Gothic Art

The race for height

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 during the 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 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 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.

Reed Enger, "Gothic Art, The race for height," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 23, 2017; last modified May 16, 2021,

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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 Suger, 1140

Basilica of St Denis

Abbot Suger (1135 rebuild), 475 CE-1144

Malbork Castle


Badia Polyptych

Giotto di Bondone, 1300

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata

Giotto di Bondone, 1295-1300

The Mourning of Christ

Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306

Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Back

Giotto di Bondone, 1310

Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Front

Giotto di Bondone, 1310

Madonna Enthroned

Giotto di Bondone, 1310

The Entombment of Mary

Giotto di Bondone, 1310

Crucifix of the Malatesta Temple

Giotto di Bondone, 1310-1317

Stefaneschi Triptych

Giotto di Bondone, 1320

Baroncelli Polyptych

Giotto di Bondone, 1334

Polyptych of Bologna

Giotto di Bondone, 1330-1335

Doge's Palace, Venice



Pierre de Montreuil and Jean de Chelles, 1163-1345


Lorenzo Monaco, 1400

Last Judgment in an Initial C

Lorenzo Monaco, 1406-1407

Virgin and Child

Lorenzo Monaco, 1410

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Limbourg Brothers, 1412-1416

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, 1450

The Black Hours


Madonna and Child Enthroned

Carlo Crivelli, 1472

Saint George

Carlo Crivelli, 1472

An Apostle

Carlo Crivelli, 1471-1473

Christ Carrying the Cross

Martin Schongauer, 1475

Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons

Martin Schongauer, 1475

Madonna and Child

Carlo Crivelli, 1480

Portrait of a Young Woman

Martin Schongauer, 1480

The Holy Family

Martin Schongauer, 1485

The Lion of Saint Mark

Martin Schongauer, 1490

A Foolish Virgin in Half-Figure

Martin Schongauer, 1491


Martin Schongauer, 1491

Ornament with Owl Mocked by Day Birds

Martin Schongauer, 1491

The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian

Carlo Crivelli, 1491

The Censer

Martin Schongauer, 1492

Hours of Henry VIII

Jean Poyer, 1500
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