Born of the Romanesque movement, Gothic art developed in France by the middle of the twelfth century. Both Gothic art and architecture spread throughout Western Europe though Gothic style had a somewhat lesser influence south of the Alps, particularly in Italy where classical influences still reigned strong. Gothic art maintained its popularity in Europe until the sixteenth century when it began to wane as Renaissance art began to replace it in popularity.
The hallmarks of Gothic art include such forms as sculpture, paintings (on panels), stained glass, and illuminated manuscripts. Fresco was also an important media for Gothic artists. Because Gothic art differed immensely from classical art, it was frequently labeled barbaric. Gothic art, however, witnessed the birth of trade guilds; painters’ guilds kept significant records of artists for the first time in history. During the Gothic period cities grew and universities were founded making the Gothic movement a pivotal period in European history.
Gothic art was first witnessed in sculpture, particularly the monumental sculptures of cathedrals or even abbeys. Art historians have traced the first examples of Gothic sculpture to the Ile-de-France’s St. Denis Abbey built around the year 1140. This structure was followed by the famed Chartres Cathedral constructed around the year 1145. Gothic art, also known as French art, spread to Germany. The Bamberg Cathedral, completed around 1225, is a prime example of Gothic art in Germany and at the time of its construction the movement had begun to spread throughout the western continent.
Gothic painting did not surface until half a decade after Gothic architecture and sculpture began. As with Christian and Romanesque painting, Gothic painting featured heavily in the frescos of churches. The painting of stained glass and the illumination of manuscripts were also essential forms of Gothic painting. By the fifteenth century panel painting became an important medium for painting.
The subjects of Gothic art were often religious in nature, but the period also marks an interest in secular art. As literacy rates improved and more and more people could patronize the arts, additional subject matter came to light. Scenes often, however, depicted narratives of Biblical stories. The Madonna, a less iconic and more human woman, figured strongly into Gothic art. Religious subject matter covered churches and cathedrals and was also expressed in metalwork and tapestry.
The Gothic period was also famous for its artistic and architectural innovations such as the flying buttress and pointed arch which allowed builders to construct taller cathedrals with bigger spaces for glasswork making these structures appear lighter than previous ones. Some prime examples of Gothic art include the fifteenth-century altar-piece of St. Mary’s Church in Krakow, Ulmer Munster’s Garden of Gethsemane, and the Adoration of the Magi of the Strasbourg Cathedral. Some important Gothic artists include Fra Angelico (1395-1455), Simone Martini (1285-1344), Bonaventura Berlinghieri (1215-1242), and Giottino (1320-1369).