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Gothic Art

1200 - 1600

Middle Ages

Gothic Art

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 britian. Vasari was describing the evolution of art and culture that followed the Byzantine age — at time of incresing secularization, trade, and education that would eventually flower 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 effectivly 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 lead 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 churches heavy, flat Carolingian architecure with newest innovations in the field: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, columns supporting ribs springing in different directions, and flying buttresses. On completion, the Basilica of Saint-Denis became the first building to bring together all the elements of Gothic architecture into a single building. Over the next few centuries, these designs would 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, furnature, clothing and funerary art. Arches soon formed the base of decrative 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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Chalice of the Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis

Chalice of the Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis

100 BCE-1140

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

The Book of Suger, Abbot of St. Denis

Abbot Suger1140

Basilica of St Denis

475-1144

Giotto di Bondone

The human form, rediscovered during the Dark Ages.

1267-1337
Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata

Giotto di Bondone,1295-1300
Badia Polyptych

Badia Polyptych

Giotto di Bondone,1300
The Mourning of Christ

The Mourning of Christ

Giotto di Bondone,1304-1306
Madonna Enthroned

Madonna Enthroned

Giotto di Bondone,1310
The Entombment of Mary

The Entombment of Mary

Giotto di Bondone,1310
Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Back

Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Back

Giotto di Bondone,1310
Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Front

Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Front

Giotto di Bondone,1310
Crucifix of the Malatesta Temple

Crucifix of the Malatesta Temple

Giotto di Bondone,1310-1317
Stefaneschi Triptych

Stefaneschi Triptych

Giotto di Bondone,1320
Baroncelli Polyptych

Baroncelli Polyptych

Giotto di Bondone,1334
Polyptych of Bologna

Polyptych of Bologna

Giotto di Bondone,1330-1335

Notre-Dame

Pierre de Montreuil and Jean de Chelles1163-1345

Lorenzo Monaco

Gothic tradition is good enough for me

1370-1425
Madonna

Madonna

Lorenzo Monaco,1400
Last Judgment in an Initial C

Last Judgment in an Initial C

Lorenzo Monaco,1406-1407
Virgin and Child

Virgin and Child

Lorenzo Monaco,1410
Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata

Lorenzo Monaco,1420