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Gothic Art and Architecture

Gothic Art and Architecture Collage

Started: 1120

Ended: 1400

“Every painting is a voyage into a sacred harbor.”


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, 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

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.
Gothic Art and Architecture Image


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.

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