Gothic Art


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Sculpture and Stained Glass

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Gothic Art

Beauneveu Andre
Nicola Pisano
Giovanni Pisano
Andrea Pisano
Antelami Benedetto
Arnolfo di Camio
Lorenzo Maitani
Giovanni di Balduccio
Agostino di Giovanni
Tino di Camaino
Jacobello and Pierpaolo dalle Masegne
Lorenzo Chiberti
Jacopo della Quercia

Although Gothic architecture and sculpture began so dramatically at St.-Denis and Chartres, Gothic painting developed at a rather slow pace in its early stages. The new architectural style sponsored by Abbot Suger gave birth to a new conception of monumental sculpture almost at once but did not demand any radical change of style in painting. Suger's account of the rebuilding of his church, to be sure, places a great
deal of emphasis on the miraculous effect of stained-glass windows, whose "continuous light" flooded the interior. Stained glass was thus an integral element of Gothic architecture from the very beginning. Yet the technique of stained-glass painting had already been perfected in Romanesque times. The "many masters from different regions" whom Suger assembled to do the choir windows at St.-Denis may have faced a larger task and a more complex pictorial program than before, but the style of their designs remained Romanesque.

During the next half-century, as Gothic structures became ever more skeletal and clerestory windows grew to huge size, stained glass displaced manuscript illumination as the leading form of painting. Since the production of stained glass was so intimately linked with the great cathedral workshops, the designers came to be influenced more and more by architectural sculpture. The majestic Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere at Chartres Cathedral, the finest early example of this process, lacks some of the sculptural qualities of its relief counterpart on the west portal of the church  and still betrays its Byzantine ancestry. By comparison, however, even the mosaic of the same subject in Hagia Sophia  seems remarkably solid. The stained glass dissolves the group into a weightless mass that hovers effortlessly in indeterminate space.

The window consists of hundreds of small pieces of tinted glass bound together by strips of lead. The maximum size of these pieces was severely limited by the primitive methods of medieval glass manufacture, so that the design could not simply be "painted on glass." Rather, the window was painted with glass, by assembling it somewhat the way one would a mosaic or a jigsaw puzzle, out of odd-shaped fragments cut to fit the contours of the forms. Only the finer details, such as eyes, hair, and drapery folds, were added by actually paintingor, better perhaps, drawingin black or gray on the glass surfaces.

This process encourages an abstract, ornamental style, which tends to resist any attempt to render three-dimensional effects. Only in the hands of a great master could the maze of lead strips resolve itself into figures having the looming monumentality of the Iohel (Joel) at Bourges Cathedral, which shows the distinctively Gothic style that stained-glass designers arrived at about the year 1200. One of a series of windows representing Old Testament prophets, it is the direct kin of the jamb statues on the Chartres west transept portals and the Annunciation at Reims. These works have a common ancestor, the classicizing style of Nicholas of Verdun. Yet Iohel resembles a statue projected onto a translucent screen rather than an enlarged figure from the enamel plaques of the Klosterneuburg Altar by Nicholas of Verdun.

Apart from the peculiar demands of their medium, the stained-glass workers who filled the windows of the great Gothic cathedrals also had to face the difficulties arising from the enormous scale of their work. No Romanesque painter had ever been called upon to cover areas so vastthe Iohel window is more than 14 feet tallor so firmly bound into an architectural framework. The task required a technique of orderly planning for which the medieval painting tradition could offer no precedent.

Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere. с. 1170. Stained-glass window, height c. 16' (4.8 m). Chartres Cathedral
Iohel. с. 1220. Stained-glass window, height с. 14' (4.3
m). Bourges Cathedral


Stained-Glass Windows

Stained glass is almost synonymous with Gothic architecture. No other age produced windows of such rich color and beauty. The art of making colored glass is, however, very old. Egyptian artists excelled at fashioning colorful glass vessels and other objects for both home and tomb. Archaeologists also have uncovered thousands of colored-glass artifacts at hundreds of sites throughout the classical world.

Although the technology of manufacturing colored glass was ancient, the way artists used stained glass in the Gothic period was new. Stained-glass windows were not just installed to introduce color and religious iconography into church interiors. That could have been doneand was done much earlierwith both mural paintings and mosaics, often with magnificent effect. But stained-glass windows differ from those earlier techniques in one all-important respect. They do not conceal walls; they replace them. And they transmit rather than reflect light, filtering and transforming the natural sunlight as it enters the building. Abbot Suger called this colored light "lux nova". Hugh of Saint-Victor (1096-1142), a prominent Parisian theologian who died while Suger's Saint-Denis was under construction, also commented on the special mystical quality of stained-glass windows. "Stained-glass windows," he wrote, "are the Holy Scriptures . . . and since their brilliance lets the splendor of the True Light pass into the church, they enlighten those inside.

Stained glass
representation of Abbot Suger
in the Jesse Window of the Basilique St-Denis.

"William Durandus, Bishop of Mende, expressed a similar sentiment at the end of the 13th century: "The glass windows in a church are Holy Scriptures, which expel the wind and the rain, that is, all things hurtful, but transmit the light of the True Sun, that is, God, into the hearts of the faithful."

As early as the fourth century, architects used colored glass for church windows. Perfection of the technique came gradually. The stained-glass windows in the Saint-Denis ambulatory already show a high degree of skill. According to Suger, they were "painted by the exquisite hands of many masters from different regions," proving that the art was known widely at that time.

The manufacture of stained-glass windows was costly and labor-intensive. The full process was recorded around 1100 in a treatise on the arts written by a Benedictine monk named Theophilus. First, the master designer drew the exact composition of the planned window on a wooden panel, indicating all the linear details and noting the colors for each section. Glassblowers provided flat sheets of glass of different colors to glaziers (glass-workers), who cut the windowpanes to the required size and shape with special iron shears. Glaziers produced an even greater range of colors by flashing (fusing one layer of colored glass to another). Purple, for example, resulted from the fusing of red and blue. Next, painters added details such as faces, hands, hair, and clothing in enamel by tracing the master design on the wood panel through the colored glass. Then they heated the painted glass to fuse the enamel to the surface. The glaziers then leaded the various fragments of glass; that is, they joined them by strips of lead called cames. The leading not only held the (usually quite small) pieces together but also separated the colors to heighten the effect of the design as a whole. The distinctive character of Gothic stained-glass windows is largely the result of this combination of fine linear details with broad flat expanses of color framed by black lead. Finally, the glassworkers strengthened the completed window with an armature of iron bands, which in the 12th century formed a grid over the whole design. In the 13th century, the bands followed the outlines of the medallions and of the surrounding areas.

The form of the stone window frames into which the glass was set also evolved throughout the Gothic era. Early rose windows, such as the one on Chartres Cathedral's west facade, have stained glass held in place by plate tracery. The glass fills only the "punched holes" in the heavy ornamental stonework. Bar tracery, a later development, is much more slender. The stained-glass windows fill almost the entire opening, and the stonework is unobtrusive, more like delicate leading than masonry wall.



Rose window, Notre Dame, Paris.

Notre-Dame de la Belle Verriere. Stained glass window in the choir of Chartres cathedral.
The lower part depics the Temptation of Christ.
The two following parts relate the Marriage at Cana.
12th century (parts with the red background)
and 13th century.

Northern rose window of Chartres cathedral.
The rose depicts the Glorification of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels,
twelve kings of Juda (David, Solomon, Abijam, Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Ahaz,
Manasseh, Hezechiah, Jehoiakim, Jehoram, Asa et Rehoboam)
and the twelve lesser prophets (Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Nahum, Zephaniah,
Zechariah, Malachi, Haggai, Habakkuk, Micah, Obadiah and Joel).
Below, the arms of France and Castile (the window was offered by Blanche of Castile).
The five lancets represent Saint anne, mother of the Virgin, surrounded
by the kings Melchizedek, David, Solomon and by Aaron, treading the
sinner and idolatrous kings: Nebuchadnezzar, Saul, Jeroboam and Pharaoh.

Window of the Vendome Chapel, c.1415

Vitraux de la rosace de la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg.

Glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris