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What is Gothic Art?

The most dominant form of art during the Middle Ages emerged from Romanesque art in the 12th century. It spread all across Europe and remained popular until the Renaissance.

Gothic Art very much resembled art produced during the Romanesque era, but Gothic artists still incorporated some unique features. In this article, we take a closer look at this medieval art movement.

History of Gothic Art

Gothic art emerged in the Île-de-France northern France regions around the 12th century and lasted to the late 15th century in some parts of Europe.

It continued to be heavily focused on decorating churches and abbeys and mostly included monumental sculpture initially.

What’s remarkable is that gradually, more secular art was being produced as well. Most of the art that survived from this period was religious.

The term “Gothic” was first used by Renaissance master Raphael (1483-1520) in a letter to Pope Leo X. The term was subsequently coined by 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574).

What’s fascinating is that they used the term in a derogatory manner. For them, people of the Renaissance, it was a synonym for Barbaric times.

Raphael stated that pointed arches resembled the huts of Barbaric German people living in the forests and Vasari started referring to Gothic art in 1530 as a “monstrous and barbarous disorder.”

Where did this hostility come from? They believed that the Sack of Rome in 410 A.D. by Gothic people triggered the demise of classical antiquity. The Renaissance was all about reviving the ideals of the Classical world.

What is Gothic art
Gothic sculptures / TTaylor / Wiki Commons

Main characteristics of Gothic Art

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The style emerged in France and was therefore referred to as “Opus Francigenum.” It never managed to get a real foot on the ground in Italy.

The Renaissance emerged in Florence and before this, classical influences from Byzantine art remained strong.

Initially, Gothic art was predominantly produced to decorate Gothic cathedrals and abbeys, just like Romanesque art was produced to decorate Romanesque buildings.

These are some of the main characteristics of Gothic art that differentiate it from its medieval predecessor:

Scenes from the Old and New Testament – Gothic artists started to incorporate various stories into a single artwork.

The Virgin Mary – The gothic period saw a strong increase in Marian devotion. The mother of Jesus Christ was depicted more affectionately than in Byzantine and Romanesque artworks.

Jesus Christ – Scenes from the Passion of Christ now focused on depicting the wounds from his suffering as opposed to idealized depictions.

Enhanced sense of naturalism – The early Gothic sculptures and paintings still depicted a highly idealized version of the figures, but this gradually changed to a more naturalistic image.

International Gothic – This sophisticated period of Gothic art mostly revolved around court commissions and art produced for members of the nobility. This culminated in patronage in future centuries.

International Gothic art
14th Century International Gothic art at St. John Cathedral in Toruń / Pko / Wiki Commons

Types of Gothic Art

Most artworks produced during the Romanesque continued to be created during the Gothic period but some innovations differentiate both periods.

Below is a list of some of the most popular types of Gothic art that were produced during this era.

Monumental sculptures

The Gothic period continued to focus heavily on decorating the magnificent Gothic buildings that were being constructed, first in France, and then in most other parts of Europe. Gothic architecture and Gothic art went hand in hand and monumental sculptures were carved to decorate these structures.

Mural paintings

Just like the continuation of the creation of sculptures, frescoes were still an important type of art that was produced during the Gothic period. Because the Gothic churches were much higher than their Romanesque counterparts, the height of the murals increased significantly as well.


One of the major innovations of the Gothic era was the transition of using oil instead of tempera. This allowed painters to produce more sophisticated works of art that became increasingly popular all across Europe. The Flemish Primitives were innovators and often included donors in their works.

Stained glass windows

Stained glass windows remained very popular during the Gothic era, regardless of the rise of monumental altarpieces that were commissioned to decorate churches. The rose window was an important new feature and the use of vivid colors, which now also included gold and silver, only increased.

Manuscripts and Printmaking

Scribes continued to produce illuminated manuscripts during the Gothic era. The production of prayer books known as “Books of Hours” became increasingly popular. The earliest illuminated manuscripts that have survived in their entirety were completed in the mid-13th century in France.

Portable artworks

Another industry that emerged in the Gothic era was the production of portable artworks. These were either small paintings, often triptychs that could be closed and carried for personal devotion, or portable sculptures. These can be described as medieval versions of modern-day souvenirs.

Notable Gothic Artworks

The Gothic era lasted several centuries so a diverse range of artworks was produced during this period. Below is a list of some of the most notable artworks that were produced during this medieval art movement:

  • Ognissanti Madonna – Painting by Giotto that is also known as “Madonna Enthroned.” It depicts a typical scene of the Virgin Mary holding her baby Jesus while surrounded by saints.
  • Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral – Multiple scenes from the Old Testament were carved into this magnificent entrance to Chartres Cathedral.
  • Casket with Scenes of Romances – An ivory casket featuring Romantic scenes that defines the type of portable artworks that were produced during the Gothic era.
  • Wilton Diptych – A late-14th century diptych painting that was commissioned by King Richard II of England. It’s the only of its kind that was produced in England to survive.
  • Sainte Chapelle Stained Glass Windows – The amazing Gothic stained glass windows in Sainte Chappelle are some of the most stunning attractions in Paris (and that says it all).

Want to discover more Gothic art? Check out this list with some of the most famous Gothic Artworks.

Stained Glass WIndows of Sainte Chapelle Gothic Art
The amazing stained glass windows at Sainte Chapelle / Melvil / Wiki Commons