Gothic Art And Architecture
Andrew Henry Robert Martindale: Professor of Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England, 1974–95. Author of Gothic Art and others.
A history of the Gothic period of Art and Architecture
Gothic Art is concerned with the painting, sculpture, architecture, and music characteristic of the second of two great international eras that flourished in western and central Europe during the Middle Ages
Gothic art evolved from Romanesque art and lasted from the mid-12th century to as late as the end of the 16th century in some areas. The term Gothic was coined by classicizing Italian writers of the Renaissance, who attributed the invention (and what to them was the non-classical ugliness) of medieval architecture to the barbarian Gothic tribes that had destroyed the Roman Empire and its classical culture in the 5th century Ad. The term retained its derogatory overtones until the 19th century, at which time a positive critical revaluation of Gothic architecture took place. Although modern scholars have long realized that Gothic art has nothing in truth to do with the Goths, the term Gothic remains a standard one in the study of art history.
Architecture was the most important and original art form during the Gothic period. The principal structural characteristics of Gothic architecture arose out of medieval masons' efforts to solve the problems associated with supporting heavy masonry ceiling vaults over wide spans. The problem was that the heavy stonework of the traditional arched barrel vault and the groin vault exerted a tremendous downward and outward pressure that tended to push the walls upon which the vault rested outward, thus collapsing them. A building's vertical supporting walls thus had to be made extremely thick and heavy in order to contain the barrel vault's outward thrust.
Medieval masons solved this difficult problem about 1120 with a number of brilliant innovations. First and foremost they developed a ribbed vault, in which arching and intersecting stone ribs support a vaulted ceiling surface that is composed of mere thin stone panels. This greatly reduced the weight (and thus the outward thrust) of the ceiling vault, and since the vault's weight was now carried at discrete points (the ribs) rather than along a continuous wall edge, separate widely spaced vertical piers to support the ribs could replace the continuous thick walls. The round arches of the barrel vault were replaced by pointed (Gothic) arches which distributed thrust in more directions downward from the topmost point of the arch.
Since the combination of ribs and piers relieved the intervening vertical wall spaces of their supportive function, these walls could be built thinner and could even be opened up with large windows or other glazing. A crucial point was that the outward thrust of the ribbed ceiling vaults was carried across the outside walls of the nave, first to an attached outer buttress and then to a freestanding pier by means of a half arch known as a flying buttress. The flying buttress leaned against the upper exterior of the nave (thus counteracting the vault's outward thrust), crossed over the low side aisles of the nave, and terminated in the freestanding buttress pier, which ultimately absorbed the ceiling vault's thrust.
These elements enabled Gothic masons to build much larger and taller buildings than their Romanesque predecessors and to give their structures more complicated ground plans. The skillful use of flying buttresses made it possible to build extremely tall, thin-walled buildings whose interior structural system of columnar piers and ribs reinforced an impression of soaring verticality.
Throughout this period, the central corridor of Europe running northwest from Lombardy to England, between Cologne and Paris, retains an exceptional importance. Much of the significant art--especially architecture--was produced within this geographic area, because it appears to have been an extraordinarily wealthy area, with enough funds to attract good artists and to pay for expensive materials and buildings. Paris --for much of this period the home of a powerful and artistically enlightened court--played an especially important role in the history of Gothic art.
Three successive phases of Gothic architecture can be distinguished, respectively called Early, High, and late Gothic.
This first phase lasted from the Gothic style's inception in 1120-50 to about 1200. The combination of all the aforementioned structural elements into a coherent style first occurred in the Île-de-France (the region around Paris), where prosperous urban populations had sufficient wealth to build the great cathedrals that epitomize the Gothic style. The earliest surviving Gothic building was the abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris, begun in about 1140. Structures with similarly precise vaulting and chains of windows along the perimeter were soon begun with Notre-Dame de Paris (begun 1163) and Laon Cathedral (begun 1165). By this time it had become fashionable to treat the interior columns and ribs as if each was composed of a bunch of more slender parallel members. A series of four discrete horizontal levels or stories in the cathedral's interior were evolved, beginning with a ground-level arcade, over which ran one or two galleries (tribune, triforium), over which in turn ran an upper, windowed story called a clerestory. The columns and arches used to support these different elevations contributed to the severe and powerfully repetitive geometry of the interior. Window tracery (decorative rib-work subdividing a window opening) was also gradually evolved, along with the use of stained (colored) glass in the windows. The typical French early Gothic cathedral terminated at its eastern end in a semicircular projection called an apse. The western end was much more impressive, being a wide facade articulated by numerous windows and pointed arches, having monumental doorways, and being topped by two huge towers. The long sides of the cathedral's exterior presented a baffling and tangled array of piers and flying buttresses. The basic form of Gothic architecture eventually spread throughout Europe to Germany, Italy, England, the Low Countries, Spain, and Portugal.
In England the early Gothic phase had its own particular character (epitomized by Salisbury Cathedral) that is known as the early English Gothic style (c. 1200-1300 AD). The first mature example of the style was the nave and choir of Lincoln Cathedral (begun in 1192).
Early English Gothic churches differed in several respects from their French counterparts. They had thicker, heavier walls that were not much changed from Romanesque proportions; accentuated, repeated moldings on the edges of interior arches; a sparing use of tall, slender, pointed lancet windows; and nave piers consisting of a central column of light-colored stone surrounded by a number of slimmer attached columns made of black purbeck marble.
Early English churches also established other stylistic features that were to distinguish all of English Gothic: great length and little attention to height; a nearly equal emphasis on horizontal and vertical lines in the stringcourses and elevations of the interior; a square termination of the building's eastern end rather than a semicircular eastern projection; scant use of flying buttresses; and a piecemeal, asymmetrical conception of the ground plan of the church. Other outstanding examples of the early English style are the nave and west front of Wells Cathedral (c. 1180-c. 1245) and the choirs and transept of Rochester Cathedral.
At the technical level Gothic architecture is characterized by the ribbed vault (a vault in which stone ribs carry the vaulted surface), the pointed arch, and the flying buttress (normally a half arch carrying the thrust of a roof or vault across an aisle to an outer pier or buttress). These features were all present in a number of earlier, Romanesque buildings, and one of the major 12th- and early 13th-century achievements was to use this engineering expertise to create major buildings that became, in succession, broader and taller. How their visual appearance changed is easy to see if one compares, for instance, the early 13th-century Reims cathedral, in France , with the late 11th-century Durham cathedral, in England . A broad comparison of this sort also brings out the artistic ends to which the new engineering means were applied. Skilled use of the pointed arch and the ribbed vault made it possible to cover far more elaborate and complicated ground plans than hitherto. Skilled use of buttressing, especially of flying buttresses, made it possible both to build taller buildings and to open up the intervening wall spaces to create larger windows. In the 12th century larger windows produced novel lighting effects, not lighter churches. The stained glass of the period was heavily colored and remained so--for example, at Chartres cathedral--well into the 13th century.
One of the earliest buildings in which these techniques were introduced in a highly sophisticated architectural plan was the abbey of Saint-Denis , Paris . The east end was rebuilt about 1135-44, and, although the upper parts of the choir and apse were later changed, the ambulatory and chapels belong to this phase. The proportions are not large, but the skill and precision with which the vaulting is managed and the subjective effect of the undulating chain windows around the perimeter have given the abbey its traditional claim to the title "first Gothic building." The driving figure was Suger, the abbot of Saint-Denis , who wrote two accounts of his abbey that are infused with his personal aesthetic of light as a reflection of the infinite light of God. Something similar to what he intended at Saint-Denis was attempted soon after at Notre-Dame, Paris , begun in 1163 (the east end was subsequently altered), and Laon cathedral, begun about 1165 (the east end was rebuilt in the early 13th century). Perhaps because of liturgical inconvenience, it later became more common to keep firm the architectural divisions between the peripheral eastern chapels, as at Reims (rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original cathedral in 1210) and Amiens (begun 1220) cathedrals, for example. This particular feature of Saint-Denis did not, therefore, have a very long subsequent history.
It is not known what the original 12th-century interior elevation of Saint-Denis was like. Elsewhere, though, the problems that followed in the wake of the increasing ability to build gigantic buildings are easily seen. Possibly the most important one concerns the disposition of the main interior elevation. The chief elements are the arcade, the tribune (upper gallery set over the aisle and normally opening into the church) or triforium galleries (arcaded wall passages set above the main arcade) or both, and the clerestory. These may be given equivalent treatment, or one may be stressed at the expense of the others. Precedents for almost every conceivable combination existed in Romanesque architecture. In a building such as Sens cathedral (begun c. 1140), the arcade is given prominence, but in Noyon (begun c. 1150) and Laon cathedrals the four elements mentioned above are all used, with the result that the arcade is comparatively small. Subsequently, the arcade came back into prominence with Bourges cathedral (begun c. 1195). But one of the most influential buildings was Chartres cathedral (present church mainly built after 1194). There, the architect abandoned entirely the use of the tribune gallery, but, instead of increasing the size of the arcade, he managed, by a highly individual type of flying buttress, to increase the size of the clerestory. This idea was followed in a number of important buildings, such as the 13th-century Reims and Amiens cathedrals. The conception that the content of a great church should be dominated by large areas of glazing set in the upper parts was influential in the 13th century.
The decorative features of these great churches were, on the whole, simple. In the second half of the 12th century it became fashionable, as at Laon cathedral, to "bind" the interior elevation together by series of colonettes, or small columns, set vertically in clusters. Again, as at Laon, much of the elaborate figured carving of Romanesque buildings was abandoned in favour of a highly simplified version of the classical Corinthian capital--usually called a "crocket" capital. Under the influence of Chartres cathedral, window tracery (decorative rib-work subdividing the window opening) was gradually evolved.
There is one group of churches, built for houses of the Cistercian order, that requires separate consideration. They tend to be similar, but it is often a similarity of general simplicity as much as of architectural detail. The Cistercian order was bound to ideas of austerity laid down by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. During his lifetime these ideals were maintained largely through the degree of centralized control exercised from the head house at Cîteaux ( Burgundy ). Thus, many of the Cistercian churches built in England , Italy , or Germany seem to have had characteristics in common with French Cistercian churches. A good French example survives at Fontenay (begun 1139). These buildings probably encouraged the early dissemination of the pointed arch. That they did much more than this is doubtful.
If one examines the architecture outside north and northeastern France, one finds, first, that buildings in what might be called a Romanesque style continued up to the end of the 12th and into the 13th century and, second, that the appreciation of the developments in France was often partial and haphazard. In England the most influential building in the new fashion was the choir of Canterbury cathedral (1175-84), which has many of the features of Laon cathedral. It is the decorative effects of Laon that are used rather than its overall architectural plan, however. There is only a rather depressed tribune gallery, and the building retains a passage at clerestory level--an Anglo-Norman feature that remained standard in English architecture well into the 13th century. Both in the shape of the piers and in the multiplicity of attached colonettes, Canterbury resembles Laon. Colonettes became extremely popular with English architects, particularly because of the large supplies of purbeck marble, which gave any elevation a special coloristic character. This is obvious at Salisbury cathedral (begun 1220), but one of the richest examples of the effect is in the nave of Lincoln cathedral (begun c. 1225).The early stages of architectural development in the Gothic period are untidy and have a strong regional flavor. During this period in Germany , large buildings showing northern French characteristics are few. The Church of Our Lady at Trier (begun c. 1235) and the Church of St. Elizabeth at Marburg (begun 1235) both have features, such as window tracery, dependent on northern French example; but the church at Trier is highly unusual in its centralized plan, and St. Elizabeth is a "hall church" (that is, the nave is virtually the same height as the aisles), which places it outside the canon of contemporary French building.
In Spain the two most important early Gothic buildings were Burgos (begun 1222) and Toledo (begun 1221) cathedrals. Their architects probably knew Reims and Amiens ; but their models were undoubtedly Bourges and Le Mans (begun 1217), since the main internal architectural feature is a giant arcade rather than an extended clerestory. By contrast, Scandinavian architects seem to have been influenced, to begin with, by English buildings. Certainly there is a strong English flavor in the 13th-century Trondheim cathedral ( Norway ).
During the period from about 1250 to 1300 European art was dominated for the first time by the art and architecture of France. The reasons for this are not clear, although it seems certain that they are connected with the influence of the court of King Louis IX (1226-70).By about 1220-30 it must have been clear that engineering expertise had pushed building sizes to limits beyond which it was unsafe to go. The last of these gigantic buildings, Beauvais cathedral, had a disastrous history, which included the collapse of its vaults, and it was never completed. In about 1230 architects became less interested in size and more interested in decoration. The result was the birth of what is known as the Rayonnant style (from the radiating character of the rose windows, which were one of its most prominent features). The earliest moves in this direction were at Amiens cathedral, where the choir triforium and clerestory were begun after 1236, and at Saint-Denis , where transepts and nave were begun after 1231. Architects opened up as much of the wall surface as possible, producing areas of glazing that ran from the top of the main arcade to the apex of the vault (). The combination of the triforium gallery and clerestory into one large glazed area had, of course, a unifying effect on the elevations. It produced an intricate play of tracery patterns and instantly unleashed an era of intense experiment into the form that these patterns should take. Many of the achievements of the Rayonnant architects are extremely fine--for instance, the two transept facades, begun during the 1250s, of Notre-Dame, Paris . The decorative effect of this architecture depends not only on the tracery of the windows but also on the spread of tracery patterns over areas of stonework and on architectural features such as gables.
In the history of this development, one building deserves special mention, the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris (consecrated 1248). This was Louis IX's palace chapel, built to house an imposing collection of relics. It is a Rayonnant building in that it has enormous areas of glazing. Its form was extremely influential, and there were a number of subsequent "saintes-chapelles"--for instance, at Aachen and Riom--that were clearly modeled on the Parisian one. The interior of the Parisian Sainte-Chapelle is extraordinarily sumptuous. Although the sumptuosity itself set new standards, its characteristics belonged, curiously, to a past age. The glass is heavily colored, the masonry heavily painted, and there is much carved detail. One of the characteristics of the second half of the 13th century is that glass became lighter, painting decreased, and the amount of carved decoration dwindled. Thus, in its chronological context, the Sainte-Chapelle is a Janus-like building--Rayonnant in its architecture but, in some ways, old-fashioned in its decoration.
Of the many smaller Rayonnant monuments that exist in France , one of the most complete is Saint-Urbain, Troyes (founded 1262). There, one can see the virtuosity practiced by the architects in playing with layers of tracery, setting off one "skin" of tracery against another.
In a sense, the Rayonnant style was technically a simple one. Depending, as it did, not primarily on engineering expertise or on sensitivity in the handling of architectural volumes and masses but on the manipulation of geometric shapes normally in two dimensions, the main prerequisites were a drawing board and an office.
Most countries produced versions of the Rayonnant style. In the Rhineland the Germans began one of the largest Rayonnant buildings, Cologne cathedral, which was not completed until the late 19th century. The German masons carried the application of tracery patterns much further than did the French. One of the most complicated essays is the west front of Strasbourg cathedral (planned originally in 1277 but subsequently altered and modified). One feature of Strasbourg and of German Rayonnant architecture in general was the application of tracery to spires--at Freiburg im Breisgau (spire begun c. 1330), for example, and the spire of Strasbourg that was begun about 1399. Few such medieval spires survive (though often they were completed in the 19th century).Of all the European buildings of this period, the most important is probably the cathedral of Prague (founded in 1344). The plan was devised according to routine French principles by the first master mason, Mathieu d'Arras. When he died in 1352, his place was taken (1353-99) by Petr Parlér, the most influential mason in Prague and a member of a family of masons active in south Germany and the Rhineland. Parlér's building included the start of a south tower and spire that clearly continued the traditions of the Rhineland . His originality lay in his experiments with vault designs, from which stem much of the virtuoso achievement of German masons in the 15th century.
London, too, has Rayonnant monuments. Westminster Abbey was rebuilt after 1245 by Henry III's order, and in 1258 the remodeling of the east end of St. Paul 's Cathedral began. King Henry was doubtless inspired by the work carried out by his brother-in-law, King Louis IX of France , at the Sainte-Chapelle and elsewhere. Westminster Abbey, however, lacks the clear lines of a Rayonnant church, mainly because, like the Sainte-Chapelle, it was heavily decorated with carved stonework and with color.
In fact, English architects for a long time retained a liking for heavy surface decoration; thus, when Rayonnant tracery designs were imported, they were combined with the existing repertoire of colonettes, attached shafts, and vault ribs. The result, which could be extraordinarily dense--for instance, in the east (or Angel) choir (begun 1256) at Lincoln cathedral and at Exeter cathedral (begun before 1280)--has been called the English Decorated style, a term that is in many ways an oversimplification. The interior architectural effects achieved (notably the retrochoir of Wells cathedral or the choir of St. Augustine , Bristol ) were more inventive generally than those of contemporary continental buildings. The inventive virtuosity of the masons of Decorated style also produced experiments in tracery and vault design that anticipated by 50 years or more similar developments in the Continent.
English Decorated was, however, never really a court style. Already by the end of the 13th century, a style of architecture was evolving that ultimately developed into the true English equivalent of Rayonnant, generally known as Perpendicular. The first major surviving statement of the Perpendicular style is probably the choir of Gloucester cathedral (begun soon after 1330). Other major monuments were St. Stephen's Chapel, Westminster (begun 1292 but now mostly destroyed) and York Minster nave (begun 1291).Spain also produced Rayonnant buildings: León cathedral (begun c. 1255) and the nave and transepts of Toledo cathedral, both of which have, or had, characteristics similar to the French buildings. But, since the Spanish partiality for giant arcades (already seen in the earlier parts of Toledo and at Burgos ) persisted, one can hardly classify as French the three major cathedrals of this period: Gerona (begun c. 1292), Barcelona (begun 1298), and Palma-de-Mallorca (begun c. 1300). They are, in fact, so individual that it is difficult to classify them at all, although peculiarities in the planning and buttressing of the outer walls gives them some similarity to the French cathedral of Albi (begun 1281).Toward the end of the century, the influence of French ideas spread northward to Scandinavia, and in 1287 French architects were summoned to Sweden to rebuild Uppsala cathedral.
The second phase of Gothic architecture began with a subdivision of the style known as Rayonnant (1200-1280 AD) on the Continent and as the Decorated Gothic (1300-75 AD) style in England. This style was characterized by the application of increasingly elaborate geometrical decoration to the structural forms that had been established during the preceding century.
During the period of the Rayonnant style a significant change took place in Gothic architecture. Until about 1250, Gothic architects concentrated on the harmonious distribution of masses of masonry and, particularly in France, on the technical problems of achieving great height; after that date, they became more concerned with the creation of rich visual effects through decoration. This decoration took such forms as pinnacles (upright members, often spired, that capped piers, buttresses, or other exterior elements), moldings, and, especially, window tracery. The most characteristic and finest achievement of the Rayonnant style is the great circular rose window adorning the west facades of large French cathedrals; the typically radial patterns of the tracery inspired the designation Rayonnant for the new style. Another typical feature of Rayonnant architecture is the thinning of vertical supporting members, the enlargement of windows, and the combination of the triforium gallery and the clerestory until walls are largely undifferentiated screens of tracery, mullions (vertical bars of tracery dividing windows into sections), and glass. Stained glass--formerly deeply colored--became lighter in color to increase the visibility of tracery silhouettes and to let more light into the interior. The most notable examples of the Rayonnant style are the cathedrals of Reims, Amiens, Bourges, Chartres, and Beauvais.
The parallel Decorated Gothic style came into being in England with the general use of elaborate stone window tracery. Supplanting the small, slender, pointed lancet windows of the early English Gothic style were windows of great width and height, divided by mullions into two to eight brightly colored main subdivisions, each of which was further divided by tracery. At first, this tracery was based on the trefoil and quatrefoil, the arch, and the circle, all of which were combined to form netlike patterns. Later, tracery was based on the ogee, or S-shaped curve, which creates flowing, flame like forms. Some of the most outstanding monuments of the Decorated Gothic style are sections of the cloister (c. 1245-69) of Westminster Abbey; the east end, or Angel Choir, of Lincoln Cathedral (begun 1256); and the nave and west front of York Minster (c. 1260-1320). Late Gothic. In France the Rayonnant style evolved about 1280 into an even more decorative phase called the Flamboyant style, which lasted until about 1500. In England a development known as the Perpendicular style lasted from about 1375 to 1500. The most conspicuous feature of the Flamboyant Gothic style is the dominance in stone window tracery of a flame like S-shaped curve.
In the Flamboyant style wall space was reduced to the minimum of supporting vertical shafts to allow an almost continuous expanse of glass and tracery. Structural logic was obscured by the virtual covering of the exteriors of buildings with tracery, which often decorated masonry as well as windows. A profusion of pinnacles, gables, and other details such as subsidiary ribs in the vaults to form star patterns further complicated the total effect.
By the late Gothic period greater attention was being given to secular buildings. Thus, Flamboyant Gothic features can be seen in many town halls, guildhalls, and even residences. There were few churches built completely in the Flamboyant style, attractive exceptions being Notre-Dame d'Épine near Châlons-sur-Marne and Saint-Maclou in Rouen. Other important examples of the style are the Tour de Beurre of Rouen Cathedral and the north spire of Chartres. Flamboyant Gothic, which eventually became overly ornate, refined, and complicated, gave way in France to Renaissance forms in the 16th century.
In England the parallel Perpendicular Gothic style was characterized by predominance of vertical lines in the stone tracery of windows, an enlargement of windows to great proportions, and the conversion of the interior stories into a single unified vertical expanse. The typical Gothic pointed vaults were replaced by fan vaults (fan-shaped clusters of tracery-like ribs springing from slender columns or from pendant knobs at the center of the ceiling). Among the finest examples of the Perpendicular Gothic style are Gloucester Cathedral (14th-15th centuries) and King's College Chapel, Cambridge (1446-1515).
Gothic sculpture was closely tied to architecture, since it was used primarily to decorate the exteriors of cathedrals and other religious buildings. The earliest Gothic sculptures were stone figures of saints and the Holy Family used to decorate the doorways, or portals, of cathedrals in France and elsewhere. The sculptures on the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral (c. 1145-55) were little changed from their Romanesque predecessors in their stiff, straight, simple, elongated, and hieratic forms. But during the later 12th and the early 13th centuries sculptures became more relaxed and naturalistic in treatment, a trend that culminated in the sculptural decorations of the Reims Cathedral (c. 1240). These figures, while retaining the dignity and monumentality of their predecessors, have individualized faces and figures, as well as full, flowing draperies and natural poses and gestures, and they display a classical poise that suggests an awareness of antique Roman models on the part of their creators. Early Gothic masons also began to observe such natural forms as plants more closely, as is evident in the realistically carven clusters of leaves that adorn the capitals of columns.
Monumental sculptures assumed an increasingly prominent role during the High and late Gothic periods and were placed in large numbers on the facades of cathedrals, often in their own niches. In the 14th century, Gothic sculpture became more refined and elegant and acquired a mannered daintiness in its elaborate and finicky drapery. The elegant and somewhat artificial prettiness of this style was widely disseminated throughout Europe in sculpture, painting, and manuscript illumination during the 14th century and became known as the International Gothic style. An opposite trend at this time was that of an intensified realism, as displayed in French tomb sculptures and in the vigorous and dramatic works of the foremost late Gothic sculptor, Claus Sluter. Gothic sculpture evolved into the more technically advanced and classicistic Renaissance style in Italy during the 14th and early 15th centuries but persisted until somewhat later in northern Europe.
Gothic painting followed the same stylistic evolution as did sculpture; from stiff, simple, hieratic forms toward more relaxed and natural ones. Its scale grew large only in the early 14th century, when it began to be used in decorating the retable (ornamental panel behind an altar). Such paintings usually featured scenes and figures from the New Testament, particularly of the Passion of Christ and the Virgin Mary. These paintings display an emphasis on flowing, curving lines, minute detail, and refined decoration, and gold was often applied to the panel as background colour. Compositions became more complex as time went on, and painters began to seek means of depicting spatial depth in their pictures, a search that eventually led to the mastery of perspective in the early years of the Italian Renaissance. In late Gothic painting of the 14th and 15th centuries secular subjects such as hunting scenes, chivalric themes, and depictions of historical events also appeared. Both religious and secular subjects were depicted in manuscript illuminations--i.e., the pictorial embellishment of handwritten books. This was a major form of artistic production during the Gothic period and reached its peak in France during the 14th century. The calendar illustrations in the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (c. 1416) by the Limburg brothers, who worked at the court of Jean de France, duc de Berry, are perhaps the most eloquent statements of the International Gothic style as well as the best known of all manuscript illuminations
Manuscript illumination was superseded by printed illustrations in the second half of the 15th century. Panel and wall painting evolved gradually into the Renaissance style in Italy during the 14th and early 15th centuries but retained many more of its Gothic characteristics until the late 15th and early 16th centuries in Germany, Flanders, and elsewhere in Northern Europe.
Italian Gothic (c. 1200-1400)
In its development of a Gothic style, Italy stood curiously apart from the rest of Europe . For one thing, the more obvious developments of the Italian Gothic style occurred comparatively late--in the 13th century. For another, whereas in most European countries artists imitated with reasonable faithfulness architectural styles that were derived ultimately from northern France , they seldom did so in Italy . This was in part because of geographic and geologic factors. In the figurative arts the combined influences of Byzantine Constantinople and classical antiquity continued to play a far more important role in Italy than in countries north of the Alps . Furthermore, Italian architectural style was decisively affected by the fact that brick--not stone--was the most common building material and marble the most common decorative material.
The distinctiveness of Italian art emerges as soon as one studies the architecture. Twelfth-century buildings such as Laon, Chartres , or Saint-Denis , which appear to have been so important in the north, had virtually no imitators in Italy . Indeed, buildings with Romanesque characteristics, such as Orvieto cathedral (begun 1290), were still being built at the end of the 13th century. The Italians, however, were not unaware of what, by French standards, a great church ought to look like. There is a sprinkling of churches belonging to the first third of the century that have northern characteristics, such as attached (partially recessed in the wall) shafts or columns, crocket capitals, pointed arches, and ribbed vaults. Some of these were Cistercian (Fossanova, consecrated 1208), others were secular (Sant'Andrea, Vercelli ; founded 1219). The chief common feature of the larger Italian 13th-century churches, such as Orvieto cathedral and Santa Croce in Florence (begun 1294), was the size of their arcades, which gives the interiors a spacious feeling. Yet in detail the churches vary from the French pattern in a highly individual way.To the extent that Rayonnant architecture is particularly concerned with the manipulation of two-dimensional patterns, the Italian masons produced their own version of the style. In these terms, the facade of Orvieto cathedral (begun 1310), for example, is Rayonnant; the front of Siena cathedral was planned as a Rayonnant facade (), and the Campanile, or freestanding bell tower, of Florence cathedral (founded 1334) is Rayonnant to the extent that its entire effect depends on marble patterning (which is traditionally ascribed to the painter Giotto). Finally, it is perhaps legitimate to see Filippo Brunelleschi's 15th-century architecture as a continuation of this tendency--a kind of Florentine equivalent, perhaps, to English Perpendicular. But before the 15th century, Italian architectural development never appears to have the logic or purpose of northern architecture.
Though the rebuilt Milan cathedral is, in plan and general character, Italianate, its decorative character is mainly derived from the north, probably Germany . The exterior is covered with tracery, which makes Milan cathedral more like a Rayonnant building than any other large church in Italy .
During the 15th century much of the most elaborate architectural experiment took place in southern Germany and Austria . German masons specialized in vault designs; and, in order to get the largest possible expanse of ceiling space, they built mainly hall churches (a type that had been popular throughout the 14th century). Important hall churches exist at Landshut ( St. Martin 's and the Spitalkirche, c. 1400), and Munich ( Church of Our Lady , 1468-88). The vault patterns are created out of predominantly straight lines. Toward the end of the 15th century, however, this kind of design gave way to curvilinear patterns set in two distinct layers. The new style developed particularly in the eastern areas of Europe : at Annaberg (St. Anne's, begun 1499) and Kuttenberg (St. Barbara's, 1512).Such virtuosity had no rival elsewhere in Europe . Nevertheless, other areas developed distinctive characteristics. The Perpendicular style is a phase of late Gothic unique to England . Its characteristic feature is the fan vault, which seems to have begun as an interesting extension of the Rayonnant idea in the cloisters of Gloucester cathedral (begun 1337), where tracery panels were inserted into the vault (). Another major monument is the nave of Canterbury cathedral, which was begun in the late 1370s, but the style continued to evolve, the application of tracery panels tending to become denser. St. George's Chapel, Windsor (c. 1475-1500), is an interesting prelude to the ornateness of Henry VII's Chapel, Westminster Abbey. Some of the best late Gothic achievements are bell towers, such as the crossing tower of Canterbury cathedral (c. 1500).In France the local style of late Gothic is usually called Flamboyant, from the flame-like shapes often assumed by the tracery. The style did not significantly increase the range of architectural opportunities. Late Gothic vaults, for instance, are not normally very elaborate (one of the exceptions is Saint-Pierre in Caen [1518-45], which has pendant bosses). But the development of window tracery continued and, with it, the development of elaborates facades. Most of the important examples are in northern France --for example, Saint-Maclou in Rouen (c. 1500-14) and Notre-Dame in Alençon (c. 1500). France also produced a number of striking 16th-century towers ( Rouen and Chartres cathedrals).The most notable feature of the great churches of Spain is the persistence of the influence of Bourges and the partiality for giant interior arcades. This is still clear in one of the last of the large Gothic churches to be built--the New Cathedral of Salamanca (begun 1510). By this time, Spanish architects were already developing their own intricate forms of vaulting with curvilinear patterns. The Capilla del Condestable in Burgos cathedral (1482-94) provides an elaborate example of Spanish Flamboyant, as does--on a larger scale--Segovia cathedral (begun 1525).There was a final flowering of Gothic architecture in Portugal under King Manuel the Fortunate (1495-1521). The fantastic nature of much late Gothic Iberian architecture has won for it the name Plateresque, meaning that it is like silversmith's work. The decorative elements used were extremely heterogeneous, and Arabic or Mudéjar forms emanating from the south were popular. Ultimately, during the 16th century, antique elements were added, facilitating the development of a Renaissance style. These curious hybrid effects were transplanted to the New World , where they appear in the earliest European architecture in Central America .
The end of Gothic
The change from late Gothic to Renaissance was superficially far less cataclysmic than the change from Romanesque to Gothic. In the figurative arts, it was not the great shift from symbolism to realistic representation but a change from one sort of realism to another.
Architecturally, as well, the initial changes involved decorative material. For this reason, the early stages of Renaissance art outside Italy are hard to disentangle from late Gothic. Monuments like the huge Franche-Comté chantry chapel at Brou (1513-32) may have intermittent Italian motifs, but the general effect intended was not very different from that of Henry VII's Chapel at Westminster . The Shrine of St. Sebaldus at Nürnberg (1508-19) has the general shape of a Gothic tomb with canopy, although much of the detail is Italianate. In fact, throughout Europe the "Italian Renaissance" meant, for artists between about 1500 and 1530, the enjolivement, or embellishment, of an already rich decorative repertoire with shapes, motifs, and figures adapted from another canon of taste. The history of the northern artistic Renaissance is in part the story of the process by which artists gradually realized that classicism represented another canon of taste and treated it accordingly.
But it is possible to suggest a more profound character to the change. Late Gothic has a peculiar aura of finality about it. From about 1470 to 1520, one gets the impression that the combination of decorative richness and realistic detail was being worked virtually to death. Classical antiquity at least provided an alternative form of art. It is arguable that change would have come in the north anyway and that adoption of Renaissance forms was a matter of coincidence and convenience. They were there at hand, for experiment.
The use of Renaissance forms was certainly encouraged, however, by the general admiration for classical antiquity. They had a claim to "rightness" that led ultimately to the abandonment of all Gothic forms as being barbarous. This development belongs to the history of the Italian Renaissance, but the phenomenon emphasizes one aspect of medieval art. Through all the changes of Romanesque and Gothic, no body of critical literature appeared in which people tried to evaluate the art and distinguish old from new, good from bad. The development of such a literature was part of the Renaissance and, as such, was intimately related to the defense of classical art. This meant that Gothic art was left in an intellectually defenseless state. All the praise went to ancient art, most of the blame to the art of the more recent past. Insofar as Gothic art had no critical literature by which a part of it, at least, could be justified, it was, to that extent, inarticulate.