Leaving Rome: Gothic Art and Architecture

View from north-east of Reims Cathedral (High Gothic) / Photo by G.Garitan, Wikimedia Commons

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 05.05.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

1 – Introduction to Gothic Art

1.1 – Introduction

1.1.1 – Overview

Gothic art developed after the Romanesque, in the 12th century.  The style continued to be used well into the 16th century in some parts of Europe, while giving way to the Renaissance style earlier in other regions. The style was developed in Northern France due to socioeconomic, political, and theological reasons.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, people fled cities as they were no longer safe.  The Romanesque era saw many people living in the countryside of France while cities remained largely abandoned. During this time period, the French monarchy was weak and feudal landowners exerted a large amount of regional power. In the 12th century, the French royalty strengthened their power, their titles, and their landholdings, which led to more centralized government. Additionally, due to advancements in agriculture, population and trade increased. These changes brought people back to the cities, which is where we find the most expressive medium for the Gothic style—cathedrals.

1.1.2 – Gothic Architecture

Gothic architecture is unique in that we can pinpoint the exact place, the exact moment, and the exact person who developed it. Around 1137, Abbot Suger began re-building the Abbey Church of St. Denis. In his re-designs, which he wrote about extensively, we can see elements of what would become Gothic architecture, including the use of symmetry in design and ratios.

Ratios became essential to French Gothic cathedrals because they expressed the perfection of the universe created by God. This is where we also see stained glass emerge in Gothic architecture. Abbot Suger adopted the idea that light equates to God. He wrote that he placed pictures in the glass to replace wall paintings and talked about them as educational devices. The windows were instructional in theology during the Gothic era, and the light itself was a metaphor for the presence of God.

Cathedrals served as religious centers and they were important for local economies. Pilgrims would travel throughout Europe to see relics, which would bring an influx of travelers and money to cities with Cathedrals.

Ambulatory at St. Denis: We can see the Gothic style emerge at St. Denis in Abbot Suger’s re-designs.

While the Gothic style was developed in Northern France, it spread throughout Europe where different regional styles were adopted. In England, for example, cathedrals became longer than they were tall and architects in Italy typically did not incorporate stained glass windows in the manner that the French did.

1.1.3 – Gothic Painting

Miniature from The Hours of Mary of Burgundy: This piece contains a miniature showing Mary of Burgundy in devotion with a wonderful depiction of a French Gothic Cathedral behind her.

Illuminated manuscripts provide excellent examples of Gothic painting. A prayer book, known as the book of hours, became increasingly popular during the Gothic age and was treated as a luxury item. The Hours of Mary of Burgundy, produced in Flanders c. 1477, contains a miniature showing Mary of Burgundy in devotion with a wonderful depiction of a French Gothic Cathedral behind her.

1.1.4 – Sculpture and Metalwork

Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral: The metalwork by Nicolas of Verdun demonstrates his knowledge and understanding of classical elements in art.

Sculpture during the Gothic era really sheds light on the knowledge of artists working during this time period. Some historians believed that artists and artisans during the Gothic era had “forgotten” how to create realistic works of art, or art influenced by the classical age. However, a viewer only needs to look at the work of Nicolas of Verdun to see that artists could and did work in a classical style during the Gothic era. Additionally, sculpture produced in Germany during the Gothic era is especially noted for its lifelikeness.

1.2 – Gothic Cathedrals

French Gothic cathedrals are characterized by lighter construction, large windows, pointed arches, and their impressive height.

The Gothic cathedral represented the universe in microcosm, and each architectural concept, including the height and perfect ratios of the structure, were intended to convey a theological message: the great glory of God and his creation of a perfect universe. The building becomes a microcosm in two ways. First, the mathematical and geometrical nature of the construction is an image of the orderly universe, in which an underlying rationality and logic can be perceived. Second, the statues, sculptural decoration, stained glass, and murals incorporate the essence of creation in depictions of events from the Old and New Testaments.

Most Gothic churches have the Latin cross (or “cruciform”) plan, with a long nave making the body of the church. This nave is flanked on either side by aisles, a transverse arm called the transept, and, beyond it, an extension referred to as the choir.

One of the defining characteristics of Gothic architecture is the pointed or ogival arch. Arches of this type were used in the Near East in pre-Islamic as well as Islamic architecture before they were structurally employed in Gothic architecture. They are thought to have been the inspiration for their use in France at the Autun Cathedral, which is otherwise stylistically Romanesque. The way in which the pointed arch was drafted and utilized developed throughout the Gothic period, and four popular styles emerged: the Lancet arch, the Equilateral arch, the Flamboyant arch, and the Depressed arch.

Autun Cathedral, ca. 1120-46: Exterior of Autun Cathedral, showcasing the pointed arches of the Gothic style on an otherwise Romanesque building.

The Gothic vault, unlike the semi-circular vault of Roman and Romanesque buildings, can be used to roof rectangular and irregularly shaped plans such as trapezoids. This enabled architects to raise vaults much higher than was possible in Romanesque architecture. While the use of the pointed arch gave a greater flexibility to architectural form, it also gave Gothic architecture a very different and more vertical visual characteristic than Romanesque architecture.

In Gothic architecture the pointed arch is used in every location where a vaulted shape is called for, both structurally and decoratively. Gothic openings such as doorways, windows, arcades, and galleries have pointed arches. Rows of pointed arches upon delicate shafts form a typical wall decoration known as a blind arcade. Niches with pointed arches that contain statuary are a major external feature. The pointed arch lent itself to elaborate intersecting shapes, which developed complex Gothic tracery within window spaces and formed the structural support of the large windows that are characteristic of the style.

Cross-ribbed vault, Bonne-Espérance Abbey, Vellereille-les-Brayeux, Belgium, ca, 13th century: Ogival, or pointed arches, increased in popularity in the Gothic period.

The façade of a large church or cathedral, often referred to as the West Front, is generally designed to create a powerful impression on the approaching worshiper. In the arch of the door (the tympanum) is often a significant sculpture representing scenes from Christian Theology, most frequently Christ in Majesty and Judgment Day. If there is a central door jamb or a tremeau, then it frequently bears a statue of the Madonna and Child.

The West Front of a French cathedral, along with many English, Spanish, and German cathedrals, generally has two towers, which, particularly in France, express an enormous diversity of form and decoration. A characteristic of French Gothic church architecture is its height, both absolute and in proportion to its width, the verticality suggests an aspiration to Heaven. As the Gothic Age progressed in France, the different towns and cities may have been in competition with one another to create the tallest Cathedral. Architects also closely guarded the ratios they used in their architectural plans.

Interior of Cologne Cathedral: The verticality demonstrated in this image is a definitive feature of Gothic architecture.

Another one of the most distinctive characteristics of Gothic architecture is the expansive area of windows and the large size of the many individual windows. The increase in the use of large windows during the Gothic period is directly related to the use of the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, and the flying buttress. All of these architectural features absorbed the weight of the structure, which had rested on the walls in Romanesque architecture. Since the walls had less weight to support, thanks to these innovations, architects were able to pierce the walls of the structures with windows without risking the structural soundness of the cathedral.

2 – Gothic Architecture

2.1 – The Abbey Church of Saint Denis

The Abbey Church of Saint Denis is known as the first Gothic structure and was developed in the 12th century by Abbot Suger.

2.1.1 – Introduction

Saint Denis, from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris: Saint Denis was martyred in connection with the Decian persecution of Christians, shortly after CE 250.

The Abbey Church of Saint Denis, also known as the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis, is a large medieval abbey church in the commune of Saint Denis, now a northern suburb of Paris. This site originated as a Gallo-Roman cemetery in late Roman times. Around 475 CE, St. Genevieve established a church at this site. In the 7th century, this structure was replaced by a much grander construction, on the orders of Dagobert I, King of the Franks.

The Basilica of Saint Denis is an architectural landmark, the first major structure of which a substantial part was designed and built in the Gothic style . Both stylistically and structurally, it heralded the change from Romanesque architecture to Gothic architecture . Before the term “Gothic” came into common use, it was known as the “French Style.”

Saint Denis is a patron saint of France and, according to legend, was the first Bishop of Paris. Legend says that he was decapitated on the Hill of Montmartre and subsequently carried his head to the site of the current church, indicating where he wanted to be buried.

Tomb of Dagobert I: Dagobert’s tomb was improved during the 13th century at the Basilica of Saint Denis.

Dagobert I refounded the church as the Abbey of Saint Denis, a Benedictine monastery. Dagobert also commissioned a new shrine to house the saint’s remains; it was created by his chief counselor, Eligius, a goldsmith by training.

2.1.2 – Abbot Suger

Abbot Suger (circa 1081-1151), Abbot of Saint Denis from 1122 and a friend and confidant of French kings, had been given the abbey as an oblate at the age of 10 and began work around 1135 on rebuilding and enlarging it.

Suger was the patron of the rebuilding of Saint Denis, but not the architect, as was often assumed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact it appears that two distinct architects, or master masons, were involved in the 12th century changes. Both remain anonymous, but their work can be distinguished stylistically. The first, who was responsible for the initial work at the western end, favored conventional Romanesque capitals and molding profiles with rich and individualized detailing. His successor, who completed the western facade and upper stories of the narthex before going on to build the new choir , displayed a more restrained approach to decorative effects, relying on a simple repertoire of motifs , which may have proved more suitable for the lighter Gothic style that he helped to create.

Suger’s western extension was completed in 1140 and the three new chapels in the narthex were consecrated on June 9th of that year. On completion of the west front, Abbot Suger moved on to the reconstruction of the eastern end. He wanted a choir (chancel) that would be suffused with light. To achieve his aims, Suger’s masons drew on the new elements that had evolved or been introduced to Romanesque architecture: the pointed arch , the ribbed vault , the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions, and the flying buttresses , which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows. This was the first time that these features had all been brought together. The new structure was finished and dedicated on June 11th of 1144, in the presence of the King.

Abbey Church of Saint Denis: This is the west facade of the Basilica of Saint Denis, showcasing the distinct features of Romanesque architecture.

Thus, the Abbey of Saint Denis became the prototype for further building in the royal domain of northern France. Through the rule of the Angevin dynasty , the style was introduced to England and spread throughout France, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy, and Sicily.

The dark Romanesque nave , with its thick walls and small window openings, was rebuilt using the latest techniques, in what is now known as Gothic. This new style, which differed from Suger’s earlier works as much as they had differed from their Romanesque precursors , reduced the wall area to an absolute minimum. Solid masonry was replaced with vast window openings filled with brilliant stained glass and interrupted only by the most slender of bar tracery—not only in the clerestory but also, perhaps for the first time, in the normally dark triforium level. The upper facades of the two much-enlarged transepts were filled with two spectacular rose windows . As with Suger’s earlier rebuilding work, the identity of the architect or master mason is unknown.

The abbey is often referred to as the “royal necropolis of France” as it is the site where the kings of France and their families were buried for centuries. All but three of the monarchs of France from the 10th century until 1789 have their remains here. The effigies of many of the kings and queens are on their tombs, but during the French Revolution , those tombs were opened and the bodies were moved to mass graves.

2.2 – La Saint-Chapelle

Louis IX’s patronage of the arts drove much innovation in Gothic art and architecture, exemplified by his commission of La Saint-Chappelle, an example of Rayonnant Gothic architecture.

Louis IX ruled during the so-called “golden century of Saint Louis,” when the Kingdom of France was at its height of power in Europe, both politically and economically. The king of France was regarded as a primus inter pares among the kings and rulers of the continent. He commanded the largest army, and ruled the largest and most wealthy kingdom of Europe, which was the European center of arts and intellectual thought (La Sorbonne) at the time. The prestige and respect for King Louis IX resulted more from his benevolent personality than from his military domination. For his contemporaries, he was the quintessential example of the Christian prince, and embodied the whole of Christendom in his person. The King was later recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.

Bust of St. Louis, ca. 1300 from the church of Mainneville, Eure, France: Louis IX, or Saint Louis, was a revered leader and strong patron of the arts during the Gothic period.

The style of Louis’ court radiated throughout Europe through the purchase of art objects from Parisian masters for export and by the marriage of the King’s daughters and female relatives to foreign husbands. Louis’ personal chapel, La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, was copied more than once by his descendants elsewhere.

Sainte-Chapelle, ceiling of the lower chapel: Saint Louis’ Sainte-Chapelle epitomizes the Rayonnant Gothic style as was King Louis IX’s personal chapel.

La Sainte-Chapelle (The Holy Chapel) is one of the only surviving buildings of the Capetian royal palace on the Île de la Cité in the heart of Paris, France. It was commissioned by King Louis IX of France to house his collection of relics of the passion, including the Crown of Thorns—one of the most important relics in medieval Christendom. Begun some time after 1239 and consecrated on April 26, 1248, the Sainte-Chapelle is considered among the highest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic architecture . Although damaged during the French revolution and heavily restored in the 19th century, it retains one of the most extensive in-situ collections (collections that are still in their original positions) of 13th century stained glass anywhere in the world. The glass depicts stories from the Old Testament and focuses heavily on the depictions of biblical kings, both good and bad. Scholars believe the inclusion of “bad” kings, along with the good, were meant as a lesson for the royal viewer to learn from both good and bad examples of rulership.

La Sainte-Chapelle is a prime example of the phase of Gothic architectural style called “Rayonnant Gothic,” also known as Court Style, and is marked by its sense of weightlessness and strong vertical emphasis. Rayonnant structures tend to be smaller than the High Gothic Cathedrals that came before them. La Sainte-Chapelle stands squarely upon a lower chapel, which served as parish church for all the inhabitants of the palace, which was the seat of government. However, the chapel proper was a private royal chapel and scholars have noted how the structure almost looks like metalwork , as if the chapel itself is a reliquary.

2.3 – English Gothic Architecture

2.3.1 – Introduction

Gothic architecture flourished in England from approximately 1180 to 1520. This style is defined by pointed arches, vaulted roofs, buttresses , large windows, and spires . The Gothic style was first developed in France, where the various elements had first been used together within a single building at the choir of the Basilique Saint-Denis north of Paris, built by Abbot Suger and dedicated in June 1144. The English adopted the Gothic style, however, they adapted it to their own regional preferences. While French Gothic Cathedrals were built to be increasingly tall, English Gothic Cathedrals tended to emphasize the length of the building rather than the height.

Wells Cathedral, Somerset, England: This Cathedral showcases characteristics of Gothic architecture with the pointed arches, vaulted roofs, buttresses, large windows, and spires, but emphasizes the length of the building, rather than the height.

Many of the largest and finest works of English architecture, notably the medieval cathedrals of England, are largely built in the Gothic style. The earliest large-scale applications of Gothic architecture in England are at Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey . Castles, palaces, great houses, universities, parish churches, and many smaller unpretentious secular buildings, including almshouses and trade halls, were also built in this style.

2.3.2 – Early English Gothic Period

The Early English Gothic period lasted from the late 12th century until midway through the 13th century, according to most modern scholars. By 1175, the Gothic style had been firmly established in England with the completion of the Choir at Canterbury Cathedral by William of Sens.

The most significant characteristic development of the Early English period was the pointed arch known as the lancet. Compared with the rounded Romanesque style, the pointed arch of the Early English Gothic is aesthetically more elegant and is more efficient at distributing the weight of stonework, making it possible to span higher and wider gaps using narrower columns . It also allows for much greater variation in proportions.

Using the pointed arch, walls could become less massive and window openings could be larger and grouped more closely together, so architects could achieve more open, airy, and graceful buildings. At its purest, the style was simple and austere, emphasizing the height of the building, as if aspiring heavenward. In the late 12th century the Early English Gothic style superseded the Romanesque style, and during the late 13th century it developed into the Decorated Gothic style, which lasted until the mid 14th century.

2.3.3 – Decorated Gothic Period

York Minster Cathedral: The west front of York Minster Cathedral is a fine example of Decorated architecture, in particular the elaborate tracery on the main window. This period saw detailed carving reach its peak, with elaborately carved windows and capitals, often with floral patterns.

The Decorated period in architecture is traditionally broken into two periods: the Geometric style (1250–1290) and the Curvilinear style (1290–1350). Decorated architecture is characterized by its window tracery, which are elaborate patterns that fill the top portions of windows. The tracery style was geometric at first, and flowing in the later period during the 14th century. Vaulting also became more elaborate, with the use of increasing numbers of ribs , initially for structural and later for aesthetic reasons.

Examples of the Decorated style can be found in many British churches and cathedrals. Principal examples are the east ends of Lincoln Cathedral and of Carlisle Cathedral and the west fronts of York Minster and of Lichfield Cathedral.

2.3.4 – Perpendicular Gothic Period

Gloucester Cathedral: The Gloucester Cathedral exemplifies the Perpendicular Gothic Period. The interior conveys an impression of a “cage” of stone and glass, typical of the period. The walls and windows are sharper and less flamboyant than those of the earlier style.

The Perpendicular Gothic period is the third historical division of English Gothic architecture, and is characterized by an emphasis on vertical lines. The Perpendicular style began under the royal architects William Ramsey and John Sponlee, and lasted into the mid 16th century.

The Perpendicular style grew out of the shadow of the Black Death, a disease that killed approximately half of England’s population in 18 months between June 1348 and December 1349 and returned in 1361–62 to kill another fifth of the population. This epidemic dramatically impacted every aspect of society, including arts and culture , and designers moved away from the flamboyance and jubilation present in the Decorated style. Architects were also responding to labor shortages resulting from the plague, and therefore relied on less elaborate designs.

Perpendicular linearity is particularly obvious in the design of windows, which became immense, allowing greater scope for stained glass craftsmen. Some of the finest features of this period are the magnificent timber roofs: hammerbeam roofs, such as those of Westminster Hall (1395), Christ Church Hall, Oxford, and Crosby Hall, appeared for the first time. Gothic architecture continued to flourish in England for 100 years after the precepts of Renaissance architecture were formalized in Florence in the early 15th century.

2.4 – German Gothic Architecture

2.4.1 – Introduction

Gothic architecture flourished during the high and late medieval period in the Holy Roman Empire, from approximately 1140–1400. The Gothic style first developed in France. Territories that constitute modern day Germany adopted the French Gothic and developed regional distinctions to this style.

German Gothic architecture is notable for its enormous towers and spires . Sometimes they were so big that they were left unfinished until modern times. The spires are quite different than English spires because they are made of lacy “openwork.” There are also many hallenkirke (or hall churches), which have no clerestorey windows. The nave and the aisles are about the same height.

Freiburg Cathedral was built in three stages, the first beginning in 1120 under the Dukes of Zahringen, the second beginning in 1210, and the third in 1230. Of the original building, only the foundations still exist. It is particularly notable for its 116-meter tower, which is nearly square at the base , and the dodecagonal star gallery at its center. Above this gallery, the tower is octagonal and tapered, with the spire at the top. It is the only Gothic church tower in Germany completed in the Middle Ages (1330) that survived the November 1944 bombing raids that destroyed all of the houses on the west and north side of the market.

Freiburg Cathedral: View of the Freiburg Cathedral in Germany

Cologne Cathedral is, after Milan Cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Construction began in 1248 and took, with interruptions, until 1880 to complete—a period of over 600 years. It is 144.5 metres long, 86.5 m wide, and its two towers are 157 m tall. Because of its enormous twin spires, it also has the largest façade of any church in the world. The choir of the cathedral, measured between the piers , also holds the distinction of having the largest height to width ratio of any Medieval church.

Cologne Cathedral: The Cologne Cathedral is an example of German Gothic architecture.

The building of Gothic churches was accompanied by the construction of guild houses and town halls by the rising bourgeoisie. Examples are the Gothic Town Hall (13th century) at Stralsund, Bremen Town Hall (1410), and the (reconstructed) city hall of Munster (originally from 1350).

The dwellings of this period were mainly timber-framed buildings, as can still be seen in Goslar and Quedlinburg. Quedlinburg has one of the oldest half-timbered houses in Germany. The method of construction, used extensively for town houses of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, lasted into the twentieth century for rural buildings.

2.4.2 – Brick Gothic

Brick Gothic (Backsteingotik) is a specific style of Gothic architecture common in Northern Europe, especially in Northern Germany and the regions around the Baltic Sea that lack natural rock resources. The structures are built, more or less, using only bricks. Stralsund City Hall and St. Nicholas Church are examples of this style. Cities such as Lubeck, Rostock, Wismar, Stralsund, and Greifswald are shaped by this regional style. St. Mary’s in Lübeck, built between 1200 and 1350, was a model for many North German churches.

2.4.3 – Hall Churches

Munich Frauenkirche, Bavaria: Hall churches are a distinctively German interpretation of the Gothic style.

Hall churches are another example of German Gothic architecture that is distinct from French Gothic. In hall churches, the aisles and nave are almost the same height and the stained glass windows are typically the full height of the walls, allowing in maximum light and space.

3 – Gothic Sculpture

3.1 – Introduction

Gothic art existed as monumental religious sculpture in churches, such as in the Cologne Cathedral, and as small, portable sculptures.

3.1.1 – Overview

Gothic art was a style that developed concurrently with Gothic architecture during the mid-12th century. Primary media in the Gothic period included sculpture, panel painting, stained glass fresco , and illuminated manuscripts . The earliest Gothic art existed as monumental sculpture on the walls of cathedrals and abbeys . Elaborate sculpture was used extensively to decorate the facades of these buildings.

3.1.2 – Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral: The Cologne Cathedral is an example of German Gothic architecture.

The Cologne Cathedral is a renowned monument to German Gothic architecture as well as a World Heritage Site home to numerous works of art and decorative sculpture. Its exterior serves as a stunning example of German Gothic architecture, while its interior houses numerous examples of Gothic sculpture and artwork.

Shrine of the Three Kings: The Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral is said to house the remains of the Three Magi and serves as an example of German Gothic sculpture.

One of the important works in the cathedral is the High Altar, installed in 1322. It is constructed out of black marble, with a solid slab 15 feet long forming the top. The front and sides are overlaid with white marble, nine inches into which figure are set, with the Coronation of the Virgin at the centre.

The most renowned work of art in the cathedral is the Shrine of the Three Kings. It was commissioned by Philip von Heinsberg, archbishop of Cologne from 1167 to 1191, and created by Nicholas of Verdun. It is traditionally believed to hold the remains of the Three Magi or Three Wise Men, whose relics were acquired at the conquest of Milan in 1164. The shrine takes the form of a large reliquary in the shape of a basilican church, made of bronze and silver. It is gilded and ornamented with architectonic details, figurative sculpture, enamels, and gemstones. The entire outside of the shrine is covered with an elaborate decorative overlay. There are 74 high relief figures in silver gilt in all, not counting smaller additional figures in the background decoration. On the sides, images of the prophets decorate the lower sections, while images of the apostles and evangelists decorate the upper part. On one end, there are (across the bottom, from left to right) images of the Adoration of the Magi, Mary enthroned with the infant Jesus, and the baptism of Christ. Above, one may see Christ enthroned at the Last Judgment. The opposite end shows scenes of the Passion: the scourging of Christ (lower left), and his crucifixion (lower left), with the resurrected Christ above. The figures, with their fully modeled bodies and wet drapery , demonstrate how sculptors in the Gothic period were familiar with classical references and were able to employ them in their works.

The Gero-Kreuz: The Gero-Kreuz is the oldest large sculpture of the crucified Christ north of the Alps and is located in the Cologne Cathedral.

Near the sacristy is the Gero-Kreuz, a large crucifix carved in oak with restored paint and gilding. It is the oldest large crucifix north of the Alps, as well as the oldest known free standing Northern sculpture of the medieval period.

3.1.3 – Portable Sculpture

Aside from monumental sculpture, smaller, portable sculptural pieces were also popular during the Gothic period. Small carvings, made generally for the lay market, became a considerable industry in urban centers. Gothic sculptures independent of architectural ornament were primarily created as devotional objects for the home or intended as donations for local churches. Nevertheless, small reliefs in ivory, bone, and wood covered both religious, as well as secular subjects, and were for church and domestic use. Such sculptures were often the work of urban artisans. The most typical subject for three dimensional small statues is the Virgin Mary alone or with child. Additional objects typical of the time included small devotional polyptychs, single figures, especially of the Virgin Mary, mirror-cases, combs, and elaborate caskets with scenes from romances.

3.2 – Italian Gothic Sculpture: The Pisano Family

Detail of the pulpit at Pisa Baptistery: Pulpit (detail): the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi. The trefoil arches supporting the pulpit show French Gothic influence.

Nicola Pisano (ca. 1220–1284) and his son Giovanni Pisano (ca. 1250–1315) were Italian sculptors during the Gothic age who developed a Classical-influenced style of sculpture known as Proto-Renaissance. Their relief sculptures drew heavily from the carved Roman sarcophagus and were characterized by sophisticated and crowded compositions and a sympathetic handling of nudity. They are sometimes considered to be the first modern sculptors.

The specifics of Nicola Pisano’s origins are uncertain. He was born between 1220 and 1225 in the southern Italian region of Apulia and trained in the local workshops of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. He moved to Tuscany around 1245 and was active in the cities of Lucca, Pisa, Siena, Pistoia, and Perugia. His most famous work is the pulpit of the Pisa baptistery, which is a masterful synthesis of the French Gothic style and Classical style. Made of white Carrara marble, the pulpit depicts scenes from the life of Jesus Christ in a Classical style. The figures wear tunics in a Roman fashion, and his representation of the Madonna is reminiscent of the regal bearing of goddesses in late Roman sculpture. The inspiration for the pulpit probably came from the triumphal arches in Rome. Nicola Pisano had seen the arches on his travels, particularly the Arch of Constantine, which has many features the pulpit imitates, including figures standing on top of columns and an attic storey with sculpted scenes.

Fontana Maggiore, Perugia: Nicola and Giovanni Pisano worked side by side on the Fontana Maggiore at Perugia. On the twenty-five sides of the basin are sculptures representing prophets and saints, the labors of the months, the signs of the zodiac, scenes from Genesis, and events from Roman history.

Other well-known projects undertaken by Nicola Pisano include a marble pulpit for the Siena Cathedral, a commission he received after making his name in Pisa, and the Fontana Maggiore or Great Fountain at Perugia, which he worked on alongside his son Giovanni.

Pulpit of Pisa Cathedral: The pulpit at the Pisa Cathedral shows Giovanni Pisano’s distinct preference for a bold, animated style.

Nicola’s son, Giovanni Pisano, was born in Pisa around 1250 and trained as a sculptor in his father’s workshop. He worked alongside his father on the pulpit in the Siena Cathedral and the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia. His earliest works imitated his father’s style, and it is difficult to separate the contributions of the two sculptors. However, after his Nicola’s death, Giovanni’s style grew more distinct. While it continued to incorporate Classical influences, it was more French Gothic in style and characterized by a bold, dramatic animation that had been missing in Nicola’s serene sculptural style.

Giovanni was the chief architect of the Siena Cathedral between 1287 and 1296. He also worked on statues decorating the exterior of the Pisa Baptistery, the facade of the church of San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno (St. Paul on the Bank of the Arno) at Pisa, and a monument commissioned by the emperor Henry VII, commemorating his wife Margaret of Brabant.

Giovanni’s greatest work is arguably a pulpit at the Cathedral of Pisa sculpted between 1302 and 1310. The pulpit incorporates a dramatic depiction of nine scenes from the New Testament carved in white marble with a chiaroscuro effect and a naturalistic carving of a nude Hercules. The figure of Prudence in the pulpit is thought to have been an inspiration for the Tuscan painter Masaccio in his Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

4 – Gothic Painting

Italian Gothic painting developed a distinctively western character and flourished from the second half of the 13th century onward.

The transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic style of painting happened quite slowly in Italy, several decades after it had first taken hold in France. After the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade , the influx of Byzantine paintings and mosaics increased greatly. This was partly the reason that Italy was strongly influenced by Byzantine art, especially in painting.

The initial changes to the Byzantine-inspired Romanesque style were quite small, marked merely by an increase in Gothic ornamental detailing rather than a dramatic difference in the style of figures and compositions. Italian Gothic painting began to flourish in its own right around the second half of the 13th century with the contributions of Cimabue of Florence (ca. 1240–c a. 1302) and Duccio of Siena (ca. 1255–60–ca. 1318–19), and developed an even more strongly realistic character under Giotto (1266–1337).

Cimabue and Duccio were trained in the Byzantine style, but they were the first great Italian painters to start breaking away from the Italo-Byzantine art form. In a period when scenes and forms were still relatively flat and stylized , Cimabue was a pioneer in the move towards naturalism in Italian painting. His figures were depicted with more lifelike proportions and shading, as evident in the Crucifixion scene for the church of Santa Croce in Florence (1287-88), which demonstrates delicately shaded draperies and the chiaroscuro technique. His Maestà di Santa Trinita, a Madonna and Child painting commissioned by the church of Santa Trinita in Florence between 1290 and 1300, makes use of perspective in portraying Mary’s three-dimensional throne, and depicts the figures with sweeter and more natural expressions than typical in the somber Romanesque style.

Crucifixion of Santa Croce (Tempera on Wood): The figure of Christ slumps heavily to one side and is clad in delicate, folded drapery in Cimabue’s Crucifixion.

Much like Cimabue, Duccio of Siena painted in the Byzantine style but made his own personal contributions in the Gothic style in the linearity, the rich but delicate detail, and the warm and refined colors of his work. He was also one of the first Italian painters to place figures in architectural settings. Over time, he achieved greater naturalism and softness in his work and made use of foreshortening and chiaroscuro techniques. His characters are surprisingly expressive and human, interacting tenderly with each other. Duccio is considered the founder of the Sienese Gothic school of painting.

Maestà del Duomo di Siena (Tempera and Gold on Wood): The Maestà of the Siena Cathedral is a painted altarpiece composed of many individual paintings. It was commissioned in 1308 by the city of Siena and is widely regarded as Duccio’s masterpiece.

Both Cimabue and Duccio were probably influenced by Giotto in their later years. Giotto was renowned for his distinctively western style, basing his compositions not on a Byzantine tradition but, rather, on his observation of life. His figures were solidly three-dimensional, had discernible anatomy, and were clothed with garments that appear to have weight and structure. His greatest contribution to Italian Gothic art was his intense depiction of a range of emotions, which his contemporaries began to emulate enthusiastically. While painting in the Gothic style, he is considered the herald of the Renaissance .

During the 14th century, Tuscan painting was predominantly accomplished in the International Gothic style, which was prevalent throughout Western Europe at the time. In its fully developed form, it is best seen in the work of Simone Martini of Siena (1284–1344) and Gentile da Fabriano (1370–1427), whose paintings are characterized by a formalized sweetness and grace, an elegance and richness of detail, and an idealized quality that was missing in Giotto’s stark work. The tempera altarpieces of Fra Angelico bridge the gap between the International Gothic and Renaissance styles of painting, making use of Gothic elaboration, gold leaf , and brilliant color.

5 – Gothic Metalwork

5.1 – Metalwork and Ivory Carvings

In France, metal and ivory pieces took on a diminutive but ornate characteristic, and required great skill to create.

5.1.1 – Introduction

France is credited with exporting the Gothic style of architecture during this period. Compared to Gothic architecture , which was better known for its large dramatic features such as flying buttresses and elaborate stained glass, metal and ivory art work was often more diminutive—but it was still quite striking. Metalworkers and sculptors working in ivory made an impact on the the art, architecture, craft, and interior design world of France during the period.

5.1.2 – Metalwork

Notre Dame de Paris—Door knocker: The elaborate door knocker is just one of the details worked into the door of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Iron work during the Gothic period took on various styles and trends, from large rough wrought-iron works to more delicate items. In France the dominant trend was towards the ornate, especially decorative pieces used as components in doors. These included door knockers, locks, and even hinges with elaborate adornment. These works required high levels of skill and craftsmanship.

Norte Dame de Paris—Door: The elaborate decoration of the door to Notre Dame Cathedral is a strong example of the ornate metalwork of this period.

The door to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is a key example. Notre Dame is one of the first buildings to use a flying buttress, which became characteristic of Gothic architecture. It is also well known for its sculptures, stained glass, and gargoyles. But the door of the cathedral is, in and of itself, a work of art, particularly when one takes into account the limited smithing techniques of the time.

5.1.3 – Ivory

Siege of the Castle of Love—Mirror: This mirror casing is an example of the ornate ivory work that became part of everyday objects in the Middle Ages.

Ivory became available once again in Europe in the Middle Ages and created a trend for ivory sculptures of various forms. In addition to small figures and talismans, there was a fashion for narrative panels in groups of two or three (diptychs and tryptychs), or multi-panel polytychs. Paris became a center for the creation of these works. Additionally, their popularity spread beyond church art, and these pieces could be found in homes and used for decorative furnishing. These works were considered luxury items; ivory work could often be found on the backs of hairbrushes, mirrors, and other luxury items. The works often portrayed scenes of romance and love rather than the religious scenes more typical of Gothic art.

6 – Italy in the Gothic Period

6.1 – Italian Painting: 1200-1400

In the early Renaissance, painters began to embrace naturalistic styles, creating images with attention to form and space.

6.1.1 – Introduction

The Florentine School of Painting is characterized by the naturalism in art that started to emerge in Florence in the 13th century. This set the stage for what would become the great period of Florentine art in later centuries that would include the work of great artists such as Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Donatello, and Lippi.

However, art in Florence and northern Italy during the period between 1200 and 1400 was still in transition; it was a bridge in Art History between the Medieval period and Byzantine and Gothic styles, and the Early Modern period and Renaissance styles. Sometimes referred to as the proto-Renaissance period, art and architecture in northern Italy provided important hints at the trends that would take hold over the next centuries in the rest of Europe.

City states and duchies such as Pisa, Milan, Lucca, and Florence were the main homes of these developments. In spite of the many challenges during the period, such as the ongoing ravages of the Black Plague, these city states experienced periods of politically stability and economic growth, which provided a good foundation for new experimentation in art.

In Florence, leading families prospered under the economic growth promoted through trade. Each of these leading families vied for power, but also for cultural prominence, and became great patrons of the arts (the Medici family being the prime example).

At the same time, there were great changes occurring in art both in terms of styles and philosophies. One important change was a focus on the individual in religious practices, which also translated into a greater naturalistic and humanist focus in art.

6.1.2 – Florence

Painters in this city wholeheartedly embraced naturalist styles. Harkening back to classical figures, they created images with attention to portraying strong emotions and relationships between figures—painting that expressed a type of realism not present in Byzantine styles.

One painter who demonstrated the shift that was occurring in Florentine painting during this time is Cimabue (c.1240-1302). In his Maesta the viewer may observe elements of both the earlier Byzantine style of painting, as well as the emerging Renaissance style. The work retains the gold background that was familiar in Byzantine icons , and his figures are rendered in a Byzantine style. However, Cimabue made efforts to create space in this work, which would become an important aspect in Renaissance art. His angels surrounding the Virgin and Child overlap one another to indicate space and Cimabue paid great attention to the Virgin’s throne to create a realistic depiction of space as well.

Cimabue, Maesta, c.12801285. : Cimabue’s artwork reflects the changes that were occurring in Florentine painting during this period, by demonstrating both the older Byzantine style as well as the emerging Renaissance style.

Artists were able to work in Florence at least in part due to the influential art guilds , including the painters’ guild Arte dei Medici e Spezeiali. These guilds also became important patrons of the arts, and took over the maintenance and improvements of religious buildings.

6.1.3 – Siena

Duccio, Maestà, 1308–1311: Duccio’s work demonstrates the emerging Renaissance style, as seen in the developed form of the figures, as well as the older Byzantine styles and the Sienese preference for materiality with the use of gold.

The Sienese School of painting was more conservative than painting in Florence, but nonetheless important, flourishing between the 1200s and 1400s. Some of the important painters from this period included Duccio and his pupils Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Simone Martini, and Matteo di Giovanni.

Duccio di Buoninsegna is one of the best known Siena painters of the time. His work was often ornate with the use of gold leaf and jewels, demonstrating how Siena was focused on the physical materiality of work. His work in egg tempera also used brighter colors, rounded out features in faces and hands, and played with light and dark colors to highlight the figures under the drapery creating natural form , which was very unlike Byzantine figures but important to emerging Renaissance artists.

Duccio’s work was considered quite emotional, with a renewed focus on storytelling through the interactions of figures in the images and the selection of strong interpretations of biblical stories. The altarpiece Maestà (1308–1310) is one of his great works. Composed of multiple paintings and commissioned by the city of Sienna, the piece depicts the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ. The Virgin’s knee juts out toward the viewer as Duccio has created a realistic sense of form–an essential element of the emerging Renaissance style. While his work retains the gold background and gold halos so important in Byzantine art (and to Sienese patrons), this art acts as a bridge between the late Medieval era and Early Renaissance.

6.2 – Italian Painting: Giotto

Giotto was one of the most revered painters of his time and an important bridge between the medieval and renaissance periods.

Giotto di Bondone was born during the late 1200s in the Florence region of Italy. He would go on to become one of the most revered painters of his time, and an important bridge between the medieval and renaissance periods.

The Arena Chapel frescoes were commissioned by the patron Enrico Scrovegni and depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. They are Giotto’s best known masterpieces.

Kiss of Judas: One of the most dramatic scenes from Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes depicts the moment Judas betrays Christ by identifying him to Roman soldiers.

Scholars debate over which works should be attributed to Giotto and which works should be attributed to assistants or other artists. For example, Giotto appears to have apprenticed with the Florentine painter Cimabue in Rome and may have been responsible for portions of the Chapel at Assisi. However, there is no documentation to confirm his work in Assisi.

Giotto’s distinct contribution to the history of art was a return to a style that directly references the natural world, a style that had not been emphasized by Medieval or Byzantine painters. While Medieval and Byzantine styles favored flat, elongated figures and a lack of natural perspective Giotto returned painting to a style that aimed to capture the naturalism of the human form.

Another strength of Giotto’s work was his storytelling ability. He was skilled at selecting strong interpretations of Biblical stories and at drawing viewers to the most visually and spiritually rich aspects of the story. This focus on relationships between figures, as well as a renewed interest in perspective and life drawing, are some of the aspects that would become prominent in Renaissance painting.

6.3 – Italian Architecture: 1200-1400

The Gothic style was the leading architectural style in Italy during this time period. However, Italian architects interpreted Gothic architecture differently than they did in France, resulting in a few key regional differences.

6.3.1 – Florence Architecture and Metalwork

Gothic architecture was developed in France and was characterized by lancet , or pointed, archways used for both windows and doorways. These allowed for both thinner walls and larger windows. The stained glass windows that seemed to replace walls altogether are the hallmark of French Gothic architecture. Other characteristics of the Gothic style include the increased use of flying buttresses to support walls, and a shift towards more slender and ornate columns , and vaulted ceilings.

While the French Gothic style gained popularity in many parts of Europe, the Gothic style was interpreted differently in Italy. Gothic buildings in cities such as Florence lack the stained glass that characterizes French Gothic structures and as a whole they lack the emphasized verticality of French Gothic Cathedrals.

6.3.2 – Florence Cathedral

Florence Cathedral, begun 1296: The Cathedral is pictured lit up at night, showcasing its Gothic style and large dome.

The Florence Cathedral is a great example of the Gothic style in Italy. Begun in 1296, the Cathedral is built in the Gothic style as Renaissance architecture had yet to be developed.

Florence Cathedral, Interior view, begun 1296: In the interior of the Cathedral, you can see the Gothic elements, such as the groin vaults and pointed arches.

As the exterior view of the Cathedral demonstrates, Italian Gothic structures did not incorporate the stained glass windows, which had become so essential to French Gothic structures. The interior of the Cathedral, including the groin vaults and pointed arches , demonstrates the Gothic elements of its architecture quite clearly.

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