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Gothic architecture and art

Late Gothic Styles

In the 13th cent. the newly founded orders of Franciscans and Dominicans erected large hall churches of unassuming sobriety. The simplicity and functional character of these buildings, shown in such structures as the interior of Santa Maria Novella in Florence or the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse, contrasts with the trend toward richness in ornamental elaboration apparent in later Gothic art. In the 14th and 15th cent., these tendencies culminated in intricate webs of tracery, as in the towers of the cathedrals at Ulm and Strasbourg in Germany and in the flamboyant style of the Church of Saint-Maclou in Rouen in France. In England the same exuberance of decoration is manifested in the Decorated style of Bristol and Ely cathedrals and the even more elaborate Perpendicular style, exemplified in the choir of the cathedral at Gloucester.

Building activity, however, was seriously affected by the economic crises of the 14th cent. and by the Black Death, and later Gothic constructions were far less ambitious in scope than those of the preceding period. However, the Gothic tradition never completely died out, and in the 19th cent. it enjoyed a revival in Europe and in the New World inspired chiefly by the romantic movement (see Gothic revival).

Gothic Sculpture

Sculpture and stained glass were formally and spiritually integrated within the Gothic cathedral to express a theological program or scheme. The Royal Portal at Chartres (mid-12th cent.) exemplifies the early achievements in the development toward a coherent sculptural scheme; the tympanum, archivolts, and jamb figures are newly united structurally and iconographically to emphasize the importance of Christ on earth. Images of Christ begin to reveal a tendency toward greater humanization.

By the first half of the 13th cent., the role of the Virgin Mary as the intermediary between God and humanity is stressed in the sculptural programs of Laon, Notre-Dame de Paris, and the north transept of Chartres. At the same time figures began to protrude more strongly from their architectural background. Whereas the jamb figures of the Royal Portal at Chartres were formally no more than splendid humanized columns, by the 13th cent. individual sculptural elements became more important and less united with the architecture. The portal figures of the cathedral at Reims provide an eloquent example of the trend toward sculptural independence.

From the mid-13th cent. onward, mannerisms in gesture developed, such as the "hip-shot" pose, notable in the statue of the Virgin and Child at Amiens. This swaying posture further separated sculpture from architecture. In the 14th cent., after the completion of the great cathedrals, sculpture became an independent artistic form. Mannerisms were exaggerated into an elegant style that continued into the 16th cent. There was a parallel trend toward greater realism, which had its origin in sepulchral portrait sculpture. The tendency toward realism reached monumental form in the Well of Moses (Dijon; 1395–1403) by Claus Sluter.

The influence of French Gothic sculpture spread throughout the Continent and England. The finest and most individual examples are found in Germany in the middle of the 13th cent. in the facades of Bamberg, Strasbourg, and Naumbourg cathedrals, the last showing evidence of a powerfully realistic, wholly German style. In Italy the late 13th-century works of Giovanni Pisano (see Nicola Pisano) in Siena and Pistoia and of Lorenzo Maitani at Orvieto reflect the heightened expressiveness found in French Gothic art.

Other Gothic Arts

Monumental fresco painting was rare in the Gothic period except in Italy, where the massive walls remained instead of yielding to the tall skeletal structure found elsewhere. In the rest of Europe stained glass and tapestry assumed greater importance and showed a stylistic development analogous to that of sculpture.

Another aspect of Gothic painting was manuscript illumination, in which text and pictures formed a united composition. From the beginning of the 13th cent., illuminations were done for the courts by lay schools. The Paris school achieved a perfection which made it the center of Gothic painting for nearly two centuries. English miniatures are often indistinguishable from the French in this period. The painters of the Avignon school flourished from 1309, when the papal court was moved there from Rome. This school produced one work, a Pietà from Villeneuve-lès-Avignon (Louvre; c.1460), of such originality of expression that it stands outside the established categories of Gothic painting.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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