The Gothic art movement in medieval Europe began almost exclusively as a manifestation of religious painting, sculpture and architecture in the 12th century. Growing out of the sturdy, somewhat crude representations of the Romanesque style, the Gothic art movement strove, by its late period in the 14th and 15th centuries, to liberate painted and sculpted images to a more natural and free-flowing depiction. Late Gothic architecture saw the erection of high-ceilinged buildings that soared heavenward.
Painting during the Gothic period was strictly based upon religious themes and subject matter. As this artistic movement deepened into its “late” period, however, the figures that were once cast in a flat, nonrealistic way similar to the painting of Eastern religious icons became much more lifelike as painters began to work with concepts such as perspective. Perspective in painting is the means a painter uses to make things appear to recede into the distance from the central image of the painting. Paintings also began to include much more detail and depicted many figures in motion rather than statically sitting or standing. Both of these innovations gave late Gothic paintings a more “natural” look than earlier ones had.
Early Gothic sculpture resembled the sculpture of the Romanesque period. Most often carved in relief on the side or interior of a church, these images were simplistically rendered and meant to represent an idealized view of man, saints, angels and Jesus. As the Gothic period progressed, sculptors strove to create more natural-looking images, adding detail, movement and very human facial expressions to their sculptures. This movement toward a more natural depiction of the subject matter allowed, for example, viewers to see the Virgin Mary as caring for her son, Jesus, as any human mother would, rather than as a stiff, stone figure. Emotions such as joy and sorrow also became evident within the late Gothic sculptural representations.
Gothic painting and sculpture was religious in nature and most often found on the outside or inside of a Gothic cathedral. Stone cathedrals are considered the crowning artistic achievement of the Gothic period of art. Sometimes requiring 100 years to construct, these churches were meant to glorify God with their soaring heights and breathtaking stained glass windows. By the late Gothic period, the buildings’ flying buttresses (the support systems that allowed the soaring heights) enabled the cathedral walls to contain more and more stained glass windows, which became exquisitely detailed images of the life of Christ and other Biblical themes.
The Early Renaissance
Since no “period” of art begins and ends abruptly, the late Gothic period can also be seen as blending into the early Renaissance. The characteristic that most influenced this transition was the late Gothic development of a more natural, realistic approach to figures and images in painting and sculpture. Artists of the early Renaissance still worked frequently with religious subject matter, but they began to also paint and sculpt images from classical Greece and Rome as well as modern royal figures. The trend in all of this art was to capture a more true sense of the “humanness” of the image and a more realistic presentation of natural settings.
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