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27 Jul

Gothic Art and Architecture

Gothic architecture developed in France in the middle of the 14th century when numerous Romanesque churches all over Europe were still under construction. Gothic style from France spread throughout Europe and became the predominant architectural style until the end of the Middle Ages. The first Gothic architects did not introduce any new forms but the architectural style and building technique completely changed. Gothic architecture was exclusively a French style in first three decades but Gothic style replaced the Romanesque architecture in most Western European countries by the middle of the 13th century.

A photo of the Basilica of Saint Denis, Saint-Denis (northern suburb of Paris), France, middle of the 12th century

Basilica of Saint Denis

Widespread and popularity of Gothic architecture in Medieval Europe can be explained by its esthetic and technical advantages as well as by the political influence of France in the 12th and 13th century. The ambulatory of the Basilica of Saint Denis which was constructed between 1140 and 1144 became the prototype of Gothic architecture. Among the most important innovations of the Basilica of Saint Denis are also the large stained glass windows in the apse and the rose window on the facade.

A photo of interior of the Tournai Cathedral, Belgium, 12th-13th century, with a view from the Romanesque nave towards fully developed Gothic choir

Interior of the Tournai Cathedral

Some of the most distinctive characteristics of Gothic architecture like pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses are derived from the Romanesque style. Generally there was not a clear break between Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles, while numerous buildings feature characteristics of both architectural styles. The Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai, Belgium, is one of the finest examples of the combination of Gothic and Romanesque architectural styles.

A photo (taken around 1900) of the historical city hall of Muenster, Germany, first half of the 14th century

Historical city hall of Münster

The finest examples of the Gothic architecture are definitely religious buildings. However, besides numerous magnificent Gothic cathedrals, abbeys and parish churches few civic buildings in Gothic style such as castles, palaces, town halls, guild halls, universities and private dwellings remained preserved as well throughout Europe.

A photo of interior of the Cologne Cathedral, Germany

The 144 meters (472 feet) high nave of the Cologne Cathedral

Gothic religious architecture is notable for lightness and very tall structure which was achieved through the development of certain architectural features like pointed arches and ribbed vaults. Besides pointed arches which created an appearance of height, latter was also emphasized by high towers and spires.

A photo of western facade of the Ripon Cathedral, England

Ripon Cathedral, England

Wall surfaces were reduced after the introduction of flying buttresses and use of ribbed vaults. Thus large windows which let in more light are one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Gothic architecture.

Floor plan of the Amiens Cathedral, France, 13th century

Amiens Cathedral, France

The majority of Gothic churches and cathedrals followed the traditional basilican plan of a central nave flanked by aisles with or without the transept which was generally abbreviated. Thus the transept of churches with double aisles often does not project beyond the aisles. The apse of Gothic churches was surrounded by an ambulatory and often also by a ring of chapels known as chevettes. The nave and aisles of the so-called hall churches were of approximately equal height. St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria, is one of the finest examples of the hall churches which reached their height during the Gothic period.

A photo of the Gothic cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, France, 12th century

Notre Dame de Paris

The exterior of the Gothic churches and cathedrals is notable for high towers and spires of various forms and styles. The facade creates a powerful impression demonstrating both the mightiness of God and of the institution which it represents. The entrance of Gothic cathedrals is notable for having three portals with tympanum in their arches. The tympanum is an important piece of sculpture most frequently depicting Christ in Majesty and the Judgement Day.

Above the central portal in the centre of the middle level of the facade is usually a stained glass rose window which illuminates the central space. Unlike Romanesque churches, Gothic churches feature large windows often filled with stained glass which added color to the light within the church and provided a medium for figurative and narrative art. The replacement of extensive wall areas by large windows initiated the rise of stained glass as an art form because there was little space left for the mural.

An example of Gothic capital

Gothic capital

Gothic churches and cathedrals featured rich decoration both inside and outside. Besides the typical decoration with pointed arches, Gothic churches also featured sculptural decoration commonly depicting the biblical stories and miracles. Popular ornamentation motifs were also the Labours of the Months, while numerous decorative schemes also depict the virtues and sins, and sometimes even the Zodiac. The capitals were usually ornamented with various leaves, tendrils and flower motifs sometimes featuring birds and other animals, different comical motifs such as clerics arguing as well as with old pagan motifs such as tong-poking monsters and dragons. However, unlike fearsome Romanesque ornamentation which emphasized the punishment for the sins the main purpose of the Gothic decoration was to express the glory of God.

Poor Man's Bible window, Canterbury Cathedral, England

Poor Man’s Bible window

The statues, sculptural decoration, stained glass and rare murals besides Jesus and his mother Virgin Mary also depicted all important saints and other important biblical figures. Stained glass widows often featured illustration of the teachings of the Bible intended for largely illiterate population and are known as the Poor Man’s Bible windows. Besides art works of religious nature Gothic churches also featured depictions of kings, powerful nobles and prelates, while the images of saints often included depictions of their donors.

Construction of Gothic churches and cathedrals lasted for decades, sometimes even for centuries. Economic crises, wars, fires, etc. often interrupted the construction. In later period, Gothic architecture was often regarded as barbarian and thus numerous Gothic churches and cathedrals were left unfinished and tops of the towers of numerous cathedrals never completed.

A photo of the Milan Cathedral, Italy, 14th century

Milan Cathedral, Italy

Gothic architecture spread throughout Europe but it was strongly influenced by local characteristics. Thus developed some regional differences. The French Gothic architectural style from the middle of the 13th century to middle of the 14th century also known as Rayonnant and was marked by the enlargement of windows in such proportieons that the walls were almost entirely of glass.

A photo of vaulted ceiling of the Exeter Cathedral, England, that was rebuilt in Decorated Gothic style in the 13th century

Vaulted ceiling of the Exeter Cathedral, England

Roughly parallel to the French Rayonnant evolved the Decorated style in England which was characterized by window tracery and more complex vaulting.

Fan vault of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England

King’s College Chapel Cambridge, England

The regional variations of Gothic style became even more emphasized in the period after the mid-14th century also known as the Late Gothic style. In Britain, Germany and Spain developed exceptional Late Gothic architecture, while Italy that never completely adopted Gothic architecture entered the period of the Early Renaissance in the 15th century. Late Gothic architecture in Germany was notable for construction of large hall churches, while the Perpendicular style also known as the Rectilinear style marked the Late Gothic architecture in England. The Perpendicular style developed from the Decorated style characterized by vertical lines particularly in tracery and paneling. Important features of the Perpendicular style are also fan vaults and enlargement of the windows to great proportions.

An example of the Flamboyant tracery, Limoges Cathedral, France

Limoges Cathedral, France

The Late Gothic architecture in France and Spain in the 15th century was marked by the Flamboyant style which is notable for the flame-like shaped tracery which gave the style its name. Spanish Flamboyant architects developed their own forms of vaulting with curvilinear patterns and combined Gothic style with Renaissance elements (Isabelline Gothic) at the end of Middle Ages. Spanish Gothic architecture was also marked by the Islamic influence in both decoration and form.

Photo of jamb statues, Chartres Cathedral, France

Chartres Cathedral, France

Gothic art evolved concurrent with Gothic architecture but it was initially closely tied to architecture and predominantly served for decoration of the churches and cathedrals. Thus Gothic art mediums (sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco and illuminated manuscripts) were dominated by religious motifs inspired by the Biblical stories. However, the rise of cities, foundation of universities, increased trade and rise of the bourgeois class which patronized art resulted in the increased amount of secular themes and motifs.

Statue of Mary, Bamberg Cathedral, Germany, 13th century

Statue of Mary, Bamberg Cathedral, Germany, 13th century

The early Gothic sculptures were still formally integrated in the architecture. The sculptural elements began to protrude from their architectural background in the 13th century and sculpture developed into an independent art form by the 14th century. Gothic sculptures from the 14th century onwards reflected a tendency toward realism, while sculpture in Italy was under Classical influence which can be seen in works of Italian sculptor Nicola Pisano (c.1220/1225 – c. 1284). The tendency towards realism and naturalism which had its origin in the sepulture portrait sculpture became even more emphasized in the 15th century which clearly reflect the treatment of draperies, facial expressions and poses. Thus Gothic sculptures appear more humane and natural in compare to sculptures from the period of Romanesque.

Decoration of Gothic churches and cathedral besides stone sculptures also featured altar sculptures predominantly made out of wood, designed more precisely and usually colored. Traces of color can be also found on numerous stone sculptures but the color of the majority stone sculptures was erased by time.

Crucifixion by Altichiero da Zevio, Saint James Chapel in Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, Italy

Crucifixion by Altichiero da Zevio

Painting during the Gothic period went through a similar process like sculpture. Monumental fresco painting in Italy continued to flourish also during the Gothic period, while fresco painting elsewhere in Europe was rare because the replacement of extensive wall areas with large windows left little space for wall paintings. However, Gothic cathedrals with tall skeletal structures and large windows initiated the rise of stained glass as an art form. Besides greater illumination of the interior the stained glass windows added to the light also a dimension of color and evolved into a medium used to illustrate the stories and teachings of the Bible to a largely illiterate population (Poor Man’s Bible).

Crucifix by Cimabue, Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence, Italy, 1287-1288

Crucifix by Cimabue

Gothic painting in the 13th century was still greatly influenced by the religious scheme and emphasized settling, proportioning and decorative coloring. The main motifs were religious but eventually the painters began to depict secular motifs such as courtly life, hunting and various feast-days. Gothic painting became more realistic by the end of the 13th century, while Cimabue’s (c.1240 – c. 1302) Crucifix in Basilica di Santa Croce reflected greater interest in volume and perspective. His pupil Giotto di Bondone (c. 1266 – 1337) furthered the move toward naturalism and made a decisive break with the Byzantine style which greatly influenced Italian painting by that time.

Painting The Miracle of the Child Falling from the Balcony by Simone Martini, about 1324

The Miracle of the Child Falling from the Balcony, Simone Martini

Major figure in the development of Italian Gothic painting was also Simone Martini (c. 1284 – c. 1344) whose works greatly influenced the development of the International Gothic in the second half of the 14th century which was the predominant style in Europe until the beginning of the 15th century. International Gothic developed as a synthesis of Martini’s courtly elegance and Flemish tension of depicting details, The style was distinctive for rich stylistic features, decorative coloring and flowing lines as well as for more rational use of perspectives.

Painting The Arnolfini Portrait created by Jan van Eyck in 1434

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

The Early Renaissance painting developed about 1420 in Italy, while almost simultaneously emerged the Early Netherlandish painting also known as the Flemish Primitives in northern Europe. The Early Netherlandish painting is remarkable for vigorously realistic depiction of figures as well as of space and landscape backgrounds.

A portrait of a woman by Robert Campin

Portrait of a woman by Robert Campin

Besides Jan van Eyck (c. 1395 – 1441) who is often regarded as the inventor of the oil painting the Early Netherlandish painting was also greatly influenced by Robert Campin (c. 1375 – 1444) known as Master of Flemalle. Camplin was one of the first artists to experiment with oil-based colors, while his works displayed great realistic observation. Oil-based painting was known already earlier but tempera remained the main medium for panel painting by that time, while oil was used only to paint sculptures and furniture.

The Early Netherlandish painters were the first to make oil the main painting medium which became the most popular painting technique after replacement of panel with canvas by Italian artists in the late 15th century. However, panel painting which developed at the end of the 12th and beginning of 13th century in Italy remained the predominant form of Gothic painting by the end of the 15th century.

The Early Netherlandish painting was also notable for genre painting such as scenes from everyday life and for introduction of portrait painting although religious scenes were still predominant. Among the finest Early Netherlandish paintings (besides Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin) are also works created by Rogier van der Weyden, Dirk Bouts, Petrus Christus, Joos van Wassenhove, Jaques Daret, Barthelemy d’Eyck, Simon Marmion, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes, Hieronymus Bosch, Gerard David, Jan Joest van Calcar, Albert van Ounwater, Michael Sittow, Quentin Matsys, Jan de Flanders, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Joachim Patinir, Jean Hey, Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy and Master of the Embroidered Foliage.

Initial B with miniature of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, 13th century illuminated manuscript

Initial B with miniature

Gothic painting was greatly influenced by the manuscript illumination, in first place by the miniatures named after red lead known as minium which was next to burnished gold the most popular background color of the miniatures. Manuscript illumination reached its golden age during the Gothic period. Besides illuminated manuscripts of religious nature also greatly increased the amount of illuminated secular texts, especially after the emergence of lay schools and universities in the 14th century.

A page from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc Berry illuminated by the Limburg bothers, early 15th century

A page from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc Berry illuminated by the Limburg bothers, early 15th century

In the 14th century, miniature began to free itself from its role of an integral part of the decorative scheme of illumination. Figure drawing became more elegant and delicate, while the background design became more elaborate and rich. The burnished gold background were added stippled patterns, while gold fields were sometimes replaced by colored or landscape backgrounds. Sometimes colors were abandoned for grisaille. The miniature painters at the end of the 14th century gained even greater freedom in composition and tensions toward greater realism and richer ornamentation can be noticed already in the early 15t century.

Illuminated manuscripts of religious nature like the Bible, Psalms and liturgical books were no longer the predominant forms of illuminated manuscripts in the Gothic period. However, in the Gothic period became very popular the Books of Hours, devotional books for individual use which were at the same time also liturgical.

In the 15th century, the French school lost its leading role to the Flemish school which reached its golden age in the second half of the 15th century and greatly influenced the Early Netherlandish painting. Italian miniature illumination in the 13th and 14th century was at a lower level than the miniatures of northern schools but under the influence of the Early Renaissance in the 15th century the Italian miniature painters became rivals to the best artists of the Flemish school. However, after the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 the illuminated manuscripts began to decline and with them also the art of miniature.

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