The 3 Reasons Why Medieval Paintings Appear Bad To Us

Time PeriodMedieval
DatesLate 4th century AD through end of 14th century

To us paintings and artwork of the medieval period appear bad when compared to the paintings of the renaissance and modern period. There are 3 reasons why this is.

The 3 reasons why medieval paintings appear bad to us. First, medieval paintings were designed to demonstrate vertical size not depth. Second, the purpose of medieval paintings differed drastically from later paintings. Third, medieval painters were prevented from experimenting with art.

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Without further ado, here are the 3 reasons why medieval paintings appear bad to us.

Medieval Paintings Were Designed To Demonstrate Vertical Size Not Depth

One of the main reasons why medieval paintings appear bad to us is the different types of scale used.

Medieval paintings were designed to demonstrate a person’s importance within a culture. The above medieval painting highlights the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem during the Crusades.

Notice how the most important figure, the man on the bottom right is taller than everybody else? Further, do you notice the size difference between all the people? The nobles are painted as tall and important. The stonecutters on the other hand are painted as small and insignificant.

This was done on purpose. One of the main reasons that medieval paintings appear bad to us is because the paintings themselves were designed to show vertical scale. This vertical scale of people in the painting designated their importance within society.

Now let’s look at a renaissance painting. Below is The School of Athens by the famous painter Raphael.

Notice how the painting conveys depth and draws your eyes to the center? Further, all people in the painting are the same size and lifelike.

This change was called anamorphosis and it was pioneered in part by Leonardo da Vinci. This style of art forced the audience to draw their attention to the center of the painting where the most important people were.

(If you’re interested in further reading I wrote up an entire article on how Leonardo da Vinci changed world history forever. You can read it by clicking here.)

This style of artwork created a forced perspective. This perspective resulted in a more realistic painting which is more appealing to the general audience.

Because medieval paintings were designed to demonstrate vertical scale and not depth they appear bad to us today.

The Purpose of Medieval Paintings Was Different When Compared To Modern Paintings

Another reason that medieval paintings appear bad to us was because the concept of painting and art was different.

Paintings and art during the medieval period were used to convey status and religion. Further, unlike in the modern period medieval paintings were designed to demonstrate religious propaganda to large crowds.

In the medieval period paintings were designed for only one purpose, to reinforce the power structure of medieval society. During the middle ages the Catholic church would hire an artist to design a painting that would convey a religious ideology across the masses.

Other than the church private nobles would commission paintings to be created that solidified their place within society.

Now if we look at a renaissance painting Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci we will notice some differences.

Notice how the painting does not demonstrate religious icons? This is because the entire audience basis of paintings changed in the modern era.

During the medieval era paintings were used to convey power and religion to society. During the modern era paintings were designed to be appealing and tell stories.

The concept of art completely changed between the medieval and modern era. This is one of the main reasons that medieval paintings appear bad to us; the reason for creating the paintings completely changed.

Medieval Painters Were Prevented From Experimenting With Art

One of the main reasons that medieval paintings appear so bad to us today is because the painters themselves could not experiment easily.

Not much is known about medieval painters. However we do know that often they would be employed by the church to some degree. From this they would be paid to produce art that reinforced the style of monastic art.

Further, often the painters would be part of the church itself. Several of the most beautiful paintings of the medieval period come out of hand copied texts that came out of churches across Europe during the medieval era.

What we do know about the painters themselves was that they made artwork that would be appreciated by their target audience. The religious people of medieval Europe and the church.

Because of this there was not much experimentation with paintings during the medieval era.

However, after the black plague ravaged Europe artists found less of a constraining environment to paint. As a result during the Renaissance artists began to write books on new and exciting techniques on how to paint realistic paintings.

This radically changed the way in which paintings were designed across Europe. Several new techniques were developed. One such technique that renaissance artists were allowed to experiment after the medieval era was sfumato.

As such, one of the main reasons that medieval paintings appear so bad to us was the lack of room for artists to experiment with their art during the medieval period.


There you have it; an article on the 3 reasons why medieval paintings appear so bad to us today.

While not bad themselves the paintings of the medieval era were created completely differently. It almost takes a trained eye to be able to view them in how they were designed. As such they are beautiful in their own right, just not to the average person today.

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