A History of English Art in the Middle Ages

By O. Elfrida Saunders | Go to book overview

Chapter XII THE SUBJECT-MATTER OF GOTHIC ART

THE Gothic period introduced no drastic change in the subject-matter of art. It made use of the Romanesque themes, but gradually enlarged them in certain directions, particularly by the addition of more allegories and lives of saints, and of a few completely secular subjects. The process went on almost imperceptibly through the Early and Middle Gothic periods, under the new spirit of freedom which was beginning to permeate society; but in the fifteenth century, with the multiplication of second-rate artistic work, the much larger range of subjects bears witness to the new democratic outlook on life and the complete secularization of art.

Biblical scenes still occur at the beginning of psalters in the Early Gothic period, but later on they grow less frequent. Queen Mary's Psalter, with ks lengthy series of Old and New Testament scenes, is a notable exception, but most East Anglian manuscripts have only a few full-page illustrations, of theological interest, e.g. the Crucifixion and the Virgin and Child. The historical initials or half-page illustrations before each liturgical division of the psalms follow a regular series relating to the text. Thus 'Salvum me fac' has David in water, calling on God to help, 'Cantate deo' has monks singing at a lectern, and 'Dixit dominus domino meo' has the Trinity.

Bibles, such as the small ones current in the thirteenth century, and Richard II's at the British Museum, have small Biblical scenes in their initials, but there are seldom any fullpage illustrations, as there had been in the Romanesque Bibles.

The Early Gothic reliefs on the west front of Wells Cathedral show that series of Old and New Testament scenes occasionally found their way into sculpture. New Testament

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