Late Gothic Art

The late Gothic period, from the middle of the fourteenth century to the beginning of the sixteenth, was no mere postscript to the Middle Ages. As Western Europe recovered from the ravages of the Black Death (1348-1349) the very dislocations caused by the decimation of population and leadership permitted new institutions to emerge. The Church, torn by heresy and the claims of papal factions, lost its preeminence as a patron of the arts. From 1305 until 1377 the Popes lived in Avignon in southern France (Petrarch called the period the "Babylonian Captivity"), and when finally an Italian Pope was elected, Avignon remained the home of the French and Spanish anti-Popes. Rival Popes struggled for power, condemned each other, and excommunicated each other's adherents until 1417, when the Council of Constance confirmed Roman authority. Heresies flourished: led by John Wycliffe (d. 1384) in England and John Huss (d. 1415) in Bohemia, radical thinkers prepared the way for the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

Religious struggles were reflected in the political alliances and changing fortunes of the wars between France and England, lasting from c. 1337 to 1453, and known as the Hundred Years War. After the schism in the Church, Scotland, Castile, and Aragon supported France and the French Popes in Avignon, while Flanders, Scandinavia, Hungary, and Poland supported England and the Pope in Rome. The German princes and northern Italian towns were divided in their allegiances. In spite of this turmoil, by the end of the fifteenth century Louis XI in France, Henry Tudor in England, and Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain had united their territories under effective centralized governments. Their official bureaucracies were joined by modest representative bodies, parliaments, and councils in ruling the new nation-states.

As manufacture and trade flourished, towns and villages grew into great cities, and bankers and merchants joined the princes of the Church and state as patrons of the arts. The newly wealthy city dwellers looked at the world with hard, cautious eyes, for plague, fire, theft, and commercial disaster, as well as warfare and treachery, were omnipresent. Those who survived the Black Death had seen virtuous people struck down, families and fortunes destroyed without reason, but they also noted and took advantage of the new opportunities for skilled workers and shrewd entrepreneurs. Not surprisingly, their architecture varies from the severely functional to the ostentatious, their painting and sculpture from genre realism to an emotional mysticism profoundly influenced by the preaching friars.

The ideal of chivalry became more important in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries than ever before, just as the knight in armor was rendered forever obsolete by the English archers at the battles of Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and finally Agincourt (1415). When the Turks used cannon against Constantinople


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Medieval Art


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