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17 Medieval Artworks that Recount Politics, Divinity, and Society

Medieval artwork flourished throughout Europe between the 5th and 15th centuries. Spanning a diverse range of styles, mediums, and subjects, these masterpieces reflect the intertwined influences of religion, politics, and society on the artistic expression of the time. From the intricate illuminations of illuminated manuscripts to the towering spires of Gothic cathedrals, medieval artwork embodies a profound reverence for the divine, a fascination with the natural world, and a deep-seated yearning for beauty and transcendence. Through its vivid colours, intricate details, and symbolic imagery, medieval artwork offers us a window into the beliefs, values, and aspirations of past civilizations, inviting us to explore the mysteries of the medieval world and marvel at the enduring power of human creativity. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular medieval artworks.

The Trinity

Early in the fifteenth century, Russian painter Andrei Rublev created an icon known as ‘The Trinity’ or ‘The Hospitality of Abraham.’ The trinity represents the three angels that came to see Abraham at the Oak of Mamre as described in Genesis 18:1–8. The artwork is thought to be an icon of the Holy Trinity because of its abundance of symbolism. The displayed Holy Trinity is the epitome of humility, love for one another, harmony, peace, and spiritual unity.

Courtesy – Britannica

The Annunciation

Jan van Eyck, an Early Netherlandish master painter, created an oil painting, titled, ‘The Annunciation,’ dated between 1434 and 1436. It is displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The image represents the annunciation of the Son of God to the Virgin Mary by the Archangel Gabriel. His remarks are displayed in the inscription, which reads, “AVE GRA PLENA” or “Hail, full of grace.” Stepping back, she replies, “ECCE ANCILLA D[OMI]NI” or “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord“. The words appear upside down as they are addressed to God and hence inscribed accordingly. From the upper window to the left, seven rays of light bearing the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit descend upon her; the dove represents the Holy Spirit travelling along the same path.

Courtesy – Seeing Art History via YouTube

The Kiss of Judas

Giotto di Bondone created ‘The Kiss of Judas,’ also referred to as the ‘Betrayal of Christ,’ is a proto-renaissance artwork. The mural fresco is housed at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. The painting was created between 1304 and 1306. Judas is the the painting’s protagonist, reaching out to touch Jesus, with his sweeping cloak. It depicts the biblical story of Judas approaching Jesus with the mob led by the people’s elders and chief priests, kissing Jesus to initiate his arrest.

Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

Christ Pantocrator

One of the earliest Byzantine religious icons, ‘Christ Pantocrator’ from Saint Catherine’s Monastery dates back to the sixth century AD. Jesus Christ is portrayed as a Pantocrator (ruler of all). Christ’s dual nature is depicted in the painting showing characteristics of both God (left) and man (right). His left-hand grips a thick Gospel book, while his right hand opens outward, symbolizing his blessings. Jesus’s expression has been captured in the best Late Antique pictorial and stylistic style, referred to as “double gaze.”  His dual gaze is stern and kind at the same time.

Courtesy – Smarthistory

Ghent Altarpiece

Located in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, the ‘Ghent Altarpiece,’ also known as the ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,’ is a polyptych altarpiece from the fifteenth century. The Early Netherlandish painters Hubert and Jan van Eyck are credited with creating the piece, which was started in the middle of the 1420s and finished by 1432. Some people claim that it was the first significant oil painting. Through oil paint and transparent glazes, the panels showcase myriad light effects and delicate shadow plays. The attires, accessories, fountains, church, and background scenery are all exquisitely painted. The vegetation displayed is observed with nearly scientific precision.

Courtesy – Artnet News

Ognissanti Madonna

Madonna Enthroned,’ also called the ‘Ognissanti Madonna’ or ‘Madonna Ognissanti,’ is a tempera painting on wood panel created by Giotto di Bondone, an Italian medieval artist. The artwork is kept in Florence, Italy’s Uffizi Gallery. It is dated to 1310. The Madonna and Child, a representation of the Virgin Mary and the child Christ sitting on her lap, are the primary Christian subject of the painting. Saints and angels surround them. Giotto’s use of figure and frame intensifies the sense of unique continuity that extends past the artificial frame.

Courtesy – PortraitFlip


The altarpiece known as the ‘Maesta,’ or ‘Maesta of Duccio,’ is a series of numerous paintings by Duccio di Buoninsegna. The artwork was commissioned in 1308 and installed in 1311. This altarpiece was the first to have a front and a back. The front panels depict a predella of Christ’s childhood with prophets and a large enthroned Madonna and Child with saints and angels. The remaining forty-three little scenes comprise the combined cycle of the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary on the reverse. “Holy Mother of God, be thou the cause of peace for Siena and life to Duccio because he painted thee thus,” is written on the base of the panel.

Courtesy – Perfect Traveller

Wilton Diptych

The National Gallery London currently houses the ‘Wilton Diptych,’ a diptych with two hinged panels, painted on both sides. It was created sometime between 1395 and 1399.  It is a rare surviving example of a late English religious and medieval artwork. King Richard II of England is shown kneeling before the Virgin and Child in the diptych, as it was painted for him. The English saints John the Baptist, King Edward the Confessor, and King Edmund the Martyr present him. The creator, occasionally called the ‘Wilton Master’ has never been identified.

Courtesy – PortraitFlip

The Lady and the Unicorn

True Potterheads will instantly recognise the medieval artwork, ‘The Lady and the Unicorn.’ It features six tapestries in the ‘mille-fleurs’ style, woven in Flanders from wool and silk, based on designs drawn in Paris circa 1500. The set is on show at Paris’s Musée de Cluny. Five tapestries represent the five senses: taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch. The sixth has the words “À mon seul désir” inscribed. Although the intended meaning of the tapestry is unclear, it has been suggested that it represents love or understanding. In every one of the six tapestries, a noblewoman is shown with a lion on her right and a unicorn on her left; some even feature a monkey.

Courtesy – Campus Manitoba PressbooksEDU

Apocalypse Tapestry

The collection of six tapestries birthed the medieval artwork, ‘Apocalypse Tapestry.’ It was woven in Paris between 1377 and 1382. The vivid imagery narrates the story of the Apocalypse from Saint John the Divine’s Book of Revelation. Each tapestry measures approximately 6 m in height and 140 m in length. The tapestries originally included ninety scenes. It was designed by Flemish court artist Jean Bondol. The backgrounds of each scene alternated between blue and red. The tapestry’s primary colours are blue, red, and ivory, with orange and green threads for support. The wool and silk are woven with silver and gilt threads. It follows the Franco-Flemish school and features realistic, flowing, rich images set within a comprehensible framework.

Courtesy – BBC

Casket with Scenes of Romances

The French Gothic ivory casket, housed at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland is titled ‘Casket with Scenes of Romances.’ It was made in Paris sometime between 1330 and 1350. The dimensions of the casket are 11.8 × 25.2 × 12.9 cm. The lid’s themes are connected to Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung’s ‘Romance of the Rose,’ written in the thirteenth century. Themes like foolishness & wisdom, passion & chastity, are depicted in a contrasting manner in a sequence of disconnected scenes.

Courtesy – The Walters Art Museum’s Online Collection

Golden Madonna of Essen

The Golden Madonna of Essen’ is the sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus. It has a wooden core that is thinly covered in gold leaf sheets. The item is kept in Germany’s Essen Cathedral’s treasury. It is also the earliest known sculpture of the Madonna, dating to approximately the year 980. The pedestal is 27cm (10.6in) wide and the statue is 74cm (29in) tall. Less than 0.25mm (0.01in) thick gold leaf sheet, secured in place by tiny golden bolts, covers the sculpture’s entire surface. The sculpture showcases the Virgin Mary cradling an infant yet oversized Christ.

Courtesy – Alchetron

Portrait of a Young Girl

Petrus Christus, an Early Netherlandish painter, created the oil painting on an oak panel titled ‘Portrait of a Young Girl.’ The portrait is on display at the Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie and was finished sometime between 1465 and 1470. The girl is positioned in an airy, realistic, three-dimensional scene and looks out at the viewer with a complex expression that is reserved but intelligent and alert, marking a significant stylistic advancement in contemporary portraiture. 

Courtesy – Google Arts & Culture

Presentation at the Temple

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, an Italian late medieval painter, created ‘The Presentation at the Temple’ in 1342. It is currently on display at Florence, Italy’s Uffizi Gallery. The painting’s subject is the Presentation of Jesus at Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. The scene is set inside a beautifully decorated Gothic church, with two aisles and a nave with three-foiled ogival arches above each. Within the church, there is a triumphal arch with two angels above the priests. Except for the two women standing far to the left, every figure in the painting possesses the aureola, which denotes holy status.

Courtesy – Potty Padre

The Allegory of Good and Bad Government

Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted three fresco panels titled ‘The Allegory of Good and Bad Government’ between February and May of 1338. The paintings are situated in the ‘Sala dei Nove’ (Salon of Nine) of the ‘Palazzo Pubblico’ in Siena. Three of the Council Room’s four walls are covered in murals. It’s not religious, but rather civil. Because of ongoing, violent conflicts between government parties, the fourteenth century in Italian cities was a turbulent period for politics. The paintings’ purpose is to remind the council of the magnitude of the stakes involved in their decisions. 

Courtesy – Visit Tuscany


The panel painting, ‘Paradiesgartlein’ or ‘Garden of Paradise’ was produced circa 1410 by an unidentified painter known as the Upper Rhenish Master. This medieval artwork is one of the earliest paintings to portray flora and fauna realistically. The painting is approximately 26x33cm and was created on wood using several techniques. It is on exhibit at Frankfurt, Germany’s Städel Museum.  Unlike popular representations at the time, the Virgin Mary is shown reading a book in the upper left corner of the picture rather than in the centre. She is surrounded by various saints.

Courtesy – NZZ

Santa Trinita Maesta

The ‘Santa Trinita Maesta’ is a panel painting created by the Italian medieval artist Cimabue. It was made between 1288–1292. The medieval artwork is housed in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, Italy. It shows Madonna crowned with the Baby Jesus, encircled by eight angels, and with four prophetic half-portraits beneath her. Using looser humanistic forms, the artist subdues the more inflexible Byzantine styles. This Maesta painting exhibits a deeper use of perspective than his previous ones. The throne is shown in three deep vertical panels. Anatomical features are made better with refined edges and intricate brushstrokes.

Courtesy – UEN Digital Press with Pressbooks

Image Courtesy – PortraitFlip

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