Unlike many trends that have appeared in the history of art, Gothic is one of those for which one can almost precisely say when and where it originated.
In this article, you will learn about the Gothic origins, what its main features are, and what the impact is on modern art and interior design.
The starting point of the birth of Gothic art is located in a place called Île-de-France, from where it was later spread to Europe, including countries such as Germany, England, Italy, and others. Firstly Gothic was more of a local character; later it gained international glory and became known, as Janson states, as opus modernum or francigenum, which in translation would mean modern or French work. If we look at where the presence of Gothic art is most noticeable, then we can say that it is architecture, which carries on its shoulders the most characteristics of this unusual artistic phenomenon. In fact, the term gothic was made to refer to architecture, where the characteristics of Gothic art are most noticeable. Gothic also influenced painting and sculpture, although in this text we will speak only about architecture.
In his History of Art, Janson states that Gothic art originated between 1137 and 1144, thanks to Abbot Suger, who “rebuilt the royal abbey church” of Saint-Denis near Paris. Certain political events of that time can explain to us the reasons why Gothic art developed there. At the time of its creation, the power of the French kings was quite under the shadow of the nobility. This lasted until the beginning of the 12th century when the power of kings was renewed. Having in mind that Abbot Suger was the counselor of Louis VI, it is understandable why he was at the center of a political power that could move mountains. The Abbot’s plan was to make the church of Saint-Denis the “spiritual center of France”, encompassed by religious and patriotic enthusiasm. In that way, the alliance between the monarchy and the church, which Suger advocated, would be strengthened, and it consisted of placing the clergy on the king’s side, while the king, on the other hand, would help the church in the fight against the German emperors. It is possible that Abbot Suger did not even dream that his sensibility and knowledge would be the starting stone for the making of an artistic movement that would initially be limited to abbeys and smaller cities, to later become a recognizable element of the world’s largest capitals and buildings.
The main characteristics of Gothic art that make up the exterior and interior of buildings, and by which this art movement is recognized everywhere in the world, are broken arch, cross vaults with ribs, height, high windows, and rosettes. As a general impression, it should be pointed out that the buildings gained airiness, thus being freed from heavy Romanesque massiveness, and because of that, when looking at one Gothic cathedral, we get the impression that it floats in the air and that its supporting pillars are deeply indented, almost invisible to the viewer. An example of this is the main nave of the Chartres Cathedral.
Some of the mentioned characteristics, such as broken arches and a cross vault, are not a novelty introduced by the Gothic. They are known for numerous romanesque schools. What is new and what makes up the essence of Gothic, is that these elements were found together in one place for the first time. This should not lead us, as Janson states, to believe that Gothic is a “synthesis of romanesque features”; however, is there anything else, besides the characteristics mentioned above, by which we can say that it is authentically Gothic? Art historians would say that it is, on the one hand, the need for illumination, and on the other, a strict insistence on geometric design.
We should have in mind that before the appearance of the movable-type printing press in the 15th century, architecture often expressed the philosophical, poetic tendencies of those who worked on it. It was poetry in stone. It is, therefore, no coincidence that light and insistence on a strict geometric design are mentioned as crucial elements of the Gothic movement. It is believed that Abbot Suger, through the meticulousness of the stained glass windows and the light that refracted through them, wanted to bring some divine ray into the dark, moldy cathedrals, while pointing to the perfection of God’s hand with strict geometric designs. This interpretation of light and harmony has been known in Christian thought for centuries. It originated from the work of a Greek theologian who, according to sources, is believed to be Dionysius the Areopagite. In this respect, without the special sensibility of Abbot Suger, his spirit, his willingness to supply himself with knowledge, and his poetic, dreamy nature, perhaps Gothic art would have taken a completely different direction. In that context speaking, the main characteristics of Gothic art also express a philosophical belief.
Although Gothic developed in France, and from there it moved to Italy, Germany, England, and beyond, its characteristics did not change much. Some buildings tended to abnormal heights, almost breaking in the air, but also others that, retaining their Gothic characteristics, remained close to the ground, such as the Basilica of Saint Urban. Gothic as an artistic movement was mostly recognizable because of the same characteristics everywhere in the world, and if something appeared that would get a special name within the movement, such as the case of flaming gothic, it would only be an intensification of existing characteristics such as the emphasis on rosettes and gothic lace, which is why the cathedrals looked as if they were in a stone flame. An example of this is the church of Saint McLaughlin in Rouen.
The reasons why Gothic spread rapidly in Europe are numerous. In addition to the fact that the new movement brought refreshment after the heavy massiveness of Romanesque buildings, the skills and abilities of French architects were recognized in the world. We should not neglect the great reputation that the French centers of science had at that time. In this way, the news of the Gothic movement spread in two ways: the skill of the architects while, at the same time, that skill was relying on the authority of the French centers of science as something to be trusted. It should be noted that the influence of gothic was not seen only in cathedrals or religious buildings. Non-religious architecture, such as the house of Jacques Cours, also had gothic characteristics. The most famous buildings in the world that are mentioned in the context of gothic architecture, are Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Chartres Cathedral, and Milan Cathedral.
The famous French writer Victor Hugo also wrote about one of them, about Notre Dame Cathedral. We can freely say that thanks to his book The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where the lives of Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Claude Frollo are magically intertwined, the cathedral has been preserved from complete ruin. The work pointed to the poor condition of the building and, in addition to the passage in the book dedicated to its interior, where Hugo discusses its interior, he left readers a chapter that may perfectly describe the coming of future times and the importance of architecture as poetry in the stone.
In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, under the section This will kill that, Hugo writes: “It was a premonition that human thought, by changing its form, would also change the way of expression; that the main thought of each generation will no longer be written by the same source and in the same way; that a book made of stone, so thorough and so durable, would displace a book made of paper, which still meant that one art would throw down another. ”
If we look at architecture, we can say that, in addition to the fact that many buildings represent works of art, they are also monuments and representatives of time and epoch. Before the appearance of the movable-type printing press, the thought of the whole century was expressed through architecture. It was an opportunity to unburden the heavy shoulders of humanity and to put philosophy into the stone. As Victor Hugo further writes: “When the memory of the first races was overloaded when a load of memories of the human race became so heavy and so confused that there was a danger that the word, naked and easy, will lose them over time, then people began to write all those memories on earth, in the most visible, lasting and most natural way, at the same time every tradition would be marked with a monument. “
All the buildings we have mentioned, beyond being representatives of only one artistic movement, are often an expression of something much more general: the expression of the people, the philosophy of the century, and the poetry of the decades. And just as Hugo read the word ananke (fate) on one of the walls of Notre Dame Cathedral, wondering what made that unknown person leave a silent inscription on the walls of the old building, in the same way, all those who worked on shaping the stone, whether physically or mentally, from Abbot Suger through architects and builders, they have put into the walls of high cultural monuments their little philosophy, which some eyes, like Hugo’s, may one day discover beneath a thick patch of peeled marble.
Gothic art and interior design
The previous pages told us about the history of the Gothic movement. However, how do we experience Gothic art when we talk about modern interior design?
To decorate a space using the Gothic style, you need to have enough space. The dark colors that adorn it, large, bulky decorations, and carved elements would look too bizarre in a small apartment or house. Gothic style can be taken selectively, so that you fit it into a completely modern space, for example, by combining gothic colors (blue, purple, green, black) with tones that can be combined with other styles of the modern age. To break the dark colors, it is enough to make a contrast, for example, using white patterns.
The Gothic art′s style in the living space exudes mysticism. Large, bulky pieces of furniture and light should contribute to the atmosphere. Therefore, the size of the space is crucial, so that all the elements can be visible. Windows also play a big role. If you can’t afford real, expensive stained glass, there are decorative strips that can be glued to the windows. Indispensable elements are a real fireplace with a grate, elongated windows, and a high ceiling where the lines intersect. Gothic style is characterized by the use of natural materials, so if you want to incorporate it into the living space, do not use plastic. Instead, the Gothic style is represented by wood and stone, so that even a house in the countryside can be beautifully turned into a Gothic castle.
Whether you want to take its elements selectively or turn the entire living space into a Gothic oasis, it takes a lot of patience and courage for the fairytale and mystical structure that Gothic art offers.
Author: Miloš Lazarević
Photo: Rik Hopkinson, Unsplash