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The Age of Great Cathedrals

Gothic Art

In the mid-16th century, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), the "father of art history," used "Gothic" as a term of ridicule to describe late medieval art and architecture. For him, Gothic art was "monstrous and barbarous," invented by the Goths. With the publication of his famous treatise, Vasari codified for all time the notion already advanced by the early Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), who, in his Commentarii, characterized the Middle Ages as a period of decline. The humanists of the Italian Renaissance, who placed Greco-Roman art of a pedestal, believed that the uncouth Goths were responsible not only for the downfall of Rome but also for the destruction of the classical style in art and architecture. They regarded "Gothic" art with contempt and considered it ugly and crude.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, however, when the Gothic style was the rage in most of Europe, especially north of the Alps, contemporary commentators considered Gothic buildings opus modernum (modern work) or opus francigenum (French work). They recognized that the great cathedrals towering over their towns displayed an exciting and new building and decoration style - and that the style originated in France. Clergy and the lay public alike regarded their new cathedrals not as distortions of the classical style but as images of the City of God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, which they were privileged to build on earth.

The Gothic style first appeared in northern France around 1140. In southern France (see FIG 17-27) and elsewhere in Europe, the Romanesque style still flourished. But by the 13th century, the opus modernum of the region around Paris had spread throughout western Europe, and in the next century further still (MAP 18-1). The Cathedral of Saint Vitus in Prague (Czech Republic), for example, begun in 1344, closely emulated French Gothic architecture.

Although it became an internationally acclaimed style, Gothic art was, nonetheless, a regional phenomenon. To the east and south of Europe, the Islamic and Byzantine styles still held sway. And many regional variants existed within European Gothic, just as distinct regional styles characterized the Romanesque period. Gothic began and ended at different dates and different places. When the banker Jacques Coeur built his home in Bourges (FIG. 18-28) in the Gothic style in the mid-15th century, classicism already reigned supreme in Italy. While the Goth church of Saint-Maclou (FIG. 18-25) was under construction in Rouen in the early years of the 16th century, Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

TURMOIL AND CHANGE The Gothic period was a time of great prosperity yet also one of turmoil in Europe. In 1337, the Hundred Years' War began, shattering the peace between France and England. In the 14th century, a great plague, the Black Death, swept over Western Europe and killed at least a quarter of its people. From 1378 to 1417, opposing popes resided in Rome and in Avignon in southern France during the political-religious crisis known as the Great Schism (see Chapter 19).

Above all, the Gothic age was a time of profound change in European society. The focus of both intellectual and religious life shifted definitively from monasteries in the countryside and pilgrimage churches to rapidly expanding secular cities with great new cathedrals reaching to the sky. In these new Gothic urban centers, prosperous merchants made their homes, universities run by professional guilds of scholars formed, and minstrels sang of chivalrous knights and beautiful maidens at royal "courts of love." Although the papacy was at the height of its power and knights throughout Europe still gathered to wage Crusades against the Muslims, the independent secular nations of modern Europe were beginning to take shape. Foremost among them was France (pp. 479-480).

From Kleiner, F., & Mamiya, C. (2005). Gardner's art through the ages (12th ed.) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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