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

The spread of Gothic sculpture beyond the borders of France began only toward 1200, so that the style of the Chartres west portals had hardly any echoes abroad. Once under way, however, it proceeded at an astonishingly rapid pace. England may well have led the way, as it did in evolving its own version of Gothic architecture. Unfortunately, so much English Gothic sculpture was destroyed during the Reformation that we can study its development only with difficulty. Our richest materials are the tombs, which did not arouse the iconoclastic zeal of anti-Catholics. They include a type, that has no counterpart on the other side of the Channel. It shows the deceased, not in the quiet repose found on the vast majority of medieval tombs, but in violent action, as a fallen hero fighting to the last breath.

Tomb of a Knight, с. 1260. Stone. Dorchester Abbev, Oxfordshire

According to an old tradition, these dramatic figures honor the memory of crusaders who died in the struggle for the Holy Land. As the tombs of Christian Soldiers, they carry a religious meaning that helps to account for their compelling expressive power. Their agony, which so oddly recalls the Dying Trumpeter, makes them among the finest achievements of English Gothic sculpture.



Main door, Lincoln Cathedral


Westminster Abbey. Ten Christian martyrs depicted in statues above the Great West Door

Westminster Abbey. Ten Christian martyrs depicted in statues above the Great West Door


York Minster choir screen (detail)

York Minster choir screen (detail)

York Minster choir screen (detail)

In Germany, the growth of Gothic sculpture can be traced more easily. From the 1220s on, German masters trained in the sculptural workshops of the great French cathedrals transplanted the new style to their homeland, although German architecture at that time was still predominantly Romanesque. Even after the middle of the century, however, Germany failed to emulate the large statuary cycles of France. As a consequence, German Gothic sculpture tended to be less closely linked with its architectural setting. (The finest work was often done for the interiors rather than the exteriors of churches.) This, in turn, permitted it to develop an individuality and expressive freedom greater than that of its French models.


These qualities are strikingly evident in the style of the Naumburg Master, an artist of real genius whose best-known work is the magnificent series of statues and reliefs of about
1240-50 for Naumburg Cathedral. The Crucifixion forms the central feature of the choir screen; flanking it are statues of the Virgin and John the Baptist. Enclosed by a deep, gabled porch, the three figures frame the opening that links the nave with the sanctuary. Rather than placing the group above the screen, in accordance with the usual practice, our sculptor has brought the sacred subject down to earth both physically and emotionally. The suffering of Christ thus becomes a human reality because of the emphasis on the weight and volume of His body. Mary and John, pleading with the beholder, convey their grief more eloquently than ever before.

Crucifixion, on the choir screen, Naumburg Cathedral, с. 1240-50. Stone

The pathos of these figures is heroic and dramatic, as against the lyricism of the Strasbourg tympanum or the Reims Visitation. If the Classic High Gothic sculpture of France evokes comparison with Phidias, the Naumburg Master might be termed the temperamental kin of Scopas. The same intensity of feeling dominates the Passion scenes, such as The Kiss of Judas, with its unforgettable contrast between the meekness of Christ and the violence of the sword-wielding St. Peter.

The Kiss of Judas, on the choir screen, Naumburg Cathedral, с. 1240-50. Stone

Attached to the responds inside the choir are statues of nobles associated with the founding of
the cathedral. These men and women were not of the artist's own time, so that they were only as names in a chronicle. Yet the famous pair Ekkehard and Uta
are personalities as distinctive and forceful as if they had been portrayed from life. In this regard, they make an instructive contrast with the idealized portrait of St. Theodore at Chartres.

Ekkehard and Uta. с 1240-50. Stone. Naumburg Cathedral



Gothic sculpture, as we have come to know it so far, reflects a desire to endow the traditional themes of Christian art with greater emotional appeal. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, this tendency gave rise to a new kind of religious imagery, designed to serve private devotion. It is often referred to by the German term Andachtsbild, since Germany played a leading part in its development. The most characteristic and widespread type of Andachtsbild was the Pieta (an Italian word derived from the Latin pietas, the root word for both pity and piety): a representation of the Virgin grieving over the dead Christ. No such scene occurs in the scriptural account of the Passion. Rather, it was invented (we do not know where or when) as a tragic counterpart to the motif of the Madonna and Child.

The Roettgen Pieta, dates from the same period as The Virgin of Paris. Like most such groups, it is carved of wood, with a vividly painted surface to enhance its impact. Realism here has become purely a vehicle of expression. The agonized faces convey an almost unbearable pain and grief. The blood-encrusted wounds of Christ are enlarged and elaborated to an almost grotesque degree. The bodies and limbs have become puppetlike in their thinness and rigidity. The purpose of the work, clearly, is to arouse so overwhelming a sense of horror and pity that beholders will identify their own feelings completely with those of the grief-stricken Mother of God.

At a glance, our Pieta would seem to have little in common with The Virgin of Paris. Yet they both share a lean, "deflated" quality of form that is the characteristic period flavor of Northern European art from the late thirteenth century to the mid-fourteenth. Only after 1350 do we again find an interest in weight and volume, coupled with a renewed impulse to explore tangible reality.