History of Art Education Part 2: Middle Ages

The fall of Rome led to the shoots of art education that we will come to know as the        academies and art schools of Europe in the 19th century.



After the fall of Rome some time in A.D. 476 marks the beginning of the middle ages and when activity in the visual arts came to a virtual standstill, as did trade and travel, and learning in general.
The patronage given to artists, musicians, and poets was virtually at an end. With the spread of economic downfall, the workshops of craftsmen gradually disappeared and as much of the skills were passed through families and not centralised learning, the techniques and crafts almost disappeared .
Europe became a patchwork of different landed estates, centring around the church which actively suppressed all remnants of older culture.
Along with the arts, learning itself entered a period of decline.

Amidst this decline some elements of Greek and Roman culture were preserved by monks and scribes, many of whom were educated in the classical tradition.
During the early middle ages Labour was seen as both a from of penance and a way to ennoble life and giving the path to  enlightenment. 
With the decline in the level of literacy, there was need to make greater use of the arts to guide the faithful to God

medieval village with peasants and buildings
Impression of life during the middle ages taken from the film Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
St Benedict of Nursia, founder of the monastry in Monte Cassino and creator of the Benedictine orders.

The monastic schools were the only educational institution that operated in the early Middle Ages and one of the most influential religious leaders at this time was St Benedict (480–543). He made a series of rules known as the rule of Benedict.
Importantly the  43rd rule declared:

“idleness is the great enemy of the soul, therefore  monks shall always be occupied, either in manual labour or in holy reading”

Due to this monks became skilled artisans in wood, leather, precious metals, and glass.

artist impression of a scriptorium with monks at work
Artist impression (Ruedy Stacher) of a Gothic Monastery Scriptorium with Monks would spend many hours at work.

Work on the manuscripts were carried out in the scriptorium  which was a large hall with numerous desks.
Many different artisans were involved in the making of a manuscript, first the scribe who made the black letter of the text, then the painter who needed detailed knowledge of how to prepare mordants and lay gold leaf then burnish it, finally the book binder who would sew the whole manuscript together.

Early illustrations in manuscripts were confined to capital letters, red being the colour selected to embellish the page. The red pigment was known as minium and so the artist that applied it called a miniatore and thus we get the word miniature.

illustrated manuscript
Example of an illustrated manuscript created during the 15th century.
Illustrated letters in 12th century bible embellished with minium
image of a illuminated initial with gold leaf
16th century Antiphoner containing Common of the Saints

Participation was based upon level of knowledge and skill, the master was at the top of the hierarchy due to his superior abilities, followed by his assistants. In addition the monks in the scriptorium acquired their skills “on the job” under the guidance of the master. In this we can see the early seeds of academies that would develop into art schools that we recognise today. The quality of achievement was judged by the exactness of the copy, yet the quality of illuminated books improved steadily as new means were discovered and as the standards of skill became more exacting.

The Benedict rule also stipulated that:
“if there be artists in the monastery, let them exercise their crafts with all humility and reverence, provided the abbot shall have ordered them. But if any of them be proud of the skill he hath in his craft, because he seemeth to gain something for the monastery, let him be removed from it and not exercise it again”

This seemed to be an attempt to stop personal tastes and approaches influencing the final outcome of a piece that was considered sacred and not a piece of individual or collective art. In spite of this several monasteries developed elaborate workshops that could have been warranted as early art schools, various hand written accounts and treatises meant these techniques and traditions were not lost to time.

   Oxford University, founded in the 11th century

Age of the guilds

By the end of the eleventh century, the society began to change, from the feudal estates and monasteries, towns and cities began to rise.  Travel became easier and students could move to seats of learning, but most importantly for the artist was the development of trade and the prospects this brought with it.
In the high middle ages trading begun to grow again and the merchant class began to appear, along side the developments of new institutions including craft guilds for various artisans.

It was during this time that the apprenticeship  system was developed, with apprentices starting at around 13 or 14, some times the family paying the master but in other situations apprentices receiving wages. After a period of between 5-6 years an apprentice could rise to the rank of master.
The workshop of a guild from the high middle ages was based on a structure that shares ideas with  the academies of the 19th and early 20th century where the master oversaw his assistants who in turn supervised the apprentices with training being based on imitation of the master or assistant and the success of a piece was based on the accuracy of the imitation much like the monasteries of previous centuries. The guilds were not designed to encourage or cultivate artistic originality but to develop a high degree of workmanship.

The Italian Renaissance was one of the crucial turning points in Western cultural history, for it laid the groundwork for modern conception of the arts and what it meant to be an artist. It was the Humanist movement that elevated the place of the arts by stressing its similarity to literature and history. The movement was the revival of  the study of classical pursuits like   the literature of antiquity, including its history, philosophy, and poetry. Above all, the humanists spread the ideal that general education, in and of itself was inherently valuable for everyone, that it should not be limited to the clergyman or physician.
Students were taught to appreciate the beauty of the literature, architecture, poetry and drama of the past. Aesthetic education, wholly absent from medieval education, was stressed for the first time.


In the last third of the 15th century a small group of humanist scholars came together in Florence, head of this group was the Philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Teachers like Ficino helped pave the way for the acceptance of the artist as a member of a cultural elite as opposed to the medieval idea that the artist was merely a skilled craftsman.

So this was era where the artist themselves were seen as the  genius as opposed to the work being representative of higher powers, instead of the earlier  eras of the guild where apprentices and assistants were not seen as individuals but part of a process.
This new zeitgeist gave us the likes of of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. The
idea of man being central to the arts is abundantly clear in  such frescos as Raphael’s School of Athens , which represents all the greatest mathematicians, philosophers and scientists from classical antiquity gathered together sharing their ideas and learning from each other. 

'The School of Athens' Raphael 1509-1511
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 - 1519)

The first academies were not art schools in the modern sense where there was a formal curriculum directed by teachers. Rather, these Renaissance academies consisted of groups of artists of various ages, some new and some accomplished masters, who would gather together to draw, or to watch others demonstrate new techniques or principles, or to discuss theories of art and other developments of a general cultural nature.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s treatise on painting published after his death in 1632 contains his ideas about art instruction.
His instruction became the central core of academy practice in later generations and is still central to traditional academic practise today:

“First of all copy drawing by a good master made by his art from nature and not as exercises; then from a relief, keeping by you a drawing done from the same relief; then from a good model; and of this you ought to make a practice.”

Cennino Cennini at 15th century Italian artist stressed the importance of drawing in Il libro dell’arte

“When you have practiced drawing for a while… take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best works that you can find done by the hand of great masters… Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is, it will be well worth while, and it will do you a world of good.”


"An Academy of Painters" Pierfrancesco Alberti 1600-1638
A student being instructed on how to study the human form

We can see in this engraving
An Academy of Painters”  by Pier Francesco Alberti (1584- 1638) an Italian painter and engraver various aspects of renaissance art education.

 In the lower left (left) we can see a student instructed in how to study the various parts of the body in this case the eye.

 In the upper left (right) there is a group of students drawing from a plaster cast of a leg and there is a selection of plaster casts on the walls of various figures which the students would study from.

The study of architecture can be seen at the back ( below, far left), whilst at the bottom geography and perspective drawing (below, second from left)  , and moving over to the right we have students studying the skeleton (below second from right), dissecting a cadaver and a student working on sculptures (below, far right).

Students studying from plaster casts
A student being taught architectural principles
A group of students being taught geography and perspective drawing
The study of anatomy
In the background students are dissecting a cadaver with another in the front working on a clay sculpture.

By the seventeenth century the ideas of the classical humanists once the very core of artistic thinking  were now viewed as whimsical, inappropriate for the age. For the arts the primary purpose was to assert the power and prestige of the state.
In the case of French ruler Louis XIV who reined for 72 years and had a vice like grip on power, in his very own words he was the state. To prove this France established a series of academies for the various arts, sciences, and literature. With these academies Louis XIV set about asserting his power, with art in France becoming  political propaganda.


Louis XIV (1638-1715)
Class at the École des Beaux-Arts 19th century

The French Academy of Painting and Sculpture was founded in 1648 , it arose as a result of a rebellion of French artists against the guild restrictions that had restricted painters and sculptors in Paris since the thirteenth century. They outlined a program of art education that would be taught by the academy, which included the teaching of architecture, geometry, perspective, arithmetic, anatomy, astronomy, and history.
The institution had complete control over the arts for over 200 years even  securing a monopoly on the life drawing. Nowhere outside the academy was the teaching of life drawing permitted. Private life drawing circles were forbidden in all the studios. Since the rules were set by royal decree this meant that aesthetics were set by the king and artists became an arm of the state.
The course of the academy followed much in the way of Da Vinci’s model with a lower and a higher class. The lower class of students had to copy from the drawings of the professors, while the upper class drew directly from the live model, an intermediate stage consisted of having students draw from plaster casts. 

Benjamin Franklin put forth an idea of an academy that gave all students lessons in drawing in
Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania,1749:

“All should be taught to write a fair hand, and swift, as that is useful to all. And with it may be learnt something of drawing, by imitation of prints, and some of the first principles of perspective.”
He goes onto say 
“ A man may often express his ideas, even to his own countrymen, more clearly with a lead pencil, or bit of chalk, than with his tongue. Drawing is no less useful to a mechanic than to a gentleman.”

This notion of universal drawing lessons for all even today is not a particularly well embraced one especially drawing as seen as a tool for language in its self.


Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) American Polymath
The Royal Academy of Arts Founded in 1768

The Royal Academy of Arts, chartered by George III in December 1768 was the first attempt to meet the widely perceived need for a national school for art education in Britain to match those already established on the continent especially those of France. It was modelled on the French Academy which in turn was modelled on Da Vinci’s.

The first president of the academy Joshua Reynolds echos Cennino Cennini’s thoughts of arts education:

“Study, therefore, the great works of the great masters forever. Study, as nearly as you can, in the order, in the manner, and on the principles, on which they studied. Study nature attentively, but always with those masters in your company; consider them as models which you are to imitate, and at the same time as rivals with whom you are to contend.”

…In part 3 of the History of Art Education we will see how the industrial revolution changed art education in developed nations and how  a new movement from Germany brought about art education we know today…