Medieval Visual Arts


Mural of the Coronation of the Virgin, with the Apostles. Altenberg-an-der-Lahn Convent church of St Mary, Germany. c.1300.

Cultural achievements of the Medieval world can hardly be compartmentalised. Pictorial, and indeed abstract, painting in manuscripts or murals has common cause with sculpture and architecture. Sculpture and decoration cannot be divorced from the buildings and places. Studying medieval art through the lens of Art History is one way of seeing it (not within my expertise). If that’s taken as the only way, the really important things may be missed. Looking at it ideally involves participation, which means by mind and heart. Theology, philosophy, ethics, can help immerse us in understanding the meaning. It seems to me that through the emergence of Renaissance art something was lost, and that it might be recovered. Much of our culture seems to be infected with egocentrism, the antidote to which is worth finding.

It would be exciting to regain real meaning in art after the visual idolatries of much of the Renaissance, and vacuity of post-modernism. Looking at medieval art we try to understand less ephemeral values, and find right tools of judgement.

Art of consequence

The seven Liberal Arts, plus Medicine, surrounding Lady Philosophy. Laon Cathedral of Notre Dame, France. North transept window. c.1205.
Censing angel on a choir arch, Norwich Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, England. c.1120.

The Middle Ages produced distinctive art, which is reckoned to be rather inaccessible to people today, except for specialists and art historians.

It is a largely neglected heritage for several reasons:

  • The Renaissance which followed it seemed so superior that it swept it away;
  • Much of it is intimately connected to the Christian theology and church of the time, which is deemed to be of little relevance now;
  • It was produced within the Roman Catholic and Orthodox cultures, which are little appreciated in Protestant Christianity;
  • It is not elucidated by a corpus of contemporary art theory.

On the other hand there are some reasons why it could be appreciated more:

  • Its idiom appeals, generally with freshness and vitality, and communicates very directly;
  • It exhibits, and is instructive in, essential virtues in art having high integrity;
  • Much of its subject matter deals with profound spiritual things and makes insightful connections;
  • Good quality reproductions have become increasingly available for study and enjoyment.

ARTS IN THE GAPS does not pretend to provide a curriculum of study following any art history scheme. It emphasises connecting artifact and thought, more than comparative study of styles of art. The subject matter of a large amount of the representational art which has been preserved, is religious. This not only enables meaning in the art to be increasingly grasped as reference is made to the writings of the contemporary theology and metaphysics, but in turn sets the high level to which the skill of the art attains. There is a nice balance between rigour and relaxation which is subtly apparent in all the best in medieval arts, and characteristic of virtually all of it. Charles Williams (in another connection) wrote, ‘Rigour is vital for sanctity; and relaxation is vital for sanity.’

The artifacts of visual art—frescoes, murals, panel paintings, sculpture, stained glass—were often extraordinarily integrated with the architecture of the buildings. To the extent that it is still possible, it is enlightening to consider them in that context, and to consider the architecture as being elucidated in part by the associated arts.

GAPS Arts Lectures


Dr Mervyn Duffy  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 28 November, 2010

Art is both a reflection of and a source for Theology and Spirituality. The Matthew 2:1–16 passage has been depicted by Christian artists since at least the third century. Looking at representations of the Magi shows how believers have, across time, invested the story with differing theological interpretations. This talk attempts to identify those interpretations, to track the changes up to the time of the Reformation and to suggest reasons for them. Projected photographs of the artworks referred to will illustrate the points being proposed.


Many questions surround the subject of the Magi, and Dr Duffy has some intriguing thoughts. And it’s also an appropriate time of the year to be open to the spiritual implications that it holds.

  • Dr Mervyn Duffy is Dean of Studies and Theology Lecturer at The Good Shepherd College, Ponsonby, Auckland. He first studied and taught Mathematics and Computing, then gained his Doctorate in Systematic Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome where his interest in Christian art and architecture was stimulated. He is one of only a few medieval specialist theologians in New Zealand, and he combines that expertise with a wide understanding of medieval and Renaissance art.


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm, Friday, 24 June, 2011


Sta. Maria Novella, Florence (1366)
This great fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuto is in the former Chapter House of Santa Maria Novella, Florence. It depicts with a wealth of detail and insight a construct of the scope of wisdom, and a scheme of acquisition of wisdom, epitomising the philosophy of the Middle Ages.

The fresco has been studied and explained by art historians, but without much attention being given to its astute dealing with the substantial content, i.e. the matter of wisdom and its achievement. Such was the core curriculum in the Schools and Universities of the Middle Ages – has its loss been detrimental?

The talk will discuss the learning of the Middle Ages, the context, and other sources, and illustrate it visually with art and architectural images.


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 13 May, 2012

In the Middle Ages people lived closer to nature; monasteries were commonly located in the country away from ordinary habitation; churches had rural associations; cathedrals were built with a consciousness of all nature. Earlier monastic churches often had ‘paradise’ gardens. There was a sense of Eden representing the perfect environment – something to be regained.

This talk suggests that representations of nature (from flora and fauna, to humans, to angels) in the decoration of churches, from the simplest to the most complex, signified not only the love of nature but nature as a vehicle for contemplation of divine works (providence) and of God himself.


The lower things mirror the higher

The subject will be visually illustrated, and reinforced by medieval writings which indicate such a world-view and the place of contemplation in the life of society and individuals.

There may be aspects which relate to several current GAPS ARTS themes—the building of places in nature (such as baches); the cultural values of our society; and the role and power of art.

  • John Lewis, M.Arch, PhD, ANZIA, was for 30 years a practising architect in Auckland. The inter-disciplinary doctoral thesis was on Medieval theology, art, and architecture.


Dr Mervyn Duffy  •  Sunday, 20 March, 2016, 7.00 pm

This lecture discusses the apse mosaic in its context of the Church of San Clemente. Even after some 800 years this architecture and work of great art still rewards our appreciation and sharpens our understanding.

The Church Of San Clemente

The Basilica of San Clemente is on the site of one of the earliest Christian meeting places in Rome. The church, built in the first quarter of the twelfth century, has its apsidal semi-dome covered in a rich mosaic, the art and meaning of which will be the focus of Dr Duffy’s lecture.

Around the apse on the lower border is the text in Latin which translates: WE HAVE

  • Dr Mervyn Duffy is Dean of Studies and Theology Lecturer at The Good Shepherd College, Ponsonby, Auckland. He first studied and taught Mathematics and Computing, then gained his Doctorate in Systematic Theology in Rome where his interest in Christian art and architecture was stimulated. He is interested in how Christian faith is both expressed by and shaped by its art and architecture.



Maria Oana Pagu

Sunday, 17 July, 2016, 7.00 pm.

churchs of bucovina
churchs of bucovina
churchs of bucovina
churchs of bucovina

Maria visits from Wellington to give this lecture ¨D but she comes with the personal knowledge and love of Bucovina, her native province, in Moldova (north-eastern Romania), where she has worked on conserving these original frescoes. The buildings themselves are unaltered. They have UNESCO World Heritage status.

Bucovina is renowned for its painted monasteries. The beautiful frescoes on the exterior walls of these churches are considered triumphs of Byzantine art and date back to the 15th and 16th centuries.

The churches in Bucovina are one-of-a-kind architectural sites in Europe. Far from being merely wall decorations, the frescoes are very elaborate and depict scenes from the life of Christ on Earth, portraits of Saints and Prophets, images of angelic powers, and scenes of the after-life.

The purpose of the frescoes was to make the Gospel and the lives of the most important Orthodox saints known to villagers by the use of images. Their outstanding composition, elegant outline and harmonious colours complement perfectly the surrounding landscape.

Visitors to the Painted Monasteries will often witness a nun or a monk beating a long beam with a mallet, tapping out a call to prayer. The tradition started during the siege of Moldova by the Ottoman Empire when the Turks forbade the ringing of bells.

Whether you are interested in religion, history, art or architecture, you will be intrigued by the construction and decor, exterior and interior, of these edifices. They will be presented in the larger context of Eastern Christian spirituality.

Maria has a Bachelors Degree in Theology specialising in Cultural Heritage and Masters Degree in Project Management from University of Bucharest. She has travelled and worked in Italy, and worked on conservation projects of Byzantine churches and icons in her native Romania. Maria joined Studio Carolina Izzo, Wellington, where she carries out preventive conservation of paintings and heritage objects.