Gothic Art




Gothic Art Map
 Gothic Art
 Introduction Benedetto Antelami Taddeo Gaddi Vitale da Bologna
 Architecture in France Giovanni di Balduccio Giotto di Bondone Guariento d'Arpo
 Architecture in Germany Jacobello Dalle Masegne Pietro Lorenzetti Giusto de' Menabuoi
 Architecture in Italy Corenzo Maitani Ambrogio Lorenzetti Barnaba da Modena
 Architecture in England Andrea da Firenze Giovanni da Milano Melchior Broederlam
 Stained Glass Filippo Rusiti Gentile da Fabriano Nicolas de Bataille
 Arnolfo di Cambio Ferrer Bassa Pucelle Jean Bayeux Tapestry
 Nicola Pisano Pietro Cavallini Altichiera da Zevio Matthew Paris
 Giovanni Pisano Cimabue Tomasso da Modena Master Boucicaut
 Tino di Camaino Duccio di Buonisegna Traini Francesco Illuminated Manuscripts
 Andrea Pisano Simone Martini Giovannino de' Grassi Master Hohenfurt
 Claus Sluter Maso di Banco Roberto Oderisi Henri Belechose
 Exploration: Revelations (Art of the Apocalypse)
 Exploration: Gothic Era  (Gothic and Early Renaissance)




Melchior Broederlam
Altarpiece of Jacques de Baerze


Gothic Art

(Encyclopædia Britannica)

Gothic is the term generally used to denote the style of architecture, sculpture, and painting that developed from the Romanesque during the 12th century and became predominant in Europe by the middle of the 13th century. The many variations within the style are usually distinguished by the use of chronological or geographical terms (for example, early, high, Italian, International, and late Gothic).

Early Gothic

One of the moves away from Byzantine influence took the form of a softer, more realistic style whose general characteristics survived until the middle of the 13th century. In France the style is particularly noticeable in a series of magnificent Bibles Moralisees (books of excerpts from the Bible accompanied by moral or allegorical interpretations and illustrated with scenes arranged in eight paired roundels, resembling stained glass windows) done probably for the French court c. 1230-40. In England the new style appears in numerous manuscripts--for instance, the psalter done for Westminster Abbey (British Museum, London; Royal MS. 2a XXII) and the Amesbury Psalter (c. 1240; All Souls College, Oxford). A particularly individual application of it is found in the manuscripts attributed to the chronicler Matthew Paris and in a series of illustrated manuscripts of the Apocalypse.

In Germany the graceful pictorial style did not become popular. Instead the successor to the Byzantine conventions of the 12th century was an extraordinarily twisted and angular style called the Zackenstil. In the Soest altar (c. 1230-40; now in the Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin), for example, the drapery is shaped into abrupt angular forms and often falls to a sharp point, like an icicle.

 The Meeting at the Golden Gate
Arena Chapel at Padua, Italy

High Gothic

Certain characteristics of high Gothic sculpture spread to influence painting about 1250-60. Probably the first place where this became evident was Paris, where Louis IX (St. Louis) was a leading patron. In an evangelary (a book containing the four Gospels) prepared for use at the Sainte-Chapelle (Louis IX's palace chapel), one can see the early Gothic pictorial style superseded quite abruptly by a drapery style incorporating the large, rather angular folds of the Joseph Master (Bibliotheque Nationale). Combined with this style was a growing emphasis on minute detail almost as an end in itself; faces, in particular, became tiny essays in virtuoso penmanship.

Although details such as faces and hands continued to be described chiefly by means of line, in a subsequent development drapery and other shapes were modeled in terms of light and shade. This "discovery of light," partial and piecemeal as it was, began around 1270-80 but is particularly associated with a well-known Parisian royal illuminator called Master Honore, who was active about 1288-1300 or later.

It is possible that this new use of light was stimulated by developments in Italian painting. However that may be, Italian influence emerged quite clearly in the second quarter of the 14th century, in the workshop of the Parisian artist Pucelle Jean. More than a dozen books have been associated with this artist; most show an awareness of the recent Italian discovery of perspective in the portrayal of space and some an awareness of Italian iconography.

The French style was introduced fairly rapidly into England. Although Henry III apparently was not a bibliophile, various manuscripts executed for his immediate family contain echoes of the dainty and minute style of Louis IX's artists. Some large-scale paintings that demonstrate similar stylistic traits, notably the "Westminster Retable," survive in Westminster Abbey.

Subsequent changes in English painting involved greater decorative elaboration. A number of large psalters, such as the Queen Mary Psalter (in the British Museum), survive from the first half of the 14th century, many of them done for East Anglian patrons and almost all laying heavy emphasis on marginal decoration. Although some books with elaborate border decorations date from as early as the 13th century, such decorations became much more lavish in the 14th. There are occasional indications of Italian influence in figure poses and compositions but nothing really comparable to that found in books from Pucelle Jean's Parisian workshop.

Italian influence reached other European countries. An Italianate style of painting developed in Spain in the 14th century and, to a lesser extent, parts of German-speaking Europe--in Austria, for instance, paintings in the Italianate style were added around 1324-29 to make up the present Klosterneuburg altarpiece.

Jean Pucelle
The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux

ca. 1324–1328




Simone Martini
The Road to Calvary.


Italian Gothic

In the 13th century both Rome and Tuscany had flourishing pictorial traditions, and both, until the middle of the century, were strongly influenced by Byzantine art. The transitional period 1250-1300 is poorly documented. Since much of the Roman work was subsequently destroyed, evidence for what was happening in Rome must be sought outside the city. The most important location where such evidence exists is Assisi, where the upper church of St. Francis was decorated by Roman-trained fresco painters between about 1280 and 1300. In Tuscany the stylistic changes are probably best revealed by Duccio di Buonisegna's "Maesta" (1308-11), formerly the high altarpiece of Siena cathedral.


Duccio di Buoninsegna's "Maesta" (1308-11)

As with all Gothic decorative art, the changes are in the direction of greater realism. By the end of the 13th century, painters in Rome, such as Pietro Cavallini and probably Duccio in Tuscany, had discovered, like their contemporaries in Paris, the use to which light could be put in figure modeling. The Italian painters also made sudden and unexpected advances in the manipulation of perspective to describe the space of the scenes they were painting. More than this, the best painters developed an extraordinary ability to create figures that really look as if they are communicating with each other by gesture and expression; the work of the Isaac Master in the upper church at Assisi is an especially good example.

Pietro Cavallini

How far the Italian tradition of painting on a large scale magnified problems such as perspective, it would be hard to say. The survival of a large-scale mural tradition certainly marks Italy off from the north. Italian mural paintings were executed with a technique involving pigment applied to, and absorbed by, lime plaster that was still fresh (hence the name of this type of painting--fresco). It was with work in this medium as much as in tempera (a substance binding powdered pigments, usually made from egg at this date) on panel that artists in Italy won their reputations. The typical subjects of fresco painting were series of biblical or hagiographic narratives. The painting of such fresco narratives (in Italian, istorie, hence "history painting") was to be regarded in the 15th century as the most important part of an artist's work by Leon Battista Alberti, an architect, painter, sculptor, and the founder of "modern" or "Renaissance" art theory. In making such claims, Alberti had in mind the work of the painter Giotto di Bondone, better known as simply Giotto, of the late 13th to early 14th century.

Trained in Rome, Giotto executed his first important surviving work for the papal financier Enrico Scrovegni at the latter's family palace in Padua. The palace chapel, called the Arena Chapel (decorated c. 1305-13;), is a masterpiece in which all the lessons of Roman mural painting were translated into a narrative sequence of great economy and expressiveness. In spite of the apparent realism of Giotto's work, however, the Byzantine past makes itself felt in the extremely strong sense of pattern and design noticeable throughout the compositions.

In Tuscany somewhat similar developments took place. Duccio's altarpiece, the "Maesta," contains a large number of small narrative scenes reminiscent of Giotto's fresco paintings. The figures, which have firmly modeled faces and expressive gestures, are arranged in buildings or landscapes that convincingly enclose them. Duccio's interest in realistic space, however, was much weaker than Giotto's. Although Duccio's scenes feature a variety of action and wealth of detail that, on the whole, is lacking in Giotto's early work, they do not make the same simple but dramatic impact.

These conflicts are inherent in all realistic painting. In Giotto's work a shift in the balance between the two conflicting elements takes place. He completed two chapels in Santa Croce, Florence (c. 1315-30), of which one, the Bardi Chapel, is smaller but not unlike the Arena Chapel. The other, the Peruzzi Chapel, tends toward greater detail and less stability in the settings.

Subsequent Florentine and Sienese painters also moved in this direction. Of the Sienese, Simone Martini was probably the most famous, since he worked outside Italy at the papal court in Avignon and was a friend of the great Italian poet Petrarch. His painting has strong suggestions of northern influence in its elegance and grace, but his care over detail is reminiscent of Duccio, and the careful structure of his setting recalls Giotto and the Roman painters. His major surviving work is now in Siena and Assisi, but some impressive remains have been recovered at Avignon.

Among other Tuscan painters were the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, who worked for almost their entire lives in that part of Italy. Their major works are in Siena, but, again, there are important frescoes at Assisi, where, probably, it was Pietro Lorenzetti and his workshop who decorated a transept in the lower church (c. 1330). Ambrogio Lorenzetti is especially famous for an enormous landscape, illustrating the effect of good government, painted in the Palazzo Pubblico Siena (1338-39). Historically, it is the first large, realistic landscape in which Byzantine conventions were entirely discarded. It had strangely few imitators, suggesting that the process of discarding convention and using the evidence of the eye is a slow one.

By the middle of the 14th century, Italian painters had achieved a unique position in Europe. They had made discoveries in the art of narrative composition that set them quite apart from painters anywhere else. Their achievements in capturing reality were not easily ignored. Many subsequent changes in northern painting consist of the adaptation of Italian compositional realism to northern purposes.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti
Life in the City.




Paul Limbourg
The Expulsion from Paradise.




International Gothic

The style of European painting prevalent during the last half of the 14th century and the early years of the 15th is frequently called International Gothic. There were certainly at that time features common to European painting generally. In particular, figures were elegant and graceful, yet at the same time there was a certain artificiality about such figures, and a taste grew for realism in detail, general setting, and composition. The degree of internationalism about this phase of Gothic painting owes something to the fact that much of the most important work was executed under court patronage, and most European royal families were closely linked by marriage ties. Local idiosyncracies, however, persisted; seldom can the art of Paris, for example, be mistaken for that of Lombardy.

The main European courts were those of the Holy Roman emperors (who had nominal suzerainty over central Europe and who at this time had their capital at Prague), the Visconti of Milan, the Valois of France, and the Plantagenets of England. But other sources of patronage existed--in Florence, for example, where the art of Lorenzo Ghiberti and Lorenzo Monaco merged with that of the early Renaissance. And an extraordinary number of important painters were associated about 1350-1400 with the linguistic area of Low Germany--the Low Countries and Westphalia especially--and the Rhineland.

Under the Holy Roman emperor Charles IV and his son Wenceslas, Prague was the seat of a flourishing and enlightened court for about 60 years. Brought up in Paris, Charles had also traveled in Italy. Indeed, his main palace chapel at Karlstejn Castle near Prague, which is the chief monument to Charles's patronage, had an altarpiece by an Italian painter called Tomasso da Modena. The chapel itself was decorated chiefly by a local painter called Theodoric of Prague, whose work is Italianate. A group of his panel paintings, especially the altar of Vyssi Brod (c. 1350), shows a curiously Sienese character, though he did not achieve the delicacy associated with paintings from Siena. The emphasis instead is on heavily modeled faces and thick, heavy drapery. Theodoric's style seems to have initiated the "soft style" that remained a part of German painting well into the 15th century. He certainly determined the character of Bohemian panel painting up to the outbreak of the disastrous Hussite wars (1419).

Charles IV apparently did not collect manuscripts. His ministers and courtiers, however, stimulated an important school of manuscript painting, influenced by French and Italian styles but with distinctive decorative characteristics. Two of the more important manuscripts were a missal (a book containing the office of the mass) done for the chancellor Jan of Streda (c. 1360; Prague, National Museum Library, MS. XIII. A. 12) and a huge Bible begun for Charles's son Wenceslas (1390s; Vienna, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 2759-2764).

Styles similar to this Bohemian painting soon appeared elsewhere--the paintings of Master Bertram of Minden at Hamburg (c. 1380), for example.

In Paris a style appeared that had some of the characteristics of Bohemian work, especially a strong emphasis on faces and facial expression. An early example, probably executed before 1364, is a portrait of John II (Louvre, Paris), which is firmly modeled in a rather Italianate manner. More important, however, is the workshop of the master of the "Parement de Narbonne" (1370s; Louvre), an altar hanging (parement) found at the Cathedral of St. Justin Narbonne. These artists, who were active c. 1370-1410, worked in a very distinctive style: their figures, while graceful, have markedly heavy heads and expressive faces. That some interest in settings had developed is suggested by the care that must have been taken to render them reasonably three-dimensional. In this respect the works have much in common with earlier Italian painting.

An interest in the settings of paintings was shared by panel painters such as Melchior Broederlam, who executed the Dijon altar wings (1390s; Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon). The interest quickly spread during the early 15th century to the manuscript painters, who produced a series of extremely impressive landscape and architectural settings. Especially fine are the so-called Brussels Hours (Brussels, The Belgian National Library, MS. 11060-1) and the Hours of the Marechal de Boucicaut (Jacquemart-André Museum, Paris). The best of the manuscript painters worked for the royal family, among whom Jean, duc de Berry, the brother of King Charles V of France, has achieved permanent fame as a patron. The most notable painters who enjoyed his patronage were Pol de Limburg and Pol's two brothers. Their illuminations are frequently reminiscent of contemporary Italian painting. The largest and most sumptuous work, the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (left unfinished in 1416, Conde Museum, Chantilly, Fr.), includes calendar pictures representing each month in terms of the seasonal activities of nobility and peasants. At least one Italian artist--identified tentatively as Zebo da Firenze--was painting in Paris at this period (c. 1405). Manuscripts associated with him are usually sumptuously, if erratically, decorated. Indeed, in the matter of erratic decoration they seem to have had a baleful influence. The border decoration of Parisian manuscripts c. 1410-25, such as those of the artist called the Master of the Duke of Bedford, often seems to run wild and to lack the restraint characteristic of Parisian painting up to this date.

The most eminent Italian artist of this period was perhaps Gentile da Fabriano. Trained probably in Venice, he painted there in the Doges' Palace (first decade of the 15th century) and also at Brescia. Subsequently he moved to Florence and thence to Rome, where he died. Most of his north Italian work has been destroyed, and his style must be assessed chiefly by the work done in Tuscany, the "Adoration of the Magi" altar (1423; Uffizi, Florence). His faces and drapery tend to have a soft, rounded modeling, somewhat reminiscent of the northern "soft style." The subject matter of his painting includes detailed studies of birds, animals, and flowers.


Gentile da Fabriano
The Presentation of the Child in the Temple.
Musee du Louvre, Paris



His style forms an interesting contrast to that of Lorenzo Monaco in Florence, who, though equally an International Gothic artist, tended to draw figures with finer, more incisive lines. In many ways Gentile's style resembles painting done at the Milanese court during this period. Many illustrated manuscripts survive, giving an impression of a transition about 1370-1410 from a strongly traditional Lombard style to something that has much in common with northern work. In particular, Michelino da Besozzo seems as court artist to have worked in a soft style similar to that of  da Fabriano. Also dating from around 1400 is a distinguished group of illuminated manuscripts including the Book of Hours of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, herbals (manuals containing botanical drawings), and a famous sketchbook (c. 1395) containing a large number of drawings of animals (Bergamo, Municipal Library,  VII 14) from the workshop of an earlier court artist, Giovannino de' Grassi.

In England the decoration of the royal Chapel of St. Stephen's (c. 1360) was apparently, for the period, outstandingly Italianate. (Surviving fragments are in the British Museum, London.) Subsequently, however, in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey (probably executed c. 1370) there was strong Germanic influence, which has been tentatively compared with the work of Master Bertram at Hamburg.

The court style of the second half of the 14th century is best illustrated by a series of manuscripts done for members of the Bohun family and by a sumptuous missal given to Westminster Abbey by its abbot, Nicholas Litlington, in 1383-84. The work is decoratively lavish, but the figure style conveys only distant reflections of Italian painting.

A great change in English manuscript painting occurred about 1400 and is associated with an artist named Herman Scheerre, who seems to have come from the region of Cologne. His figures have a rather plump softness that brings them into line with stylistic developments elsewhere; he also had a command of perspective and compositional structure lacking in the work of most previous artists in England. The style of John Siferwas, another painter active during this period, is similar, but his page decoration is usually more lavish; he produced a series of beautiful bird studies reminiscent of Lombard work. It should be noted, however, that this sort of realistic observation had long been a feature of English work--in the 14th-century East Anglian  manuscripts, for example, and in English embroidery from about 1300.

In view of the number of good painters who came from the region of the Low Countries, Westphalia, and the Rhineland, it is puzzling that these areas should themselves have produced little important painting from the period about 1350-1410. Judging from the surviving works, easily the most distinguished of the painters active in this part of Europe was the Duke of Burgundy's painter, Melchior Broederlam, who lived and worked at Ypres. Other artists, such as Konrad von Soest, who executed the "Niederwildungen Altar" about 1403, seem to have reflected developments elsewhere without pioneering anything strikingly new. It was not until the 1420s that the Low Countries became the centre of intense pictorial development.



Lorenzo Monako
Adoration of the Magi.


Late Gothic

The key to much 15th-century painting in northern Europe lies in the Low Countries. The influence of Paris and Dijon decreased, partly because of the renewal of the Hundred Years' War between England and France and partly because of the removal of the Burgundian court, after the mid-1420s, from Dijon to Brussels, which subsequently became the centre of an extensive court patronage.

The founder of the Flemish school of painting seems to have been Robert Campin of Tournai. The works of Campin, his pupil Rogier van der Weyden, and Jan van Eyck remained influential for the whole century. One of the most important discoveries of the period of about 1430--especially in the work of van Eyck--was the multifarious effects a painter can achieve by observing the action of light. These early Flemish artists found that light can define form, shape, and texture and that, when captured in a landscape, it can help convey a mood. Rogier van der Weyden also explored the problems of conveying emotion. A development in the rendering of the drapery--the so-called crumpled style of hard angular folds--is particularly clear in the paintings of Campin. Portraiture made dramatic progress during this period. Portraits were obviously not new; sculptors were already experimenting in the 14th century with life--and death--masks. But the brilliant use of lighting gives the portraits of Jan van Eyck, for instance, a vivid life hitherto quite unknown.

A great deal of later 15th- and 16th-century Flemish painting seems to play variations on these themes. Although there were painters with distinctly individual styles, such as Hugo van der Goes, with his highly accomplished technique and somewhat contemplative depictions, Hans Memling was more typical (despite having been born in the Rhineland).


Robert Campin

Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dijon



The influence of van Eyck's paintings was felt to a limited extent outside the Low Countries--for example, by Konrad Witz of Basel, Switz., by the Master of the Aix Annunciation (1442) of Aix-en-Provence, Fr., and by the Neapolitan artist Colantonio and his illustrious pupil Antonello da Messina. In the course of the century, however, the style of Rogier van der Weyden and his immediate successors, such as Dieric Bouts, became more influential, being felt in Germany, England, Spain, and Portugal. Evidence of Rogier van der Weyden's influence can be seen in the works of Hans Pleydenwurff of Nurnberg, in the wall paintings in Eton College Chapel (c. 1480), and in the paintings of Nuno Gonçalves in Portugal. This new "international style" also influenced the great German engraver Martin Schongauer and, ultimately, the outstanding representative of the German Renaissance school of painting, Albrecht Durer.

Any individualists at this time were usually painters who chose to go to the extreme of emphasizing the bizarre or the horrifying. Hugo van der Goes veered in this direction.

A very different sort of extreme individuality is found in the work of the Tirolean painter and sculptor Michael Pacher. His pictorial work is so strongly marked by a concern with the structure of the composition and with effects of perspective--particularly foreshortening--that it seems clear he knew the work of Andrea Mantegna of Padua. Although virtually free of antique motifs, Pacher's painting demonstrates the growing fascination of Italian Renaissance art for northern artists.

Rather different were the French painters of the 15th century. Court art revived, especially during the reign of Louis XI (1461-83), as exemplified by the illuminated manuscript Le Livre du coeur d'amours espris (1465; Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna). The most interesting painter was probably Jean Fouquet, who, apparently early in his career, visited Italy. Italian details certainly appear in his work, but, as is evident in the Hours of Etienne Chevalier (Conde Museum, Chantilly) and the "Melun Diptych" (now divided between the Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp), he still painted within the northern tradition. The restrained and somewhat reticent character of much French painting is interestingly similar to much of the sculpture.

(Encyclopædia Britannica)




Melchior Broederlam
The Dijon Altarpiece
Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dijon



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