Gothic Art and Architecture
Summary of Gothic Art and Architecture
With soaring vaults and resplendent stained glass windows, Gothic architecture attempted to recreate a heavenly environment on earth. Elaborating on Romanesque styles, Gothic builders, beginning in the 12th century, further developed the use of flying buttresses and decorative tracery between stained glass windows thus creating interior spaces that dwarfed worshippers and dazzled their senses. Additionally, in response to a new interest in humanism (manifested later and powerfully in Rennaissance Humanism), architectural and portable sculpture primarily depicted figures that acquired more naturalistic and sensuous features than had previously existed in the Middle Ages. Wealthy noblemen commissioned sumptuous manuscript illuminations, and toward the end of the Gothic era in the 14th century, elaborate altarpieces and frescoes became more common in churches and chapels.
Renaissance artists and writers in the 16th century coined the term Gothic, and the early art historian Giorgio Vasari infamously reinforced the unfavorable connotations when he referred to Gothic art as “monstrous and barbaric” since it did not conform to classical ideals. It was not until the mid-1700s with the Gothic Revival in England that the style shed its negative associations. Subsequently Gothic architecture in particular inspired new churches in the 19th century, city buildings, and university architecture well into the 20th century.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- The innovations of Gothic architecture were premised on the ideas developed by Abbot Suger that earthly light contained divine light and that the physical edifice of the church needed to make this concept tangible. Revolutionary transformations of flying buttresses and groin vaulting allowed the inclusion of more stained glass windows in the church’s structure, thus transforming the everyday sunlight into a prism of colors that danced over the surfaces of the stone and reminded worshippers of God’s divine presence.
- A renewed interest in humanism, which had a slightly different cast than the later humanism of the Renaissance, led to more naturalistic figurative sculpture that decorated the exterior of the churches and housed sacred relics, which were increasingly important to a city’s reputation. In particular, representations of the Virgin Mary and Christ child move away from massive frontal poses to more typical, or everyday, poses that register the tender human emotion one often sees between mother and child.
- Combining aspects of Byzantine and Romanesque styles and even borrowing from Islamic architecture, Gothic art and architecture revel in its eclectic roots, growing and morphing to suit regional tastes and tendencies. By the end of the Middle Ages, the Gothic style had become “international” in its spread across Europe, and its emphasis on naturalism sparked the revolution in painting that flourished during the Renaissance even if its architecture was replaced with straighter lines and classical proportions.
Overview of Gothic Art and Architecture
City-states and feudal kingdoms dotted Europe, and the power of the Catholic church continued to grow during the Gothic era. With increasing prosperity and more stable governments, cultural changes included the early formations of universities, like the University of Paris in 1150, and the proliferation of Catholic orders, like the Franciscan and Dominicans. The monks and theologians ushered in a new Humanism that sought to reconcile Platonic ideals and Church theology. The humanism at this time saw man as part of a complex hierarchy, divinely ordered by God whose ultimate nature surpassed reason.
Important Art and Artists of Gothic Art and Architecture
Called “the high point of French Gothic art” by UNESCO, which designated Chartres cathedral a World Heritage Site, two spires dominate the Western façade; the spire on the right was completed about 1160, while the one on the left combines the original, lower tower with a spire in the Flamboyant style from the early 1500s. Together, the two towers create a dynamic vertical movement, echoed by the pointed arches of the openings and the three protruding columns ascending most of the length of the towers.
The cathedral is harmoniously composed of thirds, reflecting the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit); the three horizontal levels of the façade are clearly delineated, and three windows above the entrance echo the three portals. As a result, the cathedral powerfully conveys a sense of earthly power that is both grounded and soars upward.
The cathedral, situated on the tallest hill in the city of Chartres, dominates the view of the city, reflecting its importance not only as the center of religious life but also as a hub of economic and social life in its functions as a market place and a site for local fairs and festivals. As earlier buildings were destroyed in fires, the cathedral is the fifth church to be built on the site, a noted place of pilgrimage that was believed to house the Sancta Camisa, a garment that the Virgin Mary wore when she gave birth to Christ.
The rebuilding of this final cathedral that began in 1194, occurred in a relatively short period of time, and, as a result, the building has a remarkably cohesive style. Its innovations, including flying buttresses, three rose windows, many smaller stained glass windows, and the sculptural carvings around the portals, came to exemplify the Gothic style. Importantly, it has retained almost all of its original stained glass, a rarity for many churches. As the noted French author Victor Hugo wrote in the 1800s, cathedrals like Chartres belonged to “poetry and the people.”
This stone sculpture known as the Bamberg Rider depicts a crowned but unarmed man, seated on a horse, turning to look at the viewer. A convincing naturalism, portraying the subject with realistic proportions and details, pervades the life-sized work, as the horse holds its head with the bit in its teeth, and its left, rear leg flexes as if restless. The man’s fashionable curls and dress indicate an aristocratic background, and his figure conveys a confident calmness as he surveys the distance, while tugging on a strap to draw his cloak around his shoulders. Scholars have debated the identity of the man, believing he may be a specific king known for saintly qualities, and several candidates have been suggested, from Saint Stephen I of Hungary to Emperor Henry II or Emperor Frederick II. Other scholars have argued that the figure may be Christ as depicted in the Book of Revelation, and the city rendered in stone framing the rider’s head as symbolic of heavenly Jerusalem. Originally the work was painted, though only traces remain.
The horse’s front hooves are resting on a depiction of the Green Man, carved into the base’s Acanthus corbel. A figure of pagan mythology, the Green Man or Wild Man was associated with fertility and here suggests the Christ-like horseman’s demonic but conquered counterpart. The overall effect of the work is of calm authority, as if the worshipper would be reminded of Christ the King and his promised reign as well as the Christ-like authority believed to be embodied in rulers. As art historian Shirin Fozi notes, “His calm gaze seems to suggest that, despite the realities of shifting ethnic identities and complex national boundaries, medieval Europe could still dream of a world united under the paradigm of a perfect Christian king.”
The life-sized work was remarkably innovative, being the first monumental equestrian statue since Roman times. The work has had a long cultural life in Germany, as the image was often displayed in public buildings, schools, and private homes. The mystery of the horseman’s identity enabled the work to become an often-evoked symbol, the meaning of the figure interpreted according to the cultural and political environment.
This group of four figures found on the west portal of Reims Cathedral depicts the Annunciation and the Visitation of the Virgin Mary. The pair on the left depicts the smiling archangel Gabriel turning toward the Virgin Mary to tell her she will bear the son of God; Mary, who looks pensively downward, turns slightly toward the angel as if quietly listening. The Visitation, on the right, includes Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and her older cousin St. Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. Each of the figures conveys a sense of movement, as if they were engaged in conversation, their faces conveying subtle emotion, their draperies flowing realistically around them, and a touch of contrapposto can be seen, particularly in Elizabeth’s bent right knee.
The innovative figures are no longer emerging from pillars, as they were in the Romanesque and Early Gothic styles, but are fully realized sculptures, three-dimensional as if standing in front of the column-lined church. Because the work is anonymous like most Gothic era work, it’s not known if the same sculptor made all four figures, but the slender gracefulness of the two on the left compared with the more realistic depictions of the two on the right suggest that two different artists might be responsible. For worshippers of the day, they were convincingly life-like depictions of sacred figures, but as works of art the sculptures exemplify the High Gothic style while pointing the way to the later International Gothic style and the Renaissance.
Useful Resources on Gothic Art and Architecture
- 34k viewsA White Garment of Churches: Romanesque and Gothic ArtOur PickWith Michael Wood
- 228k viewsEngineering the Impossible: Chartres CathedralOur PickNational Geographic
- 118k viewsLandmarks of Western Art Documentary. Episode 01 The Late Medieval WorldArtandFilm21
- 14k viewsArchitects of the Divine: The First Gothic AgeArtDocumentaries
- 452 viewsWell of Moses, Dijon, FrancePlaces of Interest
- 65k viewsThe gothic cathedral: A landmark in engineeringOur PickTalk by Denis Smith / Imperial College London
- 56k viewsThe Hidden Masters of the Middle Ages: the Limbourg BrothersOur PickWith Peter van der Heijden
- Illuminated Manuscripts. Les Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry. 15th-Century ManuscriptTranslated by David Macrae / Edited by Edmond Pognon
- Gothic: Architecture, Sculpture, PaintingOur PickBy Rolf Roman and Achim Bednorz
- Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages 1140-1500By Bruno Klein, Rolf Tomam, and Achim Bednorz
- GiottoBy Francesca Flores d’Arcais
- Claus Sluter: Artist at the Court of BurgundyBy Kathleen Morand and David Finn
- Gothic Sculpture, 1140-1300 (The Yale University Press Pelican History of Art Series)By Paul Williamson
- Art review: A flowering in Florence is captured at the GettyBy Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times / November 13, 2012
- Everyone’s Talking about GiottoBy Bryan C. Keene / The Getty Iris / October 15, 2012
- Gothic buildings: pillars of faithOur PickBy Jonathan Meades / The Guardian / September 10, 2011
- How they built Chartres cathedralBy Thomas Marks / The Telegraph / May 3, 2008