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Art and visual culture: medieval to modern
Art and visual culture: medieval to modern

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Medieval and Renaissance visual culture

The term ‘visual culture’ is also used for a second reason that is less to do with definition than with method. Including the various arts under the umbrella of ‘visual culture’ implies their inseparability from the visual rhetoric of power on the one hand, and the material culture of a society on the other. Before 1500 at least, art did not signify painting or sculpture to be scrutinised in a gallery, but an aspect of the persuasive power and cultural identity of church, ruler, city, institution or individual. In this sense, art might be considered alongside ceremonies, for example, as strategies conveying social meaning or magnificence, or alongside coins and ceramics as aspects of identity. Equally, visual culture serves as an eloquent indicator of gender.

If art is defined, as it was in later centuries, solely as an aesthetic entity prompting scrutiny for its own sake alone, then the purposefulness of the varied forms of art produced during the medieval and Renaissance period might appear to lie outside this definition. Yet objects were made that invited the most attentive scrutiny for their ingenuity in design while at the same time fulfilling a variety of functions. Purposefulness is also predicated on skills of looking and interpreting. No one in medieval times would have bothered with ‘purposeful’ works of art unless they could assume that their contemporaries were vulnerable to their communicative power. For example, the wealthy lavished money on rich artefacts or dynastic portraits in part because they were an aspect of the social exclusiveness that a representative number of their entourage could notice and grasp. In reiterating the convention that religious art was particularly useful for those unable to read, medieval thinkers seem to have assumed that ordinary people too were capable of thoughtful looking. This suggests that attentive and intelligent scrutiny was a cultural skill that might, to a degree at least, be taken for granted by both patrons and artists during the medieval and Renaissance periods. Works of art might not have hung in galleries, but it seems that medieval and Renaissance audiences knew how to look at them.