Gothic Art


Notre Dame de Amiens, France, 1220-1269, (photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (own work), [GDFL ( or CC by 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons) and Detail of Flying buttresses on Notre Dame de Amiens, (photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (own work), [GDFL ( or CC by 3.0) and Detail of the interior of Notre Dame de Amiens, (photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (own work), [GDFL ( or CC by 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)


Gothic Art is the name for art produced in Western Europe from the middle of the twelfth to the sixteenth century. This was the Age of Cathedrals in which the Cathedral was the bishop’s seat, urban, and owned by the city/town. Cathedral construction, therefore, had a positive economic impact on the town itself. This was the period of the rising power of the town and the middle class because of economic reasons, and the cathedral was generally the largest building, where all residents could meet, and where Passion Plays would be held. It was also a major source of pride for the town itself. In the Christian tradition of this period, the church building itself was also seen as being representative of the Virgin Mary, hence the reason why so many are named Notre Dame, as well as the Heavenly City of Jerusalem, hence the height and the towers. Stylistically, a few things change from the Romanesque style that preceded the Gothic: the arches become taller and pointed; the vaulting is made up of groin vaults to allow for the height; and the buttresses on the outside are flying buttresses that are made up of at least 2 springing arches coming out and away from the outer wall, opening up space for large stained glass windows. All of these characteristics can be seen in the images of Notre Dame de Amiens above.

The origins of the Gothic Style lie in the Île-de-France, the area of central France around Paris, and can be traced back to Abbot Suger, abbot of the royal monastery of Saint-Denis c. 1137-44. None of the architectural devices that were used by Suger and his architects were new, but the synthesis of existing styles was what was revolutionary. Suger decided to rebuild the Carolingian Church in a grand new style, beginning with the narthex and the ambulatory, also called the chevet. His idea was to open the walls to allow in more light, which symbolized the light of God and of Heaven, but this light would be filtered through stained glass windows, generally including a rose window to symbolize the Virgin Mary on the portal, or entrance into the church. Suger specifically said that he wanted the whole church to shine “with the wonderful and uninterrupted light of most luminous windows, pervading the interior beauty.” In order for this to be possible, he had his architects construct flying buttresses on the exterior, and had the vaults on the interior held up with very thin columns, beginning at the point where the ribbing of the vaults, which contains the thrust, meet.

Saint-Denis, Paris, West Portal, 1140-1144 (photo by By Ninaras (Own work) [CC BY 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons) and Chevet, c. 1135-1144 (photo By Beckstet (Wikimedia Commons) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

The West façade, which has one unfinished tower, still shows the influence of the Romanesque style, with the heavy piers that divide the vertical sections of the façade, but Suger’s innovation here was to divide both the vertical and horizontal spaces below the towers into threes, a reference to the Christian conception of a Trinity.

The cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres, located about 50 miles outside of Paris, is very interesting to study, as it bridges the Early and High Gothic periods. A piece of silk, said in the medieval period to be the mantle of the Virgin was held as a relic in the church, and regarded as miraculous. The city decided to rebuild the cathedral in the new Gothic style in the late 12th century, but a fire in 1194 destroyed all but the West Portal, also called the Royal Portal because of the jamb statues of Old Testament kings and queens. This portal and façade have many of the same characteristics as that of Saint-Denis, with the heavy piers supporting the structure the horizontal and vertical divisions into 3 below the later towers, and the rose window in the center of the structure. But, at Chartres, the façade is pierced by more stained glass windows than at Saint-Denis. The central tympanum of the West Portal depicts the Second Coming of Christ, or the Last Judgement, with the side ones showing scenes from Christ’s incarnation as well as the nativity. These tympana continue the awkward body types of Romanesque sculpture, and the typical depiction of Christ in a mandorla with frontal saints and angels. The Old Testament kings and queens on the jambs are solidly columnar, and do not really seem to stand on the bases of their supports. These do not yet represent a major change from the previous Romanesque style. The north portal here is also done in the Early Gothic style and dates to the 12th century, with the Glorification of the Virgin in the central panel of the tympanum. The shift here is in the jamb statues of Old Testament prophets, some of which date to the late 12th century and the others to c. 1220. With these, the figures begin to move outside of the restrictive columnar form assigned to them, and there are suggestions of motion and form under the drapery of these works. The later statues especially seem to have personality and individuality specific to the prophets and saints depicted. The sculpture of St. Anne, who holds the figure of the infant Virgin, now headless, also seems more naturalistic than the Royal Portal figures, with a suggestion of a leg beneath the drapery and the depiction of personality on her face.

Notre Dame de Chartres, West Facade with Royal Portal, c. 1140-16th century (photo By Robin Poitou – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and Tympana, c. 1145-1170 (photo By Photo:Nina Aldin Thune User:Nina-no – Own work, CC BY 2.5, and Old Testament jamb statues of kings and queens, 1140-1150 (photo By Cancre – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Notre Dame de Chartres, North Portal, 12th century (photoBy Harmonia Amanda – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and Old Testament Prophets, late 12th century (photo By Harmonia Amanda – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and Old Testament Prophets, c. 1220 (photo by By Harmonia Amanda – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Trumeau Sculpture of St. Anne, North Porch of Notre Dame de Chartres, 1205-1220 (photo by Harmonia Amanda – Own Work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As the cathedral at Chartres was rebuilt and completed, it became the High Gothic symbol of the ideal of the Heavenly City of Jerusalem on Earth, although most of the intended towers were never completed. The structure dominates the town, and the buttressing of the apse allows for more windows than Saint-Denis.

Notre Dame de Chartres, rebuilt 1194-1260 (photo CC BY-SA 3.0, and Apse chapels from the exterior (photo By Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

The South Portal at Chartres is where the shift to the High Gothic, and the increasing naturalism becomes really apparent. The façade is entirely encrusted with decoration, and the sculptures have become increasingly naturalistic, individualized, and dynamic. The central tympanum of this portal has an image of the Last Judgement, and the 24 elders of the Apocalypse are depicted in the archivolts of the point arch above this scene. The emphasis of this Last Judgement is less on fear, as with the Romanesque ones, and more on the theme of salvation. The martyrs depicted in the jamb states of this portal were carved throughout the course of the 13th century, with St. George on the outside of the right side last. He stands in a pose that comes close to a contrapposto, and has the most naturalistic body depicted beneath his drapery. What is interesting here, though, is that the image of Christ Preaching in the trumeau of this portal is less naturalistic than the sculptures surrounding him, although his feet do seem firmly planted on the beasts of Satan.

Notre Dame de Chartres, South Portal, 13th century (photo By Harmonia Amanda – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and Tympanum depicting the Last Judgement, c. 1206 (photo By Harmonia Amanda – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and Bay of the Martyrs, South Portal, 13th century (photo By By Harmonia Amanda – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Notre Dame de Chartres, South Portal, figure of Christ Teaching with Apostles on jambs, 13th century, (photo By medieval mason – photo TTaylor 2005, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The nave of Chartres was completed between 1194 & 1260, and, because this church retains about 80% of its original stained glass, shows the effects of Suger’s ideas of light as the embodiment of this Heavenly City of Jerusalem and divinity. These interiors were still fairly dark, but the light filtering through the stained glass windows gives the sense of jewel-like forms hitting the stone work. Also, the piers alternate thin and thick shapes, and draw your eyes up the high pointed arch of the lower elevation, past the small gallery, to the three-part stained glass windows at the top of the walls of the church. The ribbing of the groin vaults and pointed arches of the ceiling, 121 feet from the ground, completes this upward thrust of the eyes. Building funds for these structures came from many sources within the towns, including revenues from the Church’s estates; canons gave up their salary for three years; donations from wealthy benefactors and guilds; small donations from those of modest means. The guilds, which were associations formed for the aid and protection of their members and the pursuit of common goals, often donated stained glass windows dedicated to specific saints, often the patrons of the particular guild, with images of the type of work done by members in one small part of the window. The windows themselves were made by craftsmen specially trained in the art of glass blowing and forming. They show the high level of workmanship in the medieval period. The rose window group of the North Transept was donated by Queen Blanche of Castile, showing the importance of Chartres and the cathedrals to the royal family as well as the town. Some of the smaller windows of this group contain the royal coats of arms of both France and Castile, while below are images of the Old Testament kings. In the center of the rose window is an image of the Virgin holding baby Jesus, surrounded by images of the Apostles and other religious images related to Mary.

Notre Dame de Chartres, nave, 1194-1260 (photos By Marianne Casamance – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By MMensler – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Notre Dame de Chartres, Good Samaritan Window with detail of guild donation panel, 13th century (photos By Allie_Caulfield – Flickr: 2007-07-28 08-04 Paris, Normandie 0973 Chartres, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, CC BY 2.0, and By JBThomas4 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Notre Dame de Chartres, North Rose Window, c. 1210-1250 (photos by By This photo was taken by Eusebius (Guillaume Piolle).Feel free to reuse it, but always credit me as the author as specified below. – Own work, Public Domain, and By Harmonia Amanda – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Harmonia Amanda – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As the 13th century progressed, the High Gothic style became more elaborate and builders competed to make their churches taller and taller, giving more and more of the feeling of lightness that Suger had wanted in addition to his emphasis on light. This can be seen in the churches of Notre Dame de Amiens (pictured above), built 1220-1269, and Notre Dame de Reims, built 1211-1290 (pictured below). Both of these churches take the upward thrust of Chartres further, with more elaborate vaulting, and more sculptures on the entrance porches.

Notre Dame de Reims, west portal, apse, and interior, 1211-1290, (photos by By bodoklecksel – own foto, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Vassil – Own work, Public Domain, and By Calvin Kramer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

The sculpture of both of these High Gothic cathedrals also shows the moves toward naturalism as at Chartres, but here the move is more obvious and clear. Two of the sculptures from the trumeaus of Amiens, the Vierge Dorée (1220-1288) and the Beau Dieu (c. 1220-1235) seem even more free from their columnar supports. The Virgin here sways in an elegant, exaggerated contrapposto, and exchanges a tender glance with the baby Jesus, here now fully infant-like, and no longer the homunculus of Byzantine-inspired art. The image of Jesus fully grown is of a solid man who is completely supported by the beasts of Satan below his feet. With both figures, there is a suggestion of bodies below the drapery as well. The West Portal jamb statues from Reims show the shifts over the course of the 13th century even more clearly. The statues of Gabriel and the Virgin depicting the Annunciation are clearly the earlier works, as they seem to represent elongated types, and have no real suggestion of form beneath the drapery. Also, they seem much more tied to their columnar supports than the images of Mary and Elizabeth of the Visitation, who stand in contrapposto poses and seem to move beyond their frames. Both women have individualized faces, and there is a strong suggestion of bodies beneath the draperies.

Notre Dame de Amiens, Vierge Dorée, 1220-1288 and Beau Dieu, c. 1220-1235


Notre Dame de Riems, Annunciation (left) and Visitation (right), 1211-1290 (photo by By Foto, Public Domain,

The medieval French king Louis IX, known as Saint Louis after his canonization, had the Flamboyant Gothic Sainte-Chapelle built for him in Paris to hold the relics he brought back from the Seventh Crusade, which were alleged to relate to the Passion. This was an elaboration of the High Gothic style, with even more of the walls used for stained glass windows, and an elaborate reliquary built in the apse of the chapel. As this chapel was attached to the former royal palace, it was also the private chapel of the king, and was comprised of both an upper and a lower church.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, c. 1238-1248 (photo by By Adam Bishop – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,; Upper Chapel (photo by By Didier B (Sam67fr) – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,; Lower Chapel (photo by By Pierre Poschadel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Paris was also one of the centers of learning in Europe in the medieval period. It was known for its university, as well as for the high level of production of manuscripts by a number of secular shops in the city. One of the major philosophies of the late Middle Ages is Scholasticism, promoted by St. Thomas Aquinas and others. This philosophy was heavily influenced by the writings of Aristotle that had been rediscovered in Europe after  long being known to Islamic and Byzantine scholars. The Scholastics combined logic, semantics, metaphysics in an attempt to combine the writings of pagan Greco-Romans admired in Europe with Christianity, and explain the nature of God. Scholastic manuscripts often show Gothic architecture, with figures interacting within the spaces in an attempt to create more believable space in which their figures interact.

Scene from the Life of Saint Denis, completed 1317 (photo by Public Domain, and Initial B of Psalm 1, from the Saint Louis Psalter, c. 1260

 The English Gothic style was typically more varied than the French Gothic, with an emphasis on height and fan vaulting. This emphasis resulted in the English Perpendicular style, which came after the Early English and Decorated styles. The cathedrals of Canterbury and Salisbury encompass the two earlier styles, with Canterbury still retaining the thicker piers of the Romanesque style. Salisbury shows the beginnings of the Decorated style. King’s College Chapel in London is an example of Late Perpendicular Style vaulting, which were incredibly elaborate, with many of the ribs for decoration more than function.

Canterbury Cathedral, 1174-1184, (photos by By Tilman2007 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Christoph Matthias Siebenborn – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Salisbury Cathedral, begun 1220 (photos by By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, and By Johan Bakker – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


King’s College Chapel, 1508-1515 (photo by By Antoine Tavenaux (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

As the 14th century progressed, the drive towards naturalism picked up speed, a phenomena which would eventually lead to the Renaissance.


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