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Gothic Painting

1100 - 1450

the age of faith

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The Gothic period was tremendously culturally productive, in painting, sculpture, architecture and  illuminated manuscripts.  These art-works are complex, fraught with religious fervor and symbolism. Biblical stories were told and retold continuously--painted, sermonized, allegorized, embellished, creating a convincing and mysterious belief system.

The Gothic style of painting started in Italy and quickly spread throughout the rest of Europe. Gothic paintings are darkly mystical, infused with an ethereal emotional intensity. The mysticism of the Middle Ages imparts a sense of uniqueness and wonder to Gothic art.  Painters such as  Hieronymus Bosch, had a taste for the  poetic and his use of symbols are secretive hints and glances into the mysterious world that lies behind the painted one.  According to Medieval historian, Julia De Wolf Addison, "In medieval art,  the beauty of line, the sense of horror, and the voluptuous spirit, are all more or less subservient to the light-hearted buoyancy of a keen sense of fun. To illustrate this point, I wish to call the attention of the reader to the wit of the monastic scribes during the Gothic period. Who could look at the little animals which are found tucked away almost out of sight in the flowery margins of many illuminated manuscripts, without seeing that the artist himself must have been amused at their pranks, and intended others to be so? One can picture a gray-hooded brother, chuckling alone at his own wit, carefully tracing a jolly little grotesque, and then stealing softly to the alcove of some congenial spirit, and in a whisper inviting his friend to come and see the satire which he has carefully introduced: "A perfect portrait of the Bishop, only with claws instead of legs! So very droll! And dear brother, while you are here, just look at the expression of this Page 352 little rabbit's ears, while he listens to the bombastic utterance of this monkey who wears a stole!"

The International Gothic style of paintings was a reflection of the transformation that was taking place in Europe, the change from the Dark Ages to a more enlightened, tolerant society. According to Historian Hendrik van Loon, "People were tremendously alive. Great states were being founded. Large centres of commerce were being developed. High above the turretted towers of the castle and the peaked roof of the town-hall, rose the slender spire of the newly built Gothic cathedral. Everywhere the world was in motion. The high and mighty gentlemen of the city-hall, who had just become conscious of their own strength (by way of their recently acquired riches) were struggling for more power with their feudal masters. "

With the triumph of Christianity, Gothic artists aspired to reawaken the divine spirit of holy figures rather than depict their physical qualities.  Their unique style is a  combination of  frontal simplicity, truth to nature, harmonious unity together with precision in details.  The use of costly materials such as gold, precious stones and ivory indicates the degree of wealth that was common during this period, and attests to the sophistication of the Gothic culture. 

Gothic style represented early Christian culture and values as well as courtly splendor.  Most prominently featured  are  the holy symbols of the Christian faith--Christ Saints, The Cross Virgin Mary Chalice, Keys, The Anchor, Wheat Animals, Fish, Angels, Birds, Insects  and Satan and his henchmen.

Major Gothic Painters

 
 
 
 

 

References

The Story of Mankind by Hendrik van Loon

Arts and Crafts in the Middle Ages, by Julia De Wolf Addison

The Meaning of Sacred Symbols in  Paintings. Most prominently featured  symbols and their meaning:

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Important Gothic  Painters

Hieronymus Bosch

 Matthias Grünewald

 Albrecht Dürer

 Lucas Cranach

Hans Holbein