At Large  August 23, 2021  Josh Coyne

Art 101: Gothic Art & Architecture

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Mkill.

Close view of decorated buttresses supporting the Cologne Cathedral, 1248–1573. Cologne, Germany.

At the root of all Gothic art and architecture was the desire to construct something close to heaven on Earth, a place where congregations could feel the presence of the divine. High, vaulted ceilings coupled with towering, pointed spires represented the celestial aspirations of devout medieval Christians, with these new heights all made possible by advancements in architectural engineering like pointed arches and flying buttresses.

From about the mid-twelfth century to the sixteenth century—all across Western, Northern, and Eastern Europe—grand cathedrals with the aforementioned characteristics were constructed with fervor as countries and cities vied to establish symbols of their unrivaled wealth and piety.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Didier B (Sam67fr). CC BY-SA 2.5.

The Upper Chapel of Sainte Chapelle. Paris, France.

On top of the impressive stature that many of these cathedrals managed to achieve, the interior and exterior of the buildings are covered in ornate decorations like stained glass, fresco mosaics, and decorative stone tracery. Stained glass in particular is a staple of the Gothic period. Most cathedrals incorporate large windows into their designs. These sometimes span once unimaginably large swaths of wall, reaching up to the high ceilings.

These windows depict scenes from the Bible or saint’s lives with beautifully embroidered stone tracery in between, projecting radiant, multicolored light throughout the interior of the buildings. It was commonly believed during this period that light itself was divine, and these stained glass windows accentuated the desired feeling of sanctity architects wanted when designing the naves of these cathedrals

As for the exterior of these magnificent constructions, statues of people and creatures line the roofs. Although many of these cathedral walls depict mythological creatures like gargoyles, a newly established interest in humanism saw an emphasis on more naturalistic features for the human subjects of statues. During this period, a rise in the popularity of portable statues for worship—most commonly of the Virgin Mary and Jesus—also occurred.

Courtesy of the Met. The Cloisters Collection, 1956. 56.211.

Unknown, Nativity of the Virgin, 1480. Limewood with paint. 14 1/4 × 54 × 17 in.

The origins of the word "gothic" date back to the Renaissance, when early art historians coined the term. At the time, the term meant barbaric, rude, or unenlightened. This meaning lasted until the Gothic Revival of England in the mid-eighteenth century. After this point, the negative connotations of the term were finally replaced with the appreciation for the art and architecture of the Gothic period that exists today.

About the Author

Josh Coyne

Josh Coyne is a North Carolina native that has lived in Chapel Hill for most of his life. He is a rising junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is planning on double majoring in History and English. Josh wrote for Art & Object as an intern for the Summer of 2021.

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