Gothic art was a Medieval art movement that lasted about 300 years. It began in France out of the Romanesque period in the mid-12th century concurrent with Gothic architecture in Cathedrals; by the late 14th century it had evolved towards a more secular and natural style known as International Gothic, which continued until the late 15th century evolving into the Renaissance. The primary Gothic art mediums were sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, frescos and illuminated manuscripts.
Gothic art told a narrative story through pictures, both Christian and secular.
The earliest Gothic art was Christian sculpture, born on the walls of Cathedrals and abbeys. Christian art was often typological in nature (see Medieval allegory), showing the stories of the New Testament and the Old Testament side by side. Saints' lives were often depicted. 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 court lady.
Secular art came in to its own during this period with the rise of cities, foundation of universities, increasing trade, a money-based economy and a bourgeois class who could afford to patronize the arts and commission works resulting in a proliferation of paintings and illuminated manuscripts. Increased literacy and a growing body of secular vernacular literature 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 guild—as a result, because of better record keeping, more artists are known to us by name in this period than any previous, some artists were even so bold as to sign their names.
Gothic sculpture was born on the wall, in the middle of the 12th century in Île-de-France, when Abbot Suger built the abbey at St. Denis (ca. 1140), considered the first Gothic building, and soon after the Chartres Cathedral (ca. 1145). Prior to this there had been no sculpture tradition in Ile-de-France—so sculptors were brought in from Burgundy, who created the revolutionary figures acting as columns in the Western (Royal) Portal of Chartres Cathedral (see image)—it was an entirely new invention, and 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 6th century. In England the sculpture was more confined to tombs and non-figurine decorations (which can in part be blamed on Cistercian iconoclasm). In Italy there was still a Classical influence, but Gothic made inroads in the sculptures of pulpits such as the Pisa Baptistery pulpit (1269) and the Siena pulpit.
Gothic sculpture evolved from the early stiff and elongated style, still partly Romanesque, into a spatial and naturalistic feel in the late 12th and early 13th century. 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 15th century.
Painting in a style that can be called "Gothic" did not appear until about 1200, or nearly 50 years after the start of Gothic architecture and sculpture. The transition from Romanesque to Gothic is very imprecise and not at all a clear break, but we can see the beginnings of a style that is more somber, dark and emotional than the previous period. 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 4 primary crafts: frescos, panel paintings, manuscript illumination and stained glass. 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 15th century. Panel paintings began in Italy in the 13th century and spread throughout Europe, so by the 15th century they had become the dominate form supplanting even stained glass. Illuminated manuscripts represent the most complete record of Gothic painting, providing a record of styles in places where no monumental works have otherwise survived. Painting with oil on canvas does not become popular until the 15th and 16th centuries and was a hallmark of Renaissance art.
Gothic architecture is a style of European architecture, particularly associated with cathedrals and other churches, in use during the high and late medieval period, from the 12th century onwards. It was succeeded by Renaissance architecture, a revival of Roman formulas, at varying times in Europe, beginning in Florence in the 15th century. A series of Gothic revivals began in mid-18th century England, triumphed in 19th century Europe and continued, largely for ecclesiastical and university structures, into the 20th century. The term Gothic was originally intended as a stylistic insult since Gothic equated with "barbarian" (ie. uncivilized), but the term has since matured to a neutral description.
The historical style originated at the abbey church of Saint-Denis in Saint-Denis, near Paris, where it exemplified the vision of Abbot Suger. Suger wanted to create a physical representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem, a building of a high degree of linearity that was suffused with light and color. The facade was actually designed by him, whereas the Gothic nave was added some hundred years later. His facade is, undoubtedly, the personification of the Roman Arch of Constantine with it's three-part division. The Gothic "Rose" window, is to his credit, as well, which is an innovation of the Christian "circle-square" iconography. The first truly Gothic construction was the choir of the church, consecrated in 1144. With thin columns, stained-glass windows, and a sense of verticality with an ethereal look, the choir of Saint-Denis established the elements that would later be elaborated upon during the Gothic period. This style was adopted first in northern France and by the English, and spread throughout France, the Low Countries and parts of Germany and also to Spain and northern Italy.
Gothic architecture has nothing to do with the historical Goths. It was a pejorative term that came to be used as early as the 1530s to describe culture that was considered rude and barbaric. François Rabelais imagines an inscription over the door of his Utopian Abbey of Thélème, "Here enter no hypocrites, bigots..." slipping in a slighting reference to 'Gotz' (rendered as 'Huns' in Thomas Urquhart's English translation) and 'Ostrogotz.' In English 17th century usage, 'Goth' was an equivalent of 'vandal,' a savage despoiler, with a sense of 'Germanic' and so came to be applied to the architectural styles of northern Europe before the revival of antiquity, thus 'Gothic' architecture. "There can be no doubt that the term 'Gothic' as applied to pointed styles of ecclesiastical architecture was used at first contemptuously, and in derision, by those who were ambitious to imitate and revive the Grecian orders of architecture, after the revival of classical literature. Authorities such as Christopher Wren lent their aid in deprecating the old mediæval style, which they termed Gothic, as synonymous with every thing that was barbarous and rude., according to a correspondent in Notes and Queries No. 9. December 29, 1849.
The style emphasizes verticality and features almost skeletal stone structures with great expanses of glass, sharply pointed spires, cluster columns, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, pointed arches using the ogive shape, and inventive sculptural detail. These features are all the consequence of a focus on large stained glass windows that allowed more light to enter than was possible with older styles. To achieve this, flying buttresses were used to enable higher ceilings and slender columns. Many of these features had already appeared, for example in Durham Cathedral, whose construction started in 1093.
Gothic cathedrals could be highly decorated with statues on the outside and painting on the inside. Both usually told Biblical stories, emphasizing visual typological allegories between Old Testament prophecy and the New Testament.
Important Gothic churches could also be severely simple. At the Basilica of Mary Magdalene in Saint-Maximin, Provence (illustration, right), the local traditions of a sober massive Romanesque architecture were strong. The basilica, began in the 13th century under the patronage of Charles of Anjou, was laid out on an ambitious scale (it was never completed all the way to the western entrance front) to accommodate pilgrims that came to venerate relics. Building in the Gothic style continued at the basilica until 1532.
In Gothic architecture new technology stands behind the new building style. The Gothic cathedral was supposed to be a microcosm representing the world, and each architectural concept, mainly the loftiness and huge dimensions of the structure, were intended to pass a theological message: the great glory of God versus the smallness and insignificance of the mortal being.
In Northern Germany, Scandinavia and northern Poland, in areas where native stone was unavailable, simplified provincial gothic churches were built of brick. The resultant style is called Backsteingotik in Germany and Poland. The biggest brick gothik building is the Teutonic Knights Castle of Malbork in Poland and the biggest brick gothic church is the St. Mary's Church, Gdańsk in Gdansk. The most famous example in Denmark is Roskilde Cathedral. Brick gothic buildings were associated with the Hanseatic League and the Teutonic Knights. There are over one hundred brick gothic castles in northern Poland, that were built by the Teutonic Knights.
Significant Gothic artists, listed chronologically.