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Gothic Medieval Europe Architecture and Art

Gothic Medieval Europe


What do you think of when you hear ‘Gothic Medieval Europe’? Peasants and kings? Disease and constant warfare? Well, these were mostly true but there was so much more than that. Come along this journey and discover more about Gothic Architecture and Art!

Canalett,  The Interior of Henry VII's Chapel in Westminster Abbey  ,  1697-1768. A painting of the interior architecture of a chapel.

Canalett, The Interior of Henry VII's Chapel in Westminster Abbey1697-1768. A painting of the interior architecture of a chapel.


The Medieval period, as known as the Middle Ages constitutes from around 500 CE to 1500 CE which is internally classified into the early, high and the late period. The Gothic Age was part of the high period in the Middle Ages. It established after the Roman civilisation fell apart.

The Gothic Age sparked around 1150 CE to approximately 1500 CE and was subdivided into Early, High, and Late Gothic. Christianity flourished during Medieval Europe due to the arts and architectures that were created generally for churches in the Gothic period. Many new elements were incorporated into the Gothic structures and they were identified by taller structures with extensive stained-glass windows, pointed ribbed-vaults and flying buttresses” with a goal to solve collapsing structures from before the Gothic age, which was the Romanesque period .

Therefore, the Gothic period gave rise to another form of art and architecture that helped reflect the importance of Christianity. Its significance can be found in the books, manuscripts, and structures of the buildings created during that period.


Origin of the Gothic style:

Suger, spice, and everything nice!

Tony Hisgett,  Stained glass rose window Chartres Cathedral , July 30, 2009. Vivid coloured stained glass in church.

Tony Hisgett, Stained glass rose window Chartres Cathedral, July 30, 2009. Vivid coloured stained glass in church.

Abbot Suger was the creator of the Gothic style. He designed and built the famous Basilica in Saint-Denis in France, which was the first major architecture in the Gothic design. The Gothic style evolved from the Romanesque style. The various features of the Gothic architecture mentioned before were developed by Suger to solve the structural  problems of Romanesque buildings. In general, Churches during the Romanesque era have few windows and use barrel vaults to support the roofs, as well as rounded masonry arches with massive stone walls. The buildings' structures were rather “heavy” and Gothic churches were seemingly “lighter” from using huge windows that would allow more light to penetrate through. Suger also used coloured glass panels to convey the stories from the Bible. Another interesting reason that inspired Suger was to come up with a memorial burial spot that was remarkable yet appropriate for the late king, Louis VI of France.

The architecture during the Gothic period was fundamental towards the development of Christian Gothic-style art. Since Gothic architectures were mostly churches, naturally, many art forms were created for the churches or have religious purposes. This is why the art and architecture during the Gothic Age were predominantly focused on Christianity. Eventually, Gothic-style became popular and Gothic architecture started flourishing in France which eventually reached Western Europe.


Gothic Architecture

Jukub Halun,  Milan Cathedral , 24 July 2011. A tall white grand structure in the middle of a plaza.

Jukub Halun, Milan Cathedral, 24 July 2011. A tall white grand structure in the middle of a plaza.


Duomo Di Milano

The grandeur of Gothic architecture can be seen from the Milan Cathedral - also known as Duomo di Milano. It was built in Italy in 1386 CE. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. The Duomo has a history with the Magisterium of the Bishops, who taught the word of God to people. These teachers were also seen as the successors of the Apostles, making them crucial to the church. The Duomo is also linked to the millions of faithful citizens who go there to collect their thoughts each year, to celebrate special occasions, and to worship their deities. Besides being an artistic monument, it was a privileged place of prayer for the people in the past as the cathedral holds numerous values. To the believers, the most precious artefact is The Holy Nail as the nail was a relic from the True Cross, which was the nail on Jesus' cross two thousand years ago.

Characteristics of exterior of the Duomo di milano

Marble was the main material used to construct the Duomo. The appearance of this marble is pink, white, and light grey. It is important to note that this Cathedral was constructed over a span of 582 years! (Although work was halted in 1402 and resumed again around 1480 CE). The construction of the Duomo was greatly supported through public donations, that led to the beginning of the greatest Gothic church.

José Luiz,  The Duomo Madonna , 22 February 2014. Golden coloured Madonna statue, also known as the Holy Virgin.

José Luiz, The Duomo Madonna, 22 February 2014. Golden coloured Madonna statue, also known as the Holy Virgin.

That is why the style is notably different from the ground to the top. In additional to the characteristics of Gothic style introduced before, the additional features throughout the construction included lower square bases under the buttresses, and door and window trims that included a gable. The Gothic roofline is famous for its dense grid of pinnacles and spires – about 135 of them, supported by flying buttresses. The spires creates a unique sight as they were mounted with a statue depicting the important people in Milan’s history. Sculptures of various important figures from the Bible, such as, King Solomon, Moses, and Jesus put around the Duomo. These sculptures help people to visualise the figures of the bible and allows the Cathedral as a place for people to connect to their God. The highest spire and the tallest part of the cathedral measures up to 357 foot tall and it holds the golden statue of the Holy Virgin, a particularly prominent figure in the bible. This statue is so important that, by law, no any other building should pass the height of it! 


The interior of the Duomo di milano

Upon entering the Duomo, you can see numerous beautifully coloured, historiated stained glasses which mostly seem to illustrate stories from the Bible. The Duomo also holds valuable collections of sculptures and paintings. The interior consists of The Holy Nail that hangs over the altar and is illuminated with red light. People would congregate over the weekends for religious sessions and the religious artefacts and structures that covers the Duomo extensively serves as a reminder of the rich history and the divinity of their deities. This creates a greater sense of belonging among the people.


Gothic Medieval Art

Elena Tatiana Chis,  Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims , 13 June 2012. Six statues on the exterior of the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Elena Tatiana Chis, Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims, 13 June 2012. Six statues on the exterior of the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Similarly to Gothic architecture, art during the Gothic medieval period was heavily influenced by Christianity, therefore, art pieces from the Gothic periods mostly depict scenes from the New Testament. While Christianity had been around since pre-Medieval Europe, Charlemagne’s piousness made him enforce the importance of keeping churches beautiful as a way of proving his devotion. This could have sparked the importance of showing one’s belief through art.


Master of Taüll,  Apse of Sant Climent de Taüll , 1123 CE. A fresco of Christ with four evangelists around him and a few saints and the Mother of God in a row below him.

Master of Taüll, Apse of Sant Climent de Taüll, 1123 CE. A fresco of Christ with four evangelists around him and a few saints and the Mother of God in a row below him.

Gothic art could be seen from frescos, sculptures, panel paintings, and illuminated manuscripts. Gothic art pieces were generally naturalistic as they depicted the natural realities of life then. For example, the statues at Reims Cathedral, displayed mannerisms that reflected natural expressions. Gothic paintings were also more natural with an increasing focus on details and elaboration, showing the artist’s skill. This is different from the “flatness” from the Romanesque medieval art as seen in Master of Taüll’s mural of Apse of Sant Climent de Taüll (1123 CE). This could also be seen clearly in the examples that we will discuss about later.



Gothic-style Christian Painting:

Madonna and Child

Duccio di Buoninsegna,  Madonna and Child , ca. 1300 CE. Framed painting of the Virgin Mary and Christ in her arms.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child, ca. 1300 CE. Framed painting of the Virgin Mary and Christ in her arms.

One of the famous examples of Gothic painting that reflects the Christianity’s widespread influence is Madonna and Child, painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna around 1300 CE. This painting depicts the Virgin Mary and Jesus, the child, in her arms. The Virgin Mary looks at him with sadness in her eyes, seemingly due to her knowledge of his crucifixion. As discussed before, Gothic medieval painter, Duccio’s painting style is also somewhat naturalistic as it could be seen from the expressions in her face. Madonna and Child is three-dimensional and the use of gold in the background shows Duccio’s focus on details. The colours used could also explain how important the Virgin Mary was.

Ultramarine was used only for the Virgin Mary’s cloak because ultramarine was the most expensive pigment and the colour blue represented divinity. With Duccio’s painting style and important Christian figures in this painting, Madonna and Child is a clear example of Gothic-style Christian art.


Gothic-style Illuminated Manuscripts:

Très Riches Heures du duc de berry

Another form of Gothic art is illuminated manuscripts. Illuminated manuscripts, in Gothic Medieval Europe, were books of religious texts and illustrations. They were books that used bright colours, such as gold, and detailed designs, thus seemed to be “illuminated”, as if glowing from the page. One of the most famous illuminated manuscript is the Book of Hours. The Book of Hours is a personal prayer book that was popular among the rich in Gothic Medieval Europe . To honour the Virgin Mary, these prayers had to be said during the canonical hours. Canonical hours are times when public prayers and worship has to be made during different times of the day. An example is the Matins, which was to be said during the night. The Book of Hours is usually vibrant and detailed with decorations for the rich to show off their wealth. They could also personalise it and even include themselves to some of the illustrations! These were mostly done by artists for the rich who can afford such services and the provision of the expensive materials and pigments, including ultramarine.

Limbourg brothers,  Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 5 verso: May , between 1412 and 1416 CE. Men and women on horses with men playing the trumpet.

Limbourg brothers, Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 5 verso: May, between 1412 and 1416 CE. Men and women on horses with men playing the trumpet.

One famous example is the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry by the Limbourg brothers in 1416 CE. The Limbourg brothers included Pol, Jean, and Herman Limbourg, and they were the Duke of Berry’s most liked “illuminators”. The Duke of Berry requested the Limbourg brothers to make an illustrated manuscript of the Book of Hours for him. It included depictions of the Duke and Duchess in the illustrations which reflects their wishes in real life. For example, the illustration of the Duke on a journey represents his prayer for safety. Ultramarine was also used because being the Duke, he was rich enough to afford it. Gold was also used in the background to further illuminate the illustrations. Many of the scenes were of saints, the Virgin Mary, and Christ, facing trials and defeating evil, such as dragons. One of the more prominent part was the legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria and how she reached martyrdom.


Limbourg brothers,  Saint Catherine from the Belles Heures du duc de Berry , ca. 1405-1409 CE. Saint Catherine reading in a room.

Limbourg brothers, Saint Catherine from the Belles Heures du duc de Berry, ca. 1405-1409 CE. Saint Catherine reading in a room.

These illustrations were mostly set in nature; together with the emotions and actions of the characters seen, it shows off a more naturalistic style of art. As the Book of Hours was used as a personal prayer book, it does not only represent the importance of Christianity in an everyday person’s life but also served as a systematic way to pray. The relationship between Christianity and Gothic Medieval European art is obvious, with it impacting the daily lives of people both in a religious and pragmatic way.


Gothic Medieval Art and Architecture Almost 900 Years later...  

Abbot Suger’s aim to build a more stable church, Duccio’s focus on more realistic features on his paintings, and the Limbourg brothers' elaborate works showed people’s increased attention to detail but at the same time devoting their art works to their deities. This was due to the importance of Christianity that made the focus of change on the church and art that displays their devotion to the religion.

Centuries after the Gothic Medieval period, its style can be seen in modern public buildings and churches still. The Gothic revival actually started again back in the 19th century born out of the rebellion of the Industrial Revolution. There were several benefits from using the old Gothic design because of its flying buttresses, vaulted high ceilings, and the height of these building made the interior light and airy.

Choo Yut Shing,  Novena Church , 10 October 2017. The interior of the church with stained glass windows and high ceilings.

Choo Yut Shing, Novena Church, 10 October 2017. The interior of the church with stained glass windows and high ceilings.

Can you imagine that churches in Singapore were also inspired by Gothic styles? This is true for the Novena Church in Singapore! (Fun fact: ‘Novena’ is also known as “nine days of prayers”, which is also the name of the area the church is at!) It was inspired by the scripture by King Solomon and incorporated Gothic styles such as the stained glass and pointed arches. As it is Gothic-inspired, the Novena Church included modern technology that solves the problems of Gothic styles, for example, using granite to make maintenance easier.

Christine Matthews,  Royal Horticultural Hall, London , April 2016. A crowded orchid show displaying plants and flowers in a building with high ceilings and wide windows.

Christine Matthews, Royal Horticultural Hall, London, April 2016. A crowded orchid show displaying plants and flowers in a building with high ceilings and wide windows.

Although churches are still built in Gothic style, modern artists and architects interpreted the Gothic style for aesthetic purposes for other types of buildings. An example of a building with a mix of modern-day technology with Gothic style is the Royal Horticultural Society building in England. One of the main feature is the high vaulted ceilings. The difference between the traditional Gothic design and the building is the inclusion of metal and glass framework for better foundational support.

It is fascinating to see the impact of the Gothic style on modern day art and architecture. Almost a thousand years later and thousands of kilometers away, the influence of Christianity on Gothic-styled art and architecture is still prominent.



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