The European Middle Ages lasted for a millennium after the fall of the Roman Empire (c. 450). Most of the objects in this gallery date to the High Middle Ages (1100–1400), a period of great political, intellectual, and economic growth. During this time, the regions of England, France, Germany, and Italy, among others, began to take shape as political entities, and the first universities were founded in Oxford, Paris, and Bologna. Economies became less agrarian and more mercantile, and growing cities drew artisans and merchants who stimulated trade. Exchange developed between the eastern Byzantine Empire (c. 330–1453) and western Europe with the trafficking of precious materials, books, and knowledge. Many of the artistic traditions of Byzantium, centered in Constantinople, were emulated in the West, as evidenced by objects here. Wealth spread to a burgeoning middle class, and individual patrons commissioned works of art for private devotion.
Through the patronage of monasteries, parish churches, and cathedrals—among the wealthiest and most powerful institutions of their time—ornate objects were produced for ecclesiastical purposes. Censers, reliquaries, and crosses, used to celebrate Mass, were made of rare and costly materials, befitting the stature of the saints and God.
Churches and public spaces were elaborately decorated. Some objects, such as depictions of the Virgin and Child, could be carried in procession or placed in chapels for prayer or contemplation. Several of the works in this gallery were once architectural elements or parts of larger objects. Their fragmentary nature reminds us of both the complex artistic programs to which they once belonged and the way museums necessarily separate art from its original context.