Contrary to popular belief, people in the Middle Ages loved color – and could afford it. They also liked to be, well, naked. Which makes sense, considering how much Medieval people liked throwing rotten vegetables at each other.
Some people take the term “Dark Ages” a little too literally. There is a notion in popular culture that the Medieval Period was a time when everyone lived in absolute poverty, wore clothes that looked like they were sewn together by a 6-year-old, and bathed zero times during their entire lives. The dark-filtered movies and shows depicting the Medieval period are supposed to symbolically reflect how bleak everyone’s life was.
Medieval clothes: Holywood vs. reality
A great example of this is the filter used in the European portion of The Kingdom of Heaven, which holds a rather negative view of Medieval Europe.
Raggedy grey clothing and a dark filter (and swords from the wrong centuries, but I digress):
This is what Medieval Europeans of that time period actually wore:
You may be forgiven if you think that these are just nobles, so here are some peasants:
Nobles wore embroidered dyed clothing. Peasants wore simpler versions, but they still weren’t rotten-vegetables-covered rags (again, unless you were a bad musician).
Yes, the Medieval Period could be hard on people. But, it wasn’t gloomy and it wasn’t necessarily a whole lot better or worse for the average person than Antiquity or the Early Modern Period.
The same holds true of Medieval architecture, which was also often colorfully decorated. This is particularly true of churches.
This is how Hollywood often depicts churches (of any era). Cold, grey, and lifeless:
Russians who traveled to Greece in the late 10th century described the churches they saw as follows:
Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on Earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.
Russian churches built afterward incorporated the Greek elements into their exterior and especially interior design. This is what Russian Orthodox churches look like from the outside.
This is what most Orthodox churches look like on the inside. It’s an art style that hasn’t changed much in over a thousand years and even remains fairly constant across most of Eastern Europe.
Let’s go through some more churches where Medieval people worshiped in the Middle Ages.
This is the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, finished in the early 4th century. Technically, it was built before the Middle Ages, but people in Italy worshipped in the splendor of many churches in the same style throughout the whole of the Middle Ages.
This is the Hagia Sophia, finished in 537, the Middle of the Dark Ages. Unfortunately, Muslims destroyed the Christian Orthodox murals (see Russian Orthodox church above) which would have once graced its walls and ceilings after Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. Islam doesn’t allow the painting of sentient beings, so the Christian artwork was considered sacrilegious.
This is Basilica of Saint Servatius, finished in 550 AD, the Middle of the Dark Ages.
This is the Aachen Cathedral, finished in 805, the end of the Dark Ages.
The next two images are the Santiago de Compostelo Cathedral and Cathedral of Pisa, both dating to the 11th century. This is what was being built in Europe around when the Crusades first began.
This is the Scrovegni Cathedral, finished in 1305 A.D. and demonstrating some of the art styles which would evolve into the Renaissance murals found on later churches like the Sistine Chapel.
Many of the Medieval churches still around today have had their Medieval artwork destroyed or allowed to decay without restoration.
You mentioned nudity?
Yes, I did.
Nudity was very common until the Protestant Reformation and public bathing was very popular in the Middle Ages.
The above are illuminated manuscripts circa 14th century.
Nudity was a symbol of purity in the middle ages and everyone participated in it. Bathing, dancing, games, and feasts in the nude among mixed company were very common.
Many thanks to Slavik Chukhlebov for his answer on Quora on Medieval clothing and architecture and to Glen Monroe for her answer on nudity in the Middle Ages. You will find more images in their answers.