Artist Gloria Thomas said: “The [medieval] artist does not want to show how things are related to each other physically, but how they are related to each other conceptually.”
Medieval art, at first glance, looks stilted, flat, and even amateurish or primitive. Figures seem unnatural, objects don’t look “right,” and perspective is distorted. However, the fundamental ideas behind medieval art reveal a wonderfully complex system of analogy and clear-minded insight. The principles of metaphor, abbreviation, immediacy, etc. enabled medieval artists to communicate deeper levels of meaning than what appears in the natural world.
In this medieval illustration of St. John’s vision from Revelations 5, the Lamb, who represents Christ, receives the book with seven seals — an analogy for God’s plan of salvation which only Christ can carry out. The Lamb’s seven horns and seven eyes show that He is all-powerful and all-seeing, and the bleeding wound illustrates Revelations 5:6, which reads:
“Then I saw standing … a Lamb that seemed to have been slain.”
The almond-shaped mandorla surrounding the throne symbolizes God’s divinity, and the “four living creatures” (the winged man, eagle, bull and lion) are the cherubim, the highest beings of creation. The 24 elders with crowns and musical instruments symbolize the 12 apostles and the 12 tribes of Israel, but their number has been simplified to 18.
In medieval art, large numbers or complex forms are abbreviated to their essential elements for better clarity. For instance, trees are small and stylized, sometimes looking more like sprigs of broccoli or asparagus. Medieval manuscripts, incidentally, greatly influenced Dr. Seuss’ illustrations. Patterns in medieval paintings — such as geometric designs or repeated forms within groups of objects or figures — remind us that these are spiritual images in the mind, since geometric patterns belong to the intellectual world, not the natural.
This is also why medieval art looks flat; the principle of immediacy (no deep space, all objects the same distance from the viewer) communicates the space-less, timeless quality of the intellectual realm where conceptual realities are portrayed.
Also important in medieval art is the division of realms — heaven, earth, hell, etc. — beginning in this case with the external border, containing the main scene and acting as a window into the intellect. The action in this image occurs entirely in the heavenly realm, signified by the stylized clouds and the mandorla which further divides highest heaven — where God dwells — from the rest of heaven. Outside the main action, and therefore outside the main border, St. John stands as the receiver of the vision.
I hope this basic introduction to the principles of medieval art will draw you to a better appreciation and love for this fascinating style.