Medieval Studies Wall Painting in Europe
Matthew Reeve
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0091


This bibliographical essay considers European wall painting of the Romanesque and Gothic periods, covering the years c. 1000–1400, with a particular focus on England, Italy, France, and Germany. Wall painting or “mural decoration” had a long history in both religious and secular architecture: in secular buildings it descended from Roman domestic interiors, and in ecclesiastical settings mural painting had an uninterrupted history from early Christian churches and catacombs through the Renaissance. As such, the temporal period under discussion here relates to modernist labels and divisions of the history of art rather than to any particular phenomenon of the arts of the High Middle Ages. The study of medieval wall painting is best understood as a subfield of art historical and archaeological inquiry into the visual art of the Middle Ages, and as such it borrows from and contributes to scholarship on other media. Throughout the Romanesque and Gothic periods, it is probably rare that wall painters worked exclusively in one medium; instead, they appear to have also worked in other media, including glass and panel painting, tile making, and metalwork. Because of the multimedia nature of the medieval artist, the style and iconography of wall paintings could be transferred between media, thus placing wall painting in a close relationship with the other arts. The study of medieval wall painting is frequently dependent on contemporary descriptions and antiquarian accounts to aid in the reconstruction of lost paintings. Because of this, it is also vital to consider the stylistic and archaeological contexts in which the copies were made in order to come to a fuller appreciation of the original style and form of paintings. However closely related to the study of the arts of the Middle Ages in general, wall painting is materially and conceptually an integral component of the history of architecture, even if it is all too seldom treated as such. Wall paintings are inexplicable without knowledge of the date, archaeology, spatial orientation, and function of the medieval buildings that they adorned and articulated. Recent discussions of wall painting have argued for the significance of mural painting in the original conception of buildings, thus positing a scenario in which patrons and designers imagined painted cycles and their narrative and thematic breaks in accord with the physical and liturgical spaces of the buildings themselves at the design stage. Knowledge of the relationships of wall painting (or, for that matter, glazing) at the planning phases is significant in understanding how medieval buildings could be conceived in part as signboards or scaffolds for image programs, and how their forms were altered accordingly.

General Overviews

A few excellent overviews of medieval painting were written in the third quarter of the 20th century. The subsequent discovery of painted cycles and the rapid expansion of scholarship on wall painting in the intervening years mean that it is unlikely better pan-European accounts will be written. Demus 1970 remains fundamental and in some respects replaces Grabar and Nordenfalk 1958. For Gothic painting, Dupont and Gnudi 1954 is valuable as a survey text. Dodwell 1993 is an outstanding account of the pictorial arts from c. 800 to 1200 and should be a useful starting point for early medieval and Romanesque painting.

  • Anthony, Edgar Waterman. Romanesque Frescoes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951.

    This remarkable, still valuable book is “an attempt to write a concise history of mural painting in Western Europe from the end of the Early Christian period until Gothic times.” Remarkable in its scope (although naturally cursory in its attention to individual monuments), this book is arranged chronologically and begins with Italy, then considers Germany, France, Spain, England, and Scandinavia.

  • Demus, Otto. Romanesque Mural Painting. Translated by Mary Whittall. New York: Abrams, 1970.

    German original, Romanische Wandmalerei (Munich: Hirmer, 1968). Demus’s fundamental work remains the basic text on Romanesque wall painting. Over 650 pages in length, it provides the fullest account of the subject between two covers. Complete with a large number of color and black-and-white images, the book proceeds in sections dealing with Italy, France, Spain, England, Germany, and Austria. Although it does not include Scandinavia, it nevertheless provides the best summary of the major monuments within its object domain. On Demus’s method and the historiographical legacy of his book, see T. E. A. Dale’s introduction in Dale and Mitchell 2004 (cited under Essay Collections).

  • Dodwell, Charles Reginald. The Pictorial Arts of the West 800–1200. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

    This fundamentally important survey considers medieval image making in all media, including wall painting, from 800 to 1200. It is probably the best and certainly the most comprehensive survey of medieval images from the period, covering all the major European monuments.

  • Dupont, Jaques, and Caesare Gnudi. Gothic Painting. Geneva, Switzerland: Skira, 1954.

    This is a pendant volume to Grabar and Nordenfalk 1958, although its contents are not divided by media. Typical of texts of the period, the author focuses on the secularization of northern European painting, leading to the “flowering” of the careers of Giotto and Duccio, and then returns to northern Europe to consider court art in Avignon, Berry, England, and Prague.

  • Grabar, Andre, and Karl Nordenfalk. Romanesque Painting from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Century. Geneva, Switzerland: Skira, 1958.

    The first part of this book is written by Andre Grabar and is devoted to wall painting. However out of date, it remains a highly valuable resource (including good, sharp photographs) for studies of painting in the period.

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