Gothic Art and Style

Architecture identifies Gothic Style. Just think of breath-taking cathedrals, mounting pillars, soaring vaults. It pays, though, to think of it as the physical expression of a special theological motive, the transgressing soul climbing through the Heavens. As such, it marked a plethora of other – minor – art forms.

Painting of the Cathedral in Reims by Domenico Quaglio c. 1787. Notice the towering size of the edifice compared to the surrounding houses. Source: Wikipedia
Painting of the Cathedral in Reims by Domenico Quaglio c. 1787. Notice the towering size of the edifice compared to the surrounding houses. Source: Wikipedia

Gothic architecture was the predominant art-form in 13th–15th century Europe. It arose out of the attempts of the medieval builder to lift massive masonry vaults over wide spans without causing the downward and outward pressures threatening to collapse the walls in an outward movement – such as happened in 1284 at Beauvais, when some of the vaultings in the choir fell causing an uproar in the international guild of masons; and perhaps, a turn towards less spectacular building projects. The significant constructional element in this new and innovative way of building large monuments was the invention of the ribbed vault, which was first applied in the rebuilding of the Cathedral of St. Denis in 1140. With its dispersion of the weight to the ribs, these might be supported by pillars and piers, which would replace the continuous thick walls. In between the pillars, light could be channelled through the impressive windows, graciously decorated with elaborately stained glass. The primary example of this – the Rayonnant or decorated Gothic style – is the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. With its jewel-like character, it seems to enshrine the visitor together with its most famous relic, the Crown of Thorns. Later, the style became even more flamboyant. We know this from numerous town- and guild-halls from the 15th century.

Detail from the interior of the Saint Etienne Cathedral, Beauvais, France.
Detail from the interior of the Saint Etienne Cathedral, Beauvais, France

However, Gothic cathedrals and later chapels were just one of the many Gothic pieces of art, which came to dominate the period. Reliquaries, altars, retables, tombs, fonts, pulpits, stalls, sculptures, ivories, manuscript covers and paintings as well as textiles all came to represent a kind of “micro-architecture”, typically featuring scenes framed or traced by pillars, buttresses and ribbed vaults.

Albeit these obejcts appear to have always been based on strict geometry, deft implementation of optical and colouristic elements overcame this, in the creation of micro-worlds or spectacles, inhabited by people gripped by all the spectres of emotion as may be seen in the famous Reliquary of the Holy Sepulchre from Pamplona.

We know from contracts that a dividing line was seldom drawn between metalwork, carpentry, and construction. This furthered dissemination of the artistic ideas from France and outwards to the peripheries to the north and east. As did the use of architectural drawing on parchement.

Gradually, through this diffusion of minor decorative pieces of art, Gothic also came to represent a particular idea of how to dress and comport yourself in gliding vertical movements enshrined in the tableaus of the courtly romances depicted on ivory caskets, jewellery and other objects of art.

In the end, the Gothic style gave away to the Renaissance, known to have designated the art form as precisely “Gothic”, that is quaint and barbarous.

The Idea of the Gothic

Reliquary of the Holy Sepulchre from the Cathedral in Pamploma. Source: Wikipedia
Reliquary of the Holy Sepulchre from the Cathedral in Pamploma. Source: Wikipedia

We may identify Gothic Art with cathedrals like those of St. Denis and later Reims, Amiens, Bourges, Chartres, Beauvais, Lincoln, Westminster and Cologne. The fact remains, however, that Gothic aesthetics was more visually present in the numerous pieces of decorative art as well as in literary renditions, found in poetry and novels in the later Middle Ages. We may think of the phantasmagoria of the grail and the temples erected to hide it from the unjustified. But also the rendition of the Heavenly Jerusalem in liturgies as well as in later poetry, like The Pearl. Another genre, Gothic in its inner core, is mysterious writing like “the Cloud of unknowing” offering a way into the mysterious “beyond” – through contemplation, ascension, transformation and finally transcendence and revelation.

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