The human being ceases to be central part of Art in Europe with the arrival of the Dark Ages, only to return with the Renaissance.

What are some factors that explain that?

  • 1
    Perhaps because the human being was ugly, brutish and short, to blatantly abuse a well-known quote. Feb 9, 2014 at 19:46
  • 5
    Can you cite any evidence/research to help me to believe your assertion?
    – MCW
    Feb 9, 2014 at 19:46
  • In what sense was the human being "the central part of Art" before the Dark Ages? Feb 9, 2014 at 19:56
  • @FelixGoldberg - take a look at the sculpture of ancient Greece and Rome: Greece ; Rome
    – user2590
    Feb 11, 2014 at 4:53
  • 1
    This is to a large extent true, and I have indeed heard the argument before that this is not due to a decline in art, but intentional, and a lack of anthropocentrism could be a part explanation. But it seems to me that you assume this decline in anthropocentrism without adequately explain what you base that assumption on, which mean we don't know what you mean. That is not a definition in art, it's a definition of a word you use in a question. Feb 11, 2014 at 16:26

4 Answers 4


Reason 1

The Dark Ages was a period in which all of society revolved around self-contained agriculture, with the land being owned by the three upper classes (the nobility, the clergy, and, so to speak, the "Crown"). It was based upon a very strict hierarchy, with mobility reduced to a minimum. Those at the top could not maintain this de facto state without an ideology, the effect of which is lending legitimacy. This ideology consisted mainly of the notion that they, personally, were ordained by Heaven to rule mankind. This notion was the only thing they lacked - the other, the monopoly on the use of violence, they already possessed, given that they formed a class of professional warriors, and could very simply crush a peasant rebellion. The idea that God worked only for a few handful of men turned Him away from the larger part of society, losing thus connection with the bulk of mankind. Thus, in my opinion, anthropocentrism disappears in the Dark Ages, only to resurface in the Late Middle Ages, when, not coincidentally, town life flourished and the old patriarchal order was seriously challenged. I don't think, however, that anthropocentrism is a good denomination, because it was not so much a question of man slipping in the background, as that of the masses doing so. It was not so much a question of God becoming paramount, as that of Him becoming so for a select few.

L.E. At the heart of the matter lies the fact that Art, however much we like to agree or not, was, back then, the reflection of the mentality of the powerful. Given the fact that Power was profoundly personal in nature in those times, it could not have been helped that Art itself was reflecting this pathologically elitist view of the Universe. The notion of ruler responsibility, which meant, to a certain degree, an equivalence between ruler and masses, necessarily disappeared with the dissolution of the Roman State. With it also disappeared any hope of artistic workings concerning mankind at large.

L.E.2 I was just reading this morning some of Rostovtzeffs history of Rome, and the following fragment caught my attention, in view of the topic of this thread:

"But in the nature of that power itself there was a radical alteration. The emperor was no longer merely one among Roman citizens, the First Citizen or Princeps: he became once and for all 'lord and god'. This is clear from the external ceremonial with which he was surrounded. The devotion paid to the Sassanian kings was reproduced almost exactly for the Roman emperors: all who were admitted to the sacred presence had even to fall on their faces and kiss the hem of royal raiment."

He is speaking of Diocletian, under the rule of which Western Europe made some of the most important steps towards the Dark Ages. Notice how when Power is estranged from the masses, when it can no longer strengthen its claim through democratic arguments, it drifts, not accidentally, towards the higher fora of the world - God and the Heavens. It seeks to form and ideological alliance with supernatural elements. This is inherent, I think, to all private systems of power.


Reason 2

Due to the backwardness of the economy, human life was very precarious and uncertain, which encouraged people turning towards God. The threat of starvation constantly loomed over the realm. A slump in agricultural productivity occurred at the onset of the Dark Ages:

"Scattered but consistent evidence indicates that the last centuries of antiquity and the first ones of the early Middle Ages were especially cold and wet. This might not in itself have been disastrous for the normally warm and dry Mediterranean world, but it made the traditional techniques of dry farming less successful and accelerated the already advanced process of erosion." [Roberto Lopez - "The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages 950-1350"]

And lasted till around 1000 A.D.:

"But even so, after the decades which followed the year 1000 Europe seems to have escaped famines and crises in the food supply serious enough to cause a considerable proportion of the population to starve to death." [Georges Duby - "Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West"]

The fall of the Roman Empire coincided with a "cold and wet pulsation of the climate", a macrohistorical phenomenon which, as mentioned above, sinks agricultural productivity and encourages pestilence. War raged on forever, it's major effect being the destruction not only of labor, but also of capital, which is significant. Moving armies were also the major agent of epidemics, due to their appalling sanitary conditions. Internal wars were coupled with external invasions (Huns, Saracens, Hungarians, Normans, Vikings etc.) Physicians were either completely absent or completely impotent before most of diseases. The lack of concentrated accumulation of capital, which is a result of agrarian, atomised economies, meant impossibility of investing in large-scale, welfare projects. The Church, it is true, was the main purveyor of such activity, but it could not have done more than the Age permitted it. Scientific solutions were also lacking, mainly because, in the lack of economic stimuli, science, even if latent, can't evolve, can't be brought to concrete fruition.

Reason 3

The lack of science automatically means turning to supernatural explanations when trying to understand natural phenomena. Casual relationships and logical reasoning are abandoned leading to a embracing of mysticism. This meant, on the one hand, constantly appealing to God, on the other hand, a belittling of oneself and of oneselfs capacity to penetrate the mysteries of Nature. As I said before, scientific breakthrough is not necessarily the result of intellectual prowess, as the result of adequate economic support. The collapse of the Roman Empire, it is well known, meant a drastic reduction in the extent of the market, which further diminishes the division of labor, without which advanced technologies and know-how's are lost.

  • What is "L.E."?
    – MCW
    Feb 11, 2014 at 14:47
  • "Later edit". I think it's useful to track edits. Sorry if I'm wrong. Feb 11, 2014 at 14:58

"Anthropocentrism" is a bit more than portraying humans in art: it's considering humans central to Life and Universe, to the point of believing that Universe was created with humans in mind. From that point of view Medieval times were pretty much anthropocentric, with Earth located in the centre of the Universe that was created by a human-looking God that cared so much about the actions of representative of human species, which were distinctly higher than other species.


Simple answer is that the Church was the dominant power during Medieval Times and the focal point of life. The Church emphasized the after-life and to some extent demeaned/trivialized earthly existence - it was simply a transitory phase - a means of gaining the after-life. Therefore making Earthly Man the focal point of art was not reflective of the spirit of the times.

In ancient times, and again during the Renaissance and into modern times, various forms of secular humanism prevailed - Man on Earth was the focal point of existence and the art of the times reflected that.

  • Pity that I cannot accept more than one answer. As I said yours makes a lot sense, but I think @Andrei Albu deserves the credit ;) Feb 11, 2014 at 18:30
  • @NikolayNenov - Andrei Albu deserves the credit . Whatever - it's your question. That answer is way too complicated and over-analytical for me. I like to keep things clear and simple. IMO what is correct in what he said is what I said - he just stretched it out. The rest? I'm not impressed with that sort of analysis: Academics and elaborate explanations don't necessarily add much: "Maybe, maybe not"... My answer I am sure about. :)
    – user2590
    Feb 12, 2014 at 0:00

The reason why anthropocentrism largely disappeared from much of Europe during "The Dark Ages"-(a.k.a., "The Early Middle Ages: 476 AD/CE-1050 AD/CE), was because, humankind, was no longer the "measure of all things"; rather, the spiritual and the metaphysical, was paramount and in turn, more central to the daily lives and identities of Early Medieval Christian townsfolk.

The Byzantine Emperor Theodosius and his "Edict of Thessaloniki" both nationalized Christianity within much of The Roman Empire and discontinued-(perhaps even criminalized), the public worship and acknowledgement of the Olympian deities-(this was particularly true in Greece, Asia Minor and much of the Italian peninsula). The rabidly anti-pagan policies of Theodosius helped catalyze a ripple effect across much of the Roman Empire and subsequently, ushered in a hostility and adversity towards anthropocentrism. Although the Byzantine Empire is typically not included in the geography of Dark Ages Europe, the policies of one its Emperors, had a profound and transforming impact on various cultures and their disapproving attitudes towards the secular and the humanistic.

It was the 20th century English Historian, Will Durant who authored a voluminous work on The Middle Ages, titling it, "The Age of Faith", with an emphasis on Dark Ages Europe. Durant and other students of this time period, recognized (and perhaps still recognize) that this period in World History, was very much, an ultra-religious and pious age whereby the Church, was the earthly representation and embodiment of the spiritual personage of Jesus Christ. Although Christ is largely depicted in either statuary or iconic styles within various Christian sects, thereby expressing and reinforcing a perceptible relationship with the spiritual, the centrality of humankind, for the Dark Ages European Christian, was secondary or parenthetical to the immense and eternal nature of the soul.

Of course the Ancient Greeks and Romans were very pious and religious; and like the Christian God, their earlier deities also established a statuary or perceptible relationship with the supernatural. However, the Greco-Roman Olympian religion did not place a significant emphasis on the Hereafter. There was Hades.....and that's pretty much it......with the exception of The Elysian Fields; though for most Hellenic and Roman souls, the Underworld of Hades was the final place where souls arrived, but were not glorified. This is a major distinction when compared with the Spiritual promise of Jesus, his earliest followers, as well as the establishment of Christianity as the new Central religion for Greece, Italy and much of the Roman Empire. The promise of glorifying and beautifying the soul through a morally theistic commitment towards Christ was absolutely central to the Early Medieval European Christian's mindset, while the extolling and centralization of humankind-(whether in religious or humanistic expression), was both an anachronism, as well as a sign of apostasy.

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