Gothic Art


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Sculpture and Stained Glass

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Gothic Art

Villard de Honnecourt
Illuminated Manuscripts
Simone Martini
Pietro Lorenzetti
Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Francesco Traini
Giovanni da Milano
Jean Pucelle
Melchior Broederlam
Limbourg brothers
Gentile da Fabriano



Only architects and stonemasons knew how to deal with this problem, and it was their methods that the stained-glass workers borrowed in mapping out their own compositions. Gothic architectural design, as we recall from our discussion of the choir of St.-Denis
, uses a system of geometric relationships to establish numerical harmony. The same rules could be used to control the design of stained-glass windows, through which shines the Light Divine, or even of an individual figure.

We gain some insight into this procedure from the drawings in a notebook compiled about 1240 by the architect Villard de Honnecourt. What we see in the Wheel of Fortune  is not the final version of the design but the scaffolding of circles and triangles on which the image is to be constructed. The pervasiveness of these geometric schemes is well illustrated by another drawing from the same notebook, the Front View of a Lion. According to the inscription. Villard has portrayed the animal from life, but a closer look at the figure will convince us that he was able to do so only after he had laid down a geometric pattern: a circle for the face (the dot between the eyes is its center) and a second, larger circle for the body. To Villard, then, drawing from the meant something far different from what it does to us: it meant filling in an abstract framework with details based on direct observation. If we now turn back once more to the firmly drawn, simplified outlines of the label, we cannot help wondering to what extent they, too, reflect a geometric scaffolding of some sort.

The period 1200-1250 might be termed the golden age of stained glass. After that, as architectural activity declined and the demand for stained glass began to slacken, manuscript illumination gradually recaptured its former position of leadership. By then, however, miniature painting had been thoroughly affected by the influence of both stained glass and stone sculpture, the artistic pacemakers of the first half of the century.

VILLARD DE HONNECOURT. Wheel oh Fortune. с. 1240. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
VILLARD DE HONNECOURT. Front View of a Lion. с 1240. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

Illuminated Manuscripts.

The resulting change of style can be seen from a psalter done about 1260 for King Louis IX (St. Louis) of France. I he scene illustrates I Samuel 11:2, in which Nahash the Ammonite threatens the Jews at Jabesh. We notice first of all the careful symmetry of the framework, which consists of flat, ornamented panels very much like those in the Iohel window, and of an architectural setting remarkably similar to the choir screen by the Naumburg Master. The latter recalls the canopies above the heads of jamb statues and the arched twin niches enclosing the relief of Melchizedek and Abraham at Reims.

Against this emphatically two-dimensional background, the figures are "relieved" by smooth and skillful modeling. But their sculptural quality stops short at the outer contours, which arc defined by heavy dark lines rather like the lead strips in stained-glass windows. The figures themselves show all the characteristics of the elegant style originated about 20 years before by the sculptors of the royal court: graceful gestures, swaying poses, smiling faces, neatly waved strands of hair (compare the Annunciation angel and Melchizedek. Our miniature thus exemplifies the subtle and refined taste that made the court art of Paris the standard for all Europe. Of the expressive energy of Romanesque painting we find no trace.

Until the thirteenth century, the production of illuminated manuscripts had been centered in the scriptoria of monasteries. Now, along with a great many other activities once the special preserve of monasteries, it shifted ever more to urban workshops organized by laymen, the ancestors of the publishing houses of today. Here again the workshops of sculptors and stained-glass painters may have set the pattern.

Some members of this new, secular breed of illuminator are known to us by name, such as Master Honore of Paris, who in 1295 did the
miniatures in the Prayer Book of Philip the Fair. Our sample shows him working in a style derived from the Psalter of St. Louis. Significantly, however, the framework no longer dominates the composition. The figures have become larger, and their relieflike modeling is more emphatic. They are even permitted to overlap the frame, a device that helps to detach them from the flat pattern of the background and thus introduces a certain, though very limited, spatial range into the picture.


Nahash the Ammonite
the Jews at Jahesh, from the Psalter of St. Louis, с. 1260. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

MASTER HONORE. David and Goliath,
from the
Prayer Book of Philip the Fair. 1295.
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris



We must now turn our attention to Italian painting, which at the end of the thirteenth century produced an explosion of creative energy as spectacular, and as far-reaching in its impact on the future, as the rise of the Gothic cathedral in France. A single glance at Giotto's Lamentation  will convince us that we are faced with a truly revolutionary development. How, we wonder, could a work of such intense dramatic power be conceived by a contemporary of Master Honore? What were the conditions that made it possible? Oddly enough, as we inquire into the background of Giotto's art, we find that it arose from the same "old-fashioned" attitudes we met in Italian Gothic architecture and sculpture.

Medieval Italy, although strongly influenced by Northern art from Carolingian times on, had always maintained close contact with Byzantine civilization. As a result, panel painting, mosaic, and muralsmediums that had never taken firm root north of the Alpswere kept alive on Italian soil. Indeed, a new wave of influences from Byzantine art, which enjoyed a major resurgence during the thirteenth century, overwhelmed the lingering Romanesque elements in Italian painting at the very time when stained glass became the dominant pictorial art in France.

There is a certain irony in the fact that this neo-Byzantine styleor "Greek manner," as the Italians called itmade its appearance soon after the conquest of Constantinople by the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. (One thinks of the way Greek art had once captured the taste of the victorious Romans of old.) Be that as it may, the Greek manner prevailed almost until the end of the thirteenth century, so that Italian painters were able to absorb the Byzantine tradition far more thoroughly than ever before. During this same period, we recall, Italian architects and sculptors followed a very different course: untouched by the Greek manner, they were assimilating the Gothic style. Eventually, toward 1300, Gothic influence spilled over into painting as well, and the interaction of this element with the neo-Byzantine produced the revolutionary new style of which Giotto is the greatest exponent.


Altarpieces of the Gothic era were painted on wood panel in tempera, an egg-based medium that dries quickly to form an extremely tough surface. The preparation of the panel was a complex, time-consuming process. First it was planed and coated with a mixture of plaster and glue known as gesso, which was sometimes reinforced with linen. Once the design had been drawn, the background was almost invariably filled in with gold leaf over red sizing. Then the underpainting, generally a green earth pigment (terra verde), was added. The image itself was executed in multiple layers of thin tempera with very fine brushes, a painstaking process that placed a premium on neatness, since few corrections were possible.



Among the painters of the Greek manner, the Florentine master Cimabue (c. 1250-after 1300), who may have been Giotto's teacher, enjoyed special fame. His huge altar panel, Madonna Enthroned, rivals the finest Byzantine icons or mosaics.

What distinguishes it from them is mainly a greater severity of design and expression, which befits its huge size. Panels on such a monumental scale had never been attempted in the East.

Equally un-Byzantine is the picture's gabled shape and the way the throne of inlaid wood seems to echo it. The geometric inlays, like the throne's architectural style, remind us of the Florence Baptistery.

Cimabue.  Madonna Enthroned.
. 1280-90.

Tempera on panel,
12'7 1/2" x 7'4" (3.9 x 2.2 m).
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


The Madonna Enthroned, painted a quarter century later by Duccio di Buonisegna (c. 1255-before 1319) for the main altar of Siena Cathedral, was honored by being called the Maesta (majesty) to identify the Virgin's role here as the Queen of I leaven surrounded by her celestial court of saints and angels. At first glance, the picture may seem much like Cimabue's, since both follow the same basic scheme. Yet the differences are important. They reflect not only two contrasting personalities and contrasting local tastesthe gentleness of Duccio is characteristic of Sienabut also the rapid evolution of style.

In Duccio's hands, the Greek manner has become unfrozen. The rigid, angular draperies have given way to an undulating softness. The abstract shading-in-reverse with lines of gold is reduced to a minimum. The bodies, faces, and hands are beginning to swell with a subtle three-dimensional life. Clearly, the heritage of Hellenistic-Roman illusionism that had always been part of the Byzantine tradition, however dormant or submerged, is asserting itself once more. But there is also a half-hidden Gothic element here. We sense it in the fluency of the drapery, the appealing naturalness of the Infant Christ, and the tender glances by which the figures communicate with each other. The chief source of this Gothic influence must have been Giovanni Pisano, who was in Siena from 1285 to 1295 as the sculptor-architect in charge of the cathedral facade.

DUCCIO.  Madonna Enthroned, center of the Maesta Altar. 1308-11.
Tempera on panel, height 6' 10 1/2" (2.1 m).
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

Apart from the Madonna, the Maesta includes many small compartments with scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin. In these panels, the most mature works of Duccio's career, the cross-fertilization of Gothic and Byzantine elements has given rise to a development of fundamental importance: a new kind of picture space. The Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin shows us something we have never seen before in the history of painting: two figures enclosed by an architectural interior.

Ancient painters and their Byzantine successors were quite unable to achieve this space. Their architectural settings always stay behind the figures, so that their indoor scenes tend to look as if they were taking place in an open-air theater, on a stage without a roof. Duccio's figures, in contrast, inhabit a space that is created and defined by the architecture, as if the artist had carved a niche into his panel. Perhaps we will recognize the origin of this spatial framework: it derives from the architectural "housing" of Gothic sculpture. Northern Gothic painters, too, had tried to reproduce these architectural settings, but they could do so only by flattening them out completely (as in the Psalter of St. Louis). The Italian painters of Duccio's generation, on the other hand, trained as they were in the Greek manner, had acquired enough of the devices of Hellenistic-Roman illusionism to let them render such a framework without draining it of its three-dimensional qualities.

Even in the outdoor scenes on the back of the Maesta, such as Christ Entering Jerusalem, the architecture keeps its space-creating function. The diagonal movement into depth is conveyed not by the figures, which have the same scale throughout, but by the walls on either side of the road leading to the city, by the gate that frames the crowd, and by the structures beyond. Whatever the shortcomings of Duccio's perspective, his architecture demonstrates its capacity to contain and enclose, and for that reason seems more intelligible than similar vistas in ancient art.

DUCCIO. Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin, from the Maesta Altar

DUCCIO. Christ Entering Jerusalem, from the back of the Maesta Altar. 1308-11.
Tempera on panel, 40 1/2 x 21  1/8"
(103 x 53.7 cm). Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena


Turning from Duccio to Giotto (1267?1336/7), we meet an artist of far bolder and more dramatic temper. Ten to 15 years younger, Giotto was less close to the Greek manner from the start, despite his probable apprenticeship under Cimabue. As a Florentine, he fell heir to Cimabue's sense of monumental scale, which made him a wall painter by instinct, rather than a panel painter. The art of Giotto is nevertheless so daringly original that its sources are far more difficult to trace than those of Duccio's style. Apart from his Florentine background as represented by the Greek manner of Cimabue, the young Giotto seems to have been familiar with the work of neo-Byzantine masters of Rome, such as Cimabue's contemporary Pietro Cavallini (documented 1272 1303), who practiced both mosaic and fresco.

Cavallini's style is an astonishing blend of Byzantine, Roman, and Early Christian elements. The figures in his Last Judgment are in the best up-to-date manner of the Second Golden Age, but he has modeled them in a soft daylight that can only have come from exposure to antique wall painting. The result is an almost sculptural monumentality that is remarkably classical. Indeed, these saints have the same calm air and gentle gravity found on the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, but with the relaxed naturalness of the Gothic.

PIETRO CAVALLINI. Seated Apostles, from The Last Judgment, с. 1290.
Fresco. Sta. Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome

set an important example for Giotto. In Rome Giotto, too, must have become acquainted with Early Christian and ancient Roman mural decoration. Classical sculpture also left an impression on him. More fundamental than any of these, however, was the influence of the PisanosNicola, and especially Giovannithe founders of Italian Gothic sculpture. They were the chief intermediaries through whom Giotto first came in contact with the world of Northern Gothic art. And the latter remains the most important of all the elements that entered into Giotto's style. Without the knowledge, direct or indirect, he could never have achieved the emotional impact that distinguishes his work from that of Cavallini and others.

Of Giotto's surviving murals, those in the Arena Chapel in Padua, done in 1305-6, are the best preserved as well as the most characteristic. The decorations are devoted principally to scenes from the life of Christ, laid in a carefully arranged program consisting of three tiers of narrative scenes and culminating in the Last Judgment at the west end of the chapel.

Interior, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, Padua

Giotto depicts many of the same subjects that we find on the reverse of Duccio's Maesta, including Christ Entering Jerusalem. The two versions have many elements in common, since they both ultimately derive from the same Byzantine source. But where Duccio has enriched the traditional scheme, spatially as well as in narrative detail, Giotto subjects it to a radical simplification. The action proceeds parallel to the picture plane. Landscape, architecture, and figures have been reduced to the essential minimum. The austerity of Giotto's art is further emphasized by the sober medium of fresco painting, with its limited range and intensity of tones. By way of contrast, Duccio's picture, which is executed in egg tempera on gold ground, has a jewellike brilliance and sparkling colors. Yet Giotto's work has by far the more powerful impact of the two. It makes us feel so close to the event that we have a sense of being participants rather than distant observers.

How does the artist achieve this extraordinary effect? He does so, first of all, by having the entire scene take place in the foreground. Even more important, he presents it in such a way that the beholder's eye-level falls within the lower half of the picture. Thus we can imagine ourselves standing on the same ground plane as these painted figures, even though we see them from well below, whereas Duccio makes us survey the scene from above in "bird's-eye" perspective. The consequences of this choice of viewpoint are truly epoch-making. Choice implies conscious awarenessin this case, awareness of a relationship in space between the beholder and the pictureand Giotto may well claim to be the first to have established such a relationship. Duccio, certainly, does not yet conceive his picture space as continuous with the beholder's space. Hence we have the sensation of vaguely floating above the scene, rather than of knowing where we stand. Even ancient painting at its most illusionistic provides no more than a pseudo-continuity in this respect. Giotto, on the other hand, tells us where we stand. Above all, he also endows his forms with a three-dimensional reality so forceful that they seem as solid and tangible as sculpture in the round.

With Giotto it is the figures, rather than the architectural framework, that create the picture space. As a result, this space is more limited than Duccio'sits depth extends no further than the combined volumes of the overlapping bodies in the picturebut within its limits it is very much more persuasive. To Giotto's contemporaries, the tactile quality of his art must have seemed a near-miracle. It was this quality that made them praise him as equal, or even superior, to the greatest of the ancient painters, because his forms looked so lifelike that they could be mistaken for reality itself. Equally significant are the stories linking Giotto with the claim that painting is superior to sculpture. This was not an idle boast, as it turned out, for Giotto does indeed mark the start of what might be called "the era of painting" in Western art. The symbolic turning point is the year 1334, when he was appointed the head of the Florence Cathedral workshop, an honor and responsibility hitherto reserved for architects or sculptors.

Giotto's aim was not simply to transplant Gothic statuary into painting. By creating a radically new kind of picture space, he had also sharpened his awareness of the picture surface. When we look at a work by Duccio (or his ancient and medieval predecessors), we tend to do so in installments, as it were.

Our glance travels from detail to detail at a leisurely pace until we have surveyed the entire area. Giotto, on the contrary, invites us to see the whole at one glance. His large, simple forms, the strong grouping of his figures, the limited depth of his "stage," all these factors help endow his scenes with an inner coherence such as we have never found before. Notice how dramatically the massed verticals of the "block" of apostles on the left are contrasted with the upward slope formed by the welcoming crowd on the right, and how Christ, alone in the center, bridges the gulf between the two groups. The more we study the composition, the more we come to realize its majestic firmness and clarity. Thus the artist has rephrased the traditional pattern of Christ's Entry into Jerusalem to stress the solemnity of the event as the triumphal procession of the Prince of Peace.

Giotto's achievement as a master of design does not fully emerge from any single work. Only if we examine a number of scenes from the Padua fresco cycle do we understand how perfectly the composition in each instance is attuned to the emotional content of the subject. The tragic mood of The Lamentation is brought home to us by the formal rhythm of the design as much as by the gestures and expressions of the participants. The very low center of gravity, and the hunched, bending figures communicate the somber quality of the scene and arouse our compassion even before we have grasped the specific meaning of the event depicted. With extraordinary boldness, Giotto sets off the frozen grief of the human mourners against the frantic movement of the weeping angels among the clouds, as if the figures on the ground were restrained by their collective duty to maintain the stability of the composition while the angels, small and weightless as birds, do not share this burden.

The impact of the drama is heightened by the severely simple setting. The descending slope of the hill acts as a unifying element and at the same time directs our glance toward the heads of Christ and the Virgin, which are the focal point of the scene. Even the tree has a twin function. Its barrenness and isolation suggest that all of nature somehow shares in the Saviour's death. Yet it also invites us to ponder a more precise symbolic message: it alludes (as does Dante in a passage in the Divine Comedy) to the Tree of Knowledge, which the sin of Adam and Eve had caused to wither and which was to be restored to life through the sacrificial death of Christ.

GIOTTO. Christ Entering Jerusalem. 1305-6. Fresco. Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, Padua
GIOTTO. The Lamentation. 1305-6. Fresco. Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, Padua
GIOTTO. Madonna Enthroned, с. 1310. Tempera on panel, 10'8" x 6'8" (3.3 x 2 m). Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

What we have said of the Padua frescoes applies equally to the Madonna Enthroned, the most important among the small number of panel paintings by Giotto. Done about the same time as Duccio's Maestd, it illustrates once again the difference between Florence and Siena. Its architectural severity clearly derives from Cimabue. The figures, however, have the same overpowering sense of weight and volume we saw in the frescoes in the Arena Chapel, and the picture space is just as persuasiveso much so, in fact, that the golden halos look like foreign bodies in it.

The throne, of a design based on Italian Gothic architecture, has now become a nichelike structure that encloses the Madonna on three sides and thus "insulates" her from the gold background. Its lavish ornamentation includes one feature of special interest: the colored marble surfaces of the base and of the quatrefoil within the gable. Such make-believe stone textures had been highly developed by ancient painters, but the tradition had died out in Early Christian times. Its sudden reappearance here offers concrete evidence of Giotto's familiarity with whatever ancient murals could still be seen in medieval Rome.


There are few artists in the entire history of art who equal the stature of Giotto as a radical innovator. His very greatness, however, tended to dwarf the next generation of Florentine painters, which produced only followers rather than new leaders. Their contemporaries in Siena were more fortunate in this respect, since Duccio never had the same overpowering impact. As a consequence, it was they, not the Florentines, who took the next decisive step in the development of Italian Gothic painting.

Simone Martini (c. 1284 1344), who painted the tiny but intense The Road to Calvary about 1340, may well claim to be the most distinguished of Duccio's disciples. He spent the last years of his life in Avignon, the town in southern France that served as the residence-in-exile of the popes during most of the fourteenth century. Our panel, originally part of a small altar, was probably done there.

In its sparkling colors, and especially in the architectural background, it still echoes the art of Duccio. The vigorous modeling of the figures, on the other hand, as well as their dramatic gestures and expressions, betray the influence of Giotto. While Simone Martini is not much concerned with spatial clarity, he proves to be an extraordinarily acute observer. The sheer variety of costumes and physical types and the wealth of human incident create a sense of down-to-earth reality very different from both the lyricism of Duccio and the grandeur of Giotto.

SIMONE MARTINI. The Road to Calvary.
. 1340. Tempera on panel,
(25 x 15,5 cm)
Musee du Louvre, Paris


Pietro Lorenzetti and Ambrogio Lorenzetti

This closeness to everyday life also appears in the work of the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (both died 1348?), but on a more monumental scale and coupled with a keen interest in problems of space. The boldest spatial experiment is Pietro's triptych of 1342, the Birth of the Virgin, where the painted architecture has been correlated with the real architecture of the frame in such a way that the two are seen as a single system. Moreover, the vaulted chamber where the birth takes place occupies two panels. It continues unbroken behind the column that divides the center from the right wing. The left wing represents an anteroom which leads to a large and only partially glimpsed architectural space suggesting the interior of a Gothic church. What Pietro Lorenzetti achieved here is the outcome of a development that began three decades earlier in the work of Duccio: the conquest of pictorial space. Only now, however, does the painting surface assume the quality of a transparent window through whichnot on whichwe perceive the same kind of space we know from daily experience. Duccio's work alone is not sufficient to explain Pietro's astonishing breakthrough. It became possible, rather, through a combination of the architectural picture space of Duccio and the sculptural picture space of Giotto.

PIETRO LORENZETTI. Birth of the Virgin. 1342.
Tempera on panel, (1.9 x 1.8 m). Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

The same procedure enabled Ambrogio Lorenzetti to unfold a comprehensive view of the entire town before our eyes in his frescoes of 1338-40 in the Siena city hall. We are struck by the distance that separates this precisely articulated "portrait" of Siena from Duccio's Jerusalem. Ambrogio's mural forms part of an elaborate allegorical program depicting the contrast of good and bad government. To the right on the far wall of figure 526, we see the Commune of Siena guided by Faith, Hope, and Charity and flanked by a host of other symbolic figures.

AMBROGIO LORENZETTI. The Commune of Siena (left),
Good Government in the City
and portion of Good Government in the Country (right).
Frescoes in the Sala della Pace. Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

The artist, in order to show the life of a well-ordered city-state, had to fill the streets and houses with teeming activity. The bustling crowd gives the architectural vista its striking reality by introducing the human scale. On the right, outside the city walls, the Good Government fresco provides a view of the Sienese countryside, fringed by distant mountains. It is a true landscapethe first since ancient Roman timesfull of sweeping depth yet distinguished from its classical predecessors by an ingrained orderliness, which lends it a domesticated air. Here the presence of people is not accidental. They have taken full possession of nature, terracing the hillsides with vineyards, patterning the valleys with the geometry of fields and pastures. In such a setting, Ambrogio observes the peasants at their seasonal labors, recording a rural Tuscan scene so characteristic that it has hardly changed during the past 600 years.

AMBROGIO LORENZETTI. Good Government in the City. Fresco, width of entire wall 46' (14 m). Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
AMBROGIO LORENZETTI. Good Government in the Country. Palazzo Pubblico, Siena


The first four decades of the fourteenth century in Florence and Siena had been a period of political stability and economic expansion as well as of great artistic achievement. In the 1340s both cities suffered a series of catastrophes whose echoes were to be felt for many years. Banks and merchants went bankrupt by the score, internal upheavals shook the government, there were repeated crop failures, and in 1348 the epidemic of bubonic plaguethe Black Deaththat spread throughout Europe wiped out more than half their urban population. The popular reaction to these calamitous events was mixed. Many people regarded them as signs of divine wrath, warnings to a sinful humanity to forsake the pleasures of this earth; in such people the Black Death engendered a mood of otherworldly exaltation. To others, such as the gay company in Boccaccio's Decameron, the fear of sudden death merely intensified the desire to enjoy life while there was yet time. These conflicting attitudes are reflected in the pictorial theme of the Triumph of Death.


The most impressive version of this subject is an enormous fresco, attributed to the Pisan master Francesco Traini (documented с 1321-1363), in the Camposanto, the cemetery building next to Pisa Cathedral. In a particularly dramatic detail, the elegantly costumed men and women on horseback have suddenly come upon three decaying corpses in open coffins. Even the animals are terrified by the sight and smell of rotting flesh. Only the hermit, having renounced all earthly pleasures, points out the lesson of the scene. But will the living accept the lesson, or will they, like the characters of Boccaccio, turn away from the shocking spectacle more determined than ever to pursue their hedonistic ways? The artist's own sympathies seem curiously divided. His style, far from being otherworldly, recalls the realism of Ambrogio Lorenzetti, although the forms are harsher and more expressive.

In a fire that occurred in 1944, Traini's fresco was badly damaged and had to be detached from the wall in order to save what was left of it. This procedure exposed the first, rough coat of plaster underneath, on which the artist had sketched out his composition. These drawings, of the same size as the fresco itself, are amazingly free and sweeping. They reveal Traini's personal style more directly than the painted version, which was carried out with the aid of assistants. Because they are done in red, these underdrawings are called sinopie (an Italian word derived from ancient Sinope, in Asia Minor, which was famous as a source of brick-red earth pigment).

FRANCESCO TRAINI. The Triumph of Death (portion), с. 1325-50. Fresco. Camposanto, Pisa
FRANCESCO TRAINI. Sinopia drawing for The Triumph of Death (detail). Camposanto, Pisa


Sinopie serve to introduce us to the standard technique of painting frescoes in the fourteenth century. After the first coat of plaster (arriccio or arrricciato) had dried, the wall was divided into squares using a ruler or chalk lines tied to nails. The design was then brushed in with a thin ocher paint, and the outline developed further in charcoal, with the details being added last in sinopia. During the Renaissance, sinopie were replaced by cartoons: sheets of heavy paper or cardboard (cartone) on which the design was drawn in the studio. The design was then pricked with small holes and transferred to the wall by dusting ("pouncing") it with chalk. In the High Renaissance, however, the contours were often simply pressed through the paper with a stylus. Be that as it may, each section of the wall was covered with just enough fresh plaster (intonaco) to last the current session, in order for the water-based paints to sink in. (Some insoluble pigments could only be applied a secco to dry plaster.) Each day's work progressed in this manner. Since the work had to be done on a scaffold, it was carried out from the top down, usually in horizontal strips. Needless to say, fresco painting was a slow process requiring numerous assistants for large projects.



Traini still retains a strong link with the great masters of the second quarter of the century.

More characteristic of Tuscan painting after the Black Death are the painters who reached maturity around the 1350s. None of them can compare with the earlier artists whose work we have discussed. Their style, in comparison, seems dry and formula-ridden.

Yet they were capable, at their best, of expressing the somber mood of the time with memorable intensity. The Pieta of 1365 by Giovanni da Milano (documented 1346-1369) has all the emotional appeal of a German Andachtsbild, although the heritage of Giotto can be clearly felt even here.

Oil on panel, (122 x 57.5
Galleria deU'Accademia, Florence


North of the Alps

Illuminated Manuscripts.


We are now in a position to turn once more to Gothic painting north of the Alps. What happened there during the latter half of the fourteenth century was determined in large measure by the influence of the great Italians. Some examples of this influence can be found even earlier, such as the Annunciation from the private prayer bookcalled a "book of hours'illuminated by Jean Pucelle in Paris about 1325-28 for Jeanne d'Evreux, queen of France. The style of the figures still recalls Master Honore but the architectural interior clearly derives from Duccio. It had taken less than 20 years for the fame of the Maesta to spread from Tuscany to the Ile-de-France.

In taking over the new picture space, however, Jean Pucelle had to adapt it to the special character of a manuscript page, which lends itself far less readily than a panel to being treated as a window. The Virgin's chamber no longer fills the entire picture surface. It has become an ethereal cage that floats on the blank parchment background (note the supporting angel on the right) like the rest of the ornamental framework, so that the entire page forms a harmonious unit. As we explore the details of this framework, we realize that most of them have nothing to do with the religious purpose of the manuscript: the kneeling queen inside the initial D is surely meant to be Jeanne d'Evreux at her devotions, but who could be the man with the staff next to her? He seems to be listening to the lute player perched on the tendril above him. The page is filled with other enchanting vignettes. The four figures at the bottom of the page are playing a game of tag outdoors; a rabbit peers from its burrow beneath the girl on the left; and among the foliage leading up to the initial we find a monkey and a squirrel.

PUCELLE. Betrayal of Christ and Annunciation, from the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux.
Tempera and
gold leaf on parchment, each page,
(8,9 x 6.2 cm).
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Cloisters Collection, Purchase,


These fanciful marginal designsor droleries are a characteristic feature of Northern Gothic manuscripts. They had originated more than a century before Jean Pucelle in the regions along the English Channel, whence they spread to Paris and all the other centers of Gothic art. Their subjects encompass a wide range of motifs: fantasy, fable, and grotesque humor, as well as acutely observed scenes of everyday life, appear side by side with religious themes. The essence of drolerie is its playfulness, which marks it as a special domain where the artist enjoys almost unlimited freedom. It is this freedom, comparable to the license traditionally claimed by the court jester, that accounts for the wide appeal of drolerie during the later Middle Ages.


As we approach the middle years of the fourteenth century, Italian influence becomes ever more important in Northern Gothic painting. Sometimes this influence was transmitted by Italian artists working on Northern soil, for example Simone Martini. The delightful frescoes with scenes of country life in the Palace of the Popes at Avignon were done by one of his Italian followers, who must have been thoroughly familiar with the pioneer explorers of landscape and deep space in Sienese painting. His work shows many of the qualities we recall from the Good Government fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

Scenes of Country Life
. 1345. Fresco. Palace of the Popes, Avignon


Another gateway of Italian influence was the city of Prague, which in 1347 became the residence of Emperor Charles IV and rapidly developed into an international cultural center second only to Paris. The Death of the Virgin, made by an unknown Bohemian painter about 1360, again brings to mind the achievements of the great Sienese masters, although these were known to our artist only at second or third hand.

Its glowing richness of color recalls Simone Martini, and the carefully articulated architectural interior betrays its descent from such works as Pietro Lorenzetti's Birth of the Virgin, but it lacks the spaciousness of its Italian models. Italian, too, is the vigorous modeling of the heads and the overlapping of the figures, which reinforces the three-dimensional quality of the design but raises the awkward question of what to do with the halos. (Giotto, we will remember, had faced the same problem in his Madonna Enthroned). Still, the Bohemian master's picture is not just an echo of Italian painting. The gestures and facial expressions convey an intensity of emotion that represents the finest heritage of Northern Gothic art. In this respect, our panel is far more akin to the Death of the Virgin at Strasbourg Cathedral than to any Italian work.

BOHEMIAN MASTER. Death of the Virgin. 1350-60.
Tempera on panel,
39 3/8 x 28" (100 x 71

Courtesy, Museum of
Fine Arts, Boston.
William Francis Warden Fund; Seth
K. Sweetser Fund,
The Henry C. and Martha B. Angell Collection,
Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection, Gift of Martin Brimmer,
and Mrs. Frederick Frothingham; by exchange


The International Style


Toward the year 1400, the merging of Northern and Italian traditions gave rise to a single dominant style throughout western Europe. This International Style was not confined to paintingwe have used the same term for the sculpture of the periodbut painters clearly played the main role in its development. Among the most important was Melchior Broederlam (flourished с. 1387-1409), a Fleming who worked for the court of the duke of Burgundy in Dijon. Each wing is really two pictures within one frame. Landscape and architecture stand abruptly side by side, even though the artist has tried to suggest that the scene extends around the building. Compared to paintings by Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Broederlam's picture space still strikes us as naive in many ways. The architecture looks like a doll's house, and the details of the landscape are quite out of scale with the figures. Yet the panels convey a far
stronger feeling of depth than we have found in any previous Northern work. The reason for this is the subtlety of the modeling. The softly rounded shapes and the dark, velvety shadows create a sense of light and air that more than makes up for any shortcomings of scale or perspective. This soft, pictorial quality is a hallmark of the International Style. It appears as well in the ample, loosely draped garments with their fluid curvilinear patterns of folds, which remind us of Sluter and Ghiberti

Our panels also exemplify another characteristic of the International Style: its "realism of particulars." It is the same kind of realism we encountered first in Gothic sculpture and somewhat later among the marginal droleries of manuscripts. We find it in the carefully rendered foliage and flowers, in the delightful donkey (obviously drawn from life), and in the rustic figure of St. Joseph, who looks and behaves like a simple peasant and thus helps to emphasize the delicate, aristocratic beauty of the Virgin. This painstaking concentration on detail gives Broederlam's work the flavor of an enlarged miniature rather than of a large-scale painting, even though the panels are more than five feet tall.


MELCHIOR BROEDERLAM. Annunciation and Visitation; Presentation in the Temple; and Flight into Egypt. 1394-99.
Tempera on panel, eaeh 65 x 49 1/4" (167 x 125 cm). Musee de la Ville, Dijon


Book illumination remained the leading form of painting in Northern Europe at the time of the International Style, despite the growing importance of panel painting. Thus the International Style reached its most advanced phase in the luxurious book of hours known as Les Tres Riches Heures du Due de Berry, produced for the brother of the king of France, a man of far from admirable character but the most lavish art patron of his day. The artists were Pol de Limbourg and his two brothers, a group of Flemings who, like Sluter and Broederlam, had settled in France early in the fifteenth century. They must have visited Italy as well, for their work includes numerous motifs and whole compositions borrowed from the great masters of Tuscany.

The most remarkable pages of Les Tres Riches Heures arе those of the calendar, with their elaborate depiction of the life of humanity and nature throughout the months of the year. Such cycles, originally consisting of 12 single figures each performing an appropriate seasonal activity, had long been an established tradition in medieval art. Jean Pucelle had enriched the margins of the calendar pages of his books of hours by emphasizing the changing aspects of nature in addition to the labors of the months. The Limbourg brothers, however, integrated all these elements into a series of panoramas of human life in nature. Thus the February miniature, the earliest snow landscape in the history of Western art, gives an enchantingly lyrical account of village life in the dead of winter. We see the sheep huddled together in their fold, birds hungrily scratching in the barnyard, and a maid blowing on her frostbitten hands as she hurries to join her companions in the warm cottage. (The front wall has been omitted for our benefit.) In the middle distance is a villager cutting trees for firewood and another driving his laden donkey toward the houses among the hills. Here the promise of the Broederlam panels has been fulfilled, as it were: landscape, architectural interiors, and exteriors are harmoniously united in deep, atmospheric space. Even such intangible things as the frozen breath of the maid, the smoke curling from the chimney, and the clouds in the sky have become paintable.

The illustration for the month of October shows the sowing of winter grain. It is a bright, sunny day, and the figuresfor the first time since classical antiquitycast visible shadows on the ground. We marvel at the wealth of realistic detail, such as the scarecrow in the middle distance or the footprints of the sower in the soil of the freshly plowed field. The sower is memorable in other ways as well. His tattered clothing, his unhappy air, go beyond mere description. He is meant to be a pathetic figure, to arouse our awareness of the miserable lot of the peasantry in contrast to the life of the aristocracy, as symbolized by the splendid castle on the far bank of the river.

Several of the calendar pages are devoted to the life of the nobility. The most interesting perhaps is the January picture, the only interior scene of the group, which shows the duke of Berry at a banquet. He is seated next to a huge fireplace, with a screen to protect him and, incidentally, to act as a kind of secular halo that sets him off against the multitude of courtiers and attendants. His features, known to us also from other works of the period, have all the distinctive qualities of a fine portrait, but except for the youth and the cleric on the duke's right, the rest of the crowd displays an odd lack of individuality.

They are all of the same type, in face as well as stature: aristocratic mannequins whose superhuman slenderness brings to mind their counterparts in the mosaic of Justinian and his court
. They are differentiated only by the luxuriance and variety of their clothing. Surely the gulf between them and the melancholy peasant of the October miniature could not have been greater in real life than it appears in these pictures!


THE LIMBOURG BROTHERS. February, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Due de Berry. 1413-16. Musee Conde, Chantilly, France
IMBOURG BROTHERS. October, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Due de Berry. 1413-16. Musee Conde, Chantilly, France
THE LIMBOURG BROTHERS. January, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Due de Berry. 1413-16. Musee Conde, Chantilly, France


From the courtly throng of the January page it is but a step to the altarpiece with the three Magi and their train by Gentile da Fabriano (c.
1370-1427), the greatest Italian painter of the International Style. The costumes here are as colorful, the draperies as ample and softly rounded, as in Northern painting. The Holy Family on the left almost seems in danger of being overwhelmed by the festive pageant pouring down upon it from the hills in the far distance. The foreground includes more than a dozen marvelously well-observed animals, not only the familiar ones but hunting leopards, camels, and monkeys. (Such creatures were eagerly collected by the princes of the period, many of whom kept private zoos.) The Oriental background of the Magi is further emphasized by the Mongolian facial cast of some of their companions. It is not these exotic touches, however, that mark our picture as the work of an Italian master but something else, a greater sense of weight, of physical substance, than we could hope to find among the Northern representatives of the International Style.

GENTILE DA FABRIANO. The Adoration of the Magi. 1423.
Oil on panel, 9'10 1/8" x 9'3"
(3 x 2.8
m). Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Despite his love of fine detail, Gentile da Fabriano is obviously a painter used to working on a monumental scale, rather than a manuscript illuminator at heart. Yet he, too, had command of the delicate pictorial effects of a miniaturist, as we see on turning to the small panels decorating the base, or predella, of his altarpiece. In The Nativity
, the entire picture is dominated by the new awareness of light as an independent factor, separate from form and color, that we first observed in the October page of Les Tres Riches Heures. Even though the main sources of illumination are the divine radiance of the newborn Child ("the light of the world") and of the angel bringing the glad tidings to the shepherds in the fields, their effect is as natural as if the Virgin were kneeling by a campfire.

GENTILE DA FABRIANO. The Nativity, from the predellaof the Adoration of the Magi. 1423.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence