Formal & Iconographic Characteristics of Gothic Figural Art

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  • 0:00 Iconograhy & the Church
  • 1:19 Madonna & Child
  • 1:49 Christ in Majesty &…
  • 2:58 Christ in Judgement
  • 3:39 The Crucifixion
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

Gothic figural art provided religious education even for those who could not read. A large body of well-known symbols existed to assist viewers in understanding what they were viewing. Learn about the formal and iconographic characteristics of this art.

Iconography and the Church

Gothic art is a style of European medieval art generally created between the 12th and 15th centuries CE. If you lived as a commoner during this time, you would almost certainly be illiterate. So, the Church used art and architecture to help spread its messages concerning Christianity. Stepping into a large Gothic church, you couldn't help but be impressed by the spires and arches stretching up to heaven, while dazzling colored light streamed through stained glass windows, reminding you of the magnificent, ever-present spirit of God.

Figural art was an important part of this visual instruction. The culture built up an impressive system of iconography, a sort of alphabet of symbols. You didn't need to be literate to read the language of these images. These symbols were used repeatedly, teaching the central lessons of the faith.

Individual Symbols

Many individual symbols were commonly used to help viewers understand the larger picture. For example, you know you're looking at a holy figure if they had a golden circle of light around the head, known as a halo.

These holy figures, known as saints, also have their own symbols so viewers can recognize them. For example, you know you're looking at St. Sebastian because he is either holding arrows or has been shot with them, reflecting how he was martyred.

Madonna and Child

One of the most common images in Gothic art is that of the Madonna and Child, the Virgin Mary posing with the baby Jesus. Jesus is the central figure of Christianity, a divine character necessary for the salvation of humankind. Mary is his mortal mother, a pure, devout and obedient woman worthy of bearing him. She is commonly in blue.

Both Mary and Jesus bear halos because of their holy status. Jesus sometimes gets a special halo, one with a cross within it. This denotes His divinity.

Christ in Majesty & Christ Pantocrator

Christ in Majesty images represent Jesus reigning over the world. These images are very specific, including:

  • Jesus' entire body is visible and in a seated position.
  • His entire body is surrounded by a circle or oval called a mandorla, telling us He is in heaven. The mandorla may or may not have pointed ends.
  • His right hand gives a gesture of blessing with two fingers extended.
  • His left hand holds a book.

The book represents the four Gospel books of the Bible, which contain all of the stories of Jesus. These are the most important books of the Bible.

The Gospel authors, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, commonly known as the Evangelists, are often represented by four creatures, often with wings: a lion, eagle, ox and human, and their images regularly accompany Jesus in these images.

Another image similar to Christ in Majesty is Christ Pantocrator. This is a view of Jesus from the waist up, making a gesture of blessing and holding a gospel book. Missing are the mandorla and the Evangelists. Christ Pantocrator is generally found in Eastern Europe, while Christ in Majesty is found in Western Europe.

Christ in Judgment

Similar to Christ in Majesty is Christ in Judgment. Here, Jesus oversees the Final Judgment, the moment when he judges all people and grants them salvation or damns them to hell, according to their deeds in life.


On the left is heaven, which is orderly. On the right is hell, a chaotic tangle of demons and tormented souls. Jesus's hands are outstretched, indicating heaven and hell. Often, his right hand, which is on the left from our perspective, is raised, while his left hand is lowered, indicating heaven being above and hell being below.

Here, Jesus has a starburst for a mandorla rather than an oval. He is accompanied by the Virgin Mary in blue and St. John the Apostle.

The Crucifixion

The crucifixion is the execution of Jesus, a sacrifice which brings salvation to mankind. It is the most important event in Christianity. Jesus is attached to a wooden cross with nails in his hands and feet, as the event is described in the Bible. A wound on his side bleeds. Here, angels collect his blood as being part of the sacrifice.

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