Gothic Art

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Gothic depiction of the adoration of the Magi from Strasbourg Cathedral.
This article is about Gothic art. See also Gothic Architecture

Gothic art was a Medieval art movement that spanned the course of two centuries. Flourishing in France, it formed from the Romanesque period in the mid-twelfth century. By the late fourteenth century, it had evolved towards a more secular and natural style known as International Gothic, which continued until the late fifteenth century, where it evolved into Renaissance art. The primary Gothic art mediums were sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco and illuminated manuscript.

Gothic altar by Veit Stoss, commissioned for the Saint Mary's Church, Kraków, late fifteenth century.
Gothic sculpture, late 15th century.

The term "Gothic" originated as a means of belittling by critics who criticized the lack of adherence to the standards of classical Greece and Rome.[1] However, "the men of the thirteenth and fourteenth century referred to the Gothic cathedrals as opus modernum (modern work)."[1] In fact, the advent of the Gothic style represents the summit of achievement for unified Christendom. "It represents the triumph of the papacy; a successful and inspiring synthesis of religion, philosophy, and art."[1] Ultimately, the Gothic city was a representation of the unifying of secular and religious ideals.

Historical context

The Roman Empire crumbled in 476 C.E. and Germanic tribes called the Goths absorbed what was left of the former empire. These tribes were not unified and often quarreled with each other. Fear resulted in halted trade, cultural diffusion and especially a decline in cultural progress, officially marking the beginning of the Dark Ages. With people afraid to travel, they remained in one area, which paved the way for the manorial system–the basis for the later creation of Medieval and feudal society. During the Middle Ages, people now lived in one area, but they weren't necessarily safe. Therefore, lords offered more than their land to workers. Workers would produce crops on the land, while the lord gave the worker (or peasant) protection with his knights. This was one manor. To protect manors from each other, they built large, strong castles, which ultimately gave rise to Gothic architecture, named after the barbaric tribes, but essentially instrumental in the stabilization of society.

Overview of Gothic sculpture

Gothic sculpture came into existence on the walls of Saint Denis Basilica in the middle of the twelfth century. Prior to this there had been no sculpture tradition in Ile-de-France, so sculptors were brought in from Burgundy. They created the revolutionary figures acting as columns in the Western (Royal) Portal of Chartres Cathedral (see image), an entirely new invention that would provide the model for a generation of sculptors.

The French ideas spread. In Germany, from 1225 at the cathedral in Bamberg onward, the impact can be found everywhere. The Bamberg Cathedral had the largest assemblage of 13th century sculpture, culminating in 1240 with the Bamberg Rider, the first equestrian statue in Western art since the sixth century. In England the sculpture was more confined to tombs and non-figurine decorations (which can in part be blamed on Cistercian iconoclasm.)[1] In Italy there was still a Classical influence, but the Gothic style made inroads in the sculptures of pulpits such as the Pisa Baptistery pulpit (1269) and the Siena pulpit. A late masterwork of Italian Gothic sculptures is the series of Scaliger Tombs in Verona (early-late fourteenth century).

Gothic sculpture evolved from the early stiff and elongated style, still partly Romanesque, into a spatial and naturalistic feel in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century.[1] Influences from surviving ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were incorporated into the treatment of drapery, facial expression and pose.

Dutch-Burgundian sculptor Claus Sluter and the taste for naturalism signaled the beginning of the end of Gothic sculpture, evolving into the classicistic Renaissance style by the end of the fifteenth century.

Simone Martini (1285-1344). Dark themes and high emotion were increasingly pronounced in late Gothic art.

Distinguishing Features

The Last Judgment, carved on the tympanum of the main portal, served as a reminder to the faithful of the significance of religion. "It is on the west facade of Saint-Denis, around 1140, that portals were first flanked by standing figures, known as jamb statues (Head of King David, 38.180 (reference to source image)), a format repeated ever since." [2] "With their insatiable demand for figurative sculptures to adorn portals, archivolts, tympanums, choir screens (Head of an Angel, 1990.132(reference to source image)) and foliate capitals for the interior, cathedrals and churches were crucibles of sculptural innovation."[2] Gothic sculpture became regional as sculptors would move from one cathedral to another instead of simply staying put in one area. An ideal example is that of the sculptors of Reims Cathedral, who later built sculptures in Bamberg Cathedral, some two hundred miles away from Reims. In their elongated curved pose and enigmatic smile, the wooden altar angels at The Cloisters (52.33.1,2(reference to source image)) , and several like them, ultimately derive from their cousins on the west facade of Reims Cathedral. [2]

Influential Sculptors

  • Mastro Guglielmo twelfth century Italian Sculptor
  • Benedetto Antelami 1178-1196 Italian Sculptor
  • Nicola Pisano 1220-1284 Italian Sculptor
  • Fra Guglielmo 1235-1310 Italian Sculptor
  • Guido Bigarelli 1238-1257 Italian Sculptor
  • Giovanni Pisano 1250-1314 Italian Sculptor
  • Nicola Pisano 1220-1284 Italian Sculptor
  • Fra Guglielmo 1235-1310 Italian Sculptor
  • Guido Bigarelli 1238-1257 Italian Sculptor
  • Giovanni Pisano 1250-1314 Italian Sculptor
  • Lorenzo Maitani 1255-1330 Italian Sculptor/Architect
  • Arnolfo di Cambio 1264-1302 Italian Sculptor
  • Tino da Camaino 1285-1337 Italian Sculptor
  • Evrard d'Orleans 1292-1357 French Sculptor
  • Andrea Pisano 1295-1348 Italian Sculptor
  • Giovanni da Balduccio 1300-1360 Italian Sculptor
  • Goro di Gregorio 1300-1334 Italian Sculptor
  • Gano di Fazio 1302-1318 Italian Sculptor
  • Agostino di Giovanni 1310-1347 Italian Sculptor
  • Peter Parler 1330-1399 German Sculptor
  • Andre Beauneveu 1335-1401 Netherlandish Painter/Sculptor
  • Jacobello Dalle Masegne Died 1409 Italian Sculptor
  • Giovanni da Campione 1340-1360 Italian Sculptor
  • Bonino da Campione 1350-1390 Italian Sculptor
  • Claus Sluter 1350-1406 Flemish Sculptor
  • Giovanni Bon 1355-1443 Italian Sculptor/Architect
  • Jean de Liege 1361-1382 Flemish Sculptor


Gothic vocabulary gradually permeated through all forms of art in Europe. "Pointed arches, trefoils, quatrelobes, and other architectural ornaments were adopted on metalwork, such as reliquaries and liturgical vessels, on rich ecclesiastic vestments, on precious diptychs intended for private devotion, on illuminated manuscripts, as well as on secular items such as furniture, combs, or spoons. Subject to regional and temporal variations, Gothic art shaped human perception in Europe for nearly four centuries." [2]

Overview of Gothic painting and stained glass

"Gothic" painting did not appear until the beginning of the thirteenth century, or nearly 50 years after the start of Gothic architecture and sculpture. The transition from Romanesque art to Gothic is very imprecise and not at all a clear break, but there are beginnings of a style that is more somber, dark and emotional than in the previous period. [3] This transition occurs first in England and France around 1200, in Germany around 1220 and Italy around 1300.

Painting (the representation of images on a surface) during the Gothic period was practiced in four primary crafts: frescos, panel paintings, manuscript illumination and stained glass. [1] Frescoes continued to be used as the main pictorial narrative craft on church walls in southern Europe as a continuation of early Christian and Romanesque traditions. In the north stained glass was the art of choice until the fifteenth century. Panel paintings began in Italy in the thirteenth century and spread feverishly throughout Europe, so that by the fifteenth century they had become the dominating art form. Illuminated manuscripts were one of the few pieces of Gothic art that staved off time and still survive. Painting with oil on canvas does not become popular until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and was a hallmark of Renaissance art.[1]

Distinguishing Features

The earliest Gothic art was Christian sculpture, born on the walls of Cathedrals and abbeys.[3] Christian art showed the allegorical stories of the New Testament and the Old Testament alongside each other. In fact, most Christian art was a tribute to saints, Christ, or the Virgin Mary. Images of the Virgin Mary changed from the Byzantine iconic form to a more human and affectionate mother, cuddling her infant, swaying from her hip, and showing the refined manners of a well-born aristocratic courtly lady.[3]

Secular art became prevalent during this period as cities flourished economically. An expansion of cities resulted in increased literacy, particularly Medieval literature, which encouraged the representation of secular themes in art. With the growth of cities, trade guilds were formed and artists were often required to be members of a painters' guild.[3] This era was one of those in which artists assigned their own names to their works.

Influential artists

  • Maestro Esiguo thirteenth century
  • Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes thirteenth century Italy
  • Bonaventura Berlinghieri 1215-1242 Italian Painter :de:Bonaventura Berlinghieri
  • Duccio di Buoninsegna 1255-1318 Italian Painter
  • Master of San Francesco Bardi fourteenth century Italian Painter
  • Master of San Jacopo a Mucciana fourteenth century Italian
  • Simone Martini 1285-1344 Italian Painter
  • Jacopo del Casentino 1297-1358 Italian Painter
  • Segna di Buonaventure 1298-1331 Italian Painter
  • Jean Pucelle 1300-1355 French Manuscript Illuminator
  • Vitale da Bologna 1309-1360 Italian Painter
  • Allegretto Nuzi 1315-1373 Italian Painter
  • Giottino 1320-1369 Italian Painter
  • Giusto de Menabuoi 1320-1397 Italian Painter
  • Puccio Capanna 1325-1350 Italian Painter
  • Altichiero 1330-1384 Italian Painter
  • Bartolo di Fredi 1330-1410 Italian Painter
  • Master of the Dominican Effigies 1336-1345 Italian Painter
  • Niccolo di Pietro Gerini ca. 1340-1414 Italian Painter
  • Guariento di Arpo 1338-1377 Italian Painter
  • Master of the Rebel Angels 1340 French Painter
  • Andrea da Firenze 1343-1377 Italian Painter
  • Nino Pisano 1343-1368 Italian Painter/Sculptor
  • Puccio di Simone 1345-1365 Italian Painter
  • Nicolo da Bologna 1348-1399 Italian
  • Luis Borrassa 1350-1424 Spanish Painter
  • Jacquemart de Hesdin 1350-1410 French Miniaturist
  • Giovanni da Milano 1350-1369 Italian Painter
  • Master of the Rinuccini Chapel 1350-1375 Italian
  • Melchior Broederlam 1355-1411 Netherlandish Painter
  • Giovanni del Biondo 1356-1399 Italian Painter
  • Gherardo Starnina 1360-1413 Italian Painter
  • Taddeo di Bartolo 1362-1422 Italian Painter
  • Jean Malouel 1365-1415 Netherlandish Painter
  • Gentile da Fabriano 1370-1427 Italian Painter
  • Lorenzo Monaco 1370-1425 Italian Painter
  • Stefano da Verona 1375-1438 Italian Painter
  • Master of Saint Veronica 1395-1420 German Painter
  • Fra Angelico 1395-1455 Italian Painter
  • Jacopo Bellini 1400-1470 Italian Painter
  • Hermann Jean and Paul Limbourg 1400 Netherlandish Manuscript Illuminator
  • Master of the Berswordt Altar 1400 German Painter
  • Henri Bellechose 1415-1440 Flemish Painter
  • Bernt Notke ca. 1435-1508 German Sculptor and Painter

Overview of Gothic Architecture

Gothic architecture is the result of architects' endeavors and aspirations to see their buildings in the sky. Stone barrel vaults and groin vaults are the foundation of Romanesque buildings. Their walls are necessarily thick to counter the outward thrust of the vault, and they allow only small windows (view of Durham Cathedral). Once the architects adopted the pointed arch, they also developed a system of stone ribs to distribute the weight of the vault onto columns and piers all the way to the ground; the vault could now be made of lighter, thinner stone and the walls opened to accommodate ever-larger windows.[3] Equally important, flying buttresses began to appear in the 1170s, whose vertical members (uprights) are connected to the exterior wall of the building with bridge-like arches (flyers). These external structures absorb the outward thrust of the vault at set intervals just under the roof, making it possible to reduce the building’s exterior masonry shell to a mere skeletal framework.[1]

In the Gothic cathedral, the interior has been elevated in such a way, that the viewer's eyes will first glance upon the top of the cathedral. In fact, it is almost in an irresistible upward pull symbolic of the Christian hope of leaving the material world for a heavenly realm. Such a transcendent experience of architecture is reinforced by the rich stained-glass windows, sometimes spanning the entire height of the edifice.[1] Stained-glass windows were central to the perception of the cathedral as a symbol of the Christian faith. In fact, they are illuminated in such a way that it is almost like a window to heaven, and the shimmering light is the path of the soul. Throughout the thirteenth century, an obligatory feature in most cathedrals was the monumental rose-window with God, Christ, or the Virgin at its center surrounded by the cosmos.[1]

Early Gothic


On June 11, 1144, the cradle of Gothic architecture came into existence. The royal abbey of St. Denis set a precedent with its crown of chapels, radiant with stained glass windows, that builders would attempt to imitate for half a century.[1] The existence of the Gothic style can be attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Suger. "Bernard held the belief that faith was mystical and intuitive rather than rational."[1] Bernard's Cistercian architecture reflected this concept: the building stressed purity of outline, simplicity and a form and light peculiarly conducive to meditation; however, it was Suger that initiated the movement, and gave Gothic Architecture its identity.

In his own words, Abbot Suger stated,

Moreover, it was cunningly provided that—through the upper columns and central arches which were to be placed upon the lower ones built in the crypt—the central nave of the new addition should be made the same width, by means of geometrical and arithmetical instruments, as the central nave of the old [Carolingian] church; and, likewise, that the dimensions of the new side-aisles should be the same as the dimensions of the old side-aisles, except for that elegant and praise-worthy extension...a circular string of chapels, by virtue of which the whole [church] would shine with the wonderful and uninterrupted light of most luminous windows, pervading the interior beauty. [1]

While Suger wants to follow the blue print of older Romanesque churches, it is the, "elegant and praiseworthy extensions," the "string of chapels," and "luminous windows," that give Gothic Architecture its name and notoriety.

Another key feature of Gothic Architecture is the Gothic rib vault. "A rib vault is easily identified by the presence of crossed, or diagonal, arches under the groins of a vault." [1] These arches form the framework of the Gothic skeletal structure. Gothic vaults exhibit the pointed, or broken arch as the vital part of the skeletal frame of the cathedral. As a result of the thinly vaulted webs between the arches, all the arches have their crowns at approximately the same level, a feat the Romanesque architects could not achieve.[1]


"Gothic sculpture first makes its appearance in the Ile-de-France and its environs with the same dramatic suddenness as Gothic architecture, and it is likely, in the very same place, the abbey church of St. Denis."[1] The portals, particularly at Chartres Cathedral, depict the ascension and majesty of Christ. It became routine for religious sculptures to appear in portals of cathedrals during the Gothic era. While the disregard of normal proportions and their rigid adherence to an architectural frame is distinctly Romanesque, the fact that the statues stand out from the plane of the wall and are treated as three dimensional are distinctly Gothic.[3] The figures seem to be moving toward the observer instead of being drawn back into the background. The figures themselves are coming to life, as emotion and a sense of action or motion is perceivable. The naturalistic aspect is present in the drapery folds that fall vertically or radiate naturally from their point of suspension.

Key Works

  • Abbey church of St. Denis (known as the cradle of Gothic Art)
  • Laon Cathedral
  • Notre Dame Cathedral
  • Royal Portals of Chartres Cathedral

High Gothic


A half century after the formation of Gothic Architecture, on June 10, 1194, a great fire destroyed the town of Chartres, and the Chartres Cathedral. The only part of the cathedral that remained was the crypt, the western towers, and the Royal Portal.[1] This new cathedral of Chartres is considered the first of the High Gothic buildings. The mark of the High Gothic style is the use of the flying buttresses. As a result, any need for the Romanesque walls was eliminated. The organic, "flowing" quality of the High Gothic interior was enhanced by the decompartmentalization of the interior so that the nave is seen as one individual, continuous volume of space.[3] The new High Gothic tripartite nave elevation featured an arcade, triforium and large clerestory windows.[3] As a result of these windows, more light flooded in than in the Early Gothic construction.

Rayonnant Style

The Rayonnant Style was one of the most radiant in art history. Stained glass windows encompassed most of the cathedral during this movement, and the heavy, rigidity of the supporting elements were eradicated. The stained glass filters light and imbues the interior with an unearthly radiant atmosphere. This style emphasizes extreme slenderness of architectural forms and linearity of form, while relying almost entirely on exquisite color and precise carving of details.[3] The "rush into the skies," was the sheer obsession of all Gothic architects. Their goal was to go far beyond the reach of man. Great examples of this style are the Choir of Beauvais Cathedral and the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.


The High Gothic sculptures aimed at embracing the whole cathedral, not just the portals. The range of iconography of the sculpture is as vast and complex as the building. Much of the sculptures (e.g., gargoyles) were used as a decorative scheme to depict the Medieval spirit of the moment.[3] Nature becomes an essential element of the creation, as does the humanness of the sculpture. The setting now allows the figures to communicate with one another. There are numerous devices that allow this communication process to be real. For example, the slight turn inward toward each other, and the breaking of the rigid vertical lines that fixed the figures immovably, breathe life into the figures.[1] The grand difference in these figures from that of earlier times is the revelation of the human face. A distinctly different face, with different emotions and personality than the other figures.[1]

Stained Glass

"Stained glass windows are the Holy Scriptures… and since their brilliance lets the splendor of the True Light pass into the church, they enlighten those inside," said the Hugh of St. Victor.[1] The impact of stained glass was incomparable. To many, it resembled the light of heaven, a spiritual light seeping through the soul. The Gothic mood seems almost to take its inspiration from the Gospel of John: "In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness." [1]

The formation of stained glass was an arduous process. "The glass was blown and either spun into a crown plate of varying thickness or shaped into a cylindrical muff, which was cut and rolled out into square pieces. These pieces were then broken or cut into smaller fragments and assembled on a flat table, on which a design had been marked with chalk dust. Many of the pieces were actually painted with a dark pigment so that details, as of a face or clothing, could be rendered. The fragments were then leaded, or joined by strips of lead that were used to separate colors or to heighten the effect of the design as a whole."[1] The final product was held sturdy with an assortment of iron bands that were in the shape of the medallions and surrounding areas. Stain glass artists relied heavily on the ars de geometria for their designs, layouts, and assemblies.[1] Ultimately, the invention of Gothic architecture signaled the end of the distinction between rich and poor in reference to the visibility of art. All, rich and poor, could view art without distinction between.

Key Works

  • Amiens Cathedral (1220-1236)
  • Choir of Beavuais Cathedral (1272)
  • Central Portal of the west façade of Reims Cathedral

Late Gothic

The Late Gothic was essentially a reaction to the Early and High Gothic styles, and hence, the destruction of the unity of Christendom. In fact, the Late Gothic period would reshape the structure of Western Europe. The key characteristic of the Late Gothic style was the S-curve, or the curving savy of the figure, emphasized by the bladelike sweeps of drapery that converge, portraying a mannered elegance that is the hallmark of the Late Gothic style. Late Gothic architecture was also known as the "flamboyant" style because of the flamelike appearance of the pointed tracery.[1] The style had reached its maturity toward the end of the fifteenth century. However, war devastated the area around Ile-de-France and sapped its economic and cultural strength. As a result, the Gothic style migrated to non-French territories.

Key Works

  • The Virgin of Paris, Notre Dame, fourteenth century

English Gothic

The characteristics of English Gothic Architecture are significantly different than those in Paris. The Salisbury Cathedral is the symbol of the Gothic style in England. Its location in a park differed greatly from the continental churches and city dwellings of Paris.[1] The screen-like façade reaches beyond the interior; with its dwarf towers, horizontal tiers of niches, and small entrance portals, it is emphatically different from the façades of either Paris or Amiens. Even the emphasis on the crossing tower is altered. The flying buttresses are not an integral part of the English Gothic style because builders did not desire to reach the skies. The floorplan is rectilinear with double transepts and a flat eastern end.[1] The interior, though Gothic with its three-story elevation, pointed arches and ribbed vaults, shows considerable differences from French Gothic. The pier colonnettes do not ride up the wall to connect with the vault ribs; instead, the vault ribs rise from corbels in the triforium, producing a strong horizontal emphasis.[1]

Key Works

  • Salisbury Cathedral (nave and west façade)

German Gothic

French Gothic influence was felt strongly after the construction of the 150-foot-high choir of the cathedral of Cologne, a skillful and energetic interpretation of Amiens. In Germany, the Hallenkirche design was most renown. The term, meaning "hall church," applies to those buildings in which the aisles rise to the same height as the nave.[3] The free-flowing unified theme of the interior is also prevalent in German Gothic architecture.

Like French Gothic architecture, French sculpture had its effects abroad. Two statues from the choir of the German cathedral at Naumburg show the quiet, regal deportment of the French statuary of the High Gothic portals, but with a stronger notion of realism.[3] The presence of a pedestal and canopy firmly establish the sculpture's dependence upon its architectural setting; however, the figures are beginning to break away from the pull of the wall, stirring and turning as they display the same vivacity as did the portal at Reims.[3]

Key Works

  • Westminister Abbey
  • Choir of Gloucester Cathedral, 1332-1357
  • St. Elizabeth, Marburg
  • Cologne Cathedral

Italian Gothic

Italian Gothic is arguably the least Gothic of the batch. In fact, most of the familiar Gothic features were absent in the cathedral of Florence (claimed to be a Gothic structure). The cathedral of Florence clings to the ground and has no aspirations of flight. The emphasis is on the horizontal elements of the design, and the building rests on solid ground. On the contrary, the cathedral of Orvieto imitates French Gothic features of ornament, especially in the four large pinnacles that divide the façade into three bays.

Key Works

  • Florence Cathedral
  • Milan Cathedral
  • Orvieto Cathedral
  • Doge's Palace, Venice

Gothic Revival

Gothic revival was a return to Gothic architectural building styles during the 18th and 19th centuries. Primarily Gothic revival gained popularity in England and the United States. It did, however, begin in Europe. One example of Gothic revival in the United States is St. Patrick's Cathedral, built by James Renwick, who rose as a Gothic revival architect during the 1840's.

Key Works

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, New York. It was built from 1858 to 1879 under the design of James Renwick.



  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, Sixth Edition. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1975).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Metropolitan Museum of Art Gothic Art. Retrieved December 12, 2007.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 Frederick Hartt, Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Gothic art, Artists by Movement: Gothic Art. Retrieved December 30, 2022.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica Gothic art and Gothic era, from "A World History of Art" . Retrieved December 30, 2022.
  • Gardner, Helen. Art Through the Ages, Sixth Edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1975, ISBN 0155037533
  • Hartt, Frederick. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989. ISBN 0810918846
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art Gothic Art and Origin Timeline of Art History. Retrieved December 30, 2022.


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