Look at the following painting. You would not be wrong to think that it is “very basic” compared to most of the art that is produced today and published on, say, Artstation. It is bulk-produced by the artist and he probably considers it to be a simple study.
Compared the painting above with the following one:
Having seen these two paintings, and not having seen medieval art, one could imagine that a very skilled painter from the IX or VIII century could potentially at least make the first painting, right? And one would be wrong.
The Western perception of the 3D world representation in painting came about during the Renaissance era, which began approximately at the start of the XIV century. That’s the era inhabited by artists such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Boticelli.
Before that, famous skilled painters had a very different conception of paintings. While there were foreground elements and background elements, these were flattish and similarly sized. Let’s look at two representations of the same event, the Stoning of Saint Stephen.
Was Rembrandt more skilled than the previous unknown artist? Take note that the first painting is the best representation of the event during the XII century, and is one of the foremost examples of XII century Carolingian art.
As time goes on, new “technologies” are discovered, both physical and mental. While it’s true that the materials at the time allowed for much less than the next eras provided, it’s clear that the understanding of perspective (things becoming smaller the farther away they are), anatomical accuracy (painting muscles accurately, for example, instead of long arched arms), light angles and value differences simply weren’t present at the time.
Instead, objects were bigger the more important they were, and while there were some differences in height to convey distance, as can be seen in the position of the feet and the tree in the first painting, other matters were much more important. Today’s focus on realism was nonexistent then, and the major importance was on ornamentation. That is the time where the saintly or angelic halos started becoming a thing.
There are some attempts at expressing distance, and they do alright. The heads become smaller the further behind they are in a crowd, and less visible, but look at the part on the top, where there are two people surrounding the Jesus-like person carrying a very small cross. These people are smaller than the person at the center, because they are less important, yet their feet are at a lower level, indicating that they are actually closer in distance. Now, I doubt very much that the painter’s intention was to say “Jesus was literally a giant, double the height of a normal man”.
We can now look for modern emulations of this medieval style of painting.
Some things we can notice at first sight are that everything is firmly planted in a 3D setting. Most of the demons are ahead, some are behind this hypothetical Saint Celestine, there is a cloud behind, a reimagined saintly halo, enormous peace doves, etc. The hierarchical symbolism, very similar to the one found in medieval frescoes, is there, but even in this piece of art, which is not done by a “famous era-representative” painter, we can see painting techniques that are impossible to find before the Renaissance.
Another thing that is funny about medieval paintings is that the faces all look the same, and Baby Jesus somehow always carries an adult face, a mature expression and Virgin Mary sometimes looks like a man.