From towering churches, pointed arches, flying buttresses and stained glass windows, the word ‘gothic’ evokes images of tall, towering structures and haunted houses. The movement originated and flourished in Northern France and parts of Italy before spreading to the rest of Europe. Arts and portable works travelled around the continent. Both monumental and personal in size, various art forms encompassed the movement, including textiles, paintings, manuscripts, architecture and sculpture. The movement gained momentum in the mid-12th century and remained popular until the 16th century, before being absorbed into the renaissance movement.
The word gothic itself means ‘barbaric’, and was used by critics at the time to describe this medieval-style as unrefined- a derogatory term, meaning- it had trickled down from ‘pure’ forms of classical art. It was heavily criticized by French writers and Italian artist and writer Giorgio Vasari, who called Gothic art a “monstrous and barbarous disorder”. However, this didn’t stop artists from using it all over Europe and referring to the style as ‘opus modernum’ (modern work). Over time, this movement has come to represent the relation between secularity and the Christian religion. It was only by the 19th century that the movement began to receive positive critical evaluation and today, modern scholars recognize it as an essential part of art history.
Development and evolution
The Gothic movement can be broadly classified into three periods-
Early Gothic period (1144 – 1200 CE)-
The origin of the early Gothic period began when Abbot Suger rebuilt the Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris. The reconstructed cathedral greatly differed from the Romanesque style, and instead emphasized light and verticality. Abbot Suger believed that light was synonymous with Divinity and expressed his devotion to God by engaging the senses and creating stories through stained glass windows.
Late (High) Gothic Style (c. 1200 – 1375)-
This style developed during the early 1200s as an extension of the early Gothic style. Though several sub-categories and styles developed during this period, late Gothic buildings were characterized by their decorative and elaborate designs. Chartres Cathedral (1194), Sainte-Chapelle (1241), and the Reims Cathedral (c. 1250) are examples of buildings built in the Rayonnant style, with the use of more decoration on windows, spires, pinnacles, and the filtering of sunlight through rose windows. The Flamboyant style is marked by even more decorative qualities than its preceding Rayonnant style. Known in England as the ‘perpendicular style’, these buildings had fluid, curved shapes and stylistic elements known in French as ‘flambe’.
International Gothic Style (c. 1375 – 1450)-
Also known as the ‘soft style’ because of its elegant shapes and forms, the International Gothic style emerged during the later years of the Gothic period and incorporated a wide range of media. The style depicted the sophisticated, courtly lifestyle of the time through sculptures and artworks in countries like France, Burgundy and Italy. Notable figures include Charles IV and Jean Pucelle.
Significant characteristics of Gothic architecture
For a movement as widespread and extensive as this one, there are several regional variations and manifestations. However, some of the most defining characteristics of Gothic architecture remain consistent. One of the primary features were stained glass windows- features often seen in European places of worship; but which became particularly significant in Gothic cathedrals. They let in a lot of natural and tinted light, giving the space a decorative ambience closely linked to gothic architecture even today.
Gothic churches had another unique feature- thin, pointed arches that emphasised the height of the building. Vastly different from the romanesque style of arches, these peaks also became a defining feature of the movement. For structural support, the Gothic architecture used ribbed vaults, while the weight of the structure was distributed through flying buttresses- which allowed architects to keep the thin walls and large glass windows that defined the gothic style. Some of the most noteworthy examples include Notre-Dame in Paris, Milan Cathedral, and St Stephen’s Cathedral.
Gothic paintings, manuscripts and sculpture
The gothic movement extended to all forms of art and sculpture. Gothic paintings did not appear until almost 50 years after the development of gothic architecture and sculpture. The primary media for gothic paintings were frescoes, panel paintings, manuscripts and stained glass. Illuminated manuscripts provide a thorough record of gothic paintings all over the continent. With the earliest dating back to the 13th century in France, these manuscripts have detailed, gothic illustrations and illuminations in gold leaf and tempera paint. The books of hours were prayer books created by scribes like William de Brailes to use at prescribed times of the day. The hours of Mary of Burgundy (1477), and the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (1320), are examples of frequently purchased illustrations.
The architecture of the Gothic era also contains sculptures- statues lining the entrances of churches and cathedrals, gargoyles and rows of sculpted figures adorn the facades, showing a gradual detachment from classical traditions. Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni, Claus Sluter are some of the artists who focused on the revival of classical styles, with Italian influences that gradually merged with the renaissance.
Decline of the movement
The Gothic period was one of the most defining periods in European history. Innovation, engineering, and new techniques of art and architecture emerged during this time, setting the stage for the Renaissance period. Later, influences of the movement slowly blended into what is known as the Pre-Renaissance, and gradually faded away. However, this wasn’t the end of the movement, as the 1700s saw a revival of Gothic styles in the Neo-Gothic period, and elements of Gothic architecture and art still define modern buildings in Europe. The style has travelled many centuries and is interwoven into the rich fabric of art and culture even today.
1.Courses.lumenlearning.com. 2021. Introduction to Gothic Art | Boundless Art History. [online] Available at: <https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-arthistory/chapter/introduction-to-gothic-art/> [Accessed 31 October 2021].
- artincontext, 2021. Gothic Art – Key Concepts and Artworks of the Gothic Period. [online] Artincontext.org. Available at: <https://artincontext.org/gothic-art/#Gothic_Art_and_Styles> [Accessed 31 October 2021].
3.Encyclopedia Britannica. 2021. Gothic art – High Gothic. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/art/Gothic-art/High-Gothic> [Accessed 31 October 2021].