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Gothic Painting: Style & Characteristics

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  • 0:05 Gothic Painting
  • 0:58 Italian Gothic Panels,…
  • 4:02 Early Attempts at Perspective
  • 6:56 Northern Gothic…
  • 8:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson follows the development of two trends in Gothic painting: realism and perspective. We explore the origins of these movements in Italian Gothic masters, like Duccio, Giotto and the Lorenzetti Brothers, and their later expression in Northern European illuminations.

Gothic Painting

So far, as we've talked about these different genres of art, we've been talking mostly in terms of time. Gothic art provides an additional challenge, because it refers both to a time and a place.

Giotto mastered the use of shading and created realistic figures
Madonna Enthroned Giotto

Gothic art started in France around 1144, when Abbot Suger completed the first Gothic Church at the Abbey of St Denis. It then spread across Europe over the next century, becoming an international standard from around 1250 to 1400. Over the next century, Gothic art fell out of favor around Europe, it retreated back to France, where it reigned supreme till about 1550. Nowhere is the flexibility of the term 'Gothic' clearer than in Italy. Italy was one of the last places to get on the Gothic bandwagon, and one of the first to jump off into its own unique Renaissance.

Italian Gothic Panels, Frescoes and Murals

In the Gothic age, stained glass windows became the main form of interior church decoration. Other forms of interior decoration, like murals, frescoes and mosaics, fell out of fashion. The exception to this rule is Italy, where the huge windows of the Gothic style never really achieved the central decorative role assigned to them north of the Alps. Instead, murals, frescoes and other forms of painting remained an important form of church decoration in Italy.

One of the most exciting things about this Italian Gothic painting is that, for the first time in a long while, we actually have names for most of the artists of this age - like Cimabue, Duccio, Giotto, the Lorenzetti brothers and Gentile Da Fabriano. By following the work of these artists, we can see two trends developing in Italian Gothic art: increasingly realistic figures and the use of perspective in painting. These trends would eventually give rise to the Italian Renaissance.

Up until this point in history, realism doesn't seem to have been a big priority in Christian painting. In fact, Christian aversion to images (as a form of idolatry) seems to have pushed in the opposite direction, away from realism.

In the Gothic age, we see a reversal of this trend, as Gothic painting becomes increasingly realistic. We can see the gradual increase in realism by comparing three different artists' takes on the same theme - that of the Virgin Mary sitting on a throne, holding the Christ child and surrounded by saints and angels. This theme was popular in Gothic Italy, and went by the name Madonna Enthroned. The first Madonna Enthroned we'll look at was composed around 1280 by Cimabue, an artist of Florence Notice the set poses of these figures, with their consistently odd head alignment and flat grave expressions.

Now let's skip ahead about 30 years to a similar scene on the Maesta Altar, completed in 1311 by a Tuscan painter named Duccio. Note how much more natural the poses are. No odd neck bending here. Note the use of shading to give these faces a rounded sort of depth, and look at the expressions on those faces. Compare the tender glances of Duccio's angels to the grim stares of Cimabue.

Finally, let's return to Florence to see a similar work by Giotto, completed around the same time as Duccio's in 1310. Giotto has mastered the shading we saw in Duccio. Look at the nuance in Mary's blouse, more than suggesting the natural lines beneath. Instead of the set expressions of Duccio, we see each individual expressing their awe in unique ways. These figures are so real that their halos look out of place. These experiments by early Italian painters recaptured the glory of classical art and paved the way for the breathtaking realism of the Renaissance.

This painting shows the use of interior perspective
The Birth of the Virgin Lorenzetti

Early Attempts at Perspective

Yet, perhaps even more amazing than the development of realistic figures is the Gothic exploration of perspective. In this respect, Gothic artists were not simply recapturing classical glory. The Romans don't seem to have had much luck with perspective painting either - beyond the simple illusions of the Pompeian style.

We can see the development of Italian Gothic perspective in two main forms: interior perspective, providing depth to an enclosed space, and exterior perspective, with a well-established foreground, midground and background.

We can see the first steps toward interior perspective in a detail from Duccio's Maesta Altar. Unlike previous artwork, in which the figures stand in front of a flat backdrop, these figures exist inside an enclosed space. Sort of like a niche in the painting, like the architectural housing of gothic sculpture.

We can see the development of this trend in The Birth of The Virgin by Pietro Lorenzetti. In this painting, we see an even greater command of depth, and each figure seems to fully occupy this three-dimensional space. We also see additional architectural elements finding their way into painting, like the beautifully executed rendition of a rib vault ceiling above our figures.

The development of interior perspective is impressive, but not nearly so much as the gradual improvement of exterior perspective. We witness the beginning of this trend in the works of Duccio, like this painting of Christ Entering Jerusalem, completed around 1311. Here we see some great attempts to create depth in the architectural background, with the archway jutting out into the midground. However, we can also see that Duccio has no concept of how the human form responds to distance. Instead of getting smaller as they get further away, these figures seem to actually grow larger as they make their way towards the gate.

Over the next 30 years, Italian artists got a better handle on perspective. Contrast Duccio's confusion over perspective in 1311 with Ambrogio Lorenzetti's mastery of the form in his fresco, The Effects of Good Government, completed in 1339. Here we see several layers of background and foreground, with figures of appropriate size helping us gauge the depth. Though some of these layers are still a bit flat, their order and distance is still quite clear.

Lorenzetti showed a strong sense of external perspective with this piece
The Effects of Good Government Lorenzetti

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