In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Decorative Arts

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Byzantine and Islamic Decorative Arts
  • Medieval Attitudes to Objects and Materials
  • Historiography and Critique

Medieval Studies Decorative Arts
Karen Overbey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0159


“Decorative arts” is not a term used by medieval writers, nor is it a concept that would have had meaning for a medieval artist or beholder. Many modern scholars of medieval art disavow it, largely because it carries associations that are at best anachronistic. The decorative arts are usually understood to include a variety of small scale, well-crafted objects, such as metalwork, textiles, glass, and ceramics; that is, the furniture and furnishings of a place. Certainly much of medieval art does fit into this category, and much good research and interpretation concerns such objects. But the term connotes a hierarchy that is problematic for the study of medieval art. “Decorative” (or “minor,” “applied,” or “mechanical”) art designates functional objects, differentiated from the “fine arts” of painting, drawing, large-scale sculpture, and architecture. This hierarchy has origins in the Renaissance, and particularly in Vasari’s association of fine arts with creativity and genius. It developed further in the 18th and 19th centuries, as industrialization differentiated “artist” from “artisan.” At the same time, many 19th-century European museums, especially those interested in the aesthetic and social vision of movements like Arts and Crafts, looked to the heritage of the medieval past for evidence of a national tradition. Medieval objects were displayed alongside examples of new industrial design. They were valued, like other “decorative arts,” for their combination of functionality, materiality, and technique. (See Historiography and Critique) While this in many ways promoted medieval arts, it also embedded them in a modern, anachronistic value system. The binaries underlying the categories of decorative, minor, applied, mechanical, functional, and even “secular” art did not exist in the Middle Ages. Goldsmiths’ work, for example, was some of the most valued. Textiles were hung on walls for both functional and aesthetic reasons, and circulated globally as diplomatic gifts. Gemstones and glass had multiple symbolic associations and metaphysical properties. Objects such as candlesticks and aquamanilia were used in the same ways in both domestic and liturgical contexts. The oppositions of utility/beauty, major/minor, artist/artisan, and art/craft that are part of the modern institutional history of the arts were not inherent to medieval art. Whether the category “decorative arts” has any value for medieval art remains an open question, and one that future research will have to contend with. That will entail reexamining assumptions about function, aesthetics, and scale; rethinking oppositions such as “sacred” and “secular”; and giving more consideration to technique and materials—and to their roles in the “meaning” of artworks. To those ends, this bibliography highlights a wide variety of objects from medieval western Europe c. 400–1550, including pottery, furniture, woodwork, and ironwork—categories not often included even in studies of medieval “minor” or “decorative” arts.

General Overviews

Unlike for medieval art studied by region or by time period, there is no textbook of “decorative arts.” The best general introductions to the material therefore range quite widely, from lavishly illustrated antiquarian studies such as Becker 2011, to museum catalogues (see Catalogues and Databases), to assessments of the scope and terminology of the field such as Buettner 2006. Hourihane 2012 is also concerned with historiography, and the volume is a very good starting point for advanced research on any of the object types discussed in the essays. Cherry 1991 is a much more general introduction, well illustrated and particularly useful for teaching and for undergraduates. There is little agreement about what constitutes the “decorative arts” in the Middle Ages, particularly regarding sacred versus profane works, and so this selection of general overviews includes studies of both ecclesiastical and secular arts, even if the authors do not categorize their subjects as “decorative arts.” Both Camille 1998 and Cherry 1991 treat exclusively secular works, especially those related to courtly contexts and to the patronage of the nobility. Despite the title, Lasko 1994 includes much that is secular, or at least nonliturgical, and it includes works of most of the types surveyed in this bibliography.

  • Becker, Carl. Decorative Arts from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, The Complete Plates. Introduction by Carsten-Peter Warncke. Cologne: Taschen, 2011.

    Originally published in three volumes as Kustwerke und Geräthschaften des Mittelalters und der Renaissance (1852–1853). Early, comprehensive survey of premodern applied arts, both luxury and everyday. The original, hand-colored engravings are reproduced in this edition. Some material is outdated, but Warncke’s introductory essay is an excellent and accessible account of antiquarian attitudes to secular and decorative works.

  • Buettner, Brigitte. “Towards a Historiography of the Sumptuous Arts.” In A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic. Edited by Conrad Rudolph, 466–487. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405102865.2006.00023.x

    Discusses the medieval and modern reception of objects that were the ornatus, the “ornaments,” of the church. Medieval artistic controversies and modern issues of collecting, taste, and methodology are considered. Includes a thorough and essential bibliography.

  • Camille, Michael. The Medieval Art of Love. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

    Thematic study of the visual culture of desire and affection across multiple types of objects and images. A lively introduction to secular arts in the 12th through 15th centuries, with a focus on iconography, semiotics, and reception.

  • Cherry, John. Medieval Decorative Art. London: British Museum Press, 1991.

    Short overview, organized around themes of nature, heraldry, feasting, and courtly love. Well illustrated with objects from the collection of the British Museum. Good starting point to learn about secular objects, but without detailed analyses or footnotes; contains a short “Further Reading” bibliography.

  • Hourihane, Colum, ed. From Minor to Major: The Minor Arts in Medieval Art History. Princeton, NJ: Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, 2012.

    Study of the relationship of minor to major arts. Essays on specific object types or categories, such as jewelry, enamels, and “secular arts.” Most essays address the historiography of “minor” arts, and each has an excellent bibliography.

  • Lasko, Peter. Ars Sacra: 800–1200. 2d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

    Originally published in 1974. Wide-ranging survey, with a primary focus on style and development. Treats chalices, book covers, brooches, reliquaries, fonts, portable altars, thrones, door handles, ivories, and enamels. Arranged chronologically, with particular attention to patrons and to regional styles and schools.

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