The thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, spanned by what we term the Gothic period, saw a revolution in the social and economic life of Europe. As princes created fixed capitals for themselves instead of the earlier uncomfortable peripatetic courts, so the earlier agricultural system gave way before a more modern money economy. The movements brought great changes in their train and were to have a profound effect upon the arts. For the first, the building of castles, palaces and town residences not only gave a new importance to the visual effect of surroundings but also to the ideas of comfort and luxury.
The court of Burgundy led the way and life came to be dominated by intricate ceremonial inherited in part from antiquity, Byzantium and the orient, and elaborated into an obligatory etiquette destined to reach its most exaggerated expression in baroque Spain. At the end of the period this court culture flowered into what was an almost decadent magnificence. Gothic sculpture, like Gothic architecture, originated in France, and it, too, spread rapidly throughout Europe, varying in each country (Frankl 21).
Gothic art had become common to all of Europe, and its national variants did not develop in isolation, although they always remained distinct within the framework of the style. There was a good deal of practical exchange, and German holy images were ordered from and sent to Italy, French ivory caskets and small altars were exported to England and Germany and English alabasters were exported throughout Europe (Frankl 25). In its transition from the Romanesque, Gothic architecture was characterized by an open stone framework supporting a stone vaulting (Frankl 3).
As this development reached its peak, painting and sculpture were almost completely subjected to architecture, though all three arts were ultimately to gain. It was inevitable that large-scale mural painting should give way as the walls of Gothic churches were increasingly devoted to ever-larger windows. However, these new transparent walls of glass were quickly claimed by the painters and at the very moment when they were most dependent upon the good will of the architect, they achieved their greatest triumphs; for this new painting with colour and light on enormous areas of glass amounted to the conquest of a new artistic field.
Glass painting, from being a pleasant accessory of the old order of architecture, had gradually become an indispensable feature of Gothic interior decoration. Its greatest successes were achieved, as were those of the Gothic style as a whole, primarily north of the Alps, and its decline accompanied that of the style as a whole (West 104-05). In appropriating sculpture, Gothic cathedral architecture presented it with such gigantic new problems that it was taxed almost beyond its strength.
The figures that had previously been sparingly applied to doorways and towers multiplied and became immense crowds nestling in groups round doorways and towers. As a result of this dependence on architecture, more sculpture was commissioned in the Gothic period than at any other time between antiquity and the baroque era; indeed the sculptor has probably never been so much in demand as he was then (West 137-39).
At the end of the Gothic period, when architecture tired, when cathedrals, started at the peak of the period, remained unfinished despite increasingly extended building periods; when towers, planned on a gigantic scale, were left incomplete; when niches on pillars and portals still remained empty, sculpture was still strong enough to leave the sinking ship, alert enough to recapture part of its former territory. It was altar-decoration which gave new life to the dying art of monumental sculpture.
Here sculptors and wood carvers gradually developed the simplicity of the early retable into an architectural structure worthy to carry their figures. The Gothic winged altar grew from the mensa, until, high under the distant vaulting, multitudinous groups of figures were gathered into its forest-like branches, both over centrepiece and over wings. At the close of the Gothic period a true Kleinplastik developed-Kleinplastik is an untranslatable word which applies to small, delicate carvings, sometimes only a few inches high, which were later to become the passion of the lay collector with his delight in elaborate material and craftsmanship.
The ideals of the thirteenth century were still those that had inspired the crusades and which, towards the end of the eleventh century, had fired the western Christian world with a zeal to free the Holy Land from the Mohammedan infidels. In the space of a few generations, religious fervour and love of adventure moved hundreds of thousands from every country to do battle with the dangerously advancing forces of Islam. Great victories awaited them, but also shameful defeats; fame and riches, but imprisonment and miserable death as well.
An important after-effect of the period of the crusades, which really ended at the close of the thirteenth century, was the growing prosperity, not only at the courts but also amongst the lesser nobility and the burghers. It was accompanied by a taste for luxury, a desire for a less simple mode of life, which in turn generated the forces needed to satisfy the new demands. The world had become, in contemporary eyes,-not only bigger and wider, but also more beautiful and interesting.
Thus poetry and the arts, as well as the crafts, which had worked almost solely for the honour of God and the glory of his Church, were now called upon to glorify the everyday world (West 210-11). Commerce and the crafts, in all their colourful diversity, gained respect. As they grew in importance, guilds and merchant companies came into being, and succeeded in getting a voice in the administration of the cities, until the cities finally obtained freedom from the feudal overlord, owed allegiance only to the emperor, and were able to form political alliances with other cities.
There was no more bondage for the burgher. The main roads met in the cities, which were the centres for travellers and pilgrims and for the trade of goods from far and near. The great building organizations were situated within their walls and they sheltered the artists and craftsmen; new wealth accumulated in the cities and with it a new civic pride appeared. All these developments offered the Gothic sculptor and carver many opportunities and, moreover, each generation had an insatiable desire to express its own artistic feeling.
This was only made possible, over the years, by making room, by repeatedly clearing away or destroying the “outmoded” work of previous generations. Furthermore, the changing and often more elaborate liturgical customs and rites of the high and late Middle Ages demanded new equipment, new furnishings, and these afforded new subjects for the artist. For example, the appearance of the Rosary brotherhoods of the late Middle Ages produced a flood of Gothic Madonnas. The fast-spreading cult of St Anne led to the creation of charming groups showing her with the Virgin and Child (Branner 47).
The number of altars increased considerably during the Gothic period in the cathedrals and collegiate churches especially, but also in the parish churches. The spacious churches of this era often had dozens of altars, sometimes more than fifty. The burgher, noble, or even ecclesiastic donors of these altars made themselves responsible for the material needs of the priest who served at their altar as well as for the provision of an artistically conceived altar with furnishings of admirable craftsmanship (Frankl 95).
For such an altarpiece tradition demanded a representation of the patron saint, a cross, candelabra, an altar cloth, and robes. The buttresses of the new churches favoured the construction of subsidiary chapels and thereby increased the potential space for additional altars, which meant more commissions for the artists. The altarpiece which, as the chief domain of art, combined painting and sculpture in a common effort, has become the classic expression of late Gothic art for the world at large.
In these altarpieces, the central section was generally reserved for three-dimensional figures. The insides of the wings were often given to the carvers for their reliefs, if they had not already been allotted to the painters–for whom the outsides of the wings were always reserved. Such an altar complex was indeed imposing; its changing face-different on weekdays, Sundays and feast days-served as a kind of three-dimensional picture book of the church year for a pious world which could as yet neither read nor write, and so readily sought these vivid illustrations of the scriptures.
The Western world found, in Gothic art, a means of symbolizing the Christian capacity to experience life and religion as conceived within the framework of medieval piety. Although each nation added something of its own national peculiarities the style retained its validity as a common artistic expression of Western Christianity and was universally recognized. Works Cited Branner, Robert. Burgundian Gothic Architecture. A. Zwemmer, 1960. Frankl, Paul. Gothic Architecture. Penguin Books, 1962. West, George Herbert. Gothic Architecture in England and France. G. Bell & Sons, 1911.
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