Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
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Artists that Changed the World
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Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
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The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
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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






Under the influence of the Byzantine culture, Slavs and Scandinavian Varangians had been merging in the kingdom of Kiev since the ninth century. The ruling Rurik dynasty involved the country in 1 struggles for the throne and the division of the dynastic inheritance. The divided principalities found themselves under Mongolian rule from the 13th century. At the same time, Moscow's rise began. Russia was united by Moscow in the 14th and 15th centuries and began its path to becoming a major European power. With the death of the last of the Ruriks, a period of chaos set in, ended only in 1613 by a new dynasty, the Romanovs.

1 Battling Russian principalities of Novgorod and Suzdal, icon, 15th century


1 Battling Russian principalities of Novgorod and Suzdal, icon, 15th century


1 Battling Russian principalities of Novgorod and Suzdal, icon, 15th century

Kievan Rus

The Scandinavian Varangians founded the first kingdom on Russian soil.


Scandinavian Vikings, known to Slavs and Byzantines as "Varangians" or "Rus," began moving into the territory of present-day Russia and Ukraine in the eighth century as warriors, traders, and settlers, using large rivers such as the Neva, Don, and Volga as transportation routes. The small defensive nuclei of the steppes became staging posts on a route linking the Baltic to the Volga. Trading links, by way of the Black and Caspian seas, existed as far as the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid caliphate, in Constantinople, Varangians formed the emperor's personal elite bodyguard.

According to the Primary Chronicle, the inhabitants of the old Slav trading metropolis of 3 Novgorod in northern Russia elevated a Varangian named 2 Rurik to the status of prince in 862 in order to settle their feuds; Varangians also came to power in other towns after being appointed by the Slavs or by taking them by force.

3 Varangian ship in the port of Novgorod,
painting, 1900

2 Slavic deputies kneel before Rurik,
wood engraving, ca. 1890

Rurik's successor Oleg the Wise advanced to the south and in 882 occupied Kiev, which became the capital of his realm, known as Kievan Rus. A trade agreement with Byzantium in 911 also opened up the principality to Christianity; Rurik's daughter-in-law Olga was baptized in 957.

Her grandson, Vladimir I (the Great), married the sister of the Byzantine emperor and converted to 6, 5 Christianity in 988 as part of a pact with Basil II of Constantinople.

Kiev became the seat of an Orthodox bishop, who was nominally subject to the patriarch of Constantinople until 1589.

When Vladimir died in 1015, his sons fought over the throne. Eventually, Yaroslav the Wise prevailed and by 1036 had subdued the whole of Kievan Rus.

6 Olga was baptized in 957

6 Baptism of Vladimir I in 988


5 St. Sophie's cathedral in Novgorod,
built under Vladimir I in the eleventh ñ

see also collection:

Russian Architecture

Russian Icons


During Yaroslav's reign, Kiev experienced a golden era in 4 architecture and culture influenced by Byzantine culture.

Yaroslav was the first to codify Russian law—a combination of Byzantine laws and Slavic common law.

4 St. Sophie's cathedral in Kiev,
eleventh century

see also collection:

Russian Architecture

Russian Icons



The Russian Primary Chronicle

The Primary Chronicle recounts Kievan Rus history up to the twelfth century. It was compiled by an unknown author probably at the end of the eleventh century in Kiev's cave monastery.

For along time, it was known by the name of the monk Nestor, who was thought to have compiled it. However, he only revised it, shortly after 1110.

Manuscript illustration in a medieval Russian chronicle:
 looting of Kiev by an opposed Russian prince



The Rule of the Mongols

The Mongols conquered the internally divided Kievan Rus in the early 13th century and obligated it to make tribute payments.


After the death of Yaroslav in 1054, Kievan Rus was divided among his sons. The eldest member of the Rurik dynasty was supposed to exercise titular sovereignty, yet after every change in ruler there were renewed struggles for the throne and further division of the inheritance.

Even significant rulers such as 8 Vladimir II (known as Monomakh or "sole ruler") and Mstislav the Great in the twelfth century were unable to reunite Kievan Rus.

To make matters worse, economic declim set in. The profitable Black Sea trade, for example, was lost to the Venetians and Genoese in the 13th century.

Only 7 Novgorod continued to experience growth through trade with the Hanse.

Kievan Rus was politically splintered and shaken by wars and attacks on its borders. Thus the Mongols—known as "Tatars" to the Russians—were easily able to conquer the Russian principalities. The first defeat of the Russians at the Kalka River, northeast of the Crimea, in 1223 was without consequence at first as the Mongols under Genghis Khan considered it only a preparation for further conquests in the future. However, a decade after Genghis Khan's death, his grandson, Batu Khan of the Golden Horde, established the rule of the Mongols in Russia. The Russian princes were forced to pay tribute to the khans, pay taxes, and tolerate political control by Mongol envoys.

8 Crown of Vladimir II (Monomakh), ca. 300

7 View over the city of Novgorod, copper engraving, 17th century

In 1240 the Rurik prince Alexander repelled a Swedish invasion at the Neva River, thus acquiring the surname Nevsky.

He also 10 beat back the Teutonic Knights on the frozen Lake Peipus in 1242.

10 Battle between Russians and the Teutonic Order, movie scene

In 1263, Alexander Nevsky entrusted the city of Moscow to his son Daniel as an independent principality.

Daniel's son, 9 Ivan I—known as Kalita ("moneybags")—bought the favor of the khans and began to subjugate neighboring principalities; in 1328 he assumed the title of grand prince.

9 Ivan I Kalita

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church also moved his seat to Moscow.

Eventually, the Moscow grand princes turned against their Mongol overlords and successfully rebelled against them.

Ivan's grandson, Dmitri Donskoi, won the first major victory over the Mongol army in 1380 at 12 Kulikovo on the Don, taking advantage of the fact that the Golden Horde had been disintegrating since 1357 and that the plague had hit them especially hard.

Competing Turik khanates had emerged from the Crimea to Siberia, and these were later conquered by Russia.

The last of these to come under Russian influence was the 11 khanate of the Crimean Tatars in the 18th century. At the time it had been under Ottoman suzerainty.

12 Battle of Kulikovo, book illustration, 16th ñ

11 Palace of the Crimean Tatar Khans in Bachtshissarai,
painting, 19th century



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