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Painting, Sculpture and the Graphic Arts

The Maya achieved unrivaled artistic dominance in Mesoamerica from 300-900, which is known as the Maya Classic period. Their accomplishments lay in the elaborate refinement of the arts of earlier peoples such as the Olmecs and Teotihuacans. The Maya are remembered for their extraordinary pyramids at Tikal and elsewhere, as well as their sculpture, frescoes, and weaving.

Under Emperor Justinian's reign, the Byzantine empire saw a revivial in mosaic art and epigraphy. The emperor built a number of elaborate churches such as those at Sabratha and Kelibia. Byzantium's most famous church was the Hagia Sophia ("The Holy Wisdom of Christ", pictured at left) built in Constantinople. It remained the center of Byzantium for just over a millenium until it was converted into a mosque in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. It is now called the Blue Mosque.

Meanwhile, by the sixth century, the Zambezi Valley saw the establishment of Iron Age cultures, where iron fabrication included agricultural tools, and trade was conducted in pottery and copper. The Moche peoples of northern coastal Peru, who thrived during the first seven centuries, built a splendid metropolis at Cerro Blanco, as well as produced fine jewelry, gold artifacts, and effigy pottery. They are perhaps best remembered in their "stirrup-spouted vases," which featured human figures, skeletal musicians, animals, boats, and houses. The Nazca of southern Peru also produced a distinctive type of painted pottery, as well as intriguing geoglyphs, or large drawings made upon the desert floor in the geometric and animal forms.

In China under the T'ang Dynasty, the arts flourished. The popularity of Buddhism inspired architecture and sculpture, and painting was considered a particularly important form of expression. The Ming Dynasty continued the tradition of artistic achievements, and artists such as Shen Chou developed notable innovations in traditional landscape painting. Ming patronage also encouraged the production of porcelain of remarkable quality and beauty, often of distinctive blue and white design.

Literature and Poetry

Medieval literature encompasses essentially all written works available in Europe and beyond during the Middle Ages, was comprised of religious writings as well as secular works. Since Latin was the language of the Catholic Church, which dominated Western and Central Europe, and because the Church was virtually the only source of education, Latin was a common language for Medieval writings, even in some parts of Europe that were never Romanized. However, in Eastern Europe, the influence of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Orthodox Church made Greek and Old Church Slavonic the dominant written languages. The common people continued to use their respective vernaculars. For example, the poem, "Beowulf" was penned in Old English and was based on older oral traditions. As with regard to "Beowulf," a notable amount of medieval literature was anonymously written. Medieval authors were often overawed by the classical writers and the Church Fathers and tended to re-tell and embellish stories they had heard or read, rather than invent new stories. Thus, names of the individual authors seemed much less important in the Medieval world, and therefore many important works were never attributed to any specific person.

Theological works were the dominant form of literature typically found in libraries during the Middle Ages. Catholic clerics were the intellectual center of society in the Middle Ages, and it is their literature that was produced in the greatest quantity. Countless hymns survive from this time period (both liturgical and paraliturgical). The liturgy itself was not in fixed form, and numerous competing missals set out individual conceptions of the order of the mass. Religious scholars such as Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, and Pierre Abélard wrote lengthy theological and philosophical treatises, often attempting to reconcile the teachings of the Greek and Roman pagan authors with the doctrines of the Church. Hagiographies, or "lives of the saints", were also frequently written, as an encouragement to the devout and a warning to others. The "Golden Legend" of Jacobus de Voragine reached such popularity that, in its time, it was reportedly read more often than the Bible. Francis of Assisi was a prolific poet, and his Franciscan followers frequently wrote poetry themselves as an expression of their piety. Dies Irae and Stabat Mater are two of the most powerful Latin poems on religious subjects. Goliardic poetry (four-line stanzas of satiric verse) was an art form used by some clerics to express dissent. The only widespread religious writing that was not produced by clerics were the mystery plays: growing out of simple tableaux re-enactments of a single Biblical scene, each mystery play became its village's expression of the key events in the Bible. The text of these plays was often controlled by local guilds, and mystery plays would be performed regularly on set feast-days, often lasting all day long and into the night.

Secular literature in this period was not produced in equal quantity as religious literature, but much has survived and we possess today a rich corpus. The subject of "courtly love" became important in the 11th century, especially in the Romance languages (in the French, Spanish, Provençal, Galician and Catalan languages, most notably) and Greek, where the traveling singers (troubadors) made a living from their songs. The writings of the troubadors are often associated with unrequited longing, but this is not entirely accurate. In Germany, the Minnesänger continued the tradition of the troubadors.

In addition to epic poems in the Germanic tradition (e.g. "Beowulf" and "Nibelungenlied"), epic poems in the tradition of the "chanson de geste" which deal with the Matter of France and the Acritic songs respectively, courtly romances in the tradition of the "roman courtois" which deal with the Matter of Britain and the Matter of Rome achieved great and lasting popularity. The roman courtois is distinguished from the chanson de geste not only by its subject matter, but also by its emphasis on love and chivalry rather than acts of war. Political poetry was written also, especially towards the end of this period, and the goliardic form saw use by secular writers as well as clerics. Travel literature was highly popular in the Middle Ages, as fantastic accounts of far-off lands (frequently embellished or entirely false) entertained a society that, in most cases, limited people to the area in which they were born.


The instruments used to perform Medieval music are largely still in existence, in different forms. The Medieval cornett differed immensely from its modern day counterpart, the trumpet. Cornetts in medieval times were quite short, either straight or somewhat curved. The flute was once made of wood rather than silver, and could be made as a side-blown or end-blown instrument. The recorder, on the other hand, has more or less retained its past form. The gemshorn was similar to the recorder, or ocarina. One of the flute's predecessors, the pan flute, was popular in medieval times, and is possibly of Greek origin. This instrument's pipes were made of wood, and were graduated in length to produce different pitches. Many medieval strings were most alike to the modern-day guitar, such as the lute, mandolin, psaltery, and zither. The dulcimer, similar in structure to the others, was not plucked but hammered. The hurdy-gurdy was played with a rosined wheel of wood attached to a handle, as opposed to a modern day bow. String instruments without sound boxes, such as the harp and Jew's harp were popular also. Early versions of the organ, fiddle (or vielle), and trombone (called the sackbut) existed as well.

During the early Medieval period, the chant (or plainsong), a monophonic sacred form, was popular in the Christian church. The Jewish Synagogue tradition of singing psalms was a strong influence on Christian chanting. Chant developed separately in several European centers. The most important were Rome, Spain, Gaul, Milan, and Ireland. These chants were all developed to support the regional liturgies used when celebrating the Mass there. Each area developed its own chants and rules for celebration. In Spain, Mozarabic chant was used and shows the influence of North African music. The Mozarabic liturgy even survived through Muslim rule, though this was an isolated strand and this music was later suppressed in an attempt to enforce conformity on the entire liturgy. In Milan, Ambrosian chant, named after St. Ambrose, was the standard. Celtic chant was used in Ireland. Around 1011, the Catholic Church wanted to standardize the Mass and chant. At this time, Rome was the religious center of Europe, and Paris was the political center. The standardization effort consisted mainly of combining these two (Roman and Gallican) regional liturgies. This body of chant became known as Gregorian Chant.

Another musical tradition of Europe originated during the early Middle Ages was the liturgical drama. In its original form, it may represent a survival of Roman drama with Christian stories--mainly the Gospel, the Passion, and the lives of the saints--grafted on. Every part of Europe had some sort of tradition of musical or semi-musical drama in the middle ages, involving acting, speaking, singing and instrumental accompaniment in some combination. Probably these dramas were performed by traveling actors and musicians. Many have been preserved sufficiently to allow modern reconstruction and performance (for example the Play of Daniel, which has been recently recorded).

During the middle period of the Medieval era, the music of the troubadors and trouvères was a vernacular tradition of monophonic secular song, probably accompanied by instruments, sung by professional, occasionally itinerant, musicians who were as skilled as poets as they were singers and instrumentalists. The language of the troubadors was Occitan (also known as the langue d'oc, or Provençal); the language of the trouvères was Old French (also known as langue d'oil). The period of the troubadors corresponded to the flowering of cultural life in Provence which lasted through the twelfth century and into the first decade of the thirteenth. Typical subjects of troubador song were war, chivalry and courtly love. The period of the troubadors ended abruptly with the Albigensian Crusade, the fierce campaign by Pope Innocent III to eliminate the Cathar heresy (and appropriate the wealth of a defenseless people) which effectively exterminated the entire civilization. Surviving troubadors went either to Spain, northern Italy or northern France (where the trouvère tradition lived on), where their skills and techniques contributed to the later developments of secular musical culture in those places.

As often seen at the end of any musical era, the end of the Medieval era is marked by a highly manneristic style known as "Ars subtilior." In some ways, this was an attempt to meld the French and Italian styles. This music was highly stylized, with a rhythmic complexity that was not matched until the 20th century. In fact, not only was the rhythmic complexity of this repertoire largely unmatched for five and a half centuries, with extreme syncopations, mensural trickery, and even examples of augenmusik (such as a chanson by Baude Cordier written out in manuscript in the shape of a heart), but also its melodic material was quite complex as well, particularly in its interaction with the rhythmic structures.