This was the age of chivalry. The Gothic movement lasted more than 200 years, beginning in Italy and spreading throughout Europe. It began with the architectural triumphs of the 12th century (the height of the Middle Ages) when Europe was seeking to move beyond the Dark Ages and into an era of radiance, confidence, and prosperity. It was accompanied by a strengthening of Christianity, when magnificent new cathedrals were being constructed throughout Northern France (Amiens, Chartres, and Reims).
Unlike the Romaneque and Byzantine art that preceded it, the Gothic period was characterized by an increase in a naturalistic style. This quality (naturalism), which first appeared in works by Italian artists during the 13th century, came to be the dominant painting style throughout the Continent and lasted until the end of the 15th century.
At the end of the Gothic period, there were some artists in the North who maintained this Gothic style, holding to its tradition, even while Italy gave birth to a new artistic and cultural age – the Renaissance. Thus, the end of the Gothic period has significant overlap in time with both the Italian and Northern Renaissance eras of art.
Early Gothic Period
In the early Gothic period of art, art itself was created to enhance and explain religion. With widespread illiteracy, painting and sculpture became “teaching tools” to bring the stories of Christianity to the masses. Other works of art (like icons) were created to aid in contemplation and prayer.
Early Gothic masters of art painted images that were characterized by great spiritual purity and intensity. This was, in part, a continuation of the Byzantine style, but there was much that was new as well–perspective, captivating naturalistic figures, and beautiful, elegant lines.
Artists of the Early Gothic period included Cimabue (1240-1302), Duccio (1287-1318), Martini (1285-1344), and the two Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambogio. Perhaps the greatest artist of this early Gothic period was Giotto (1267-1337). His revolutionary form and method of depicting “architectural” space, so that his figures were on the same scale as buildings in the surrounding landscape, marks a great leap forward in art and the story of painting generally.
International Gothic Style
By the end of the 14th century, the fusion of Italian and Northern European art had led to an International Gothic Style. During this time, leading artists, particularly those from Italy and France, traveled extensively around Europe, spreading artistic ideas throughout France, Italy, England, Germany, Austria, and Bohemia.
The International Gothic Style had a particularly courtly, noble flavor, infused with a Flemish concern for naturalistic detail. Unlike the diverse characteristics that made up Early Gothic Art, this new style had a more distinctive, unified look. There was also another strong influence during this time period, and some art reflects in gruesome ways, this cultural burden and Medieval disaster, the Black Death. This devastating illness (now thought to have been bubonic and pneumonic plague) ransacked Europe during the time of the International Gothic Style, killing nearly one-third of the population.
Artists who are associated with this period include the Limbourg brothers (Pol, Herman, and Jehanequin), who worked in the ancient art of book illumination in France (although they were from the Netherlands), and Italian artists Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), Antonio Pisanello (1395-1455), and Sassetta (1392-1450).
Innovation in the North
By the 15th century, an International Gothic style had emerged, developing along two separate paths, both of which could be considered revolutionary to art. One was based in the south, in Florence, Italy, and foreshadowed the Renaissance. The other took place in the north, in the Low Countries, where art changed in a different, though equally striking way. This art would result in the Northern Renaissance movement and was quite distinct from its southern counterpart.
This new form of painting that appeared in 15th century Netherlands was distinguished by a depth and pictorial reality that was new. The style rejected the seductive elegance and decorative elements that preceded it in the International Gothic Style. Where before, there was a sense that the audience for Gothic art was gaining a glimpse of heaven through painting, in this new Northern Gothic Style, the Flemish painters brought the subject matter down to earth, capturing their subjects amidst familiar domestic interiors.
Robert Campin (1406-1444) was one of the earliest Northern innovators. Other important artists of the period included Jan van Eyck (1385-1464), Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464), Hugo van der Goes (1436-1482), and Dieric Bours (1415-1475).
Late Gothic Period
Gerard David, Hieronymus Bosch, and Matthias Grunewald were all early 16th century artists and contemporaries of other Northern artists (Albrecht Durer, Lucas Cranach, and Hans Holbein). However, the paintings of David, Bosch, and Grunewald maintained a link to the Gothic style, while Durer, Cranach, and Holbein had moved on to the Renaissance manner of painting. Thus, the two strands of art coexisted and intermingled in Northern Europe in the first half of the late 16th century.
Of all the artist mentioned, however, Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) stands apart. Diverging from Flemish tradition, his style was characterized by a striking freedom, and his use of symbolism, which was unforgettable, remains unparalleled to this day among artists. Both marvelous and terrifying at the same time, Bosch’s work expresses a strong pessimism that reflected the societal anxieties of the day.
The final flowering of Late Gothic Period painting came from the similarly dark vision of Matthias Grunewald (1470-1528). No other artist has so tragically and horrifyingly exposed the horrible truth about suffering. His anguished realism of Christ on the cross closed out the Gothic period of art, a time of social and political upheaval, of Black Death and suffering. Just over the horizon lay a new age of scientific enlightenment and artistic development, the Renaissance, which (like Gothic art) would change the art world forever.