24 August 2016

The Arts: Frescoes as Medieval Mass Communication

Despite constant warfare and the threat of famine and disease in the Dark Ages, the people loved their art. It could transport them beyond their daily worries. Or reinforce the message of whoever paid for artwork and demonstrate the patron’s wealth.

In Carolingian times (eighth and ninth century Europe), frescoes were popular decoration for palaces and churches. An ancient art form, a fresco could start as a thick coat of sand mixed with lime and ferruginous clay. Then, someone applied a thin layer of lime atop that. A painter then created harmonious forms and applied color. For pigments, he used indigo, lazur (a blue from azurite or lapis lazuli), prasin (derived from a green mineral known better as pseudomalachite), and dangerous substances such as yellow arsenic, red lead, and mercury.

Painters were skilled craftsmen who emulated the ancients. These medieval artists held the first century BCE Roman architect Vitruvius in high regard, especially when it came to symmetry and proportion. Vitruvius believed the body was a model of proportional perfection, with outstretched limbs fitting equally well in a circle or square and architecture should imitate its beauty and harmony.

Painting a fresco was a tricky business and required stamina from the artist, working
nonstop to paint plaster in the hours it was still wet and the paint would take. Because the color was lighter when it dried, the artist had to anticipate how the color would turn out. If he made a mistake, he had two options: let it go or scrape it off, losing hours of work. Large frescoes, like those covering entire church walls, were often done in sections, so the artist had the additional challenge of making sure the colors matched.

The artist also followed certain conventions. A lord must bear arms. Apostles had certain attributes such as a bearded Matthew, a bald Peter, and young James and Zebedee.

The goal was not realism but beauty.

The results could be idealized scenes from history, daily life, the Bible, or ancient mythology. In a palace, those images could reassure friends and intimidate enemies. In a church, they could reinforce religious stories, especially useful when the faithful had no Bibles to consult or were recent converts from paganism.

Many early medieval people couldn’t read, but they could interpret the pictures on the walls.


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne by John J. Butt

The Pigment Compendium: A Dictionary of Historical Pigments, Volume 1, by Nicholas Eastaugh

Wet-Wall Tattoos by Richard Maschal

Kim Rendfeld’s debut novel, The Cross and the Dragon, is set in the early years of Charlemagne’s reign. The story about a young woman contending with a jilted suitor and the anxiety her husband will be killed in battle was re-released August 3, 2016, in print and ebook formats. Her second novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, will be re-released in November. Connect with Kim on her website (kimrendfeld.com), her blog (kimrendfeld.wordpress.com), Facebook (facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld) and Twitter (@kimrendfeld).