What do you think of when you think of Gothic Art? Imposing cathedrals? Creepy baby Jesus paintings? Teens in black eyeliner and JNCO jeans? Gothic art and architecture is more than its stereotypes (and if you’re thinking of modern goth fashion… it’s kind of a misnomer). This art movement was a dominant style for centuries in Europe, and gave birth to some of the continent’s most famous buildings and paintings. Let’s look at the Gothic genre in art and literature: what it is, where it came from, and why it still matters.

Gothic Art Characteristics

Explaining the Gothic art style

Because Gothic art is mainly referring to a time period and location, you might think that its definition as a style is murky. But there are several formal through-lines in the movement that show up time and time again. 

So, what is Gothic art?

GOTHIC ART MEDIEVAL

What is Gothic Art?

Gothic art is a style of painting, architecture, and sculpture that began in Paris the middle of the 12th century and showed up throughout Europe all the way into the 1500s. The architectural style’s definitive feature is the pointed arch, while the definitive feature of Gothic painting and sculpture is naturalism.

GOTHIC ART MEDIEVAL

What is Gothic Art?

Gothic art is a style of painting, architecture, and sculpture that began in Paris the middle of the 12th century and showed up throughout Europe all the way into the 1500s. The architectural style’s definitive feature is the pointed arch, while the definitive feature of Gothic painting and sculpture is naturalism.

Noteworthy Gothic Artists:

  • Duccio di Buoninsegna
  • Konrad Witz
  • Cimabue
  • Giotto

So where did the Gothic style come from? And what were the conditions that led to Gothic art sweeping across Europe?

What is Gothic Art?

How Gothic art came to be

So, who started the Gothic style? To understand the Gothic tradition, one must understand the cultural, sociopolitical, environment in which it arose. After the fall of the Roman Empire, many Europeans fled cities, as they were no longer safe without the protection and stability of Roman infrastructure.

Europe entered the Dark Ages, when the spread out nature of European populations led to weak government structures and a lack of culture hubs.

Where did Gothic art originated?

WHAT ARE THE DARK AGES?

The Dark Ages is a term coined by Italian scholar Petrarch and refers to the Early Middle Ages in Europe, or from about the 5th century to the 10th century.

But in the 12th century, France’s aristocracy began to prosper and become more powerful. And this emergent power structure and economic system resulted in a repopulation of the region’s cities. The revitalization of cities resulted in a revitalization of the arts, as more and more wealthy patrons were looking to sponsor creative endeavors.

In medieval Europe, these creative endeavors were almost completely tied to Christianity and the Church. In Paris, Abbot Suger was tasked with rebuilding the Abbey Church of St. Denis in 1137. Suger wanted to use ratio and symmetry to pay respect to God.

He also believed that natural light was a form of God’s presence, and so he designed massive arches that could hold stained glass, which would allow the sun’s light to shower worshippers.

What is Gothic Art The Abbey Church of St Denis still stands today • What is Gothic art

The Abbey Church of St. Denis still stands today  •  What is Gothic art

Thus a new architectural style, pulling from Romanesque and Byzantine styles of the past, was born. Over time, Gothic artists throughout Europe adapted Suger’s ideas, creating cathedrals prominently utilizing these pointed arches. Other Gothic architectural techniques, like flying buttresses and rib vaults.

This video provides a great further in-depth analysis of Gothic architecture:

Gothic statues  •  What is Gothic Art

Gothic architecture also informed other Gothic art styles, like paintings and sculptures. The naturalism that was emphasized in the architecture spilled into paintings, where Christ was represented less as a deity and more naturalistically, as a human. The sculptures of the time also favored this natural realism.

What is Gothic Art?

Iconic Gothic art examples

If you walk through any European city today, you’re bound to see Gothic architecture, or at least architecture inspired by the Gothic artists movement. The following are some of the most famous examples.

Notre-Dame de Paris (1163)

The Notre-Dame is arguably the crowning achievement of the Gothic era, a stunning testament to what the style can create. The cathedral has every trait of Gothic architecture: pointed arches, rib vaults, flying buttresses, and adornment of naturalist sculptures. 

What is Gothic Art Gothic genre in art and literature • When is the Gothic period

Gothic genre in art and literature  •  When is the Gothic period

The building was completed in 1345 and today is the most visited monument in France. The global outcry in response to its burning in 2019 was a testament to how important the structure is to us to this day.

Reims Cathedral (1211)

The Reims Cathedral is another testament to Gothic architecture, but it also provides great insight to the evolution of sculpture during the Gothic era. 

What is Gothic Art Gothic art medieval • Gothic genre in art and literature

Gothic genre in art and literature

The statues that ornament the cathedral stand out as far less rigid and more lifelike than their Dark Age predecessors. These statues depict holy figures as human– a big step forward in sculpting that occurred within Gothic art.

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412)

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (or: The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry) is one of the most famous examples of manuscript illumination. This was a popular art form during the Gothic period which essentially refers to a manuscript with decorative illustration throughout. 

What is Gothic Art Gothic drawings by the Limbourg brothers • What is Gothic art

Gothic drawings by the Limbourg brothers  •  What is Gothic art?

The illustrations in Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry show how Gothic painting moved towards naturalism. Its characters seem like real humans, and the artists, the Limbourg brothers, are starting to play with depth.

What is Gothic Art

Gothic art today

Even though the Gothic art style died out by the 16th century, its style and artistic approach is still important today. Perhaps most importantly, the Gothic period was crucial in laying the foundation for the Renaissance, one of the most important movements in human history which built on Gothic’s fixation with naturalism.

What is Gothic Art Gothic art modern • Gothic drawings

Gothic drawings

Gothic art and architecture also is important in its own right, however. The style’s emphasis on the manipulation of natural light can be instructive to a cinematographer. After all– what is stained glass but a gel for the sun? Furthermore, Gothic art’s emphasis on naturalism teaches us the power of humanizing even the most legendary or holy figures.

Showing Christ and Mary as humans didn’t delegitimize them; it helped everyday people identify and understand their trials and tribulations.

The Gothic genre in art and literature, like the massive spires of its most iconic cathedrals, still looms over us today.

Up Next

Art Styles Index

This was just one of many art movements we've covered in our series. Follow the link below to our Art Styles Index in which we discuss dozens more art movements, styles, artists, and their most famous works.

Up Next: Art Styles Explained →
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  • Rex Provost is an award-winning writer/director based in New York. When he’s not making movies he’s writing about them.

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