Wonders of the medieval world

From Byzantine mosaics to grand cathedrals, explore these awe-inspiring works of art and feats of engineering

  • Losing yourself in geometry at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

    As beautiful as it is, set atop a steep hill overlooking Granada and the snowcapped Sierra Nevada, the fact that 2 million visitors traipse through the Alhambra’s gardens and palaces every year might make you fear that you are being lured into a tourist trap. Instead, you’ll find yourself drawn into an extended meditation on Pythagorean mathematics (and some say remarkably advanced concepts like quasicrystalline designs) embedded into the geometric tile mosaics, plaster carvings and wooden marquetry ceilings. M.C. Escher visited the Alhambra in the 1930s and found his art forever changed, calling the union of math and design in the Islamic tiles, “the richest source of inspiration that I have ever tapped.” Moving from room to room, the rhythm of abstract patterns of lines and colors is mesmerizing. Whatever it all means (A quest for unity? A vehicle for contemplating the nature of the universe? Interior design for the perplexed?), this is a place of peace, light and intellect that feels far removed from the dark vision that many have of medieval Europe. Map it.

  • Studying the evolution of student life in Bologna, Italy

    The word “universitas” — referring to a community of teachers and students embarking on higher education — was first recorded here at the Universit

  • Seeking illumination in the Book of Kells in Dublin, Ireland

    Dating back to the beginning of the 9th century, the Book of Kells is among the most exquisite of medieval manuscripts. On its 340 folios, Celtic monks demonstrated their mastery of calligraphy and illustration, taking ornamentation beyond ornate to the most elaborate extremes of detail. The text’s seemingly submissive role is evidenced by occasional mistakes and missing parts … perhaps indicating that the readers already knew all the words by heart. As the printing press took off, illuminated manuscripts disappeared and painting found its way to a better medium than book pages. Still, this medieval art form continues to inspire believers and nonbelievers alike. Even today, at a time when the book as a physical object is slipping away, designs from the Book of Kells pop up on everything from corporate logos to anime to tattoo art. Map it.

  • Admiring the mosaics at the Byzantine Basilica in Porec, Croatia

    Follow the original Roman roads around the old quarter of Porec and you’ll find the temple of Neptune, Romanesque houses, medieval towers, Venetian-style Renaissance architecture, and Gothic palaces, but the local treasure is the 6th-century Byzantine Basilica Euphrasius. Built 1,500 years ago on the site of an even older Christian church (and before that a Roman temple), the carved columns, capitals and harmonious arches frame the main attraction, amazingly preserved shimmering gold mosaics. Among the angels, saints, apostles, Virgin Mary and female martyrs is a depiction of Bishop Euphrasius holding a model of the church itself in his hands and a bedazzling Jesus opening a book to a page that reads “Ego sum Lux vera” (I am the true light). Time it right during the summer and you can even catch a top-notch classical music concert in the basilica, with Neptune’s crystal-clear Adriatic just a short walk away. Map it.

  • Crossing the Devil’s Bridge soulfully in C

    At C

  • Straining your neck taking in Salisbury Cathedral, England

    Salisbury and its cathedral are like the kid at school who excelled in every subject, from maths to sport, and despite years of trying you never found his Achilles’ heel. Sadly, he didn’t have one, and happily, neither does Salisbury. This well-preserved Wiltshire setting, with a market dating back seven centuries, remains a perfect haven for historians, tourists and random visitors alike and the Cathedral continues to be the main attraction. At 404 feet its spire easily has the bragging rights as the country’s tallest. Having recently celebrated its 750th birthday, what was once a 38-year medieval building project still dwarfs modern structures with its immense vision of permanence. Map it.

  • Unraveling the history of the Norman invasion in Bayeux, France

    What’s old is new again … Like modern-day comic book artists, medieval storytellers merged text and pictures to spin yarns about epic heroes and battles. As you walk along the 230-foot-long, 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry the story of the Norman invasion of England unfolds before you, in particular the Battle of Hastings led by William the Conquerer. What makes it a masterpiece is not only the beauty of the design, composition, colors and embroidery, but also the historical detail of the buildup to war and the horrific blood bath of the two sides in battle with a climax of clashing horses and crumpled fatalities. In the margins are odd decorations: mythic beasts, erotic acts, natural phenomena (including Haley’s comet), and during the battle scenes graphic depictions of human loss. Map it.

  • Getting a bird’s-eye view in San Gimignano, Italy

    They don’t call San Gimignano “Medieval Manhattan” for nothing. The 14 towers in this sweet Tuscan hamlet stretch skyward, taking your eyes with them. For a town that takes all of 15 minutes to traverse on foot, encountering a skyline is certainly unexpected. San Gimignano’s main museum is located in the Palazzo Comunale and includes access to the city’s central tower, the Torre Grossa, with its soaring view of the surrounding hills. The vertiginous climb includes glass and spiral stairways, and the wind up there is whipping — not for the weak of heart, but definitely worth the workout. Map it.

  • Contemplating time at Prague’s Astronomical Clock

    You have to love a clock that doesn’t bother counting insignificant minutes and seconds. Built in 1410, Prague’s Astronomical Clock tells time on a much grander scale. On the outer rings, you can see the hours tick by on a 24-hour scheme, but also “Bohemian Time” — a system that counted the hours since sunset. The inner mechanical components colorfully mark the sunrise, sunset, phases of the moon, position of the sun, and the zodiac, essentially painting a picture of the position of the Earth within the universe as it was understood in medieval times. On the hour, the four animated figures around the dial — later additions — come to life: Death with his hourglass and bell, Vanity with his mirror, Greed waving a bag of gold, and a Turk. The last two (inadvertently) depict the 17th-century ethnic stereotypes and tensions that would haunt Central Europe in the future. Map it.

  • Getting medieval at the Mus

    Paris is an ancient city, and nowhere is its pre-Renaissance history more alive than at the National Museum of the Middle Ages in the 5th Arrondissement. The building that houses the vast collection of objects dating from antiquity through the late Middle Ages is an attraction in and of itself. Originally built as an abbey in the 15th century atop a Gallo-Roman bath complex, visitors can wander through more than 2,000 years of architectural achievement, while viewing a sundry of stained glass, Gothic sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, and fiber works including “the Lady and the Unicorn” — a six-panel wool and silk tapestry considered to be one of the greatest extant works of medieval art. Map it.

  • Reflecting on medieval life and art in New York

    The monastic structure of the Cloisters beckons both tourists and locals alike to venture in from its upper Manhattan park surroundings. It’s home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval treasures, where architecture — ranging from five reconstructed French cloisters to an outdoor terrace overlooking the Hudson River — heightens the experience of immersion. Re-creating the medieval world on American soil is an interesting endeavor that has resulted in a more eclectic and geographically representative collection than you might find in Europe. At the end of the visit, step into the institution’s Fuentidue