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Gothic Style

  The term ‘Gothic’ was originally one of abuse. Italian Renaissance art theorists used it contemptuously to describe the styles of European building and fine art common in the Middle Ages. They associated such works with the Goths and Vandals who had (it was claimed) swept away both the Roman Empire and the more ‘sophisticated’ artistic styles which characterized it. It was not until the 19th century that serious study began of medieval styles and techniques, and Gothic came to be recognized as a consistent style in its own right, and one of the most significant in the artistic history of northern Europe.

In architecture, the chief surviving Gothic buildings are Christian churches and abbeys, and the castles and palaces of the nobility. Whatever humbler buildings may have been like, all these survivors are distinguished by their massiveness. Their characteristic feature is that they are structured on natural forms, those of the skeleton or tree (a method also used at the time in the analogous craft of shipbuilding). Huge ‘trunks’ or ‘backbones’ support branch-and rib-like stems, which in turn support lighter infilling. Where the structure is particularly huge, for example in fortifications or cathedrals, buttresses are used to add extra strength. The most glorious examples of this monumental style still in existence are northern Europe\'s cathedrals, notably Nôtre Dame, St-Denis and Chartres in France, Cologne and Freiburg in Germany, and Durham, Canterbury and York in England.

In secular buildings, the interiors had characteristically rectangular rooms with high, narrow windows, joined by long corridors and spiral, stone staircases between floors. The stone walls were sometimes plastered, but more usually were panelled in wood or hung with tapestries. Floors were of hewn stone, sometimes overlaid with earth or wood. Heating was by enormous hearths supplemented by braziers.

In fine art, the term ‘Gothic’ is usually applied to the paintings, tapestries, sculptures and above all jewellery and furniture made in the medieval period. Gothic painting and weaving, compared with both earlier and later styles, can seem both chunky and naive; carving (both in wood and stone) and metalwork, by contrast, have a grace and delicacy belying the uncouth image projected on the style by Renaissance critics. The apogee of Gothic art can be seen in the filigree stonework and wooden screens in many churches, in stained-glass windows, in bejewelled, inlaid goldwork and weapons, and especially in illuminated manuscripts, whose illustrations and scripts alike stand comparison with anything created before or since. KMcL

Further reading Alain Erlande-Brandenburg, Gothic Art.



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