Nasher Museum of Art

  • 1978_20_5_v1_700

    Austrian, The Visitation, c. 1350. Stained glass and lead, 24 x 10 1/4 inches (61 x 26.1 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Gift of Mrs. Ella Brummer in memory of her husband, Ernest Brummer, 1978.20.5.

  • 1966_10_1_v1_700

    Italian, Archivolt from the Cathedral of Alife, Italy, 12th century. Marble. Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. The Brummer Collection, 1966.10.1.

  • 1966_147_1_v1_700

    French, Apostle, c. 1125-1150. Limestone, 35 3/16 x 11 1/2 inches (89.3 x 29.2 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. The Brummer Collection, 1966.147.1.


The medieval period in Europe (also known as the Middle Ages) is generally understood as stretching from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 to the start of the Renaissance around 1400. Art production in the period included architectural and free-standing sculpture, stained glass, manuscripts, and painting (fresco [pigment mixed with wet plaster] and tempera [pigment mixed with egg, on panel]). Much of the surviving art from the period relates to Christian church building and religious life. In other words, the artworks served specific functions.

Today, many of the medieval objects in museums are fragments, at some point intentionally removed from their original context or salvaged from the rubble of a site that was damaged or destroyed. Although you do not necessarily need to know how a work came to be part of the museum’s collection in order to learn from the work, provenance (the history of ownership and place of origin) is important to consider.The Duke University Museum of Art (the precursor to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University) was founded in 1966 with the acquisition of 200 medieval works from Mrs. Ella Brummer, the widow of Ernest Brummer. Ernest (1891-1964) and his brother, Joseph (1883-1947), amassed a large collection of medieval art while working as art dealers starting after WWI.

How do you look at medieval works?

Look at the material and its condition.

  • What condition is the work in?
  • Is it worn down from exposure to the weather?
  • Do you see any traces of polychrome (colors)? Many works were originally painted, but the colors may have worn off over time.
  • Is the work a complete work or is it a fragment?
  • Has anything been restored? How can you tell?

Look for figures.

  • Is the person young or old? Male or female? Individualized or generic? Naturalistic or exaggerated? Expressive or not? A local or historic person, religious being, mythological character, or allegorical figure?
  • Can you identify the figure? Who is it? How can you tell?
  • What attributes (visual characteristics) make the individual recognizable?
  • Where else have you seen the figure, if at all? Where would you expect to see him or her? Why do you think this?
  • If there are multiple beings, how do they interact with each other? What do you think is the significance of this interaction, or lack thereof?
  • If the figures were originally installed in an architectural setting, how do you think they interacted with the architecture? Why do you think they were specifically chosen for the particular structure?

Look for a narrative.

  • Does the work depict a narrative, or do you think the work was part of a larger narrative? If so, what story is illustrated? Is it religious, mythological, or literary?
  • How is the narrative visualized? How does it unfold?
  • What message(s) do you think the viewer was supposed to interpret from the narrative? What moral and/or spiritual lesson(s) do you think the viewer was supposed to learn?
  • Do you think different viewers would have understood the story and its lesson(s) the same way or differently? Why do you think this?

Look for ornamentation (decorative elements and embellishments).

  • Is the ornamentation design geometric or organic? Dynamic or static?
  • What is the relation between it and the overall form and function of the work?
  • If there are also figures in the work, what is the relation between the ornamentation and the figures? How does the ornamentation draw attention to the figure, or not, and vice versa?
  • What do you think is the significance of the ornamentation? What sort of meaning do you think it conveyed? Why do you think this?

Look like you lived in the medieval period.

  • How was the work originally displayed or used? What was its original setting and context?
    • If the back of a sculpture is flat, it may have been attached to an architectural structure.
    • If the back of a sculpture is hollowed out, it may have been part of an altarpiece.
    • If the sculpture is carved all around, it was likely free-standing.
  • Who would have seen and/or interacted with the work?
  • From what position or angle would the work have been seen? What do you think the lighting would have been like?
  • Do you see any evidence of exchange between different religious groups, cities, and/or cultures in the work?

Look like a 21st-century viewer.

  • How do you think your interaction with and experience of the work in the museum compares to people’s interactions with and experiences of the work in the medieval period?

Look at the work’s history and provenance.

  • Where did the work originally come from? Was it created for a public or private space? Why do you think this?
  • Where was the work made? Who made it—an individual or a workshop?
  • Who commissioned the work, and why?
  • Is the work a complete work or is it a fragment? If it is a fragment, what is missing? How and/or why was the original work partially destroyed?
  • How did it get to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University? Where else has the work been? Who else has owned it?
  • If we don’t know where the object came from, how could you go about finding out its provenance?


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