in promoting Protestantism and spreading the word of God. Through the 12th Century, architecture also underwent a mass of changes in the form of an “aesthetic revolution”, as the Christian Church began to relate Classical forms of beauty with paganism. It was at the time seen unfit to associate the Christian Church with Classical structures.
As a result, a new style of architecture surfaced, which opposed the Classical and which is known today as “Gothic”. The key feature of the Gothic is “verticality”, particularly indicated by large spires pointing heavenward in a proclamation of man’s desires towards the “heavenly”. Rounded Romanesque arches were also replaced by more pointed arches which emphasised the idea of pointing upwards towards God in heaven. A good example of perpendicular spires and arches present in religious architecture is Salisbury Cathedral (1220-1258, the spire is 123 metres high).
Notre-Damne Cathedral in Paris is another example of the Church’s desire to steer clear of classically designed buildings. The Rose Window, located in the South Transept of the cathedral, is an enormous stained glass window measuring 43 inches in diameter. The use of coloured light in churches and cathedrals serves several purposes. Firstly, light is a pertinent symbol of Christianity as Jesus often described himself as “The Light of the World”; therefore the high number of stained glass windows is a manifestation of this ideology.
The second purpose they fulfil is similar to the way the Church used paintings at around this time. The stained glass windows often portray Biblical narratives and so act as a means of informing an illiterate population of God’s word. However, such a high number of stained glass windows meant increased fragility of the structure. This lead to the development of new structural devices to support such an edifice, yet maintain the impression of grace and beauty. The first of these was the fan fault, which acted as an alternative to solid arches and provided support to the interior.
The second was the flying buttress. These sustained support for the building, but are not solid and so contributed to the graceful charm and verticality of the structure. It is clear to see how the church has impacted upon the arts in terms of visual art, music and architecture. With visual art the Church sought to involve people more in religion and help them gain a greater understanding of the word of God by expressing the Bible in terms of painted symbols.
In music, the Church abolished the use of services sung in Latin and reverted to the vernacular, thus increasing accessibility for churchgoers. By making significant architectural advancements, the Church aimed to distance itself from Classical Aesthetics and thus paganism. However I am of the opinion that the influence on visual art has clearly been the most significant. By illustrating Biblical accounts in the form of paintings, the Church informed generation after generation of illiterate people of their message and granted them the chance to understand new concepts.
Many of the symbolic images used in the paintings of that time are still significant today. For example, the colour white (conveyed by the lilies in Duccio’s the Annunciation) is still associated with purity and virginity today. The dove is still a prominent representation of the Holy Spirit. While architecture and music are still significant, times have changed and their influence has weakened, while visual arts and iconography from the Middle Ages are still hugely important and something we have all benefited from when it comes to understanding Christianity.