Gothic Art and Architecture - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Gothic Art and Architecture
The Gothic Era
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.
Increasing trade led to the growth of many urban centers, and the local Cathedral became a sign of civic pride. At the same time, noble patronage began to play a primary role in building projects, as stained glass windows and portals emphasized the identification of the king as a kind of earthly representation of divine authority, as seen in the “royal portal” reserved for nobility and high ranking church officials. Some Gothic churches took decades to build, contributing both to the economy of the town and to the expansion of the necessary guilds that represented the various trades involved in construction and design. Most of the Early Gothic architects, sculptors, and designers of stained glass windows were anonymous, and it is only later in the High Gothic period that architects and artists known as “masters” became identified.
The architecture that informed the Gothic period drew upon a number of influences, including Romanesque, Byzantine, and Middle Eastern.
Romanesque churches from the 10th to the 12th centuries are noted for their use of barrel vaults, rounded arches, towers, and their thick walls, pillars and piers. Housing the relics of saints, the churches were part of the pilgrimage routes that extended throughout Europe, as the faithful visited the holy sites to seek forgiveness for their sins and attain the promise of Heaven.
Gothic architecture retained the Romanesque western façade as the entrance to the church with its two towers, three portals and sculptural works in the tympanum, a half circle area above the door, as well as its cruciform plan. While Gothic churches continued the religious tradition of the pilgrimage path, their new style reflected a new economic and political reality.
The Pointed Arch and Middle Eastern Architecture
The pointed arch was a noted element of Middle Eastern architecture beginning in the 7th century, as seen in the Al-Aqsa Mosque (780) in Jerusalem. Widely deployed in the building of mosques and palaces like the fortress of Al-Ukhaidir (775), the pointed arch was found throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Andalucia (modern day Spain), and Sicily. As architectural critic Jonathan Meades wrote, these early examples “would in the 12th century become the quintessential architecture of Christendom.” As the Pope and Catholic rulers sought to extend the range of Christianity in the Middle Ages through the Crusades, knowledge of Middle Eastern architecture became more common among Europeans.
The pointed arch made the Gothic style possible, as it could be used for asymmetrical spaces and to intersect columns at a sharp angle thus displacing the weight into the columns and lightening the walls. The structure also became key to a number of subsequent Gothic innovations, including the lancet arch, creating a high, narrow, and steeply pointed opening; the equilateral arch, widening the arch to allow for more circular forms in stained glass; and the flamboyant arch, primarily used in windows and traceries for decorative effect.
Flying Buttresses and Byzantine Architecture
The flying buttress was used in a few important and influential Byzantine structures. The buttress employed a massive column or pier, situated away from the building’s wall, and a “flyer,” an arch that, extending from the wall to the pier, displaced the weight-bearing load from the wall. The Basilica of San Vitale (547) in Ravenna, Italy, pioneered an early use of the flying buttress. The Basilica was famous for its mosaics and was a powerful symbol of the Byzantine Empire and the Roman Empire before it. As a result, it became a model for later architecture. The Emperor Charlemagne, who established the Holy Roman Empire in 799 and was dubbed “the father of Europe,” designed his Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Germany, after the Basilica of San Vitale.
Early Gothic: Basilica of Saint-Denis 1144
The Basilica of Saint-Denis (1135-1144), near Paris, pioneered the Gothic style. Abbot Suger led the rebuilding of the church, a venerated site where Saint Denis was martyred and where almost every French monarch since the 7th century had been buried. A noted scholar, friend, and advisor to King Louis VI and then Louis VII, Suger was influenced by the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite, a 5th-6th century Christian philosopher and mystic. Pseudo-Dionysius believed that any aspect of earthly light was an aspect of divine light, a belief with which Suger concurred. Suger felt that the new Gothic style would lift up the soul to God. His design envisioned a soaring verticality, and key to this was the use of the pointed arch that allowed for a vaulted ceiling and thinner walls that could contain numerous stained glass windows. The Church of Saint-Denis became the model for the Gothic style of architecture, spreading throughout Europe.
Following on and expanding the Romanesque practice, Early Gothic churches also employed sculpture to decorate the building. Religious scenes were carved into the tympanum over the doorways, and the surrounding archivolts and lintels were filled with figures. Secular images were also created, as the Basilica of St. Denis had the signs of the zodiac carved into the sides of the left portal and scenes depicting the agricultural labors of the month on the right. Most noted were the various column statues, depicting Old Testament Kings and Prophets on the portal columns.
High Gothic 1200-1280
Beginning around 1200, the High Gothic period developed toward ever-greater verticality by including pinnacles, spires, and emphasizing both the structural and decorative effect of flying buttresses. The rose window was expanded in size, and the tracery, the intervening metal bars between sections of stained glass, was elaborated for decorative effect. Chartres Cathedral (1194-1420), Amiens Cathedral (1220-1269), and Notre Dame de Paris (1163-1345) were all notable examples of High Gothic. The High Gothic period was also marked by the development of two distinct sub styles: the Rayonnant and the Flamboyant. Most Late Gothic architecture employed the Flamboyant Style, which continued into the 1500s.
High Gothic churches continued to use sculptures, particularly around the portals, but figurative treatments became more naturalistic, as the figures stepped free of the columns that once contained them. Smaller, portable sculptures, like The Virgin and Child from the Sainte-Chappelle (c. 1260-1270), became popular. The small work, though elegant and stylized, is naturalistically sculpted, depicting the s-curve of movement and the realistic flow of draperies.
The International Gothic style is the term used for the courtly decorative style of illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, painting, and sculpture that developed around 1375. The style, associated with European courts, has also been called “the beautiful style,” for its emphasis on elegance, delicate detail, soft facial expressions, and smooth forms. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in Prague, the Valois King of France, and the Visconti of Milan were the most important patrons and competed with each other to create a cultural capital that would attract leading artists. The portability of many of the works created, as well as the system of patronage that led artists to travel to different courts, spread the style’s influence throughout Europe.
Gothic Art and Architecture: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
The most important developments in later Gothic architecture were the Rayonnant Style followed by the Flamboyant Style. In painting, the most significant singular style was that of the Italian Sienese School, and the illuminated manuscript painting of the International Gothic Style.
Rayonnant Style 1240-1350
Rayonnant is a term used to describe the style of French High Gothic architecture. Architects began to emphasize repetitive decorative motifs, a smaller, more human-scaled building, and a plethora of stained glass. The radiating “rays” of light that streamed through the glass gave the movement its name. Gothic architect Hugues Libergier first began developing the style in the Abbey church of Saint Nicaise in Reims, France around 1231. Little is known about the architect, except his name and that after his death in 1263 he was buried in the church where his tombstone honored him as a master of architecture. His innovations included a façade that used point gables and emphasized tracery, the molding between small sections of color glass, to create a kind of screen-like effect.
A famous early example of the Rayonnant style was Sainte-Chappelle (1242-1248) in Paris. Commissioned by the French King Louis IX to hold his numerous holy relics, most notably the Crown of Thorns, the chapel was also a symbol of royal prestige. Its fifteen large windows created a sense of soaring verticality and lightness, as wall space was almost eliminated and replaced by resplendent images and thin golden ribs. Designed by Pierre de Montreuil, who was dubbed “the Master of Sainte-Chappelle,” the chapel became the model for similar royal chapels throughout France and Europe. Louis IX played a noted role in promoting the style, which was employed in various noted cathedrals including Bernard de Soissons’ design of Reims Cathedral (c. 1250), the Church of St. Urbain (1262-1286) in Troyes, France, as well as the high choir of Cologne Cathedral in Germany, which was begun in 1248.
As was characteristic in the Gothic era, the Rayonnant style took on regional variations. In England, the style was called the English Decorated Style and emphasized window tracery, as stained glass windows were subdivided into many small parallel panels, and then at the top of the arch broke into curving and branching trefoil and quatrefoil shapes.
Flamboyant Style 1350-1550
The French Flamboyant style, developing from the Rayonnant style, emphasized even greater decorative effects by employing more curved shapes. The name comes from the French word “flambé” meaning flame, as the curving ornate lines of edifices were thought to resemble flames. The overall effect was a dynamic and exuberant movement. It’s thought by some scholars that the intricate patterns and motifs from illuminated manuscripts were a noted influence.
Amboise Havel’s design for the western façade of the Church of St. Maclou (1436-1521) in Rouen, France, was a noted example of the style employed in religious architecture; however, it was also used for royal commissions, like Guy de Dammartin’s design for the Palace of the Duc de Berry, Poitiers (1386), and other private residences like the Hôtel de Cluny, Paris (1485-98). In England, the style was known as the Perpendicular Style, where it was championed by William Ramsey and John Sponlee, the royal architects, and in Germany the style was known as Sondergotik, or special Gothic.
The Sienese School 1250-1500
The Sienese School, influenced by the developing interest in Humanist ideals among Franciscan and Dominican friars, was the primary force in developing an innovative style of Gothic painting. Coppo di Marcovaldo and Guido da Siena started the School around 1250, though the most noted early leader of the school was Duccio di Buoninsegna, known commonly as Duccio. Dubbed “the father of Sienese painting,” he combined Byzantine gold backgrounds and religious iconography with a new interest in modeling the human form. Painted primarily in tempera on wood, his works included delicate details, elements of human emotion, and architectural settings, while also conveying an elegant otherworldly effect, as seen in his Rucellai Madonna (1285). A noted teacher, Duccio trained and influenced Simone Martini, the subsequent leading painter of the Sienese School, as well as the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Martini’s works, employing an elegant sense of line and refined decorative effect, as seen in his Maestà (1315), influenced the International Gothic Style.
Illuminated manuscripts, combining religious texts with painted illustrations, became a noted feature of the International Gothic style, centered around the University of Paris. Influenced by Simone Martini of the Sienese School and by Giotto and Duccio’s work that he had encountered on a trip to Italy, Jean Pucelle’s Belleville Breviary (1326) and his acclaimed Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (1324-28) exemplified the style. Pucelle’s naturalistic treatment included three-dimensional space, sculptural modeling of the human figure, and precisely observed details.
The royal courts in Bourges and Paris commissioned many small prayer books, called Books of Hours. Though centered in France, many of the artists were from the Netherlands, where they had been trained in the painting of miniatures, and included Jacquemart de Hesdin, Jean Pucelle, the artist known as “The Bourcicaut Master,” and the Limbourg brothers. The Limbourg brothers’ Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412-1416) became the most famous masterpiece of the International Gothic style. A vivid color palette and realistic scenes of ordinary life marked the Tres Riches Heures, celebrating secular life as much as fulfilling a religious purpose.
Later Developments - After Gothic Art and Architecture
The Gothic era in general ended with the rise of the Renaissance, but its end was not uniform, as architecture continued to occasionally use the style, as seen in King Henry VII’s Chapel, built in the early 1500s, and the Gothic Basilica of San Patronino in Bologna, Italy, completed in 1658. In painting, the works of Giotto had a noted influence on both Italian Renaissance painters, including Masaccio and Michelangelo, and Northern European illuminated manuscripts and printmaking. Sculptors like Claus Sluter influenced artists of the Northern European Renaissance including Roger Van der Weyden and Albrecht Dürer.
During the Romantic era, artists began to value the medieval arts and picturesque ruins, and the Gothic style saw a revival. Known as the Neo-Gothic, the revival began in England in the mid-1700s, and Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House (1749) near London is a noted early example. The style spread throughout England and its colonies, as well as the United States. As art historian Kenneth Clark wrote of the Gothic Revival, “It changed the face of England, building and restoring churches all over the countryside, and filling our towns with Gothic banks and grocers, Gothic lodging houses and insurance companies, Gothic everything from a town hall to a slum public house.” Subsequently, Gothic art and architecture influenced both the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts movement, as medieval values and craftsmanship were seen as a positive antidote to the industrialism of the 1800s. The ideas of noted architect A.W. N. Pugin, who designed the interior of Westminster Palace (1840-1876) and the art critic John Ruskin made the Gothic Revival style dominant in the Victorian era.
In France, the government commissioned the noted architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to evaluate the condition of pre-existent Gothic buildings, which led to his restoring and also completing a number of French Gothic cathedrals in the 1840s. New churches in the Neo-Gothic style were also built like Saint Clotilde Basilica (1857) in Paris.
Ever since the Gothic Revival, contemporary architecture continues to draw upon the Gothic style, as elements of the design are incorporated into modern buildings or their renovations, as in the Hof van Busleyden (2013), the Market Hall in Ghent (2011-2012), both in Belgium, and Drents Archief (2010-2012) in The Netherlands.