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






Influenced by China, a Japanese empire began developing in the fourth century and experienced its blossoming in the eighth century. During the ensuing period, great cultural achievements were accompanied by a decline in imperial power. With the emergence of the samurai class between the 8th and 12th centuries, the form of feudalism developed that would remain characteristic for Japan into the 19th century.


Development of State and Culture

Following the phase of state building, the Nara Period was a cultural high point.


According to mythology, the state of Japan was founded in 600 B.C. when the god Ninigi descended on Mount Kirishimayana and was the forerunner of Jimmu, the first emperor.

In reality, there probably existed only various subkingdoms that were first united into a large empire around 400 a.d. under the 4 Yamato dynasty, which still reigns to this day.

The Yamatos based their claim to rule on their descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu, the highest god in 6 Shintoism.

4 Burial gift from a ruler of the Yamato Period,
clay sculpture, seventh century

6 Shinto ceremony in Kyoto: Drummer playing
the big Taiko drum, which is used to call and
entertain the gods

This combined in the Japanese emperor, the Unno, the functions of a high priest and political power. Many 1 cultural achievements were adopted from China, such as script and metallurgy. Buddhist missionaries began arriving on the islands in 552.

Empress Suiko and her designated prince regent 2 Shotoku later promoted Buddhism.

1 Pagoda in Nara in the family temple of the Fujiwara,
built 710

2 Prince Shotoku flanked by younger brother (left: Prince Eguri)
and first son (right: Prince Yamashiro), woodblock painting

In 604, a 17-article constitution was promulgated that contained, among other things, moral maxims and the principle of a hierarchical order of society.
The Taika reforms introduced in 646 followed Chinese precedent and were meant to strengthen centralized imperial power over the aristocracy. The country would be ruled from the capital city Nara through imperial officials. All land was claimed by the emperor, who granted estates to loyal nobility as fiefs.

Japan experienced a cultural high point during the Nara Period, particularly during the reign of Emperor Shomu, who ruled until 756. He modified the Taika reforms in 743, giving the nobility the right to bequeath their properties. Consequently, they were in a position to build up a power base and thus to increasingly weaken central authority over the course of a few generations. The gradual rise of the Fujiwara family, of which Shomu's mother and wife were both members, began during his reign.

Shomu also promoted 3 Buddhism.

He had the famous 5 Todaiji temple with the 48 foot-high Daibutsu ("Great Buddha") erected in Nara.

To avoid the growing power of the Buddhist priests and monasteries, Emperor Kammu moved the capital in 784 to Heian-kyo— modern Kyoto—and the Heian Period began.

3 Bodhisattva, from the Nara period,
varnished scupture, eighth century

5 Archway of the Todaiji temple in Nara, built in the eighth century


Shoguns, Samurai, and Daimyos

The imperial court lost political power with the development of feudal structures governed over by shoguns and based on military force and samurai warrior groups.


The arts, particularly literature, became highly refined during the Heian Period, from 794 to 1185; the ladies of the court especially were notable authors. While court culture blossomed, the political power of the emperor continued to wane.

His functions became limited to ritual religious tasks, while the real power rested with the noble families who had built up their estates into autonomous dominions and then entangled the country in 9 civil wars.

Initially, the 7 Fujiwara family was the leading dynasty.

During the war to expand the empire into the north in the eighth century, the fighting efficiency of the army of conscripts proved insufficient.

9 Burning of the palce in Kyoto during
a rebellion in 1159, painting,
twelfth-14th century

7 Villa of the Fujiwara family in Kyoto, built in 1052 in 1052, later converted into a temple

The well-trained 10 samurai mercenaries were much more effective in battle—and also in the civil wars.

Certain families specialized in leading these samurai and became a warrior nobility. The system was multitiered in which individuals swore allegiance to particular leaders, who in turn were loyal to certain powerful families. Among these dynasties, the Taira and the Minamoto clans increasingly challenged the power of the Fujiwaras.

The Tairas displaced the Fujiwaras after a 11 civil war in the mid-twelfth century and were in turn defeated in 1185 by the 8 Minamotos.

In 1192, 12 Minamoto Yoritomo had the emperor give him the hereditary title of shogun ("imperial general") and created the Kamakura shogunate, named after his seat of government.

Early in the Kamakura Period, which lasted from 1192 to 1333, however, a shift of power again took place, with the Hojo clan rising to become hereditary regents of the shogunate in 1203, while the shoguns were pushed into the background.

The daimyo class led the samurai warrior caste during the twelfth century. The Hojos were dependent upon them to drive off the invasion attempts of the Mongol Kublai Khan in 1274 and 1281. They succeeded—purportedly assisted by divine winds, the kamikaze—but because it was not a conquest and there were no spoils, the daimyos' loyalty to the central government diminished.
Emperor Go-Daigo took advantage of this dissatisfaction in 1333 and overthrew the Kamakura shoguns and their Hojo regents with the help of samurai from the Ashikaga family. This Kemmu Restoration lasted only until 1338, when Ashikaga Takauji, who himself had hoped to be shogun, took over power in a coup.

10 Helmet and steel face mask of a
samurai warrior in the style of the 14th ñ

11 Battle scene during the civil war
against the Fujiwaras, painting

8 Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the "ideal
knight" of the Japanese "middle ages,"
wood engraving, 19th century

12 Minamoto Yoritomo


Lady of the court

From The Pillow Book of the

Lady of the Court

Sei Shonagon

"A groom who is happy to see the father-in-law
A bride,that pleases the mother-in-law
A liegeman, who never defames his master...
Men, women, and priests who
maintain a lifelong friendship.
Many books capture that of
which does not know a single one."

Lady of the court



Sei Shōnagon

Japanese writer

born c. 966, Japan
died c. 1025, Japan

diarist and poet, a witty, learned lady of the court, whose The Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi), apart from its brilliant and original Japanese prose style, is the best modern-day source of information on Japanese court life in the Heian period (784–1185).

Sei Shōnagon was the daughter of the poet Kiyohara Motosuke and was in the service of the empress Sadako at the capital of Heian-kyō (Kyōto) from about 991 to 1000. Her Pillow Book, which covers the period of her life at court, consists in part of vividly recounted memoirs of her impressions and observations and in part of categories such as “Annoying Things” or “Things Which Distract in Moments of Boredom” within which she lists and classifies the people, events, and objects around her. The work is notable for Sei Shōnagon’s sensitive descriptions of nature and everyday life and for its mingling of appreciative sentiments and the detached, even caustic, value judgments typical of a sophisticated court lady.

Sei Shōnagon was apparently not a beauty, but her ready wit and intelligence secured her place at court. Those qualities, according to the diary of her contemporary Murasaki Shikibu, also won her numerous enemies. Though capable of great tenderness, Sei Shōnagon was often merciless in the display of her wit, and she showed little sympathy for those unfortunates whose ignorance or poverty rendered them ridiculous in her eyes. Her ability to catch allusions or to compose in an instant a verse exactly suited to each occasion is evident in the bedside jottings that are contained in her Pillow Book. Legend states that Sei Shōnagon spent her old age in misery and loneliness. English translations of the Pillow Book were prepared by Arthur Waley (1929) and Ivan Morris (1967).


The Pillow Book

work by Sei Shōnagon
Japanese Makura No Sōshi
(c. 1000), title of a book of reminiscences and impressions by the 11th-century Japanese court lady Sei Shōnagon. Whether the title was generic and whether Sei Shōnagon herself used it is not known, but other diaries of the Heian period (794–1185) indicate that such journals may have been kept by both men and women in their sleeping quarters, hence the name. The entries in Makura no sōshi, although some are dated, are not in chronological order but rather are divided under such headings as “Amusing Things” and “Vexatious Things.” A complete English translation of Makura no sōshi by Ivan Morris appeared in 1967 (The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon). The Pillow Book belongs to the genre of zuihitsu (“random jottings”). Tsurezuregusa, by Yoshida Kenkō, is an outstanding 14th-century example of this genre.


see also text


"The Tale of Genji"



Murasaki Shikibu
Japanese courtier and author

born c. 978, Kyōto, Japan
died c. 1014, Kyōto

court lady who was the author of the Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), generally considered the greatest work of Japanese literature and thought to be the world’s oldest full novel.

Her real name is unknown; it is conjectured that she acquired the sobriquet of Murasaki from the name of the heroine of her novel. The main source of knowledge about her life is the diary she kept between 1007 and 1010. This work possesses considerable interest for the delightful glimpses it affords of life at the court of the empress Jōtō mon’in, whom Murasaki Shikibu served.

Some critics believe that she wrote the entire Tale of Genji between 1001 (the year her husband, Fujiwara Nobutaka, died) and 1005, when she began serving at court. More probably, however, the composition of this extremely long and complex novel extended over a much greater period and was not finished until about 1010.

The Tale of Genji captures the image of a unique society of ultrarefined and elegant aristocrats, whose indispensable accomplishments were skill in poetry, music, calligraphy, and courtship. Much of it is concerned with the loves of Prince Genji and the different women in his life, all of whom are exquisitely delineated. Although the novel does not contain scenes of powerful action, it is permeated with a sensitivity to human emotions and to the beauties of nature hardly paralleled elsewhere. The tone of the novel darkens as it progresses, indicating perhaps a deepening of Murasaki Shikibu’s Buddhist conviction of the vanity of the world. Some, however, believe that its last 14 chapters were written by another author. The translation (1935) of The Tale of Genji by Arthur Waley is a classic of English literature. Murasaki Shikibu’s diary is included in Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan (1935), translated by Annie Shepley Ōmori and Kōchi Doi.





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