In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Art and Liturgy (recent approaches)

  • Introduction
  • History of Liturgy: Medieval Art and Liturgy (General Overviews)
  • History of Liturgy: Art and Theology
  • History of Liturgy: Art and the Senses
  • Archaeology, Materiality, and Liturgy
  • Architecture and Liturgy
  • Monumental Decoration of the Church and Liturgy
  • Manuscripts Illustration and the Liturgy
  • Liturgical Manuscripts and the Sensory Activation of the Illustrations
  • Liturgical Objects

Art History Medieval Art and Liturgy (recent approaches)
Eric Palazzo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0137


In the past decade, research on the relationship between art and liturgy in the Middle Ages has taken a historical approach, after some seminal publications in the past. This approach is basic to any serious study of the subject, but most researchers go beyond that, often with a new awareness of the artistic material itself and a full reintegration of theology, combining it with a social-historical understanding of the liturgy. Research trends in this area have been largely “globalized” as a result of new information technologies given today by many databases on images, texts, and incipits. Despite this, one should not assume that a standardization of thought exists. In some countries, specific historiographical trends are still strong. The definition of medieval liturgy has undergone some changes in recent years as well. It went from a historical-anthropological conception, influenced by a theoretical approach in different fields of humanities, to a conception that has reintegrated theology into the heart of the subject without rejecting its historical and anthropological aspects. This has mainly been possible thanks to a perfected knowledge of the sources of the liturgy and its theology. A renewed approach to certain types of sources of medieval liturgy, such as liturgical commentaries—that is to say, exegesis on the liturgy—has also facilitated the inclusion of subjects previously absent, such as dance performance in church ritual. In the field of Christian theology, recent publications have also helped in understanding the liturgy in a historical perspective and have gradually left behind a doctrinal and dogmatic approach to medieval theology in favor of a return to the realm of historical “reality.” Recent publications dealing with the practice of the liturgy and its theological interpretation focus, above all, on the human experience of the divine, something that allows for a kind of interaction between texts and real life. In this way, medieval liturgy acts as a kind of theological exegesis, encouraging humankind to experience biblical events anew. This leads to an “existential reading” of scripture and an involvement on a personal level that implies a strong sense of spirituality. One of the major effects of this conception of liturgy informed by an experience-based theology has been reconsideration of the material dimension of ritual as activated by the human sensory experience during the execution of the liturgical ceremony. This innovative methodological and epistemological understanding of the sensory experience of liturgy and theology through art has produced the richest research. The sensory experience of the liturgy must be seen in light of a similar understanding of beauty and aesthetics during Antiquity. Likewise, this new approach, which sees art and liturgy as based on the experience of artistic materiality (and even archaeology), is echoed in the research of specialists from periods other than the Middle Ages.

History of Liturgy: Medieval Art and Liturgy (General Overviews)

This section includes several crucial references on the general topic of the history of the liturgy as well as Christian theology in the Middle Ages and its influence on the conception of the liturgy. A few innovative publications that offer new perspectives on the relationship between medieval art and liturgy, such as Palazzo 2000 and Palazzo 2008, are also cited. Cassingéna-Trévédy 2009 and Cassingéna-Trévédy 2007 provide in-depth, innovative overviews. Debiais 2017 proposes a new methodology about the relation between script and image in the liturgy.

  • Buc, Philippe. The Dangers of Ritual. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

    Buc provides a critique of the modern concept of ritual and discusses its validity for the period of the Middle Ages.

  • Cassingéna-Trévédy, François. La liturgie: Art et métier. Geneva, Switzerland: Ad Solem, 2007.

    A very interesting reflection on the meaning of the liturgy in general, taking into account some Old Testament passages and their exegesis.

  • Cassingéna-Trévédy, François. Les Pères de l’Eglise et la liturgie. Paris: Artège, 2009.

    Cassingéna-Trévédy provides the best introduction and overview on the construction of the theology of the liturgy in the early Christian period.

  • Debiais, Vincent. La croisée des signes: L’écriture et les images médiévales, 800–1200. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2017.

    This book gives the most innovative overview on the real nature of “signs” in the theology of Christianity and its translation into images and scripts.

  • Iversen, Gunilla. Chanter avec les anges: Poésie dans la messe médiévale; Interprétations et commentaires. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2001.

    Certainly the most important and innovative contribution to understanding the central role played by liturgical poetry in the conception of the liturgy and its theology; also an important volume for understanding tropes and their uses in the liturgy.

  • Kessler, Herbert L. Seeing Medieval Art. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2004.

    Kessler’s overview constitutes the best contribution on the new way to consider medieval art, taking into account liturgy, theology, and the specificity of art production, such as the materiality of objects.

  • Kosch, Clemens. “Auswahlbibliographie zur Liturgie und bildenden Kunst/Architektur im Mittelalter.” In Heiliger Raum, Architektur, Kunst und Liturgie in mittelalterliche Kathedralen und Stiftskirchen. Edited by Franz Kohlschein and Peter Wünsche, 243–377. Liturgiewissenschaftliche Quellen und Forschungen 82. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 1998.

    This is the most impressive and useful bibliography on the topic. Very important for not only art historians or historians of the liturgy, but also for every medievalist.

  • Mews, Constant. “Liturgists and Dance in the Twelfth Century: The Witness of John Beleth and Sicard of Cremona.” Church History 78.3 (2009): 512–548.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0009640709990412

    An informative contribution on the role of the body, through the practice of dance, as considered by some famous theologians of the Middle Ages.

  • Palazzo, Éric. Liturgie et société au Moyen Âge. Paris: Aubier, 2000.

    This book is not a history of liturgy but provides an overview on the important and deep links between the rituals of the Church in the Middle Ages and their social and political impact on the makeup of medieval society.

  • Palazzo, Éric. “Art and Liturgy in the Middle Ages: Survey of Research (1980–2003) and Some Reflections on Method.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 105 (2006): 170–184.

    A survey of the methodology and epistemology on the relationship between art and liturgy in the Middle Ages, considering some “recent” contributions to the theme.

  • Palazzo, Éric. “Performing the Liturgy.” In The Cambridge History of Christianity. Vol. 3, Early Medieval Christianities, c. 600–c. 1100. Edited by Thomas F. X. Noble and Julia M. H. Smith, 472–488. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    This article points out the essential elements of the performative aspects of the liturgy in the Middle Ages and the role played by “art production.”

  • Petersen, Nils Holger, Mette Birkedal Bruun, Jeremy Llewellyn, and Eyolf Østrem, eds. The Appearances of Medieval Rituals. Turnhout: Belgium: Brepols, 2004.

    A collection of articles that deals in depth with the anthropology of the rituals and the theology of the liturgy in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period.

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