Gothic architecture and art

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Gothic architecture and art

Gothic architecture and art, structures (largely cathedrals and churches) and works of art first created in France in the 12th cent. that spread throughout Western Europe through the 15th cent., and in some locations into the 16th cent.

The Nature of the Gothic

The essential character of the Gothic period, particularly at the outset, was the predominance of architecture; all the other arts were determined by it. The character of the Gothic visual aesthetic was one of immense vitality; it was spikily linear and restlessly active. Informed by the scholasticism and mysticism of the Middle Ages, it reflected the exalted religious intensity, the pathos, and the self-intoxication with logical formalism that were the essence of the medieval. Gothic style was the dominant structural and aesthetic mode in Europe for a period of up to 400 years.

Characteristics of Gothic Architecture

It is generally agreed that Gothic architecture made its initial appearance (c.1140) in the Île-de-France, the royal domain of the Capetian kings. However, the inception of the style owes much to several generations of prior experimentation, particularly in Normandy (see Norman architecture). Although individual components in Gothic architecture, such as ribbed vaulting and the pointed arch, had been employed in Romanesque construction, they had not previously received such a purposeful and consistent application. While the structural value of the Gothic rib has been contested, its formal significance cannot be overestimated. It served above all to delineate the vaults with a skeletal web that gave to the entire structure an articulation of impressive clarity.

Unlike Romanesque architecture, with its stress on heavy masses and clearly delimited areas, Gothic construction, particularly in its later phase, is characterized by lightness and soaring spaces. The overall effect of the Gothic cathedral combines this lightness with an innumerable subdivision and multiplicity of forms. The introduction (c.1180) of a system of flying buttresses (see buttress) made possible the reduction of wall surfaces by relieving them of part of their structural function. Great windows could be set into walls, admitting light through vast expanses of stained glass. Wall surfaces of High Gothic churches thus have the appearance of transparent and weightless curtains. The spiritual and mysterious quality of light is an important element of the religious symbolism of Gothic cathedrals.

In plan the High Gothic cathedral remained faithful to the traditional basilican form. It consisted of a central nave flanked by aisles, with or without transept, and was terminated by a choir surrounded by an ambulatory with chapels. These elements, however, were no longer treated as single units but were formally integrated within a unified spatial scheme. The exterior view was frequently dominated by twin towers. The facade was pierced by entrance portals often lavishly decorated with sculpture, and at a higher level appeared a central stained glass rose window. Additional towers frequently rose above the crossing and the arms of the transept, which often had entrance portals and sculpture of their own. Around the upper part of the edifice was a profusion of flying buttresses and pinnacles.

Landmarks of French Gothic Architecture

The first important example of Gothic architecture was the ambulatory of the abbey of Saint-Denis, constructed between 1140 and 1144. Saint-Denis embodies the first daring use of large areas of glass, coupled with a brilliant organization of space. Its influence was immediate, and the possibilities of the new style were eagerly explored in structures such as the cathedrals of Sens, Noyon, Laon, and Paris, begun in the ensuing decades of the 12th cent.

The High Gothic phase of architecture was ushered in by the Cathedral of Chartres, begun after 1194 and followed in rapid succession by the cathedrals of Bourges, Reims, Amiens, and Beauvais. These structures surged to unprecedented heights. A further reduction of opaque wall surfaces in favor of graceful screens of stone tracery and glass led toward the formation of the Gothic Rayonnant style around the mid-13th cent. The most striking achievements of Rayonnant design, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and the Church of St. Urban in Troyes, have walls almost entirely of glass, held in place by only a thin skeletal frame of masonry.

Gothic Architecture Outside France

The adoption of Gothic architecture in various parts of Western Europe resulted in interesting variations and developments of the style. The cathedrals of Lincoln and Salisbury typify the early English style (late 12th–early 13th cent.). They retain much of the ponderous mural quality of earlier Norman architecture. In Italy height was usually subordinated to width, in a perpetuation of Romanesque proportions. French models served as inspiration for German churches of the 13th cent., notably at the cathedral in Cologne. Spanish Gothic architecture of this period was also based largely on French monuments; the forms, however, were modified, as in Toledo and Burgos, in the direction of greater ornamental display, partly derived from Moorish precedents.

Late Gothic Styles

In the 13th cent. the newly founded orders of Franciscans and Dominicans erected large hall churches of unassuming sobriety. The simplicity and functional character of these buildings, shown in such structures as the interior of Santa Maria Novella in Florence or the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse, contrasts with the trend toward richness in ornamental elaboration apparent in later Gothic art. In the 14th and 15th cent., these tendencies culminated in intricate webs of tracery, as in the towers of the cathedrals at Ulm and Strasbourg in Germany and in the flamboyant style of the Church of Saint-Maclou in Rouen in France. In England the same exuberance of decoration is manifested in the Decorated style of Bristol and Ely cathedrals and the even more elaborate Perpendicular style, exemplified in the choir of the cathedral at Gloucester.

Building activity, however, was seriously affected by the economic crises of the 14th cent. and by the Black Death, and later Gothic constructions were far less ambitious in scope than those of the preceding period. However, the Gothic tradition never completely died out, and in the 19th cent. it enjoyed a revival in Europe and in the New World inspired chiefly by the romantic movement (see Gothic revival).

Gothic Sculpture

Sculpture and stained glass were formally and spiritually integrated within the Gothic cathedral to express a theological program or scheme. The Royal Portal at Chartres (mid-12th cent.) exemplifies the early achievements in the development toward a coherent sculptural scheme; the tympanum, archivolts, and jamb figures are newly united structurally and iconographically to emphasize the importance of Christ on earth. Images of Christ began to reveal a tendency toward greater humanization.

By the first half of the 13th cent., the role of the Virgin Mary as the intermediary between God and humanity was stressed in the sculptural programs of Laon, Notre-Dame de Paris, and the north transept of Chartres. At the same time figures began to protrude more strongly from their architectural background. Whereas the jamb figures of the Royal Portal at Chartres were formally no more than splendid humanized columns, by the 13th cent. individual sculptural elements became more important and less united with the architecture. The portal figures of the cathedral at Reims provide an eloquent example of the trend toward sculptural independence.

From the mid-13th cent. onward, mannerisms in gesture developed, such as the “hip-shot” pose, notable in the statue of the Virgin and Child at Amiens. This swaying posture further separated sculpture from architecture. In the 14th cent., after the completion of the great cathedrals, sculpture became an independent artistic form. Mannerisms were exaggerated into an elegant style that continued into the 16th cent. There was a parallel trend toward greater realism, which had its origin in sepulchral portrait sculpture. The tendency toward realism reached monumental form in the Well of Moses (Dijon; 1395–1403) by Claus Sluter.

The influence of French Gothic sculpture spread throughout the Continent and England. The finest and most individual examples are found in Germany in the middle of the 13th cent. in the facades of Bamberg, Strasbourg, and Naumbourg cathedrals, the last showing evidence of a powerfully realistic, wholly German style. In Italy the late 13th-century works of Giovanni Pisano (see Nicola Pisano) in Siena and Pistoia and of Lorenzo Maitani at Orvieto reflect the heightened expressiveness found in French Gothic art.

Other Gothic Arts

Monumental fresco painting was rare in the Gothic period except in Italy, where the massive walls remained instead of yielding to the tall skeletal structure found elsewhere. In the rest of Europe stained glass and tapestry assumed greater importance and showed a stylistic development analogous to that of sculpture.

Another aspect of Gothic painting was manuscript illumination, in which text and pictures formed a united composition. From the beginning of the 13th cent., illuminations were done for the courts by lay schools. The Paris school achieved a perfection which made it the center of Gothic painting for nearly two centuries. English miniatures are often indistinguishable from the French in this period. The painters of the Avignon school flourished from 1309, when the papal court was moved there from Rome. This school produced one work, a Pietà from Villeneuve-lès-Avignon (Louvre; c.1460), of such originality of expression that it stands outside the established categories of Gothic painting.

The Waning of the Gothic Style

Toward the end of the 14th cent., many Flemish artists went to France, and a Franco-Flemish style was created, showing an elegance and interest in minute detail; so wide was its diffusion that it came to be known as the International Style. At about this time panel painting, under the lead of Flanders and Italy, achieved preeminence over all other forms of painting. In the 15th cent. individual painters, such as Stephan Lochner, Martin Schongauer, and Mathias Grünewald in Germany, marked the culmination of Gothic art. Others, such as Jean Fouquet in France and the Van Eycks in Flanders, pointed the way to the Renaissance, while retaining much of the Gothic spirit. In 15th-century Italy, where the Gothic style had never really taken root, the early Renaissance was already in full flower.


See E. Mâle, The Gothic Image (1958); P. Frankl, The Gothic (1960); E. Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (new ed. 1964); W. Worringer, Form in Gothic (rev. ed. 1964); A. Martindale, Gothic Art (1967); W. Swaan, The Gothic Cathedral (1969); J. Harvey, The Master Builders (1971).

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