In this lesson, we cover the development of Gothic architectural decoration, specifically decorative sculpture and stained glass windows. You'll learn about Gothic use of stained glass and the evolution of sculpture from Romanesque decoration to Gothic statues.
Decorating the Great Cathedrals
In the 12th century, as Gothic cathedrals began popping up all across Europe, those in charge of decorating these fabulous structures were faced with a new challenge: Given the grand scale and great importance of these buildings, how should they be decorated? Gothic artists responded to this challenge in a variety of ways. On the outside, Gothic sculptors decked their cathedrals with an ever-growing array of decorative sculptures. On the inside, Gothic glaziers took advantage of advances in Gothic engineering to build soaring walls of stained glass, flooding the interior with light.
Stained Glass Windows
Gothic architecture is marked by pointed arches, rib vaults, and flying buttresses
Probably the most important form of Gothic architectural art was the stained glass window. Stained glass windows are closely tied to the architectural developments of Gothic cathedrals. Most of the innovations of Gothic architecture were developed for the very purpose of adding more stained glass windows to churches. From pointed arches to rib vaults to flying buttresses, all of these techniques allowed Gothic architecture to replace the thick, dark walls of Romanesque cathedrals with thin, towering walls of colored glass.
These stained glass windows were the multimedia stories of their day. Since very few people could read at the time, stained glass windows offered illiterate Christians a glorious glimpse into the tales of the Bible. Fitting pieces of glass together in lead frames, Gothic glaziers wrote the stories of the Bible, not in words but in light. You can identify Gothic stained glass windows by their massive size as well as their shape. There are two standard Gothic shapes of stained glass window: the tall window with the pointed arch and the round rose window.
Gothic Sculpture: Order, Realism and Sculpture in the Round
While glaziers were flooding the interior of Gothic cathedrals with holy light, sculptors began coating these cathedrals with decorative sculpture. We see three trends developing in Gothic sculpture:
- The wild movement of Romanesque sculpture is replaced with geometric harmony and symmetry.
- We begin to see the first steps toward full sculpture in the round, or 3-D sculptures that stand on their own two feet.
- This trend is accompanied by an increased sense of realism in Gothic sculpture.
We can see the first of these developments most clearly by comparing Gothic sculpture to earlier Romanesque sculpture. Romanesque architects invented the art of adorning church entrances with dense sculptural decorations called a tympanum. Here's a particularly fine tympanum from the entrance to the Cathedral of Autun. Let's look at some of the features of this tympanum.
- It's a semicircular arch decorated with shallow relief.
- The figures are highly stylized with thin, puppet-like arms, captured in the middle of spontaneous movement.
- The figures vary in size depending on their placement.
- They are densely crowded together, to the extent that their limbs are often entangled.
Now let's compare that Romanesque tympanum to this Gothic tympanum from Chartres Cathedral:
- This tympanum is a pointed arch, decorated with deep relief. Indeed, the figures are almost fully rounded.
- The figures are much more realistic, and they stand or sit with a quiet dignity instead of the wild movement of the Romanesque tympanum.
- Each figure is the same size as its neighbors, and instead of being crowded together every figure has a place, separated from its neighbors by architectural elements.
Gothic sculpture, left, contains more realistic figures and details than does Romanesque sculpture
Comparing these two, we can see how the chaotic wildness of Romanesque decorative sculpture gave way to the stately order of the Gothic style. We've gone from highly stylized figures of various sizes, gesturing wildly and often entangled in their dense crowds to much more realistic, standardized figures standing with a quiet dignity within their place in the overall architectural framework.
Realism and Sculpture in the Round
While the sculptures around the tympanum were falling into their allotted architectural places, other Gothic sculptures began to climb out of the walls and pillars and stand on their own two feet. This is an important change, since full-blown, freestanding sculptures had been out of fashion among Christians for almost a thousand years because they saw freestanding statues as idols. For whatever reason, this restriction became less and less important in the Gothic age, and statues began to step out of their restrictive architectural frameworks and display greater and greater realism.
We can see the beginnings of this transition in the sculptures adorning the columns of Gothic cathedrals. The art of decorating columns with life-size human figures got its start during the Romanesque era. Yet these figures are mostly reliefs carved into the column. The figure here is the column. Compare that with the figures adorning the columns of Chartres' West Portal. These saints are quite clearly standing in front of the column. They have a depth to them. However, these figures are all still rather stiff. Even if they're not necessarily holding up the roof, it certainly looks like they were meant to. This dual function makes these sculptures rather stylized and not very realistic. As techniques improved, these statues gain more natural postures and much more realistic features.
As we can see in the sculptures added to the later South Portal of Chartres Cathedral, these guys are standing free. Instead of decorating the column, these figures are pretty much hiding the column. They also have much more natural poses. Compare the smooth S-shaped curve of St. Theodore here to the stiff postures of these earlier figures. Eventually, sculptors started creating sculptures without backing columns or any other clear architectural purpose, making full-standing statues in neat alcoves. Free from the need to hold up a ceiling, these figures were now free to stand in more natural poses and even to gesture.
Eventually, even the alcoves gave way to mere decorations framing realistic statues in a variety of poses. Finally, sculptors abandoned architectural decoration entirely and began creating freestanding sculptures in the round. Thus, over the course of about a century, sculpture made some huge leaps forward and really came to the fore as one of the most important forms of artistic expression. Instead of adding sculptures to accent architecture, people were adding architecture to accent sculptures. And eventually, sculptures began standing alone, without any architectural framework at all. With this increased importance came increased realism, as sculptors refined their skills and their artwork came to the fore.
The Gothic age, with its great cathedrals, was an exciting time to be a sculptor or glazier. Architectural advances allowed glaziers to deck the walls of Gothic cathedrals with huge stained glass windows, telling the stories of the Bible in brilliant colored glass, while flooding the interior with light. Meanwhile, the exterior of Gothic cathedrals grew ever more intricate, with decorative sculpture of increasing realism and creativity. Sculpture eventually became so important that it was freed from its role as an architectural adornment, as Christians began creating the first freestanding statues to be seen in the West since the fall of Rome.
After seeing this video lesson, you should be able to identify features of Gothic architecture, including certain aspects of stained glass windows and free standing sculpture.