Gothic Art summary




Gothic Art summary


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Gothic Art summary


Gothic Art                                                 


 1140 – 1400


 Abbot Suger 1081-1151, one of the most influential personalities in the development of the Gothic style through his renovation of St. Denis in 1135, had deeply personal ties both to the Royal Abbey, and to the French monarchy. Suger had been educated at St. Denis with Louis VI, and when he was elected abbot in 1122, it was to one of the most important abbeys in French history, even in disrepair. St. Denis was the shrine of the patron saint of France, and had been the burial place of French Kings since the very early years of its history. Suger was pivotal in the rallying of France behind the monarchy, using St Denis as its banner, associating Loius VI with Charlemagne himself in promoting the stories of Charlemagne’s visit and deposit of the abbey’s relics at St. Denis after his voyage to the holy land. In 1124 the emperor Henry V resolved to invade France, and Suger’s role in the rallying of support behind Louis VI was instrumental in turning back the intruders, who, as legend has it, were so intimidated by the massive forces at the Ile-de-France, that they withdrew without a fight. On the crest of this triumph, Suger laid his plans to rebuild the Church at St. Denis.


Church of St. Denis, Ile-de-France, 1135-44.  Abbot Suger and his masons combined a number of elements, rib vaulting, flying buttresses, the pointed arch, already present in Romanesque architecture, into an entirely new form in the restored abbey Church in St. Denis. Suger had become fascinated with the history of the church and its patron saint long before, linking (erroneously) the Saint Denis, who had in the 7th century converted France to Christianity, with St Dionisius, the Athenian follower of St. Paul, who had linked the unbroken unity of light with the perfection of Christ. Dionysius brilliantly linked Platonic ideas with Christian mysticism, providing, centuries later, Suger and ideal justification for his elaborate embellishment and decoration of the royal abbey, launching the new form of the Gothic Cathedral. Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquataine were rumoured to have attended the dedication of the ambulatory before their separation.


The gothic cathedral can be seen as a continuation and refinement of the Romanesque idea of building a New Jerusalem, of the rebuilding of Soloman’s temple. The temple, henceforth the Cathedral, is a sacred space, a pure reconstruction of the world, which sanctifies the world; the sacred vessel is also an extension of the body, the sanctification of the flesh. Akin to the new, fashionable ideas of the sanctification of humanity is the notion of courtly love, which projects romantic, erotic love into the Platonic realm of pure form. This movement, which grew out of the songs of the troubadours and the legends of Arthur and the Holy Grail, lent a dimension of transcendence to female sexuality, as well as providing a practical strategy for the increased interaction of men and women openly, especially at court. 


St. Thomas Aquinas



Domenican brother and author of the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas was instrumental in the formation of some of the major lines of thought and philosophy, which drove some of the great achievements of the gothic age. In studying classic texts, he helped develop the idea of Scholasticism, which sanctifies the thought process of humanity, allowing human reason to be a guiding light in the understanding of God, not just faith, revelation, penance, and scripture. One of the guiding principles of scholasticism was interpolated from the thought of the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, that of a clear spiritual hierarchy. Aristotle’s conception of the universe held sway in Europe for over a thousand years, and was adapted to thought about all spheres of human endeavor; the earth sat motionless at the center of the universe, and the heavenly bodies circled embedded in perfect crystalline spheres. At the center of the earth was the place of the dead, which became Hell in the Christian world, and the further one progressed out away from the earth, the more heavenly things became, eventually arriving at the infinite goodness and purity of god. This corresponded in the thought of Aquinas with the body itself: the head was most purely mind or spirit, with the body becoming less godlike the further one descended down the torso. All human institutions should, then, aspire to emulate this holy model, with the leadership being the most spiritual and closest to God. While this idea helped to create coherent organization at some level, it restricted science and the arts to follow an idea first and at all costs.


The poet Dante Alighieri, born in Florence in 1265, wrote the Divine Comedy in 1307-21, which imposed an Aquinas/Aristotlean model on the spiritual universe of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. It is also a bit of a self-portrait of Dante’s personal spiritual journey, a literary and psychological pilgrimage into the depths of the individual soul.


St Francis of Assisi



He lived his early adult life lavishly, caught up in the romantic chivalry of the troubadours, buoyed by his father’s successful textile business. Having had moving experiences encountering the suffering of humanity not unlike Siddartha Gautama, he devoted his life to the care of the sick and suffering, and gave his considerable inheritance to the poor. Always mindful of those deprived of food, shelter, and clothing, he kept himself humble, reforming his order more than once, and moving from town to town relieving the suffering of especially the new urban poor.


Gothic Music and Drama


Francis was not alone in being impacted by the music of the troubadours. A great process had been begun by the four scales or modes set in order by Saint Ambrose in 384, to which four more were added by Pope Gregory the Great in 590 in his commissioning of the cataloguing and standardization of monastic chants. The structure of these ideas were absorbed and transmitted, in combination with the influence of the  t the music of the troubadours, into Ars Nova by Philippe de Vitry in 1325. De Vitry’s innovation used elaborate rhythmic devices known as isorhythms, which engaged different voices within a polyphony; the Ars Nova’s melodies of varying length created a completely new musical experience of seemingly endless variations in rhythm, texture, and harmony. One of the greatest developments of this experiment evolved into the first large scale masterpiece in music, the Notre Dame Mass by Guillaume de Mauchaut, performed in Reims to celebrate the coronation of Charles V of France in 1363. The elaboration of musical forms was made possible in part by the invention of modern musical notation by the Italian monk Guido d’Arezzo in 1026, who also wrote treatises on musical theory. Innovations such as counterpoint quickly followed, especially in the 11th century at the monastery of St Martial, Limoges, France, and later at Notre Dame in Paris.


Medieval and later Gothic drama arose out of the practice of the Trope, or the reading of dialogue from the liturgy by different persons, evoking a reenactment of the holy stories. These participatory events became more and more elaborate, involving music and singing, with dramatic action, and eventually became so popular that they moved out of the church into the town square. These events evolved into conventional Liturgical Dramas, and into the form of the Morality Play, where often an Everyman who has to confront his fate after death, deals with the state of his soul in relation to God. The pageant like quality of the Morality play echoed the elaborate dramatic spectacles often staged for important visiting dignitaries during the period.


Notre Dame de Chartres, South elevation, transept, nave, buttresses (designed by Honnecourt) Windows of Charlemagne, ambulatory windows of a Zodiac and life of the Virgin, North Transept Rose window,1134-1220. Built on the site of a Black Madonna shrine,  as well as holding a swatch of the Virgin Mary’s linen, Chartres is the first church built completely in the new style, although the cathedral at Sens, built by Archbishop Henry, could as well arguably hold that distinction. Chartres combined some of the vaulting ideas of Durham and other structures in Normandy with the triforium nave elevation from Autun and other Burgundy churches, along with the new tendency to screen, or reduce the visual presence of planar elements such as walls, to embrace a more organic architectural aesthetic.  The ground plan of a Gothic Cathedral resembles that of a plant as much as it does a building. Flat planes were replaced by sweeping vertical lines, extensive stained glass, and sculptural decoration. In contrast to the Romanesque, architectural sculpture of the Gothic aspires to be lifelike in its own right, without distorting itself so much to be part of the architectural lines.


 Gothic churches’ plans were laid out along the compass directions, with the Royal or main portal facing west, by tradition always in the direction of local shrines to the Black Madonna, who was closely associated with Mary Magdalen and the cult of Isis.


Notre Dame de Amiens, side and west elevations, nave, 1220 – 1288Designed by Robert de Luzarches and the Cormonts, the rebuilt Amiens cathedral evolved the elements of Chartres to an amazing degree. With a thinner and taller nave than Chartres’, soaring over a very high clerestory to 144 feet, and the transept set with greater balance toward the middle of the nave, Amiens cuts a very delicate profile. Masterful masons and stonecarvers, who also worked on Reims, helped with the elaborate sculpted courses and tracery raising the eye to the heavens.








Notre Dame de Reims, 1255 – 1260. One of the most beautifully balanced and elegantly realized of the great gothic cathedrals, Reims combines very naturalistic sculpture with the older plan of Chartres in perhaps the most fully three dimensionally articulated church of the age. In both the exterior and the nave, the structure is so punctuated with decorative effects that the mass of the stone seems to float, more like a vision than a building.




 Notre Dame de Paris, west façade, interior, nave, rose window, 1163 – 1225.  Incorporating elements of the early gothic experiments of St. Denis and Sens and the elaborations of Chartres, the cathedral of Paris contains the history of the Gothic period and more in its arms. It employs the first true flying buttresses, as well as late gothic additions such as the massive and complex Rose Windows.


Sainte Chapelle, Paris, exterior, windows, nave, 1243 – 48.  A massive reliquary for “Saint” Loius IX’s relics from Christ’s Passion, gained during one of the later crusades, Sainte Chapelle epitomizes the “Rayonnant”, radiant style; it seems to be a sanctuary for pure light.


St Maclou Church, Rouen, West Façade, 1436-1521. Although large scale cathedral building declined at the end of the 1300’s, due to the hundred years’ war with England, and the Plague (1340), beautiful smaller examples of Gothic were created in both sacred and secular architecture, and central and other variations on the cross plan enjoyed a resurgence.


Hall of the Cloth Guild, Bruges, Netherlands, begun 1230. As the demand for high-quality craft goods for trade domestically and internationally grew, so did the power and prosperity of the old craft guilds in all of Europe, but especially in the sophisticated cloth guilds of northern Europe. Placed boldly in the town square, this imposing tower and marketplace attests to the confidence and taste for demonstrable beauty of the leaders of the Guild. Although the uppermost octagonal tower is a 15th century addition, the second-story Gothic edifice still was one of the tallest spires in the city.




A new market opened up in the Gothic period for sculpture independent of architecture, especially for devotion in the homes of the newly wealthy merchant class, as well as for elaborate tableaux in the side aisles of cathedrals (aimed at “tourists”, i.e. visiting pilgrims). This economic input, in concert with the greater interest in the natural world, allowed for a flowering of figurative exploration in sculpture.


Virgin and Child, from St. Denis, 1339. A sensuous controposto underlies this image, dedicated to the queen, wife of Charles the IV of France, a prime example of the sort of art that Abbot Suger believed would help bring the soul to God, into the unity of grace.


Virgin Ouvrante, museum at Cluny, 1400’s.  This black Madonna from the Burgundy Region illustrates the preeminence of the “goddess” in medieval European Christianity; here she literally holds the entire Christian cosmos within the bounds of her body.


Book Arts


Villard de Honnecourt, Page from a sketchbook, ink on vellum, 1220-35. A rare surviving example of an architect’s notebooks, Honnecourt’s sketches testify to the Gothic preoccupation with the relationship of symbolic geometry with realistic imagery.


Moralized Bible from Paris, page with Louis IX and Queen Blanche of Castile, 1226-34. Painted on glowing gold leaf, this page from an allegorized bible demonstrates the importance of book arts to the hegemony of the royalty while preserving a clear sense of hierarchy. The figures are framed in triparate arches much as they might be in a stained glass window.


Jean Pucelle, Les Petites Heurs de Heanne d’Evreux, pages with the Annunciation, and Christ Carrying the Cross, 1325-28. The queen of Charles the IV’s book of hours, painted in daring grisaille, pays rare tribute to its artist in the book’s dedication. Juxtaposing sacred images with bas-de-page illustrations which point out a sorrowful aspects of the main image, or parodying the sinfulness of man, the book creates a compelling parallel of the admixture of society present at a street mystery play, where fools and jesters appeared in startling contrast to the measured elegance of the royalty.




The power base formed by Henry II and Eleanor of Aquataine in 1154 lasted until 1485, and saw the drafting of the Magna Carta, the codification of feudal rights, a foundation of the eventual British Constitution. It was a time of expansion and imperialism, when

England annexed Wales and embarked on a history of border disputes with Scotland, and, in the course of the Hundred Years’ War, attempted to possess France.


Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire, England, 1220-1330. Influenced by Norman building traditions, as well as the Master of Sens, who rebuilt Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, and the great Cistercian sanctuaries, Salisbury (Saxon Caesar’s burgh) uses elements of high French Gothic style in unique ways. Creating emphasis on the altar rather than the nave, through a moderation of vertical proportion, it evokes the beauty of the wall of paradise rather than an experience of paradise itself, as in the more ethereal French style. Color, scale, and proportion are balanced, creating a gentle quality of hugging the earth while looking towards heaven.


Exeter Cathedral, Devon, England, 1270-1366.  In England, similar to the French “Rayonnant” style, the development of the Decorated Style, especially outside of London, resulted in extensive elaborations on Gothic elegance. The arcade and vault of the nave nearly vibrate with nuanced movement, due to the multiplication of colonnettes, and the addition to the decorative tierceron ribs in the vault.


Robert and William Vertue, Chapel of Henry VII, Westminster Abbey, London, England, 1503-1519. Connected to the famous Abbey, the chapel of Henry VII also houses the king and queen’s tombs. The delicate “Fan Vaults” are crowning examples of the English version of Rayonnant: the Decorated, or Flamboyant style originally inspired perhaps by St Chapelle.




Nicholas of Verdun, Shrine of the Three Kings, 1190-1210.  This elaborate German sanctuary, created for one of his workshop’s important clients, the archbishop of Cologne, supposedly held the relics of the Three Magi. Itself a miniature basilica, the reliquary’s design keeps the eye in constant motion, turning the wall of the vessel into a permeable membrane, letting the holiness of the relics radiate outward.


Strasbourg Cathedral, Dormition of the Virgin, 1230. Although German metalwork and sculpture was much influenced by the so-called classical workshop of Reims, German sculpture began to develop both a realism and an emotional expressiveness unique to German Holy Roman culture. In the south transept portal tympanum at Strasbourg elaborate naturalistic details are rhythmically orchestrated so as to sweep the viewer’s attention into a sympathetic, eurhythmic bower of tenderness; even the deportment of the faces of the disciples encourages safe emotional entry into the scene.


Magdeberg Cathedral, Saint Maurice and Ekkehard and Utta, Magdeberg, Germany, 1240-50. The Magdeberg Gothic era cathedral, built on an earlier church dedicated to the Egyptian Saint Maurice, (a legendary officer in the Theban Legion who refused to take part in sacrifices commanded by Maximian in the 296CE putdown of a Gallic rebellion, and refused to butcher those in the army abstaining from the rites)  has remarkable portrait statues of both a very specific St. Maurice, and the warrior Ekkehard and his elegantly detached wife, Utta.


Vesperbild, Middle Rhine, Germany, 1330. The emotional intensity of German sculpture often ran free in the depiction of devotional images, such as this powerful example of a work meant for evening prayers, vespers. Christ suffers and bleeds, and the very human Virgin seems mightily burdened with despair.




With the decline of the Holy Roman Empire and Byzantium, Italy rose in political and economic power during the thirteenth century. Italian Gothic style took its own direction, relying more on the painted illusion of natural light than actual natural light falling through windows. The influx of Byzantine painters from Constantinople in 1204 after its capture by invading Islamic Turks, helped to facilitate a rapid advance in the mastery of painting in Italy. The completion of great paintings for churches was often an event of great popular celebration and pomp; the Maesta Altarpiece for the Sienna Cathedral by Duccio was carried in procession to the sanctuary much like it were a sainted bishop.


Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy, begun 1340-1345, remodeled and expanded in 1424-1438. The lodging of the Doge (Duke) of Venice, her elected leader, the Palace (along with San Marco) was one of the most richly decorated public structures in the floating city. Clarity and lightness dominate the design, reflective of the ever playing light and air of the legendary city.


Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy, begun 1386. Situated in the northern Italian borderlands, at the foot of the Alps, still heavily under the influence of the Holy Roman Empire, Milan absorbed a great deal of stylistic influence from northern styles. Its design was affected by its commission process, involving a good many interested voices from the community, ending up a compromise between Italian and Northern ideas. Proportionally Italian (equal height to width ratios), but with elaborately spired and carved exterior decorations, it is a fascinating conversation between old and new, north and south.


Sienna Cathedral


Arnolfo di Cambio,  1245-1302, Florence Cathedral begun 1296.The typical Italian Romanesque stone tracery became more delicate and visually light in the construction of churches such as those of Siena and Florence, allowing the expressiveness of sculpted and painted decoration to dominate. The southern climate allowed for more successful fresco, the dominant architectural painting medium, as well as necessitated more control over sun-generated heat coming through the windows.


Andrea Pisano, Baptistry Doors of San Giovanni, Florence, 1330-36. These scenes from the life of John the Baptist, set in quatrefoils surmounted by an equilateral rectangle, exhibit a convincing mastery of realism and dramatic focus and restraint; the attenuated gilded door figures of the doors of Bishop Bernwald have come down solidly into their bodies. The expressive power comes from the interaction of the earthly figures, not from the distortion of their forms.


Nicola Pisano, Baptistry Pulpit, Our Lady of Pisa, 1259-1260. The elder of the father-son partnership, Nicola, attempted to integrate the measured and geometric forms of the Gothic style with more naturalistic influences from antiquity. Sensual and rounded, the figures still echo the linear forms of the quatrefoil and columnar divisions of the overall structure.


Giovanni Pisano, Baptistry Pulpit, Sant’ Andrea, Pistoia, Italy, 1297-1301. The stately classicism of father Nicola is transmuted by his son into an expressive three dimensional play of space, where the realistic figures overcome their gravity and move freely through the sanctified environment.




Duccio di Buoninsegna, active 1278-1318, Maesta, Siena Cathedral, tempera and gold on wood, 1308 – 11. Italian painters enjoyed experimentation with scale on rood screens, which separated the sanctuary from the congregation: a sanctifying threshold. The Virgin in Majesty by Duccio came into the Cathedral with great pomp, as part of a ritual procession. Duccio makes the warm gold leaf painting surface into warm flesh, creating the faces of individuals which engage the viewer in a very human way into the miraculous image.  The saints actually seem to stand on the floor with us, bringing the divine scene into a human plane.


Simone Martini, active 1315-44, The Annunciation altarpiece from Siena Cathedral, 1333. Possibly one of Duccio’s assistants on the Maesta, Martini takes the new realism of the master into a realm of stately beauty, allowing the interactive dance of the angel and the Virgin to express the grace of the moment; the space between the figures becomes and active participant in the narrative.


Pietro Lorenzetti, active 1306-45, Birth of the Virgin, Siena Cathedral, 1342. One of the brothers in a family of painters, Pietro successfully engages figures into an architectural environment, suggesting a single point of view, and a level, horizontal plane on which he places the physical bodies of the actors in the scene. This work truly creates a new sense of harmonious space within the painting, allowing the viewer to almost physically enter the illusory space.


Ambrogio Lorenzetti, active 1319-47, Allegory of Good Government in the City and the Country, Siena Palazzo Pubblico, 1338-39. Pietro’s brother was commissioned by local government officials to create this paen to harmonious and peaceful interaction of urban and rural interests, of order and mutual respect.


Cimabue, active 1272-1302. Virgin enthroned, Church of Santa Trinita, Florence, 1280.  Although the Florentine master used Byzantine proportional formulae in this altarpiece, its large scale and almost confronational human expressiveness give the subject a feeling of being looked at, and looking back, in a very specific instant. Cimabue attempts to orchestrate all the points of view of the angels and saints into the distillation of a present moment.


Giotto di Bondone, Madonna Enthroned, tempera on wood, 1310. While emulating his teacher (as legend has it) in this majestic and royal Madonna seated upon her regal Gothic throne, the younger artist nevertheless breaks the picture plane with sculpted naturalistic figures. Each with personality, rendered in realistic light and shadow, each personage is alive with individual identity, and the painted space both pulls us into the depths and reaches out to greet us.


Giotto di Bondone,  1266-1337. Crucifixion, Lamentation, Mary Visits Elizabeth, fresco, Arena Chapel, Padua, 1305-6. Purported to have been discovered as a shepherd boy by Cimabue, Giotto certainly studied with the Florentine master, adding a vivid sensation of light and shadow to his teacher’s forays into realism. Giotto’s figures live in an airy space, with human emotions and physical gravity; his painting is perhaps the first in European history to begin to achieve sculptural clarity of form. This family chapel’s simple barrel vault houses some of Giotto’s most evolved painting, filling the austere space with vivid human life, tempered with sensitive observation of the human condition. The scenes so clearly pictured by Giotto are likely representations of ceremonies enacted outside the chapel on feast days such as the Annunciation. These living tableaux, called representatio salutationis angelicae, were performed by costumed actors, giving voice to liturgical and scriptural passages appropriate to the celebration.


Francensco Triani, Triumph of Death, Campo Santo, Pisa, 1325 – 50. The bubonic plague, which entered Europe in the 1340’s, decimated the population, and added a chilling counterpoint to the economic achievements of the late Gothic period. Triani painted not only the disease in these frescoes, but moreover the human responses to the plague. The artist worked as well for the Domenicans, whose patron, Saint Domenic, was the patron of shipwrecks and other disasters of nature.


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