Gothic art was a style of medieval art that developed in Northern France out of Romanesque art in the 12th century AD, led by the concurrent development of Gothic architecture. It spread to all of Western Europe, and much of Southern and Central Europe, never quite effacing more classical styles in Italy. In the late 14th century, the sophisticated court style of International Gothic developed, which continued to evolve until the late 15th century. In many areas, especially Germany, Late Gothic art continued well into the 16th century, before being subsumed into Renaissance art. Primary media in the Gothic period included sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco and illuminated manuscripts. The easily recognizable shifts in architecture from Romanesque to Gothic, and Gothic to Renaissance styles, are typically used to define the periods in art in all media, although in many ways figurative art developed at a different pace.
The earliest Gothic art was monumental sculpture, on the walls of Cathedrals and abbeys. Christian art was often typological in nature (see Medieval allegory), showing the stories of the New Testament and the Old Testament side by side. Saints’ lives were often depicted. Images of the Virgin Mary changed from the Byzantine iconic form to a more human and affectionate mother, cuddling her infant, swaying from her hip, and showing the refined manners of a well-born aristocratic courtly lady.
Secular art came into its own during this period with the rise of cities, foundation of universities, increase in trade, the establishment of a money-based economy and the creation of a bourgeois class who could afford to patronize the arts and commission works resulting in a proliferation of paintings and illuminated manuscripts. Increased literacy and a growing body of secular vernacular literature encouraged the representation of secular themes in art. With the growth of cities, trade guilds were formed and artists were often required to be members of a painters’ guild—as a result, because of better record keeping, more artists are known to us by name in this period than any previous; some artists were even so bold as to sign their names.
Gothic art emerged in Île-de-France, France, in the early 12th century at the Abbey Church of St Denis built by Abbot Suger. The style rapidly spread beyond its origins in architecture to sculpture, both monumental and personal in size, textile art, and painting, which took a variety of forms, including fresco, stained glass, the illuminated manuscript, and panel painting. Monastic orders, especially the Cistercians and the Carthusians, were important builders who disseminated the style and developed distinctive variants of it across Europe. Regional variations of architecture remained important, even when, by the late 14th century, a coherent universal style known as International Gothic had evolved, which continued until the late 15th century, and beyond in many areas.
Although there was far more secular Gothic art than is often thought today, as generally the survival rate of religious art has been better than for secular equivalents, a large proportion of the art produced in the period was religious, whether commissioned by the church or by the laity. Gothic art was often typological in nature, reflecting a belief that the events of the Old Testament pre-figured those of the New, and that this was indeed their main significance.
Old and New Testament scenes were shown side by side in works like the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, and the decoration of churches. The Gothic period coincided with a great resurgence in Marian devotion, in which the visual arts played a major part. Images of the Virgin Mary developed from the Byzantine hieratic types, through the Coronation of the Virgin, to more human and intimate types, and cycles of the Life of the Virgin were very popular. Artists like Giotto, Fra Angelico and Pietro Lorenzetti in Italy, and Early Netherlandish painting, brought realism and a more natural humanity to art. Western artists, and their patrons, became much more confident in innovative iconography, and much more originality is seen, although copied formulae were still used by most artists.
Iconography was affected by changes in theology, with depictions of the Assumption of Mary gaining ground on the older Death of the Virgin, and in devotional practices such as the Devotio Moderna, which produced new treatments of Christ in subjects such as the Man of Sorrows, Pensive Christ and Pietà, which emphasized his human suffering and vulnerability, in a parallel movement to that in depictions of the Virgin. Even in Last Judgements Christ was now usually shown exposing his chest to show the wounds of his Passion. Saints were shown more frequently, and altarpieces showed saints relevant to the particular church or donor in attendance on a Crucifixion or enthroned Virgin and Child, or occupying the central space themselves (this usually for works designed for side-chapels). Over the period many ancient iconographical features that originated in New Testament apocrypha were gradually eliminated under clerical pressure, like the midwives at the Nativity, though others were too well-established, and considered harmless.
In front of the Romanesque churches and monasteries, having said this in general, the Gothic rises, as its emblematic architectural work, prodigious cathedrals full of light as well as with a great height, these being its main technical contributions, which are justified in the writings of Pseudo Dionisio Aeropagita, although an important civil architecture was also developed. Another of its characteristics is that other plastic arts, such as painting and sculpture, began to become independent from their subordination to architectural support.
However, there are also many elements of continuity: this is still a predominantly religious art; The monastery as an institution hardly varies except in formal details and adaptation to new requirements, but its layout did not present variations, and the plan of the churches, mostly cathedrals, remained predominantly of a Latin cross with an apse head facing east, although it was complicate or vary (basilical plants, placement of the transept in the center, complication of naves, chapels and ambulances). Without a doubt the main element of continuity is the timeless conception ofwork: in most of the constructions the styles follow one another and merge to the rhythm of the centuries, contemporaries knowing that they do a work that they would not see finished, nor perhaps their children or grandchildren, but that the construction of these buildings implies the I work several generations. In many of them, even the boldness to start a technical or economic challenge is valued, sometimes due to political rivalry, which when the project is started has not been fully planned so it is not known how to complete it, it is the case of the cathedrals of Siena and Florence.
The new religious buildings are characterized by the definition of a space that wants to bring the faithful, in an experiential and almost palpable way, the religious and symbolic values of the time. the humanismincipient freed man from the dark darkness and invited him into the light. This fact is related to the dissemination of Neoplatonic philosophical currents, which establish a link between the concept of God and the field of light. As the new construction techniques made the walls virtually unnecessary for the benefit of the openings, the interior of the churches was filled with light, and the light will shape the new Gothic space. It will be a physical light, not contained in paintings and mosaics; general and diffused light, not concentrated in points and directed as if it were a focus; at the same time that it is a light transfigured and colored through the play of stained glass and rose windows, which transforms the space into an unreal and symbolic one. Color will become crucially important.
Light is understood as the sublimation of divinity. Symbology dominates the artists of the time, the Chartres school considers light the noblest element of natural phenomena, the least material element, the closest approximation to pure form.
The Gothic architect organizes a structure that allows him, through the use of technique, to use light, transfigured light, which dematerializes the elements of the building, achieving clear sensations of elevation and weightlessness.
The most original novelty of Gothic architecture is the disappearance of the thick walls typical of Romanesque architecture. The weight of the structure is no longer absorbed by the walls, but distributed on pillars and a series of secondary structures placed outside the buildings. Thus were born the walls of light, covered by magnificent windows, to which corresponded on the outside a complex network of elements for releasing the forces. The flying buttresses, the pinnacles, the unloading arches are all structural elements, which contain and direct the lateral thrusts of the roof to the ground, while the infill walls lose importance, replaced by the windows. The extraordinary ability of Gothic architects does not end in the new static structure: the buildings, freed from the limit of the masonry walls, developed with vertical impetus, reaching touches of heights at the limits of the possibilities of statics.
In England there was a further development of the cross vault with the six-segment vault and then the radial or fan vault: solutions that allowed even better weight distribution. The Gothic cathedral was conceived as a metaphor for Heaven, therefore the Last Judgment was often carved at its entrance.
Late Gothic Architecture
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Gothic developed in new directions with respect to the forms of the previous two centuries.
The building of the XIV and XV centuries was characterized by a central nave of considerable height and by the two much lower lateral naves. This meant that the light was concentrated above all at the level of the clerestory.
In the late Gothic, on the other hand, the most common internal layout follows the model of the hall church, that is, with the side aisles of equal height compared to the central one. This meant that the light no longer came from above, but from the side walls, homogeneously illuminating the whole environment. The traditional directionality was also modified, losing its strong connotation for previous axes, in favor of a polycentric spatiality. This new vision of space has also been related to the more earthly and worldly religiosity of the fifteenth century.
The geography of this new sensibility presents a different map from that of classical Gothic: the most innovative regions were Germany, Bohemia, Poland, England and the Alpine area.
The Iberian peninsula saw the construction of some large cathedrals from the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries, inspired by the French and German models of previous centuries. In Portugal an autonomous trend resulted in the so-called Manueline art.
Painting in a style that can be called Gothic did not appear until about 1200, nearly 50 years after the origins of Gothic architecture and sculpture. The transition from Romanesque to Gothic is very imprecise and not at all a clear break, and Gothic ornamental detailing is often introduced before much change is seen in the style of figures or compositions themselves. Then figures become more animated in pose and facial expression, tend to be smaller in relation to the background of scenes, and are arranged more freely in the pictorial space, where there is room. This transition occurs first in England and France around 1200, in Germany around 1220 and Italy around 1300. Painting during the Gothic period was practiced in four primary media: frescos, panel paintings, manuscript illumination and stained glass.
Painting in the Gothic period underwent a considerable time difference compared to other arts, coming to a renewal with a delay of three to four decades, thanks to the Italian school (in particular Tuscan and perhaps Roman). Only in the second half of the thirteenth century, quickly burning the stages, did the painting fully renew itself, thanks to Giotto’s work.
The reasons for this delay were probably linked to the different models that painting and sculpture had: in Romanesque times the sculpture had already been renewed, rediscovering in some cases the still existing works of classicism, while for painting the main reference model was however the Byzantine school. With the conquest of Constantinople during the fourth crusade (1204) and with the formation of the Latin Kingdoms of the East, the flow of Byzantine paintings and mosaic works had even thickened.
In the second half of the thirteenth century, at the time of Nicola Pisano, the disconnect between narrative liveliness, naturalistic rendering and expressive force between sculpture and painting reached its climax, with the painters disarmed in front of the extraordinary innovations introduced by the sculptors. Within two generations, however, the painters were able to burn the stages, renewing models and language, even reaching the pictorial arts to recover spatiality, narrative liveliness, credible figures and plausible architectural or landscape settings. Painting was also benefited in the renewal from having a wider clientele, due to the decidedly cheaper costs.
From Romanesque painting, especially in central Italy, had inherited the spread of painted plates, supported by the mendicant orders for their practical portability. The main subjects were not many:
Shaped crucifixes, spent hanging at the end of the naves of the churches to arouse the commotion of the faithful;
Madonnas with the Child, symbols of the Ecclesia and symbol of a mother / child relationship that humanizes religion;
Depictions of saints, among which the new iconographies related to the figure of St. Francis of Assisi stand out.
Among the masters of the Italian thirteenth century were Berlinghiero Berlinghieri and Margaritone d’Arezzo, both still fully Byzantine, but which begin to show some typically western characters. Later Giunta Pisano came to the limit of the possibilities of Byzantine art, touching the creation of a typically “Italian” style. This limit was overcome by Cimabue, the first, according to Giorgio Vasari too, who departed from the ” stupid and not very agile and ordinary Greek way “. Finally, a new modern western style was formed in the construction site of the upper basilica of Assisi, with the famous frescoes attributed to Giotto. Recent studies have however partially reduced the innovative scope of the Italian school, showing how even in the Byzantine context painting was evolving (for example with the frescoes of the Sopoćani monastery, dated 1265).
In addition to the Giotto school (Taddeo Gaddi, Giottino, the Maestro della Santa Cecilia, Maso di Banco, etc.), the Sienese school with masters such as Duccio di Buoninsegna, Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Simone Martini was also of great importance. The importance of the Roman school with Pietro Cavallini, Jacopo Torriti and others is also quite recent. More independent personalities were Buonamico Buffalmacco or Vitale from Bologna.
Frescoes continued to be used as the main pictorial narrative craft on church walls in southern Europe as a continuation of early Christian and Romanesque traditions. An accident of survival has given Denmark and Sweden the largest groups of surviving church wall paintings in the Biblia pauperum style, usually extending up to recently constructed cross vaults. In both Denmark and Sweden, they were almost all covered with limewash after the Reformation which has preserved them, but some have also remained untouched since their creation. Among the finest examples from Denmark are those of the Elmelunde Master from the Danish island of Møn who decorated the churches of Fanefjord, Keldby and Elmelunde. Albertus Pictor is arguably the most well-known fresco artist from the period working in Sweden. Examples of Swedish churches with well-preserved frescos include Tensta, Gökhem and Anga churches.
In northern Europe, stained glass was an important and prestigious form of painting until the 15th century, when it became supplanted by panel painting. Gothic architecture greatly increased the amount of glass in large buildings, partly to allow for wide expanses of glass, as in rose windows. In the early part of the period mainly black paint and clear or brightly coloured glass was used, but in the early 14th century the use of compounds of silver, painted on glass which was then fired, allowed a number of variations of colour, centred on yellows, to be used with clear glass in a single piece. By the end of the period designs increasingly used large pieces of glass which were painted, with yellows as the dominant colours, and relatively few smaller pieces of glass in other colours.
The development of painting between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries was conditioned by the rapid emergence of Gothic building systems. In most of the new cathedrals the glass surfaces are now predominant compared to those in masonry and the need to decorate the walls therefore becomes increasingly marginal. It is for this reason that the ancient and consolidated techniques of mosaic and fresco are facing an inevitable decline. This decline is matched by the contemporary refinement of glass painting and panel painting, which had already begun to develop with some success in Roman times. Its realization is not subordinate to any architectural requirement and this allows artists to express themselves in absolute freedom. Glass painting consists in the realization of colored windows to be applied to the windows and rosettes of the cathedrals. It constitutes one of the most original and characteristic products of all Gothic art.
Since in the Middle Ages large slabs could not be obtained, each window had to be composed of several pieces put together. For this reason, it was decided to use colored glasses joined together by means of frames formed of “H” shaped lead strips. First the glasses were cut with red-hot metal tips following the drawings made previously, then the various pieces fit between the two wings of the lead strip. Each strip was welded to the adjacent one in order to recompose the design provided by the cardboard. The whole was finally inserted in an iron frame and walled. This technique made it possible to obtain figurations of great effect.
In order to paint the figures it was necessary to have colors that could grip directly on the glass. In France, grisaille (in Italian grisaglia) was experimented, a substance obtained from a mixture of glass powders and ferrous oxides ground and mixed with water and animal glues. The use of the grisaille was very simple: it was spread on the various pieces of glass to be decorated and, once dry, it had the peculiarity of making them opaque. Then the grisaille was scratched with a wooden stylus, bringing to light the transparency of the glass below. To fix the painting it was necessary to re-cook the individual glasses so that the grisaille would finish melting and mixing in the glass paste itself. In doing so the outlines traced became opaque,
The way of dealing with the themes of painting is affected by the changed historical, social and economic situation. The city bourgeoisie is now animated by a spirit of ever greater concreteness and its vision of the world and of life also changes radically.
There is a progressive updating of sacred narratives, in which the characters of the sacred scriptures appear dressed in clothing of the time and the places correspond to existing places.
In Italy, unlike France, England, Germany and the Netherlands, the fresco, and in part also the mosaic, continued to have a very wide diffusion. In religious symbols, the window allows the passage of supernatural, metaphysical light. The stained glass windows recall, according to Christian eschatology, the splendors of the heavenly Jerusalem of the Apocalypse. Light is the spirit of God and the window is a symbol of Marythat shines with divine light. Often the number of stained glass windows has a symbolic-religious value: they are in groups of three (the Trinity), of four (the Evangelists), in segments of seven (the seven sacraments, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven days of Creation according to Genesis).
Manuscripts and printmaking
Illuminated manuscripts represent the most complete record of Gothic painting, providing a record of styles in places where no monumental works have otherwise survived. The earliest full manuscripts with French Gothic illustrations date to the middle of the 13th century. Many such illuminated manuscripts were royal bibles, although psalters also included illustrations; the Parisian Psalter of Saint Louis, dating from 1253 to 1270, features 78 full-page illuminations in tempera paint and gold leaf.
During the late 13th century, scribes began to create prayer books for the laity, often known as books of hours due to their use at prescribed times of the day. The earliest known example seems to have written for an unknown laywoman living in a small village near Oxford in about 1240. Nobility frequently purchased such texts, paying handsomely for decorative illustrations; among the most well-known creators of these is Jean Pucelle, whose Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux was commissioned by King Charles IV as a gift for his queen, Jeanne d’Évreux. Elements of the French Gothic present in such works include the use of decorative page framing reminiscent of the architecture of the time with elongated and detailed figures. The use of spatial indicators such as building elements and natural features such as trees and clouds also denote the French Gothic style of illumination.
From the middle of the 14th century, blockbooks with both text and images cut as woodcut seem to have been affordable by parish priests in the Low Countries, where they were most popular. By the end of the century, printed books with illustrations, still mostly on religious subjects, were rapidly becoming accessible to the prosperous middle class, as were engravings of fairly high-quality by printmakers like Israhel van Meckenem and Master E. S.. In the 15th century, the introduction of cheap prints, mostly in woodcut, made it possible even for peasants to have devotional images at home. These images, tiny at the bottom of the market, often crudely coloured, were sold in thousands but are now extremely rare, most having been pasted to walls.
Altarpiece and panel painting
Painting with oil on canvas did not become popular until the 15th and 16th centuries and was a hallmark of Renaissance art. In Northern Europe the important and innovative school of Early Netherlandish painting is in an essentially Gothic style, but can also be regarded as part of the Northern Renaissance, as there was a long delay before the Italian revival of interest in classicism had a great impact in the north. Painters like Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck, made use of the technique of oil painting to create minutely detailed works, correct in perspective, where apparent realism was combined with richly complex symbolism arising precisely from the realistic detail they could now include, even in small works.
In Early Netherlandish painting, from the richest cities of Northern Europe, a new minute realism in oil painting was combined with subtle and complex theological allusions, expressed precisely through the highly detailed settings of religious scenes. The Mérode Altarpiece (1420s) of Robert Campin, and the Washington Van Eyck Annunciation or Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (both 1430s, by Jan van Eyck) are examples. For the wealthy, small panel paintings, even polyptychs in oil painting were becoming increasingly popular, often showing donor portraits alongside, though often much smaller than, the Virgin or saints depicted. These were usually displayed in the home.
Gothic sculpture moved from the role it had been given during the Romanesque period, that is, to decorate architecture and educate the faithful by creating the so-called stone Bibles.
Gradually the arrangement of the sculptures in the architectural construction became more complex and scenographic. The most important episodes of sculpture were, as in Romanesque times, the portals of the cathedrals, where the characters of the Old Testament and the New Testament are usually represented.
A fundamental passage is the fact that in the Gothic period the sculptures began to no longer be fully incorporated into the architectural space (the jamb of a portal or a capital…), but they began to free themselves by simply being leaned against the various load-bearing elements. Thus the first all-round statues appeared, even though an independent and isolated use of the same was not yet conceivable. It may be that the legacy of the fight against paganism, which venerated statues in the round as a divinity, was still latent, however until the Italian Renaissance, the statues were always placed against walls, in niches, under architraves or as caryatids and telamons.
From a stylistic point of view, the innovative features of Gothic sculpture are less evident than those introduced in architecture, but no less rich in consequences on subsequent developments in art history. If on the one hand the figure stretches considerably in length and the model lives on totally new games such as the virtuosic and sometimes improbable drapery, on the other hand he returned to plausible representations of body movement, facial expressions, individual physiognomies, with a the artist’s attention to naturalism never known in previous eras, than in the best examples (as in the portal of the Cathedral of Reims, around 1250, or in the works of Nicola Pisano) comes to be compared to Roman portraiture. This is all the more important since it precedes the same achievements in the pictorial field by a few decades.
Compared to classicism, however, a different expressive restlessness should be noted, a certain angularity of the forms and drapery, a restless use of the chiaroscuro effects.
The Gothic period is essentially defined by Gothic architecture, and does not entirely fit with the development of style in sculpture in either its start or finish. The facades of large churches, especially around doors, continued to have large tympanums, but also rows of sculpted figures spreading around them.
The statues on the Western (Royal) Portal at Chartres Cathedral (c. 1145) show an elegant but exaggerated columnar elongation, but those on the south transept portal, from 1215–20, show a more naturalistic style and increasing detachment from the wall behind, and some awareness of the classical tradition. These trends were continued in the west portal at Reims Cathedral of a few years later, where the figures are almost in the round, as became usual as Gothic spread across Europe. Bamberg Cathedral has perhaps the largest assemblage of 13th century sculpture, culminating in 1240 with the Bamberg Rider, the first life-size equestrian statue in Western art since the 6th century.
In Italy Nicola Pisano (1258–78) and his son Giovanni developed a style that is often called Proto-Renaissance, with unmistakable influence from Roman sarcophagi and sophisticated and crowded compositions, including a sympathetic handling of nudity, in relief panels on their pulpit of Siena Cathedral (1265–68), the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia, and Giovanni’s pulpit in Pistoia of 1301.
Another revival of classical style is seen in the International Gothic work of Claus Sluter and his followers in Burgundy and Flanders around 1400. Late Gothic sculpture continued in the North, with a fashion for very large wooden sculpted altarpieces with increasingly virtuoso carving and large numbers agitated expressive figures; most surviving examples are in Germany, after much iconoclasm elsewhere. Tilman Riemenschneider, Veit Stoss and others continued the style well into the 16th century, gradually absorbing Italian Renaissance influences.
Life-size tomb effigies in stone or alabaster became popular for the wealthy, and grand multi-level tombs evolved, with the Scaliger Tombs of Verona so large they had to be moved outside the church. By the 15th century there was an industry exporting Nottingham alabaster altar reliefs in groups of panels over much of Europe for economical parishes who could not afford stone retables.
Small carvings, for a mainly lay and often female market, became a considerable industry in Paris and some other centres. Types of ivories included small devotional polyptychs, single figures, especially of the Virgin, mirror-cases, combs, and elaborate caskets with scenes from Romances, used as engagement presents. The very wealthy collected extravagantly elaborate jewelled and enamelled metalwork, both secular and religious, like the Duc de Berry’s Holy Thorn Reliquary, until they ran short of money, when they were melted down again for cash.
Gothic sculptures independent of architectural ornament were primarily created as devotional objects for the home or intended as donations for local churches, although small reliefs in ivory, bone and wood cover both religious and secular subjects, and were for church and domestic use. Such sculptures were the work of urban artisans, and the most typical subject for three dimensional small statues is the Virgin Mary alone or with child. Paris was the main centre of ivory workshops, and exported to most of northern Europe, though Italy also had a considerable production.
An exemplar of these independent sculptures is among the collections of the Abbey Church of St Denis; the silver-gilt Virgin and Child dates to 1339 and features Mary enveloped in a flowing cloak holding an infantile Christ figure. Both the simplicity of the cloak and the youth of the child presage other sculptures found in northern Europe dating to the 14th century and early 15th century. Such sculpture shows an evolution from an earlier stiff and elongated style, still partly Romanesque, into a spatial and naturalistic feel in the late 12th and early 13th century. Other French Gothic sculptural subjects included figures and scenes from popular literature of the time. Imagery from the poetry of the troubadours was particularly popular among artisans of mirror-cases and small boxes presumably for use by women. The Casket with Scenes of Romances (Walters 71264) of 1330–50 is an unusually large example with space for a number of scenes from different literary sources.
Souvenirs of pilgrimages to shrines, such as clay or lead badges, medals and ampullae stamped with images were also popular and cheap. Their secular equivalent, the livery badge, were signs of feudal and political loyalty or alliance that came to be regarded as a social menace in England under bastard feudalism. The cheaper forms were sometimes given away free, as with the 13,000 badges ordered in 1483 by King Richard III of England in fustian cloth with his emblem of a white boar for the investiture of his son Edward as Prince of Wales, a huge number given the population at the time. The Dunstable Swan Jewel, modelled fully in the round in enamelled gold, is a far more exclusive version, that would have been given to someone very close or important to the donor.
The social consideration of art and the artist
The flourishing of the wool and cloth business, linked to the fairs and trade routes that cross Europe from north to south (from Florence, Genoa and Venice to Champagne and Flanders, without forgetting Medina del Campo), produce the birth of an art singular: the tapestry fabric, which had a very important social prestige. Not for their authors, who never went beyond the consideration of mere artisans, but for their owners. Not having a clear separation between the industrial arts and those that we consider fine arts today, the same could be said of master builders, painters and sculptors, that although we keep the name of many of them, they did not fail to also exercise one of the vile and mechanical trades, not even comparable to the liberal professions.