Gothic art refers to an art movement in the middle ages (Van de Bogart 70) that started in France around 1140 (the time that the ambulatory of the Church of Saint-Denis was constructed [Encarta “Gothic Art and Architecture”]) and lasted up until late 16th century throughout Europe (Encarta “Gothic Art and Architecture”). In this paper, an introduction to Gothic art, with a concentration on Gothic church architecture, shall be discussed. To effectively provide an overview of this artistic style, this paper shall tackle the following: the roots of the term, “gothic”; a discussion of the characteristics of Gothic architecture; conclusion.
Explaining the Term, “Gothic” The term “gothic” was used by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), the Italian artist and historiographer known for this book on the famous architects, to refer to the artistic style that characterize the French churches such as the Notre Dame de Paris and the Church of Saint-Denis (Chapuis “Gothic Art”). The term came from the barbarians called Goths who were then known to lack the civility that the people “civilized” people such as the Romans ought to have.
These barbarians were one of the Nordic tribes likened to that of the Vandals as despoilers (Tarnocyova 69) that brought the “civilization-filled” Roman Empire into flames (Chapuis “Gothic Art”). As such, the Goths represent a regression or at the very least a certain sort of backwardness, crudeness, and lack of refinement. In fact, the Academie d’Architecture, meeting in 1710, still described unacceptable architectural manners as “gothic” (Tarnocyova 69). Hence, the term is originally a pejorative term that intends to put down an artistic style and say that the style is at the very least barbaric and rude.
The reason why Vasari charged the artistic style as “gothic” has nothing to do with the merits or demerits of the style. It also has nothing to do with the logic and ingenuity that the artistic style exhibits. Rather, Vasari, just like most people during the Renaissance, were victims of the prejudices of their period. It should be recalled that the Renaissance was characterized by despise for tradition. As such, anything that belonged to the “dark ages” cannot be considered as good and of value. It is only fairly recent that the artistic manner and beauty of the gothic period is acknowledged for all its already-perceived merits.
Gothic Architecture Gothic art is widely known primarily because of Gothic architecture. In fact, as was already stated in the introduction, the beginning of the Gothic period is pegged on the time of the construction of the chevet of the Church of Saint-Denis. It was 1127 when Abbott Suger, then the Abbott of Saint-Denis who was also the confidant of French Kings like Louis VI and Louis VII (Wikipedia “Gothic Architecture”), decided to rebuild the Church of Saint-Denis. This rebuilding eventually gave way to a new art period. How was this period initiated, then?
At this point, it will be worthwhile to first state the Abbot’s philosophical ideas that contributed a lot to the underlying spiritual ideology of the Gothic Saint-Denis. Abbot Suger was some sort of philosopher/theologian in his own right. Corresponding with the theologian Dionysius from Syria (whose philosophy was some sort of Neoplatonist Christianity) (Helfrich “History of Gothic Architecture”), Suger came with the theory that God could best be represented as a powerful light, as a “supernatural light” as he would call it (Helfrich “History of Gothic Architecture”), who through his omnipotence, spiritualizes everything that is material.
As such, God’s church ought to be a place where light is mostly present. God’s church, being the gathering place of his people, ought to also be the place where God, as light, could put his people together represented by an enveloping light. With this in mind, Abbot Suger started rebuilding the west front of the church first (the abbot left the Carolingian nave untouched and moved to reconstruct the eastern part of the church). The initial impetus that defined the changes that the abbot did on the church was the desire to put more light on the choir.
He wanted the effect of having something like a “Heavenly Jerusalem” (Tarnocyova 69) that is primarily perceived to be luminescent, in one way reflecting the glory, majesty and power of the One True God. In this way, the Church acts truly as Christ’s earthly bride, bringing heaven-on-earth, making the physical reflect what is spiritual. It was this eastern reconstruction that would eventually be considered the very first Gothic art. Putting this ideal was not an easy task to do.
In the first place, the Romanesque period created bulky churches with thick walls and fewer and smaller windows. The creation of light, then, would entail an architecture that was different from what was then mainstream. It was in the face of this task that Abbot Suger’s architects thought of using a more sophisticated technology, the pointed arch. The use of the pointed arch gave the architects additional flexibility that was not accessible through the curved arches. For one, the use of the arch meant lesser lateral thrust of the roof on the walls (Chapuis, “Gothic Art”).
In addition to this, the new system of ribbed vaults allowed for thinner columns, allowing the stone material of the vaults to be lighter (Chapuis, “Gothic Art”) and space to be wider. Another important technology is the flying buttress that gave support to the thinner walls. These allowed for more space and more windows to be installed in these churches. More space and more windows meant more light penetrating the Church (or, in the case of Saint-Denis, the ambulatory of the church).
Thus, Suger’s ideal is now a reality and Gothic architecture, with its characteristic pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses, is finally born. It does not mean of course that Abbot Suger thought of Gothic architecture from a vacuum. It has to be remembered that “ribbed vaults, buttresses, clustered columns, ambulatories, wheel windows, spires and richly carved door tympanums were already features of ecclesiastical architecture” (Wikipedia “Gothic Architecture”). Even the pointed arch which is used to typify Gothic architecture is not a product of a strike of genius.
Assyrian architecture already made use of pointed arches as early as 720 B. C. (Wikipedia, “Gothic Architecture”). Islamic presence in Europe, most especially in Spain, would account for the introduction of these arches in the West. What characterizes Gothic architecture then is not the presence of these individual architectural traits but the putting of these elements together forming a unique architectural style that allows for spires, space, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, grand rose windows, clustered columns, ambulatories to exist in one magnificent monument.
Actually, as it could be noticed, these characteristics were put together not out of whim; Abbot Suger did not put these traits together just because. Instead, these architectural traits were utilized because of a purpose: the creation of light and space in the choir of Saint-Denis. Thus, as is always acknowledged, these beautiful architectural traits came together out of technical need. Gothic architecture then is a product of a technical and spiritual need that eventually is characterized by the typical Latin cross floor plan at the same literally showing forth height and light (Helfrich “History of Gothic Architecture”).
Everything in a Gothic church shows forth height. This vertical emphasis could immediately be felt by an external viewer who may rapture in awe over the spires and pinnacles of Gothic churches. The facade as well as the entire west front of a church has pointed arches, shafts, and main arcade all of which pointing up. These amplify the already overwhelming effect of spires that unanimously bring the gazer’s eyes to heaven. Entering the Gothic church would continue that ethereal experience since the nave of a Gothic church is usually very high in proportion to its width.
Upon looking up, the gazer would be led to look the ribbed vaults all of which leading to a boss in a pointing way. Not only would the gazer be enamored by the height that uplifts the spirit; there is also the magnificent ray of lights that passes through strain glasses and more magnificently through rose windows. Gothic churches are famous for these magnificent rose wheel windows the best ones such as those in Notre Dame and Chartres create the effect of the flooding of light all over the cathedral.
These light rays are complemented by the large and numerous other windows in the church. The flooding of light and the univocal stress on height is again complemented by the Gothic sculpture on the tympanum or columns or totally not attached at all to architecture (Encarta “Gothic Art and Architecture”). Such architecture is characterized by naturalism at the same time the constant solemn disposition (Encarta “Gothic Art and Architecture”).
Gothic art, specifically Gothic architecture, has been created initially out of the spiritual need that Abbot Suger problematized in Saint-Denis. This was then followed by the architectural-technical need to be able to answer to this spiritual need. These series of needs brought forth the fusion which is now acknowledged to be one of the greatest styles in architecture called gothic art.
“Gothic Architecture. ” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 2 October 2007. 5 October 2007. <http://en. wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_architecture>. “Gothic Architecture” History Link 101. January 2004. 2 October 2007. http://www. historylink101. com/lessons/art_history_lessons/ma/gothic_architecture. htm. “Gothic Art and Architecture. ” Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, 2002. “Gothic Art. ” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 4 October 2007. 5 October 2007. <http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Gothic_art>. “Parts of a Cathedral. ” Medieval Time Reference. 2 October 2007. http://www. btinternet. com/~timeref/cathpart. htm Chapuis, Julien.
“Gothic Art”. In Timeline of Art History. October 2002. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 10 October 2007 http://www. metmuseum. org/toah/hd/mgot/hd_mgot. htm. Helfrich, Serge. History of Gothic Architecture. 10 October 2007 http://www. xs4all. nl/~helfrich/gothic/architecture. html Tarnocyova, Bronislava. ”Gothic Architecture” Bratislava Leaders Magazine III (2007): 68-69. Van de Bogart, Doris. Introduction to the Humanities: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Music and Literature. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970.
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