Gothic Art

Gothic Art

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Term and periodization of Gothic Art

The term “gothic” was first used in Renaissance Italy around 15th cent. as a synonymous to “barbaric” (Goths were nomads that invaded the Roman Empire) to express their condemnation of this style. It was meant to underline the distance between it and classical art.
Gothic was originated in France in 12th cent. and quickly spread all over Europe. It undergone three main phases: Early (ar. 1120 — 1250), High (1250 ‑ 1300) and late Gothic (15th cent.).

Gothic Art Architecture

Architecture was the kind of art from which the whole Gothic style emerged. Unlike most of the styles, it has a particular inventor ‑ Abbe Suger, who designed the first gothic building — The Abbey Church of St. Denis in 1144. He aimed to create a cathedral, suffused with light and stretched up. To provide more light into the interior, the building had to be not a monolith, but a framework, filled with large windows. To enable such construction, outside buttresses and flying buttresses, that supported the wall, were applied. Another defining characteristic of gothic style was Gothic arch with a pointed opening. It was introduced after Crusades as a typical part of Muslim monuments. The most common types of arches are lancet (knife-shaped), equilateral (based around the equilateral triangle) and dropped or depressed (the widest one). The technology of pointed arch also allowed making vaulted ceilings of different shapes and sizes, supported by clustered columns. The silhouette of typical gothic temple is recognizable by its oblongness, underlined by peaky spires towers.

The churches were embellished with stained-glass: a large round Rose-window (rose was a symbol of the Virgin), placed over the entrance, for instance. Besides, interior and exterior sculptural complexes played an important role. Even stoup-pipes were sculptured in forms of so-called “Gargoyles” — monstrous little creatures.

Relief scenes from the Old and New Testament, the Last Judge, Assumption, personages of apostles, evangelists, allegorical images of months or even alchemical process (like in Norte Dame de Paris) were located according to ecclesiastical rules. Western portals of the cathedrals were especially richly sculpted, with their tympanums usually dedicated to Crist, Godmother and honored saint. One of the magnificent elements of the Chartres Cathedral is western Portail Royal, on which Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Presentation in the Temple are captured.

Gothic architecture in all territories got somewhat diverse interpretations. For the period of High Gothic in France it was the Rayonnant style, named for characteristic radial tracement of rose-window. Its emphasis on decoration was increased in succeeding Late Gothic Flamboyant style — ornate and widely using flamelike S-shaped curves. Three main phases are singled out in English Gothic architecture (in chronical order): Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular, gradually shifting from simplicity of the first period to the splendor of the second, and laconism of the latest one. Whether in England and France, the basic building material was stone (limestone or red sandstone), in Northern Germany and Baltic countries it were bricks, that clearly explains the name of the regional style — Brick Gothic. Brick, along with marble, was common in Northern Italy and Sicily. It’s important to note that Italian architects worked out a variant of Gothic, mixed with Romanesque, quite different from French samples.

Stylistic variability became even more obvious towards Late Gothic. In Spain it was Isabelline (named after Queen Isabella I), that combined French Flamboyant gothic and Islamic architectural influence. Portugese Manueline was transitional between Gothic and Renaissance.

Philosophical background of Gothic architecture

Structure of a Gothic cathedral was inseparably linked with medieval philosophy, as they represented its model of the Universe order. Early Christian theologian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite claimed that “light is the visible image of God’s grace”. Dark Romanesque monasteries didn’t response to this idea. So the endevour for making light the main element of a church-building (to create almost physical sense of presence of something divine) seems quite clear. Moreover, a revered in the Middle Ages St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived just in the period of Gothic’s formation, believed in the orderliness of the world that could be conveyed in mathematical proportions. Gothic cathedrals were erected according this idea of Cosmic harmony to enrapture believers with the grandeur might of Church.


Sculpture was intended to be a part of architectural setting, which in Gothic period was a truly syncretic artistic complex. Figures remained mostly connected to the wall surfaces, as a part of portals, jambs. Only later free-standing statues appeared, placed niches. Gothic sculptors showed themselves as observant psychologists, fulfilling their images with the whole range of vivid human emotions — from rejoicing to the deepest sorrow. The aspiration for increased “degree of spirituality” found its expression in high emotionality, dynamism of characters. Figures and creases of their clothing, hiding their bodies, were modeled with a winding line. Their elongated proportions correlated verticality of architectural style, but curves and bending of torsos slightly broke and diversified the general rhythm.

Stained glass

The staind-glass was seldom used in religious buildings since 6 — 8th cent. But it was gothic style that brought this art to perfection. Apart from already mentioned Rose-windows, there were delightful visualizations of some Biblical episodes, “painted”, so to say, “in light”. Different in their artistic quality, those scenes (as well sculpted ones) were emotionally charged, depicting biblical and historical personalities in rather realistic manner.

The development of staind-glass was connected with some technical inventions. For example in the 13th cent. it was discovered that firing a silver strain (made of nitrates) over a piece of glass gave numerous shades of yellow( from lemon to orange that is so typical for gothic cathedrals). Another way to enrich the palate was by layering color glazes one over another. This way the Sainte-Chapelle’s staind glass windows were produced. Besides, grisaille type of stained glass (with image on pale or lightly toned glass) was mastered in 12th cent.

Climate of a particular territory significantly predetermined the character of stained‑glass windows in its temples. Southern countries with solar illuminations, like Spain and Italy, tended to limit the glass sizes, whether architects of northern Europe made them larger.

Manuscript illumination

Illuminated manuscripts give us a fuller idea about gothic painting, then mural or easel one. Here, in XIII cent., secular thematic became apparent. In illustrations, distinctive by pure colors, realistic details and ornament, religious and with every-day-life scenes were interlaced. Scripters paid special attention to dropped capital letters, often gilded and enriched with delicate details. Some didactic, comic or genre scenes were painted on the margins. Those so-called drolleries (entertainments) often had no connections with the text and were pure figments of an artist’s imagination.

The manner and composition of illuminations were balancing between realism and stylization. In the late gothic manuscripts, artists demonstrate interest to landscape. A unique example of miniatures of the period is the Book of Hours of Jean de France, Duc de Berry by Limburg brothers.


Unlike in other countries, in Italy frescoes and panel paintings were comparatively common. Because of geographical neighboring with Byzantium and historical situation (some parts of Italy, like Ravenna, belonged to it for a certain time), Italian painting of that time was influenced from the East. Clear evidence of this are given by canonization, formalization of compositions, gilding of the background, stylization and flat modeling of figures. At the same time, gothic emotionality, dynamics, elongation of figures prove connection of Italian art with Western tradition as well. There were two main artistic centers at that time — Sienna and Florence. Representatives of the first one (like Duccio and Simone Martini) continued International Gothic style. Florentine art was a bridge between Medieval and Renaissance: Cimabue, Giotto and his school were more concerned with spatial volumes, human individuality and other nuances, that would later be in focus of Renaissance painters. That’s why some specialists call it Protorenaissance.

Gothik was the first international style, that occupied not a certain territory but spread all over Europe. Assimilating some local peculiarities, it guaranteed itself quite long relevance in the society. Despite a long period of unpopularity after its decay, Gothic style was revived in the architecture of Romanticism.

Random Gothic Art Artists


Giotto di Bondone

Gothic Art

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