The Origins of the Gothic Style
Hailed as "King of the Aquitainians, of the Bretons, of the Danes [Normans], of the Goths, of the Spaniards and Gascons, and of the Gauls," and elected because he posed little threat to the great nobles who actually held these lands, Hugh Capet, Count of Paris, became King of France in 987, and the Capetian dynasty began its 340-year rule. The Archbishop of Reims crowned and consecrated Hugh Capet and so established the moral authority of the Capetian house. The new king's political authority was dependent on his own personal holdings around Paris—the Ile-de-France—and those feudal dues he could exact from his vassals. In theory, the king defended the realm and dispensed justice; in fact, at the time of Hugh's succession the title of king carried with it powers of moral suasion and very little else.
The Capetians, blessed with long lives and competent heirs, gradually turned a loose system of allegiances into a powerful, centralized monarchy. Remarkably enough, from the days of Hugh Capet until 1316 there was always a son of age to inherit the throne. Hugh Capet, Robert the Pious, Henry I, Philip I, Louis VI (the Fat) and Louis VII succeeded each other; thus, when Philip Augustus began his rule in 1180, only six kings had ruled in nearly two hundred years. The prestige and wealth of the monarchy had grown slowly and steadily. The arts reflected this situation and the local, or regional, styles of the Romanesque gave way to the Gothic style of Ile-de-France.
Philip Augustus was a brilliant and determined ruler who combined the skills of politician, lawyer, and economist. He realized the importance of the fact that the kings of England were his feudal vassals, and he used his legal skills to break their power on the continent. His son Louis VIII (1223-1226), daughter-in-law Blanche of Castile (regent 1226-1236), and grandson Louis IX (St. Louis, 1226-1270, canonized 1297) extended the territory held by the French monarchy in the north almost to the present borders. Just as the kings had formed a nation from many feudal counties, so around Paris, the Capetian capital, architects and artists wove together the many strands of Romanesque art to create the new Gothic style. Two great churchmen, Abbot Suger of St. Denis and Archbishop Henri Sanglier of Sens provided patronage and inspiration; Suger's abbey church north of Paris and the Cathedral of Sens seventy‐ five miles south inaugurated the new Gothic style. In its own day Gothic architecture was called opus francigenum, "French work," in clear recognition of its origin. The Gothic style dominated the arts from 1150 to 1450 and in some places lasted into the sixteenth century.
Gothic art has nothing to do with the barbarian Goths. Italian writers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries called the art of the Middle Ages the maniera dei Goti, for they considered all art from the fall of Rome to their own day as crude and barbaric, or "Gothic." In the eighteenth and nineteenth