Medieval art includes painting in various techniques, manuscript illumination, tapestry, embroidery and sculpture. The artists of the Middle Ages used simple, natural materials to create masterpieces that survive to this day. While their materials were simple, the artists themselves were finely skilled, both in terms of style and technical mastery. Understanding the materials used for medieval art can help in your understanding of the art itself, as well as in issues of conservation and preservation.
Medieval artists worked in a variety of art forms. Medieval paintings included wall frescoes, altarpieces and triptychs, decorative paintings and manuscript illumination. Sculptures included shallow relief, deep relief and freestanding sculpture. Wood and stone were common for larger sculptures; however, ivory was often used for small pieces. While the technology to produce cast metal sculptures existed, this was much less commonplace.
Natural pigments were used to produce medieval paints. Earth pigments made up a significant portion of the medieval paint palette. These include terre verte, yellow ochre and burnt ochre, which provided medieval painters with green, yellow and red tones. Tyrian purple was obtained from ground mollusk shells, and ultramarine blue from ground lapis lazuli. Lead white, while now known to be quite dangerous, was the most common white pigment available to medieval painters. Soot, or lamp black, was the most common black pigment.
Oil paints were not yet used in the medieval period, so the artists of the Middle Ages worked with a wide variety of binders in their paints. Gum arabic, egg white, or glair and egg yolk were the most common binders for medieval painters. Gum arabic is a sap or gum most commonly harvested from the acacia tree. It remains in use today in gouache and watercolor paints. Glair and egg yolk were both easy to obtain, and were effective binders for paints and pigments.
Many medieval paintings are on wood panels, either a single panel or two to three hinged panels. Similar painting methods were used for miniatures and illuminated manuscripts--however, these paintings were created on parchment or vellum. Wall paintings were typically painted onto plaster wall surfaces. Sculptures in wood or stone were often painted, using the same pigments and binders as wooden panel paintings.
Medieval sculpture relied primarily on available materials, including wood and stone. Ivory was used for small devotional pieces. The large block of wood or stone was secured to the sculptor's bench and worked using chisels, gouges and mallets. The final appearance of the sculptures can be quite delicate, as in the case of medieval alabaster sculptures, or very expressive and harsh.
With a master's degree in art history from the University of Missouri-Columbia, Michelle Powell-Smith has been writing professionally for more than a decade. An avid knitter and mother of four, she has written extensively on a wide variety of subjects, including education, test preparation, parenting, crafts and fashion.