As explained here, medieval artists have very little interest in image backgrounds. However, as we get further into the High/Late Middle Ages, we see more and more of it, until artwork starts turning more realistic in general, and then we start seeing environment. Often they aren’t particularly relevant. Look at any Renaissance portrait, and there will certainly be a background, but it often is just that: an image to fill in the blank spaces and make the image look more complete according to modern sensibilities.
However, some images are specifically about the environment as a whole. In the above image, taken from a fresco at the Castello Buonconsiglio in Trento, Italy from about 1400, everyone is having a merry ol time in the snow. They are wearing the same clothes you would expect them to wear indoors, although keep in mind that winter clothes would include many layers, because indoors was still cold in winter, warmed only by fireplaces.
The women, I presume, have never been in a snowball fight before. Otherwise they would have rethought those necklines. Although the lady in green has figured out how to take a flowing skirt to best advantage, loading it with ammo. The lady in front of her seems to be doing some sort of crouching tiger maneuver, while the men just can’t seem to really get into the spirit of things. The middle gentleman seems to be pitching underhand, suggesting he just doesn’t understand what’s about to happen. I really wish the figure in white had just taken a snowball to the face, in fact, the image has been damaged.
As an aside: The figure in white was probably originally a figure in blue, which can still be seen in one sleeve. Bright blues worked notoriously poorly in frescoes. They don’t bond with the plaster, leaving them vulnerable to fading and erosion.
Oh, and ridiculous sleeves galore. People wear fairly normal sleeves until the Late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance, and then they get all sorts of silly. The center gentleman has a slashed sleeve, meaning it was built as a functional sleeve but slit along its length, allowing his arm to stick out, the sleeve to drape to his sides, and generally render the entire concept of “sleeve” superfluous.
Now, I make fun of their obliviousness to cold, but this is from Italy, which I doubt has ever seen –50 degree wind chills, like what I am hiding from in my home at this very moment.
As an aside: I can only think that Italian immigrants settled in Wisconsin on some sort of dare. The Scandinavians make total sense, the Germans and Poles are reasonable enough, but were the Italians going for some sort of extra credit in life?
A book of hours is a devotional book dedicated to prayers and readings for the canonical hours, that is, times of the day Christians traditionally prayed. This one also contains calendar pages, with each month here given its own appropriate illustration. Here, young gentlemen are much more lively in their snowball fight. They’re even actually throwing the snowballs.
Winter isn’t entirely fun and games, however. Here, the subjects are about as miserable as the artist’s sense of perspective. (Artists are just starting to experiment with linear perspective.)
All of this artwork reflects new interest in everyday life. Previously, art tended to be saints and nobles (plus all of the rude marginalia dudes). Here, common people do common work. A man chops wood. Another takes goods to the nearby town. The women have clearly been doing farm work, but are warming themselves within a barn. They lift their skirts to help get the warmth to their bodies faster, but since no one has invented underwear, well…
But clearly this is acceptable. Books are still very much for the very well-to-do, and here in the middle of this expensive item two women are exposing themselves not in the margins of the page but front and center. This is not meant to be rude. This is life.
Medievalist historian writing about history, religion, alt-history, steampunk, occultism and occasionally pop-culture. Former Site Expert for Alternative Religions at About.com. Lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.