A History of English Art in the Middle Ages

By O. Elfrida Saunders | Go to book overview

Chapter XI GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF GOTHIC ART

THE twelfth century in western Europe had been a time of ferment in the realm of ideas. The schools of dialectics at Paris, Laon, and elsewhere had been frequented by crowds of eager students from all countries. A new freedom had been enlarging the outlook of the best minds of the century, and the works of the great Latin authors were no longer anathema to the churchmen, as they had been in the preceding two centuries. Realism was the predominant type of thought, and natural science the prevailing interest. The spirit of the age was expressed in the words of William of Conches: 'By the knowledge of the creature we attain to a knowledge of the Creator.'

English scholars, such as John of Salisbury and Robert of Melun, were taking an active part in this movement, both as students and teachers in the French schools. In 1200 the schools of Paris became a University, and it was not long before the University of Oxford also was founded. Thus, while learning was beginning to attain more freedom, it was also tending to become focused in certain fixed localities.

With the advent of the Gothic period in the middle of the twelfth century Paris became the artistic as well as the intellectual centre of the Western world: and the spirit of freedom found its expression in new ideals of art and craftsmanship.

Romanesque painting and sculpture had throughout been dominated in its subject-matter and its methods by the traditional formulae of the Eastern Church, and had sought an abstract beauty based on established conventions. Its 'Majesties' and 'Apostles' had repeated with but slight variations the attitudes of their Byzantine prototypes, and had added a still greater stylization to their draperies.

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