Gothic Sculpture: The Intimate Carvings

Gothic Sculpture: The Intimate Carvings

Gothic Sculpture: The Intimate Carvings

Gothic Sculpture: The Intimate Carvings


The thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, spanned by what we term the Gothic period, saw a revolution in the social and economic life of Europe. As princes created fixed capitals for themselves instead of the earlier uncomfortable peripatetic courts, so the earlier agricultural system gave way before a more modern money economy. Both movements brought great changes in their train and were to have a profound effect upon the arts.

For the first, the building of castles, palaces and town residences not only gave a new importance to the visual effect of surroundings but also to the ideas of comfort and luxury.

The court of Burgundy led the way and life came to be dominated by intricate ceremonial inherited in part from antiquity, Byzantium and the orient, and elaborated into an obligatory etiquette destined to reach its most exaggerated expression in baroque Spain. Something of this still prevails today in court and diplomatic protocol.

At the end of the period this court culture flowered into what was an almost decadent magnificence. Today this twilight of the Middle Ages is proverbially thought of in terms of banquets and hunts, ceremonial and knightly gatherings, tourneys or feasts which present a brilliant setting. But at the same time the indulgence of excessive lusts, sensuality, strange whims and gruesome sports found a place alongside the gastronomic orgies arrayed with crystal and gold plate. Palace halls were hung with richly figured tapestries and decorated with priceless furnishings. Superbly carved altars adorned the private chapels. Exquisite jewellery, caskets and miniatures all served their end. But the picture is incomplete without jesters and dwarfs as well as the artists and craftsmen.

At the beginning of the period we are still largely concerned with the achievements in ecclesiastical art and above all with architecture, which predominated.

In its transition from the Romanesque, Gothic architecture was characterized by an open stone framework supporting a stone vaulting. As this development reached its peak, painting and sculpture were almost completely subjected to architecture, though all three arts were ultimately to gain.

It was inevitable that large-scale mural painting should give way as the walls of Gothic churches were increasingly devoted to ever-larger windows. However, these new transparent walls of glass were quickly claimed by the painters and at the very moment when they were most dependent upon the good will of the architect, they achieved their greatest triumphs; for this new painting with colour and light on enormous areas of glass amounted to the conquest of a new artistic field. Glass painting, from being a pleasant accessory of the old order of architecture, had gradually become an indis-

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