The art and architectural style that dominated Western Europe during the medieval period. Its buildings are characterised by pointed arches, strong vertical lines and elaborate window structures. The style was widely revived in the nineteenth century.

Lorenzo Monaco The Virgin and Child Enthroned About 1418

A Medieval art movement that spanned two centuries, running from the mid twelfth century to the late fourteenth century. Originating in France, the style evolved out of the Romanesque period of the early twelfth century and came to encompass sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco and illuminated manuscript.

Origins of the term

The term ‘Gothic’ was first applied as a derogatory label by Renaissance scholars in the sixteenth century, who likened the post-Romanesque, non-classical styles of art from twelfth to fourteenth century to the Goth tribes who pulled apart the Roman Empire and classical society in the fifth century. Early Art Historian Giorgio Vasari even referred to the style retrospectively as ‘monstrous and barbaric’, as it turned away from the idealised classical form. The defamatory tone of the label remained until the nineteenth century, when the era underwent a period of positive re-evaluation.

Gothic Architecture and Sculpture

Gothic architecture was the driving force that shaped the movement, pioneering a series of stylistic devices including high vaulted ceilings, pointed spires, pinnacles, elaborate rose shaped stained glass windows and vernacular subjects which fed through into other forms of art and design. Scholar Abbot Suger pioneered the belief that Gothic styles should emphasise earthly light as the embodiment of divine light, lifting the human soul closer to God. He led the rebuilding of the Basilica of Saint Denis near Paris in 1135, encouraging architects to emphasise soaring heights with pointed arches and vaulted ceilings that allowed room for the maximum amount of stained glass windows. Secular subjects were also included in a series of zodiac signs carved into the left portal and stories from the agricultural labours on the right. The design of the church was hugely influential across Europe during the Early Gothic period, leading the way for later, High Gothic cathedrals made after 1200 including Chartres Cathedral, Amiens Cathedral and Notre Dame in Paris. French author revelled in the elaborate beauty of these cathedrals, calling them the property of ‘poetry and the people.’

Gothic buildings incorporated elements of sculpture into their interior and exterior structures, initially in the form of rigid, stylised and elongated figures, but as the style shifted from Early to High Gothic figures became more naturalised, with flowing drapery around them, even seeming to step free from the architecture around them.

The Beautiful Style

In around 1375 the International Gothic style emerged, as decorative designs infiltrated a wider pool of art forms, including illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, painting and sculpture. Deemed ‘the beautiful style’, such art forms were made to decorate the European courts with refined, delicate details and free flowing forms. Key patrons at the time were the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in Prague, the Valois King of France and the Visconti of Milan.

Gothic painting was led by the Italian school, notably Giotto di Bondone, Bernardo Daddi, Duccio di Buoninsegna and Lorenzo Monaco, who combined lavish areas of Byzantine, gold decoration with elements of realism, such as carefully studied human bodies and expressive, emotional faces. Daddi, who had trained with Giotto, demonstrates the Early Gothic style in his Triptych, made in 1338, with a somewhat flattened, gilded backdrop surrounded by pointed arches that echo the architectural styles of the time, while figures have subtle tonal modulation as if seen in shallow relief from their background. In Monaco’s later, pensive and spiritual The Virgin and Child Enthroned, 1418 we see a greater level of emotion in the figures’ faces, and more tonal modulation in their bodies.

The Italian school influenced artists across Europe - in France, illuminated manuscripts were popular, which combined excerpts of religious text with intricately painted illustrations as influenced by the colour, depth and emotion of Italian painting. In Bourges and Paris small prayer books, or ‘Books of Hours’ were popular amongst the royal courts as devotional objects. Many of the artists who produced these delicate, absorbing objects were originally from the Netherlands and brought their ideas to Paris, including The Limbourg Brothers, whose Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-16 has become one of the most famous works of the Gothic period, combining vibrant colours and lively illustrations with realistic figurative detail.

Legacy

The rise of the Renaissance eclipsed earlier Gothic styles as artists marched closer towards the highly realistic depiction of nature. Gothic styles of architecture were revived in the mid to late eighteenth century during the Neo-Gothic period, also often referred to as the Gothic Revival. When the industrial revolution threatened to eclipse British culture a wider appreciation of the honest simplicity and intricate beauty in medieval culture arose, shaping the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts era that swept across Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Scottish artist Phoebe Anna Traquair was particularly influenced by French illuminated manuscripts, replicating their language with contemporary material, as seen in her exquisite The Psalms of David, 1884-91. Various artists also looked back to Gothic architecture with a nostalgic, romantic eye, including David Roberts, John Knox and William Blake.