Gothic (mid 12th century-16th century)

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The style of art known as Gothic developed in Europe during the Middle Ages. It was mainly a method of building: Gothic characteristics appeared first in architecture. Many of the world's great cathedrals and churches were built in the Gothic style between the 12th and 16th centuries.

Gothic cathedrals are tall, their arches soar heavenward, and rays of sunlight pour through high, stained-glass windows and bathe the wood, masonry, and marble. Walls, columns, entrances, and doors are carved with figures and scenes from the Bible. Not only great cathedrals and abbeys but hundreds of smaller churches were built in the style. The Gothic style became popular throughout Europe. It spread to houses and castles and then to painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts.

Although it had a spirit of its own, Gothic architecture was in many ways based on the earlier style known as Romanesque. Romanesque architecture had preserved much of the style of Roman times. Little by little the plans of Roman public buildings were changed to suit the needs of the Christian religion. The result of these changes was Romanesque architecture.

The people who made Gothic art did not call it by that name. To them the work they did was simply the new fashion--the only possible style that could be used for buildings and objects, paintings and carvings, lettering and goldsmith's work. The term "Gothic" was first used during the Renaissance period, which followed the Middle Ages. For some time the Gothic style was described as modern, in contrast to the classical Roman, which was called antique. But to provide it with a name of its own, people of the Renaissance took the word "Gothic" from the Goths, the people who had overrun the Roman Empire. Renaissance people thought, quite wrongly, that the Goths had brought this style with them.

Backgrounds of the Gothic

Three architectural features are typical of the Gothic. These are the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, and the flying buttress.

It is the pointed arch that most clearly makes Gothic building look different from Roman and Romanesque work. In the older style the semicircular, round arch was used everywhere. But Gothic architects did not invent the pointed arch. It had been used much earlier in the Near East. It was used by Muslim artists in Asia, Africa, and even in parts of southern Europe. The use of the pointed arch in Europe started very soon after the First Crusade (1099), when Jerusalem was captured from the Muslims. Thousands of crusaders from Western Europe saw buildings and works of art entirely different from those that they were used to. Though they did not believe in the Muslim religion, there was no reason why they should not imitate the art that pleased them. This explains the arrival of the pointed arch in Europe.

The Europeans used the pointed arch in a new way. Medieval buildings were constructed with vaults--ceilings made by continuous arches of heavy columns. Architects of the late Romanesque period had experimented with the ribbed vault, which allowed them to build much higher churches. The plan of the church was divided into square sections called bays. At each corner a pier (large pillar) was built. Diagonally from corner pier to corner pier, round arches were built. Because the diagonal of a square is longer than its side, round arches on the sides of a bay would not be as high as the round arches that spanned the bay diagonally. It was found that pointed arches at the sides and round arches at the diagonals would all reach the same height. This system of building is called ribbed vaulting.

The weight of the vaults on the walls tended to force the walls outward. This is called thrust. To support the walls, structures called buttresses were built against the outside of the walls. As ribbed vaulting enabled the construction of higher buildings, it became more difficult to resist the thrust from the arches. To support the additional weight of a higher building, buttresses had to be taller and to project more and more from the wall. Architects discovered that a fairly low buttress could be used to support the taller walls by means of a sloping arch, reaching up from the buttress and pressing against the outside of a higher wall. This kind of buttress is called a flying buttress.

When the flying buttress had been added to the ribbed vault and the pointed arch, all the main parts of Gothic architecture were there. As far as we know, all three were first used together at Durham Cathedral, in the north of England, about the year 1093. In spite of this, Durham Cathedral was not yet Gothic in style, for round arches were still used in the cathedral.

The First Gothic

Within a very few years, probably between 1132 and 1144, a new church was built at the abbey of St. Denis, near Paris. This church is the first existing example of the Gothic style. It was a royal abbey, where the kings of France were buried in tombs that can still be seen. At that time the abbey was ruled by a great abbot named Suger, who was greatly interested in art of every kind. Suger wanted to make his church the finest and the most beautifully decorated in the Christian world.

Although Abbot Suger was a monk dedicated to a life of holiness, he did not believe that God's house should look bare and poor. Suger was fond of people--from the king to the beggar--and wanted them all to come to the services at his church. He insisted on rebuilding the much older St. Denis Church, which was small and old-fashioned.

Suger would not let any difficulty stand in his way. He arranged for the stone to be quarried--dug from the ground. He needed long wooden beams for the roof but was told such great timbers were not to be had; so he went out himself and searched in the forests until he found trees big enough to supply the beams he wanted. In the end he succeeded in getting the church built. It was dedicated in the presence of King Louis VII, on July 11, 1144.

The Spread of Gothic

King Louis liked what he saw, and his approval must have been one of the chief reasons for the rapid spread of the new fashion in building. Within five years after the dedication of St. Denis, an addition was made to the old west front of the cathedral of Chartres, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Paris. The work must have been done by the same artists who had worked for Abbot Suger. One of them even signed his name, Rogerus, behind one of the carved statues at Chartres. He was probably the chief of the masons, or stonecutters. Today we would call him the architect of the cathedral. He is the earliest Gothic architect whose name we know.

Within a few years great churches in the new style were being built all over northeastern France. In Paris the Cathedral of Notre Dame was begun in 1163. It was completed around 1250. During the second half of the 12th century, the abbey at Pontoise and the abbeys of St. Martin-des-Champs, in Paris, and St. Remi, in Reims (Rheims), and the cathedrals of Sens, Noyon, Laon, Senlis, and Soissons were built. These early Gothic buildings still looked Romanesque in many ways.

It was not until near the year 1200 that Gothic architecture became completely different from Romanesque. The pure Gothic can be seen in France at Bourges Cathedral, begun about 1192, and in England at Lincoln Cathedral, built from 1192 to 1350. Slender piers (pillars) and buttresses were used, and great windows were decorated with stained glass to color the light as it poured into the churches.

The International Gothic

By the 13th century the Gothic was the only style of building throughout northwestern Europe. The designs of vaulting, buttresses, and windows first produced by Gothic architects were imitated by other artists. The pointed arch is found again and again as a frame for paintings and ivory carvings. It is stamped on book covers and worked in metal for caskets and shrines. As time went on, the details of Gothic style developed and changed, first in the greater buildings and later in the smaller works of art.

The earliest Gothic windows had been narrow, but with a pointed instead of a round top. Then they became so large that it was necessary to put stone supports inside them to hold the glass firmly. These supports formed smaller pointed arches, circles, cloverleafs, and more complicated shapes. The stone patternwork inside each window is known as tracery.

Tracery, a typically Gothic form, was used at Reims (Rheims) Cathedral in 1211 or 1212 by the mason Jean d'Orbais. Reims Cathedral was the church where the coronations of French kings took place. It was this important royal connection that gave the new window tracery of Reims its great prestige.

While Reims Cathedral was being built it was visited by many architects. Impressed by the beauty of the new Gothic tracery, they made sketches of it. Among these architects was Villard de Honnecourt, whose sketchbook can still be seen in the National Library in Paris. Honnecourt thought that the Reims windows were the most beautiful he had seen anywhere--and he had traveled across Europe through Switzerland and Germany and as far as Hungary. Other architects at the time were making sketches too, and the idea of tracery spread to many distant places.

Tracery may have been introduced to England by an architect called Master Henry, who had worked at Reims and who became the chief architect to King Henry III. He used tracery for the windows of Westminster Abbey, which he designed in 1245. Here the kings of England were to be crowned and buried. The new fashion was approved by the English king and was quickly adopted across the country. In France traceried windows like those at Reims were called the style rayonnant ("radiant style"). This term was used to describe a style of decorative art that was based on tracery. It referred, however, to decorative objects as well as to windows. Many people think that it represents the highest development of Gothic style.

To this flowering of the Gothic belong the famous French cathedrals of Reims, Amiens, and Beauvais, in the north, while the same style was carried down to the south, through Limoges and Rodez to Narbonne.

During the Middle Ages many artists moved from place to place and from country to country, all over Europe, taking with them the latest ideas and the newest fashions in art. In Spain the style rayonnant influenced the design of the cathedral of Leon. There most of the glorious colored glass designed and made for the traceried windows still survives. In Germany, Cologne Cathedral was begun in 1245, but it was not finished for more than 600 years. French masons, under the architect Étienne de Bonneuil, were called far away to Uppsala, in Sweden, to design the cathedral that was built between 1270 and 1315.

Gothic Sculpture
Buildings in Gothic times supplied the framework into which all other arts fitted. Leaves, flowers, conventional patterns, and large statues were carved into the stonework of buildings. These statues were usually of saints or persons from the Bible: the prophets of the Old Testament and kings of Judah, Christ and the Twelve Apostles, the story of the Crucifixion, Christ seated in judgment. Many of the architects who designed the buildings were also sculptors and carved the most important statues themselves. Others--and this became more common as time went on--only drew the general design of the statues and had sculptors carve them. The statues were not made just to stand on pedestals and be admired as fine art. They were always an important part of the design of the building.

Sculpture was used everywhere on Gothic churches. Figures of saints stood around the piers; scenes from the old and new testaments were carved above doorways. People were depicted more realistically during the Gothic period than during the Romanesque. The folds and wrinkles of garments were shown falling in a natural way. The faces of the statues had expressions, and their almond-shaped eyes seemed to look in one direction or another. This was unlike Romanesque sculpture, which was stiff and not naturalistic.

Gothic carvers often combined beautiful, natural-looking, and saintly figures with imaginary demons, imps, or other invented creatures. Sometimes these creatures were grotesque and sometimes they were funny. The Middle Ages was a time when the church had absolute authority, but that did not stop people from remembering the old legends and superstitions that had been passed down from their ancestors.

Gothic Painting
The earliest Gothic paintings were decorations on the walls of buildings. Later, stained-glass windows often took up much of the wall space, leaving no room for painting on a large scale. Smaller painting on panels of wood were made to be placed above altars in churches. Other examples of Gothic painting are found in hand-decorated books called illuminated manuscripts. At first the paintings were mainly of religious subjects. Later the artists painted studies of real life. Plants and animals and people served as models. It was during the Gothic period that artists stopped copying older forms and started basing their designs on shapes in nature.

Gothic Architects

Abbeys, castles, and cathedrals called for many men to work together. The machinery--cranes and other hoisting devices, scaffolding, ladders, tools for centering arches and vaults--had to be taken care of and operated by specialists. The organization of such work was like that of modern construction groups, even as far back as the 12th century. All were under the direction of the architect.

The medieval architect was much like a modern architect. Then as now he had to make designs and prepare plans and other drawings of a building before it was begun. The plans of the vaults, buttresses, and window tracery all had to be worked out by geometry before the stones could be cut to their proper shape. It was the architect who prepared full-size drawings of moldings that the masons used as patterns. When--as was often the case in the Middle Ages--special builders were employed, it was the architect's duty to check and control all construction.

Who were these architects? Most of them were stonemasons by training, able to shape stones for buildings. Often they were also able to carve both decorations and statues. Most of their training took place while working on a job. Under a master they learned how to choose stone from the quarry, how to cut it, how to draw, and how to design a building according to the traditions of the period and place. They were mostly well-educated men, who could read and write Latin as well as the language of their own country.

The best examples of an architect's skill, apart from the buildings themselves, are his drawings. Beautifully drawn on great sheets of parchment or paper, they were carefully preserved until the building was complete. Some of these drawings still exist at Cologne, at Vienna, and especially at Strasbourg.

The Later Gothic

The later Gothic was less fresh and less individual than it had been in the 12th and 13th centuries. There was less chance for invention. The rules for the design and proportions of every part of the building became too difficult for one man to master.

In the 15th century the clear rules for the proportions of architecture laid down by the Roman architect Vitruvius Pollio in the 1st century B.C. were again studied. It was natural that these simple rules should have been preferred by many people to the Gothic system, which required years of practice and study and which few but the architects themselves could understand at all. Gothic architecture and Gothic art had spread all over the western and northern parts of Europe. Gothic art even influenced the quite different forms of art of the Byzantine world to the east and the world of Islam to the south. But the Gothic style had never really taken root in Italy, the home of Roman architecture. There the round arch and the ancient orders of architecture were never altogether abandoned. The people of the Renaissance, reading the ancient manuscripts of Latin literature and looking at the ruins of Roman buildings, started a new fashion for imitating the classical style.

The Gothic style was changed little by little. Architects had to learn the rules of Roman architecture and put aside the principles of the Gothic. So it was that Gothic art slowly passed away. But in the years between 1100 and 1600, it produced the greatest number of large buildings that the Western world had ever seen. Almost all the cathedrals of Western Europe were built in the Gothic period. Before revolution, war, and fires did their damage, Gothic cathedrals had contained the greatest quantity of art of one kind ever made.

John Harvey
Winchester College (England)

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