Middle Ages

Gothic Art
The race for height

Gothic Art, Middle Ages

It was our old friend Giorgio Vasari, the Italian historian, who coined the term Gothic, which has grown to encompass nearly 400 years of art and architecture throughout Europe and Great Britain. Vasari was describing the evolution of art and culture that followed the Byzantine age during the increasing secularization, trade, and education that eventually flowered into the Renaissance. But Vasari wasn't being complementary. “Then arose new architects who after the manner of their barbarous nations erected buildings in that style which we call Gothic.” The term ‘Gothic’ began as a slight, a reference to the Germanic tribes who sacked Rome and effectively ushered in the European dark ages, and from the vantage point of the latin-speaking elite, the ornate decoration and opulence of Gothic style certainly seemed grotesque.

But as much as we love Vasari, he was wrong about Gothic Art. The gothic style was unique in that it was led not by writing or art or music, but by architecture. The entire gothic aesthetic can be traced back to the race for height. In medieval Europe, similar to today, if you wanted to make a statement, you built a big building. And the only way to build a big building was to build it out of stone. But the previous styles of architecture, the Romanesque, was limited. The taller the building, the bigger the columns needed to hold up the roof. So gothic style began with the pointed arch, an innovation borrowed from Islamic architecture. Arches could be used to spread the weight of the roof between columns, so the columns themselves could be more delicate, and the building could be taller.

In 1137, Abbot Suger began rebuilding the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the burial church of the French monarchs. His architects replaced the church’s heavy, flat Carolingian architecture with newest innovations in the field: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, columns supporting ribs springing in different directions, and flying buttresses. On its completion in 1144, the Basilica of Saint-Denis became the first building to bring all the elements of Gothic architecture together under a single roof. Over the next few centuries, these designs spread across Europe, with shining examples appearing in the Gloucester and Salisbury Cathedrals, the Wells Cathedral, and many more. As the Gothic style matured, the arch became a motif found in paintings, furniture, clothing and funerary art. Arches soon formed the base of decorative filials, exploding with arabesque vines, gargoyles and symbology.

While gothic architecture swings far from the Romanesque, It can be difficult to identify the nuances of gothic painting, which remained very byzantine in style until the dawn of the renaissance. The trick is to look for the beginnings of expression. In gothic art, the rigid byzantine icons begin to soften, the Virgin Mary looks like she might actually care about little Jesus, and more care is taken to place characters in a living background, rather than on a field of gold leaf. Simone Martini is a good example of this progress, as is Giotto, who perched at the very edge of the renaissance.


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Reed Enger, "Gothic Art, The race for height," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 23, 2017; last modified October 23, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/timeline/middle-ages/gothic-art/.

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Chalice of the Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, Gothic Art

Chalice of the Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis 100BCE – 1140CE

A record of the rebuilding of the first Gothic cathedral, St. Denis

The Book of Suger, Abbot of St. Denis Abbot Suger, 1140

Basilica of St Denis, Gothic Art

Basilica of St Denis Abbot Suger (1135 rebuild), 475 – 1144

Malbork Castle, Medieval Art

Malbork Castle 1274

Badia Polyptych, Giotto di Bondone

Badia Polyptych Giotto di Bondone, 1300

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Giotto di Bondone

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata Giotto di Bondone, 1295 – 1300

The Mourning of Christ, Giotto di Bondone

The Mourning of Christ Giotto di Bondone, 1304 – 1306

Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Back, Giotto di Bondone

Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Back Giotto di Bondone, 1310

Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Front, Giotto di Bondone

Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Front Giotto di Bondone, 1310

Madonna Enthroned, Giotto di Bondone

Madonna Enthroned Giotto di Bondone, 1310

The Entombment of Mary, Giotto di Bondone

The Entombment of Mary Giotto di Bondone, 1310

Crucifix of the Malatesta Temple, Giotto di Bondone

Crucifix of the Malatesta Temple Giotto di Bondone, 1310 – 1317

Stefaneschi Triptych, Giotto di Bondone

Stefaneschi Triptych Giotto di Bondone, 1320

Baroncelli Polyptych, Giotto di Bondone

Baroncelli Polyptych Giotto di Bondone, 1334

Polyptych of Bologna, Giotto di Bondone

Polyptych of Bologna Giotto di Bondone, 1330 – 1335

Doge's Palace, Venice, Gothic Art

Doge's Palace, Venice 1340

Notre-Dame, Gothic Art

Notre-Dame Pierre de Montreuil and Jean de Chelles, 1163 – 1345

Madonna, Lorenzo Monaco

Madonna Lorenzo Monaco, 1400

Last Judgment in an Initial C, Lorenzo Monaco

Last Judgment in an Initial C Lorenzo Monaco, 1406 – 1407

Virgin and Child, Lorenzo Monaco

Virgin and Child Lorenzo Monaco, 1410

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Medieval Art

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry Limbourg Brothers, 1412 – 1416

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Lorenzo Monaco

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata Lorenzo Monaco, 1420

Wild Man Holding a Shield with a Hare and a Shield with a Moor's Head, Martin Schongauer

Wild Man Holding a Shield with a Hare and a Shield with a Moor's Head Martin Schongauer, 1450

The Black Hours, Medieval Art

The Black Hours 1460 – 1470

Madonna and Child Enthroned, Carlo Crivelli

Madonna and Child Enthroned Carlo Crivelli, 1472

Saint George, Carlo Crivelli

Saint George Carlo Crivelli, 1472

An Apostle, Carlo Crivelli

An Apostle Carlo Crivelli, 1471 – 1473

Christ Carrying the Cross, Northern Renaissance

Christ Carrying the Cross Martin Schongauer, 1475

Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons, Martin Schongauer

Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons Martin Schongauer, 1475

Madonna and Child, Carlo Crivelli

Madonna and Child Carlo Crivelli, 1480

Portrait of a Young Woman, Martin Schongauer

Portrait of a Young Woman Martin Schongauer, 1480

The Holy Family, Martin Schongauer

The Holy Family Martin Schongauer, 1485

The Lion of Saint Mark, Martin Schongauer

The Lion of Saint Mark Martin Schongauer, 1490

A Foolish Virgin in Half-Figure, Martin Schongauer

A Foolish Virgin in Half-Figure Martin Schongauer, 1491

Griffin, Martin Schongauer

Griffin Martin Schongauer, 1491

Ornament with Owl Mocked by Day Birds, Martin Schongauer

Ornament with Owl Mocked by Day Birds Martin Schongauer, 1491

The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian, Carlo Crivelli

The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian Carlo Crivelli, 1491

The Censer, Martin Schongauer

The Censer Martin Schongauer, 1492

Hours of Henry VIII, Medieval Art

Hours of Henry VIII Jean Poyer, 1500

The Death of Saint Innocent, Gothic Art

The Death of Saint Innocent 1520 – 1530

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