Artworks and Artists of Gothic Art and Architecture
Progression of Art
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres
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.”
Stone, stained glass - Chartres, France
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.
Stone - Bamberg Cathedral, Bamberg, Germany
Annunciation and Visitation
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.
Stone - Notre-Dame de Reims, Reims, France
North Rose Window at Notre Dame Cathedral of Chartres
This iconic rose window, resplendent with rich color that makes it a masterwork of Gothic stained glass, depicts the Madonna and Child at its center. They are surrounded by twelve panels, radiating like the petals of a flower and depicting doves representing the gifts of the spirit and angels holding candles. In the next ring, 12 square windows placed at various angles show the Old Testament Kings of Judah, while small quatrefoils bear the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of France. The outer ring’s half circles show the Old Testament prophets, while just below the rose window, four lancet windows on either side carry the insignia of the kingdoms of France in blue and gold and of Castile in red and gold, noting the window’s patron, Queen Blanche of Castile. Five lancet windows below depict King Melchizedek, King David, the Virgin Mary as a child being held by St. Anne, her mother, in the center, and King Solomon and the high priest Aaron. These figures are portrayed as standing upon a defeated enemy; for instance, a vignette below King David’s feet depicts King Saul committing suicide.
As most worshippers were illiterate, stained glass windows played a didactic role, illustrating stories of the Bible and conveying moral meaning. Iconography played an important role in designing such windows, as the number 12, repeated here, symbolized the unity of the trinity times the number 4 representing mankind. The colors, too, were significant, as blue symbolized the Virgin Mary, whereas red symbolized the suffering and passion of Christ. Many of the church’s 176 windows used predominantly this distinctive shade of blue, named the “bleu de Chartres.” The rose was considered to be a symbol of perfect love as well as the “eye of God,” announcing God’s illuminating presence among men. The light, ever changing, radiated through the depths of the cathedral, creating an inspiring otherworldly effect, while the image reflected the sustaining presence of the Virgin Mary as comforting mother to Catholic worshippers of the era.
The windows of Chartres influenced the development of the Rayonnant style, which emphasized the rose window’s radial effect, exaggerating the petal-like shapes radiating from its center into “rays” of colored glass. The church has remained a continuing presence in the cultural imagination, as seen in filmmaker Orson Welles’ description in his film F for Fake (1973) as “this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest.” UNESCO described the cathedral as “a museum to stained glass.”
Stained glass - Chartres, France
Maestà di Santa Trinita
Cimabue depicts the Madonna and Child enthroned in Heaven, seated upon an intricate gold throne that also suggests the architecture of Heaven, with its tower-like pillars. The two are flanked by angels, arranged symmetrically on either side, their hands holding the towers as if supporting them, while the faces of the first pair turn to the side, and the others above them turn toward the Virgin. Their wings create an overlapping pattern of color gradations illuminated by gold that both encloses and emphasizes the Madonna while leading the eye upward to her gaze at the apex of the triangle. Below, four prophets look out through a trio of arches, conveying the authority of tradition.
Cimabue’s innovations included moving painting away from Byzantine flat depictions and stylized figures, favoring instead more realistic proportions and shading, as seen in the naturalistic drapery of the Virgin’s clothing and the placement of her feet suggesting movement. A more naturalistic treatment of space is also evident, as seen in the two lower angels, whose placement shows that they are clearly standing behind the towers before them, as their figures take on an aspect of three-dimensionality. A noted teacher, Cimabue trained Pacino di Bonaguida and was said to have discovered Giotto. As art critic John Haber wrote of Cimabue, “In his grand, multi-tiered architecture and spare, wiry human forms, he could serve as the culmination of past ages or the beginning of the new.”
Tempera and gold foil on panel - Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ)
This Late Gothic fresco depicts the mourning of Christ, as he is cradled by his mother who looks closely into his face, while Mary Magdalene holds his feet, and other shrouded mourners surround him. To the right, two apostles stand beside a stone wall that creates a diagonal that separates the human scene from the blue sky, where a multitude of angels flies, their wings and postures conveying divine distress. Other disciples stand at the left, one bending forward, the other with his face in his hands.
Giotto’s masterful composition keeps the viewer focused on the dead Christ’s face and the interaction between him and Mary while at the same time creating a radical sense of space in a rather shallow setting. Giotto depicts two disciples in the foreground with their backs to the viewer, and the central figures to the right with bent backs rise to the disciple who flings his arms behind him in a state of grief. He points to the group of mourners on the other side, unifying the crowd. The circular group of people emphasizes Christ’s horizontal body, and the radically foreshortened angels in the sky echo the earthly circular formation below.
The artist’s treatment of human emotion is realistic and powerful, as body language and facial expression convey both the outcry of anguish and the stolid presence of grief. This innovative sense of composition and a sculptural approach to the human figure, conveying gravity and weight, made Giotto’s work both the pinnacle of Late Gothic work and an important influence upon the Renaissance.
The very wealthy Enrico Scrovegni commissioned the fresco cycle in the Padua chapel to be his funerary monument and penance for his father’s usury, a sin in the Catholic church at the time. Giotto was thus funded and painted 37 scenes, arranged in three tiers, depicting the narrative of Christ’s life and the life of the Virgin, along with interspersed quatrefoil images of the Old Testament. Giovanni Villani, a chronicler of Giotto’s era, wrote that the artist was "the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature,” and in the 1500s Vasari described the artist as being a forerunner of the Renaissance, “introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years.”
Fresco - Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua, Italy
Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus
The central panel depicts the Annunciation, when archangel Gabriel, carrying an olive branch, kneels before Mary, darkly robed on the right, and informs her that she will give birth to the son of God. Between them, a vase containing lilies, symbolizing purity, sits on the floor, while above in the central arch, a group of angels appears, their wings interlocking in a mandorla. The words “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” in Latin are embossed in gold, extending diagonally from the angel’s open lips toward Mary. Exquisite detailing, as seen in the angels’ wings and the decorative motif of the chair where Mary sits, give the work a sense of precise and elegant refinement.
The central panel is considered one of Martini’s masterworks, showing his innovative use of line combined with a sense of movement and human expression. The angel’s gown flares behind him as if he has just landed, and the Virgin seems to recoil, her face disbelieving at his announcement. Though the setting, employing extensive gold, and subject reflect Byzantine tradition, the portrayal of the Annunciation as a dramatic moment was unique in its time.
The prodigious use of gold leaf, lapis lazuli, and expensive lacquer, indicate the high status of this altarpiece, commissioned by the Cathedral of Siena, and dedicated to the city’s patron saints. Some scholars credit Lippo Memmi with the depiction of St. Margaret, on the far right, though other scholars also attribute to him the portrayals of St. Ansanus on the left and the prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Daniel, in the tondos, or circular paintings. However, Memmi’s depictions lack the sophistication of Martini’s approach.
Tempera and gold leaf on wood - Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Italy
David and a prophet from the Well of Moses
In this view of the hexagonally shaped Well of Moses, one sees two of the six figures that surround the monumental edifice. The biblical King David, holding a scroll in his left hand, is visible at the left, while the Prophet Jeremiah, holding up a large book from which a scroll unfurls, is pictured on the right. Standing atop thin columns between the human figures, three angels are partially visible, their flaring wings creating the fount of the well. The fount was meant to convey not only the Well of Moses in Egypt but also the living water of the Christian faith, symbolized in baptism. A kind of sacred history is conveyed in the gathering of these figures, each connected to the word of God through the scrolls that he holds.
With its naturalistic human figures, powerfully conveying physical presence and individualized expressions, while denoting courtly elegance in the flowing rhythm of draperies and scrolls, this work innovatively exemplified the International Gothic Style. The Carthusian Monastery in Dijon commissioned the work from the artist who was the court artist for Phillip the Bold of Burgundy. The original structure was more complex, as the center of the well included a pier, carved with prophets and angels, and a cross rising from the depths to tower over the well, but only the well itself has survived. Originally the sculpture was painted and gilded by Jean Malouel, traces of which are visible in the blue bands of David’s robe and Jeremiah’s green sleeve, which would have created a more animated and lively effect. The sculptor has conveyed his subjects’ importance while also depicting their different personalities: David’s sense of strong but relaxed authority and Jeremiah’s pensiveness.
Sluter’s innovative three-dimensional and emotionally expressive figures had a noted influence upon Northern European Renaissance artists, including Rogier Van der Weyden, Matthias Grünewald, and Albrecht Dürer.
Stone, paint and gilding - Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, Dijon, France