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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 — 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 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.

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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 Bondone1295-1300
Badia Polyptych

Badia Polyptych

Giotto di Bondone1300
The Mourning of Christ

The Mourning of Christ

Giotto di Bondone1304-1306
Madonna Enthroned

Madonna Enthroned

Giotto di Bondone1310
The Entombment of Mary

The Entombment of Mary

Giotto di Bondone1310
Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Back

Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Back

Giotto di Bondone1310
Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Front

Altarpiece of Santa Reparata — Front

Giotto di Bondone1310
Crucifix of the Malatesta Temple

Crucifix of the Malatesta Temple

Giotto di Bondone1310-1317
Stefaneschi Triptych

Stefaneschi Triptych

Giotto di Bondone1320
Baroncelli Polyptych

Baroncelli Polyptych

Giotto di Bondone1334
Polyptych of Bologna

Polyptych of Bologna

Giotto di Bondone1330-1335

Notre-Dame

Pierre de Montreuil and Jean de Chelles1163-1345

Lorenzo Monaco

Gothic tradition is good enough for me

1370-1425
Madonna

Madonna

Lorenzo Monaco1400
Last Judgment in an Initial C

Last Judgment in an Initial C

Lorenzo Monaco1406-1407
Virgin and Child

Virgin and Child

Lorenzo Monaco1410
Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata

Lorenzo Monaco1420

Carlo Crivelli

The detailed worlds of the forgotten High Gothic

1430-1495
Saint George

Saint George

Carlo Crivelli1472
Madonna and Child Enthroned

Madonna and Child Enthroned

Carlo Crivelli1472
An Apostle

An Apostle

Carlo Crivelli1471-1473
Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child

Carlo Crivelli1480
The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian

The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian

Carlo Crivelli1491

The boy not only equalled his master, but ... brought back to life the true art of painting

The Life of Giotto

Giorgio Vasari1550