Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century


The upheaval that accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome, the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time, great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba, Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.

The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 1 3th—14th century in the Gothic style; the cathedral served for many centuries as the location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.

The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio






1 The Swiss defend themselves against the knights'
army of Duke Leopold I of Austria in the
Battle of Morgarten, book illustration, ca. 1450

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the 1 Swiss Confederation developed out of the region's defensive struggles against foreign domination. In the 16th century, it became a center of the Reformation, although large areas remained Catholic. Switzerland gained full sovereignty in the 17th century. Despite great structural and religious differences between the individual cantons, freedom from foreign domination remained a common goal. Nevertheless, it was not until after the interlude of a Helvetic Republic during the Napoleonic era and the great constitutional crisis of the Sonderbundskrieg (Special Alliance civil war) in 1847 that a unified federal state was founded.


From the Struggle for Independence to Neutrality

The Swiss Confederation developed out of local security alliances against the Habsburgs, Savoyards, and Burgundians.


In the High Middle Ages, today's Switzerland was part of the kingdom of Burgundy and—as part of the duchy of Swabia—of the kingdom of Germany. Many secular and ecclesiastical rulers held power, initially under the control of kings and dukes, but steadily increasing in autonomy. In the 13th century, the decline of the Hohenstaufens, who had reigned over Swabia, accelerated this process.

As the 3 Savoyards in the southwest and the 4 Habsburgs in the north began to dominate, cities and farm communities that sought to maintain independence allied against them.

3 Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva,
rebuilt by the Earls of Savoyen

4 The Habsburg in Aargau, residence of the
Habsburgs since the eleventh ń

The original cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden united in 1291 in an 2 "eternal league" (Ewiger Bund), which became the nucleus of the Old Swiss Confederation.

2 The Oath of Rutli for the foundation
of the Swiss Confederation, 1291,
painting by Henry Fusely, 18th ń

Once the league had defeated the Habsburgs at Morgarten in 1315, the cities of Bern and Zurich, among others, joined the confederation by 1353. The confederation's Habsburg allies, the Burgundians under Duke Charles the Bold, were defeated in 1476 at Grandson and Morat; Charles himself fell in the Battle of Nancy in 1477. The Swiss intervened independently in the war between France and the Habsburgs in Italy.

Though they were able to take Ticino, they adopted neutrality following their defeat by the French at 5 Marignano in 1515.

Clashes still occurred with the Savoyards— who relinquished Vaud and Geneva. Switzerland was also affected by the Thirty Years' War, as was Grisons, which was not then a member of the confederacy. Switzerland's independence was universally recognized at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

5 King Francis I of France in the Battle of Marignano,
painting by Fragonard, ca, 1836



William Tell

William Tell is seen as the symbolic figure of Swiss independence. According to legend, he was forced by the Habsburgs' Bailiff Gessler to shoot an apple from his son's head. He later took revenge and in so doing ignited a rebellion against the Habsburgs.

Friedrich von Schiller used the tale, which is probably fiction, as the basis for a drama, which in turn inspired Gioahino Rossini's opera of the same name.

Tell shooting the apple from his son's head,
 colored lithograph, early 20th century




William Tell

Swiss hero
German Wilhelm Tell

Swiss legendary hero who symbolized the struggle for political and individual freedom.

The historical existence of Tell is disputed. According to popular legend, he was a peasant from Bürglen in the canton of Uri in the 13th and early 14th centuries who defied Austrian authority, was forced to shoot an apple from his son’s head, was arrested for threatening the governor’s life, saved the same governor’s life en route to prison, escaped, and ultimately killed the governor in an ambush. These events supposedly helped spur the people to rise up against Austrian rule.

The classic form of the legend appears in the Chronicon Helveticum (1734–36), by Gilg Tschudi, which gives November 1307 as the date of Tell’s deeds and New Year 1308 as the date of Switzerland’s liberation. There is no evidence, however, for the existence of Tell; but the story of the marksman’s test is widely distributed in folklore. In the early Romantic era of nationalist revolutions, the Tell legend attained worldwide renown through the stirring play Wilhelm Tell (1804) by the German dramatist Friedrich von Schiller.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Salvador Dali
The Enigma of William Tell


Salvador Dali
The Old Age of William Tell


Salvador Dali
William Tell and Gradiva


Salvador Dali
William Tell



Internal Development from the Reformation to the Special Alliance

The present-day Swiss federal state developed during the 19th century out of an alliance of more or less sovereign cantons.

Napoleon's Mediation Act of 1803 (Map)

The Swiss Confederation, which used the name of one of the original cantons, Schwyz, as an overall designation, was built up from the 13 old cantons, additional new cantons, and subject and allied territories, all tied to one another through a complex system of agreements and governmental relationships.

To the old cantons belong important cities such as Zurich and 7 Bern.

The new cantons were not full members of the confederation; they were tied to the confederation by alliances, but were internallv autonomous.

Among these were the principality of Neuchatel, the monastery of 9 St. Gall, the bishopric of Basel, and the city-state of Geneva.

7 View of the city center of Bern in the Middle Ages
with the tower of the minster and the cupolas of
the Bundshaus or federal state building

9 Library in the monastery of St. Gall, 18th century

There were also separate territories ruled bv the old cantons. The only common institution of the confederation was the Tagsatzung (parliament), in which the emissaries of the cantons consulted.

Religious differences overlapped with structural differences between the cantons during the Reformation.

In the 16th century, independent of each other, 6 Ulrich Zwingli and 10 John Calvin spread the ideas of the Reformation from Zurich and Geneva, respectively.

Ulrich Zwingli, painting, 16th ń
10 The reformer John Calvin, French painting, 16th century

Violent confrontations took place between Protestants and Catholics during the "Wars of Kappel" in 1529 and 1531, and battles at Villmcrgen from the 16th through early 18th centuries. As neither side was able to gain an advantage, Switzerland remained divided into Catholic and Protestant cantons.

Switzerland's neutrality was respected until 1798 when Napoleon's troops invaded. Napoleon supported the liberal factions by forming a central state, the Helvetic Republic, although it was exposed from the onset to powerful internal resistance.

A compromise between the new centralism and the old federalism was brought about through Napoleon's 11 Mediation Act of 1803.

11 Napoleon Bonaparte receives a Swiss delegation and
hands over the Mediation Act, wood engraving, 19th century

The cantons regained their sovereignty after the collapse at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, bvit disagreements over a common constitution continued. In 1847, the conservative Catholic cantons founded the Sonderbund ("Special Alliance") against the liberal Protestant cantons, who held a slight majority in the Tagsatzung (federal assembly).

A 8 civil war, the Sonderbundskrieg, lasted one month, with fewer than too casualties, and ended with the defeat of the Sonderbund.

This led to the founding of the Swiss federal state in 1848, centralizing lawmaking, defense, and trade.

8 Fight in the Sonderbundskrieg,
wood engraving, 19th century



The Swiss Guards

Up until the 19th century, almost every European army employed Swiss mercenaries, as they were considered indomitable and warlike; for the Swiss, the poor mountain regions of their homeland offered few other forms oflivelihood.

Only the papal Swiss Guard at the Vatican, from 1505, has survived to this day.

Swiss Guard in the Vatican in the uniforms
designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century




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