During the Middle Ages, most art was made for a religious purpose. Paintings and sculptures of Jesus and Christian saints were placed in churches to help people worship. Since most people did not know how to read, art helped tell the story of Jesus’s life in a way that everyone could understand.
Medieval art and architecture found their most glorious expression in cathedrals, the large churches headed by bishops. (The word cathedral comes from the Latin word cathedra, meaning "the throne upon which a bishop sits".) Cathedrals were built to inspire awe. For centuries, they were the tallest buildings in any community. Often they were taller than a 30-story building of today. Most were built in the shape of a cross, with a long central section called the nave and shorter side sections called transepts.
The cathedrals built between 1150 and 1400 were designed in the Gothic style. Gothic cathedrals were designed to look like they are rising to heaven. On the outside are stone arches called flying buttresses. The arches spread the massive weight of the soaring roof and walls more evenly. This building technique allowed for taller, thinner walls and more windows.
Gargoyles are a unique feature of Gothic cathedrals. Gargoyles are decorative stone sculptures projecting from the rain gutters or edges of a cathedral roof. They were usually carved in the form of mythical beasts. In medieval times, some people thought gargoyles were there to remind them that devils and evil spirits would catch them if they did not obey the teachings of the Church.
The immense space inside a Gothic cathedral was lined with pillars and decorated with religious images. Beautiful stained-glass windows let in colorful light. Stained-glass windows are made from pieces of colored glass arranged in a design. The pictures on medieval stained-glass windows often taught people stories from the Bible.
Cathedrals were visible expressions of Christian devotion. They were mostly constructed by hand by hundreds of workers and craftsmen over many years. On average, it took from 50 to 100 years to complete a cathedral. In some cases, the work took more than 200 years.
During the Middle Ages, most schooling took place in monasteries, convents, and cathedrals. This pattern was established under Charlemagne, who encouraged the Church to teach people to read and write. During his reign, scholars developed a new form of writing that helped make reading easier. Instead of writing in all capital letters, as the Romans did, scholars began to use lowercase letters, too. We still use this system today.
In medieval times, the clergy were the people most likely to be educated. Most of the students in Church schools were sons of nobles who were studying for careers in the clergy. They spent much of their time memorizing prayers and passages from the Bible in Latin.
Starting in the 1200s, cathedral schools gave rise to universities. Students in universities studied Latin grammar and rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. Books at that time were hand copied and very rare, so teachers often read to students.
Ancient texts were greatly respected in the universities, but the Church was sometimes uneasy about them. The Church taught people to be guided by faith. Ancient writers like the Greek philosopher Aristotle taught that reason, or logical thinking, was the path to knowledge. Church leaders feared that studying such writers might lead people to question its teachings.
Thomas Aquinas (uh-KWINE-iss), an Italian scholar of philosophy and theology, tried to bridge the gap between reason and faith. Aquinas greatly admired Aristotle. He saw no conflict between faith and reason, because he believed that both were gifts from God. Reason, he believed, helped people discover important truths about God’s creation. Faith, meanwhile, revealed its own truths about God.
Aquinas wrote logical arguments in support of his faith to show how reason and religious belief worked together. For example, his concept of natural law stated that there was an order built into nature that could guide people’s thinking about right and wrong. Natural law, he said, could be discovered through reason alone. Since God had created nature, natural law agreed with the moral teachings of the Bible.
Aquinas’s teachings unified ancient philosophy and Christian theology. His teachings were later accepted and promoted by the Church.