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Gothic Art and Architecture Artworks

Gothic Art and Architecture Collage

Started: 1120

Ended: 1400

Artworks and Artists of Gothic Art and Architecture

The below artworks are the most important in Gothic Art and Architecture - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Gothic Art and Architecture. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (1194-1260)

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (1194-1260)

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.”

Bamberger Reiter (c.1225-1237)

Bamberger Reiter (c.1225-1237)

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.

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Annunciation and Visitation (c.1225-45)

Annunciation and Visitation (c.1225-45)

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.

North Rose Window at Notre Dame Cathedral of Chartres (c.1235)

North Rose Window at Notre Dame Cathedral of Chartres (c.1235)

This iconic rose window, resplendent with rich color that makes it a masterwork of Gothic stained glass, depicts the Madonna and Child at its center. They are surrounded by twelve panels, radiating like the petals of a flower and depicting doves representing the gifts of the spirit and angels holding candles. In the next ring, 12 square windows placed at various angles show the Old Testament Kings of Judah, while small quatrefoils bear the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of France. The outer ring’s half circles show the Old Testament prophets, while just below the rose window, four lancet windows on either side carry the insignia of the kingdoms of France in blue and gold and of Castile in red and gold, noting the window’s patron, Queen Blanche of Castile. Five lancet windows below depict King Melchizedek, King David, the Virgin Mary as a child being held by St. Anne, her mother, in the center, and King Solomon and the high priest Aaron. These figures are portrayed as standing upon a defeated enemy; for instance, a vignette below King David’s feet depicts King Saul committing suicide.

As most worshippers were illiterate, stained glass windows played a didactic role, illustrating stories of the Bible and conveying moral meaning. Iconography played an important role in designing such windows, as the number 12, repeated here, symbolized the unity of the trinity times the number 4 representing mankind. The colors, too, were significant, as blue symbolized the Virgin Mary, whereas red symbolized the suffering and passion of Christ. Many of the church’s 176 windows used predominantly this distinctive shade of blue, named the “bleu de Chartres.” The rose was considered to be a symbol of perfect love as well as the “eye of God,” announcing God’s illuminating presence among men. The light, ever changing, radiated through the depths of the cathedral, creating an inspiring otherworldly effect, while the image reflected the sustaining presence of the Virgin Mary as comforting mother to Catholic worshippers of the era.

The windows of Chartres influenced the development of the Rayonnant style, which emphasized the rose window’s radial effect, exaggerating the petal-like shapes radiating from its center into “rays” of colored glass. The church has remained a continuing presence in the cultural imagination, as seen in filmmaker Orson Welles’ description in his film F for Fake (1973) as “this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest.” UNESCO described the cathedral as “a museum to stained glass.”

Maestà di Santa Trinita (1280–1285)

Maestà di Santa Trinita (1280–1285)

By: Cimabue

Cimabue depicts the Madonna and Child enthroned in Heaven, seated upon an intricate gold throne that also suggests the architecture of Heaven, with its tower-like pillars. The two are flanked by angels, arranged symmetrically on either side, their hands holding the towers as if supporting them, while the faces of the first pair turn to the side, and the others above them turn toward the Virgin. Their wings create an overlapping pattern of color gradations illuminated by gold that both encloses and emphasizes the Madonna while leading the eye upward to her gaze at the apex of the triangle. Below, four prophets look out through a trio of arches, conveying the authority of tradition.

Cimabue’s innovations included moving painting away from Byzantine flat depictions and stylized figures, favoring instead more realistic proportions and shading, as seen in the naturalistic drapery of the Virgin’s clothing and the placement of her feet suggesting movement. A more naturalistic treatment of space is also evident, as seen in the two lower angels, whose placement shows that they are clearly standing behind the towers before them, as their figures take on an aspect of three-dimensionality. A noted teacher, Cimabue trained Pacino di Bonaguida and was said to have discovered Giotto. As art critic John Haber wrote of Cimabue, “In his grand, multi-tiered architecture and spare, wiry human forms, he could serve as the culmination of past ages or the beginning of the new.”

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Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ) (1304-1306)

Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ) (1304-1306)

By: Giotto

This Late Gothic fresco depicts the mourning of Christ, as he is cradled by his mother who looks closely into his face, while Mary Magdalene holds his feet, and other shrouded mourners surround him. To the right, two apostles stand beside a stone wall that creates a diagonal that separates the human scene from the blue sky, where a multitude of angels flies, their wings and postures conveying divine distress. Other disciples stand at the left, one bending forward, the other with his face in his hands.

Giotto’s masterful composition keeps the viewer focused on the dead Christ’s face and the interaction between him and Mary while at the same time creating a radical sense of space in a rather shallow setting. Giotto depicts two disciples in the foreground with their backs to the viewer, and the central figures to the right with bent backs rise to the disciple who flings his arms behind him in a state of grief. He points to the group of mourners on the other side, unifying the crowd. The circular group of people emphasizes Christ’s horizontal body, and the radically foreshortened angels in the sky echo the earthly circular formation below.

The artist’s treatment of human emotion is realistic and powerful, as body language and facial expression convey both the outcry of anguish and the stolid presence of grief. This innovative sense of composition and a sculptural approach to the human figure, conveying gravity and weight, made Giotto’s work both the pinnacle of Late Gothic work and an important influence upon the Renaissance.

The very wealthy Enrico Scrovegni commissioned the fresco cycle in the Padua chapel to be his funerary monument and penance for his father’s usury, a sin in the Catholic church at the time. Giotto was thus funded and painted 37 scenes, arranged in three tiers, depicting the narrative of Christ’s life and the life of the Virgin, along with interspersed quatrefoil images of the Old Testament. Giovanni Villani, a chronicler of Giotto’s era, wrote that the artist was "the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature,” and in the 1500s Vasari described the artist as being a forerunner of the Renaissance, “introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years.”

Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus (1333)

Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus (1333)

By: Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi

The central panel depicts the Annunciation, when archangel Gabriel, carrying an olive branch, kneels before Mary, darkly robed on the right, and informs her that she will give birth to the son of God. Between them, a vase containing lilies, symbolizing purity, sits on the floor, while above in the central arch, a group of angels appears, their wings interlocking in a mandorla. The words “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” in Latin are embossed in gold, extending diagonally from the angel’s open lips toward Mary. Exquisite detailing, as seen in the angels’ wings and the decorative motif of the chair where Mary sits, give the work a sense of precise and elegant refinement.

The central panel is considered one of Martini’s masterworks, showing his innovative use of line combined with a sense of movement and human expression. The angel’s gown flares behind him as if he has just landed, and the Virgin seems to recoil, her face disbelieving at his announcement. Though the setting, employing extensive gold, and subject reflect Byzantine tradition, the portrayal of the Annunciation as a dramatic moment was unique in its time.

The prodigious use of gold leaf, lapis lazuli, and expensive lacquer, indicate the high status of this altarpiece, commissioned by the Cathedral of Siena, and dedicated to the city’s patron saints. Some scholars credit Lippo Memmi with the depiction of St. Margaret, on the far right, though other scholars also attribute to him the portrayals of St. Ansanus on the left and the prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Daniel, in the tondos, or circular paintings. However, Memmi’s depictions lack the sophistication of Martini’s approach.

David and a prophet from the Well of Moses (1395-1403)

David and a prophet from the Well of Moses (1395-1403)

By: Claus Sluter

In this view of the hexagonally shaped Well of Moses, one sees two of the six figures that surround the monumental edifice. The biblical King David, holding a scroll in his left hand, is visible at the left, while the Prophet Jeremiah, holding up a large book from which a scroll unfurls, is pictured on the right. Standing atop thin columns between the human figures, three angels are partially visible, their flaring wings creating the fount of the well. The fount was meant to convey not only the Well of Moses in Egypt but also the living water of the Christian faith, symbolized in baptism. A kind of sacred history is conveyed in the gathering of these figures, each connected to the word of God through the scrolls that he holds.

With its naturalistic human figures, powerfully conveying physical presence and individualized expressions, while denoting courtly elegance in the flowing rhythm of draperies and scrolls, this work innovatively exemplified the International Gothic Style. The Carthusian Monastery in Dijon commissioned the work from the artist who was the court artist for Phillip the Bold of Burgundy. The original structure was more complex, as the center of the well included a pier, carved with prophets and angels, and a cross rising from the depths to tower over the well, but only the well itself has survived. Originally the sculpture was painted and gilded by Jean Malouel, traces of which are visible in the blue bands of David’s robe and Jeremiah’s green sleeve, which would have created a more animated and lively effect. The sculptor has conveyed his subjects’ importance while also depicting their different personalities: David’s sense of strong but relaxed authority and Jeremiah’s pensiveness.

Sluter’s innovative three-dimensional and emotionally expressive figures had a noted influence upon Northern European Renaissance artists, including Rogier Van der Weyden, Matthias Grünewald, and Albrecht Dürer.

Related Movements and Major Works

Christ Pantocrator (6th century)

Christ Pantocrator (6th century)

Movement: Byzantine Art and Architecture

This wooden panel, painted in encaustic, or colored wax, depicts Christ in a frontal view, his head framed by a halo which contains the shape of the cross. He raises his right hand in a gesture of blessing and holds a Gospel book, gilded with a jewel-inlay cross, in his left. The folds of his purple tunic and himation, a Greek garment, are modeled with darker and lighter shades of color. His figure, nearly life-size and filling the pictorial frame, combined with his calm and direct gaze, give the work a sense of immediacy that seems to impel him toward the viewer. The dark lines of his hairline, eyebrows, and eyes draw attention to his luminous face, while subtle white highlights, contrasting with deeper shadows, enliven his expression. Behind him, spatial depth is conveyed by the architectural framework and a low horizon line.

This image is the earliest surviving depiction of the Christ Pantocrator, meaning the "all-powerful," and set the precedent for the popular iconographic type that spread through Byzantium and eventually into Europe. It was painted in Constantinople and sent by Justinian I as a gift to honor the founding of the monastery located near Mount Sinai, the sacred site associated with the prophet Moses and the Ten Commandments. Due to its isolation and its distance from Constantinople, the monastery evaded the widespread destruction of art during the Iconoclastic Controversy and, therefore, is noted for its exceptional Early Byzantine artworks.

Duomo di Pisa (1063-1092)

Movement: Romanesque Architecture and Art

The entrance to Pisa Cathedral, made of light-colored local stone, has three symmetrically arranged portals, the center portal being the largest, with four blind arcades echoing their effect. The round arches above the portal and the arcades create a unifying effect, as do the columns that frame each entrance. The building is an example of what has been called Pisa Romanesque, as it synthesizes elements of Lombard Romanesque, Byzantine, and Islamic architecture. Lombard bands of colored stone frame the columns and arches and extend horizontally. Above the doors, paintings depicting the Virgin Mary draw upon Byzantine art, and at the top of the seven round arches, diamond and circular shapes in geometric patterns of colored stone echo Islamic motifs. The upper levels of the building are symmetrically arranged in bands of blind arcades and innovatively employ small columns that convey an effect of refinement.

The name of two architects, Buscheto, and Rainaldo, were inscribed in the church, though little is known of them, except for this project. Buscheto was the initial designer of the square that, along with the Cathedral, included the famous leaning Tower of Pisa, done in the same Romanesque style, visible here in the background, and the Baptistery. Following his death, Rainaldo expanded the cathedral in the 1100's, of whom his inscription read, "Rainaldo, the skilful workman and master builder, executed this wonderful, costly work, and did so with amazing skill and ingenuity."

Dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the church was consecrated in 1118 by Pope Gelasius II. The church's construction was informed by the political and cultural era, as it was meant to rival St. Mark's Basilica then being reconstructed in Venice, a competing maritime city-state. The building was financed by the spoils of war, from Pisa's defeat of Muslim forces in Sicily, and it was built outside of the walls to show that the city had nothing to fear. The Pisa plaza became a symbol of the city itself, as shown by the famous Italian writer Gabriele D'Annunzio calling the square, "prato dei Miracoli," or "meadow of miracles" in 1910, so the plaza has been known since as the "Field of Miracles."

The Ghent Altarpiece (1432)

The Ghent Altarpiece (1432)

Artist: Jan van Eyck (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

The Ghent Altarpiece is a monumental polyptych painting centered on themes of Redemption and Salvation. As the most stolen artwork in history, it is also a work with a troubled history. Additionally, after nearly 400 years of being the assumed masterpiece of Jan van Eyck, a discovery in 1823 cast doubts on this attribution. Ironically, it was Jan's own writing that put this into question with an inscription stating: "The painter Hubert van Eyck, greater than whom no one is to be found, began [the work]; Jan, the second brother, with art completed it." This last phrase has also been translated as, "Jan, his second in art, completed it." In 2016, the inscription was authenticated to Jan van Eyck, and records later discovered tie Hubert to two preliminary drawings submitted to the Ghent council and thereby confirm that he began the commission in the early 1420s. Following Hubert's death in 1426, work on the altarpiece continued under the supervision of Jan van Eyck until, as the inscription continues, "the work was paid for by Joos Vijd. By this verse on the 6th day of May you are invited to contemplate this work." Most scholars agree that the credit for this major work ought to be shared between the two brothers; exactly where the line is drawn between their respective contributions remains a source of debate.

The combination of infinite detail and epic scale in The Ghent Altarpiece marks an extraordinary achievement by the van Eycks. The altarpiece consists of 24 separate panels, with 12 different panels on view whether the altar is open or closed. The central theme of the closed altar is the Annunciation, taking place across multiple panels in the middle tier, within a relatively austere room, sometimes described as a chapel. The angel Gabriel has just spoken the phrase painted in gold on the panel, which translates from Latin to, "Hail who art full of grace, the Lord is with you," and the Virgin Mary's reply, written upside as if to be viewed from heaven reads, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord." The action is accompanied by everyday objects laden with symbolic meaning, such as white lilies held by Gabriel symbolic of Mary's purity, with a radiant dove above Mary - a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Through the windows the artist depicts a modern view of Ghent, connecting the sacred moment to the current day. Overseeing the event are Old Testament prophets Zacharias and Micah, and a pair of Sibyls, pagan seers associated with visions of the messiah; directly below is a pair of statues depicting Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist painted in the grisaille technique. Breaking the monochromatic palette of the closed altar are the donor portraits of Jodocus Vijd and his wife, Elizabeth Borluut cloaked in red and green.

When the polyptych is open, the full impact of van Eyck's achievement is clear. The Communion of Saints is portrayed, which, as described in the Revelation of St. John takes place in "the new heaven and the new earth." In comparison to the spare coloration of the closed altar, the interior scene is exuberantly rendered in brilliant coloration. The central panel of the lower tier depicts a crowd symbolizing the Eight Beatitudes (those described in the Sermon on the Mount) gathered around the altar where the sacrifice of the Lamb takes place in the heavenly garden. On the left, prophets are followed by patriarchs of the Old Testament; to the right the apostles of the New Testament kneel before the sacrifice followed by leading figures of the Church dressed in regal finery. The two end panels portray the knights of Christ on the left, such as Emperor Charlemagne and Louis IX (now a painted replica of the lost original), and the Just Judges on the far right.

The central panel of the open altarpiece, titled The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, established the Flemish characteristic of using symbols as a means to communicate theological concerns. The Holy Trinity is symbolized by the dove of the Holy Spirit, within a glowing halo, an aniconic symbol of God, hovering in the sky over the lamb on the sacrificial altar, a symbol long associated with Christ. The blood from the lamb flows into a chalice, evoking the Eucharist, in the foreground an octagonal fountain represents eternal life, as the eight-sided polygon represents the intersection of heaven and earth. The elevated horizon is defined by thick groves of trees and a graceful Gothic cityscape. For van Eyck, this architectural style was often symbolic of the New Testament's promise of salvation.

Overseeing the gathering of the masses, on the top tier of the altar piece are three seated figures, Christ in majesty with St. John the Baptist on his right and the Virgin as Queen of Heaven on his left. This trio, known as the Deesis, shows Mary and St. John as intercessors between the faithful and Christ. A choir of angels flanks the figures, singing and playing instruments. The individuality of features and emotions betrayed by the singing angels is in stark contrast to idealization of Medieval art. Poignantly, the stark realism in the rendering of the first couple, the nude figures of Adam and Eve, marks a new ethos in religious painting. And yet, even this realism in loaded with symbolic meaning suggesting the toil of Adam after the Expulsion from the Garden. Over each figure is a scene from the Old Testament rendered in grisaille, the first sacrifice and first murder, linking the fall from grace to the hope for salvation, represented here as the sacrifice of the lamb and the Eucharist offering.

Charney, who also authored "Stealing the Mystic Lamb," describes The Ghent Altarpiece as "the first large-scale oil painting to gain international renown." Although the grandeur suggests the influence of Byzantine icons, the realism and exactitude of details was something altogether new. In 1794, the central panels of the altarpiece were stolen by Napoleon's army and soon after put on display in the Louvre where they would inspire a generation of French artists; most famously, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' portrait depicting Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806). Charney continues, "The international reputation of the painting and its painter, particularly taking into account its establishment of a new artistic medium that would become the universal choice for centuries, makes for a strong argument that The Ghent Altarpiece is the most important painting in history."

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