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Important Art and Artists of Gothic Art and Architecture
Called “the high point of French Gothic art” by UNESCO, which designated Chartres cathedral a World Heritage Site, two spires dominate the Western façade; the spire on the right was completed about 1160, while the one on the left combines the original, lower tower with a spire in the Flamboyant style from the early 1500s. Together, the two towers create a dynamic vertical movement, echoed by the pointed arches of the openings and the three protruding columns ascending most of the length of the towers.
The cathedral is harmoniously composed of thirds, reflecting the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit); the three horizontal levels of the façade are clearly delineated, and three windows above the entrance echo the three portals. As a result, the cathedral powerfully conveys a sense of earthly power that is both grounded and soars upward.
The cathedral, situated on the tallest hill in the city of Chartres, dominates the view of the city, reflecting its importance not only as the center of religious life but also as a hub of economic and social life in its functions as a market place and a site for local fairs and festivals. As earlier buildings were destroyed in fires, the cathedral is the fifth church to be built on the site, a noted place of pilgrimage that was believed to house the Sancta Camisa, a garment that the Virgin Mary wore when she gave birth to Christ.
The rebuilding of this final cathedral that began in 1194, occurred in a relatively short period of time, and, as a result, the building has a remarkably cohesive style. Its innovations, including flying buttresses, three rose windows, many smaller stained glass windows, and the sculptural carvings around the portals, came to exemplify the Gothic style. Importantly, it has retained almost all of its original stained glass, a rarity for many churches. As the noted French author Victor Hugo wrote in the 1800s, cathedrals like Chartres belonged to “poetry and the people.”
This stone sculpture known as the Bamberg Rider depicts a crowned but unarmed man, seated on a horse, turning to look at the viewer. A convincing naturalism, portraying the subject with realistic proportions and details, pervades the life-sized work, as the horse holds its head with the bit in its teeth, and its left, rear leg flexes as if restless. The man’s fashionable curls and dress indicate an aristocratic background, and his figure conveys a confident calmness as he surveys the distance, while tugging on a strap to draw his cloak around his shoulders. Scholars have debated the identity of the man, believing he may be a specific king known for saintly qualities, and several candidates have been suggested, from Saint Stephen I of Hungary to Emperor Henry II or Emperor Frederick II. Other scholars have argued that the figure may be Christ as depicted in the Book of Revelation, and the city rendered in stone framing the rider’s head as symbolic of heavenly Jerusalem. Originally the work was painted, though only traces remain.
The horse’s front hooves are resting on a depiction of the Green Man, carved into the base’s Acanthus corbel. A figure of pagan mythology, the Green Man or Wild Man was associated with fertility and here suggests the Christ-like horseman’s demonic but conquered counterpart. The overall effect of the work is of calm authority, as if the worshipper would be reminded of Christ the King and his promised reign as well as the Christ-like authority believed to be embodied in rulers. As art historian Shirin Fozi notes, “His calm gaze seems to suggest that, despite the realities of shifting ethnic identities and complex national boundaries, medieval Europe could still dream of a world united under the paradigm of a perfect Christian king.”
The life-sized work was remarkably innovative, being the first monumental equestrian statue since Roman times. The work has had a long cultural life in Germany, as the image was often displayed in public buildings, schools, and private homes. The mystery of the horseman’s identity enabled the work to become an often-evoked symbol, the meaning of the figure interpreted according to the cultural and political environment.
This group of four figures found on the west portal of Reims Cathedral depicts the Annunciation and the Visitation of the Virgin Mary. The pair on the left depicts the smiling archangel Gabriel turning toward the Virgin Mary to tell her she will bear the son of God; Mary, who looks pensively downward, turns slightly toward the angel as if quietly listening. The Visitation, on the right, includes Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and her older cousin St. Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. Each of the figures conveys a sense of movement, as if they were engaged in conversation, their faces conveying subtle emotion, their draperies flowing realistically around them, and a touch of contrapposto can be seen, particularly in Elizabeth’s bent right knee.
The innovative figures are no longer emerging from pillars, as they were in the Romanesque and Early Gothic styles, but are fully realized sculptures, three-dimensional as if standing in front of the column-lined church. Because the work is anonymous like most Gothic era work, it’s not known if the same sculptor made all four figures, but the slender gracefulness of the two on the left compared with the more realistic depictions of the two on the right suggest that two different artists might be responsible. For worshippers of the day, they were convincingly life-like depictions of sacred figures, but as works of art the sculptures exemplify the High Gothic style while pointing the way to the later International Gothic style and the Renaissance.