One of the difficulties in writing historical fiction is to portray that time and place as it was, instead of relying on the images of things that remain, or, worse yet, catering to the expectations of those who think they know. We have an impression of the Middle Ages as dark, gloomy, shadowed. Certainly, it was all of those things, but it was also vivid, joyous and, quite simply, colorful.
Medieval architecture is an excellent case in point. The surviving examples of the period are primarily stone buildings (castles and churches) in shades of gray and occasional half-timbered houses, almost always white with dark timbers, with white plastered interiors. The reality of the time was quite different. We of the modern day must re-envision most of those plain white and gray surfaces being richly painted with bright hues that transformed every space into an artwork.
House interiors featured wall paintings, often floor to ceiling, often even upon the roof beams. For modest homes, these paintings might consist of repeated patterns of lozenges (diamonds) or other simple geometric forms. As the homeowner grows in wealth and status, the murals featured coats-of-arms and heraldic devices, scenes of gardens, forests, tournaments and hunts.
And all of those stately churches, rife with sculpture and soaring arches? Painted. Almost every inch, even the sculptures. Nowadays, we view the sculpted elements as artworks unto themselves, the work of master carvers, which they certainly are–but to the viewer of the Middle Ages, the stone was just the beginning. To step inside a church, especially those of the twelfth century, after the advent of the flying buttress allowed for thin walls pierced by high stained glass windows, was to enter an artwork, a complete experience surrounding the viewer with the glory of God (or at least, with the wealth and power of the Medieval Church).
The idea startles our sensibilities, formed during the Victorian era of tourism and collection, which tend to favor the “purity” of marble, based on an ideal of sculpted houses of worship attributed to those refined and elegant taste-makers, the Greeks. Who, yes, indeed, painted everything. The Elgin marbles? painted. The Parthenon in glorious technicolor.
So far as we know, the great sculptors of the Renaissance–Michelangelo, DaVinci–did not paint their works, perhaps to create a break with the now denigrated past they were leaving behind. Perhaps in today’s world, when we are bombarded constantly with vivid images in advertising, billboards on the highways and even televisions at gas stations and dental offices, we need to imagine early architecture as a place of serene neutral tones, but to the citizen of Medieval England, the idea of confining art to a square upon the wall likely would feel just as unnatural.