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Articles About Art - Gothic Sculpture

Art Information > Art Articles > Gothic Sculpture

Gothic Sculpture*

Superficially considered, it would seem that Gothic art developed naturally out of the Roman-
esque style. While it is true to say that Romanesque flourished during the eleventh and the first
half of the twelfth century, the style had many regional variations, and in some areas (especially
in the south of France and Italy where antique Roman prototypes were plentiful) it lingered longer
than in others.

Early manifestations of what was to become the Gothic style emerged in what is known as the
Ile de France, where Paris, Reims, Amiens, Chartres, Soissons, Sens and Noyon are situated. In all these centres important developments took place in architecture which set the tone for the Gothic. The standard of education at the universities, monasteries and cathedral schools also improved and was reflected in painting, sculpture and the minor arts.

The Gothic cathedral forms a great, carefully calculated programme. Each carved figure and
narrative scene in the porches has a meaning. Not all the meanings are clear to us today (and even
in the Middle Ages only the well-educated could grasp all the implications), but the overall
scheme, based on a total concept of life is clear to us.

All the sculptures of a Gothic portal are related to each other. Nothing is accidental or
capricious as it sometimes is in a Romanesque cloister or crypt. If the doors are open so that you
can look into the building from the portal you will notice that the windows you can see in the
opposite transept wall correspond to the sculptures outside. Thus Saint Anne, one of the
immediate forebears of Christ, is depicted in the lancet at Chartres and corresponds in placing in
the north wall to the Beau Dieu on the trumeau in the south portal. The Saint Anne, mother of the
Virgin Mary, is flanked by four majestic depictions of Old Testament figures: Melchizedek, King
David, King Solomon and Aaron, each standing above a panel in which is a conquered figure. So
Melchizedek is above Nebuchadnezzar, David above Saul, whose heart has been pierced by his
own sword. Solomon is above Jeroboam and Aaron above a pharaoh.

The subject matter found in Gothic art is mainly derived from the Bible, the Apocryphal
works, the commentaries of the Fathers, and ancient legends such as Jacobus de Voragine's
Golden Legend. The cult of the Virgin also flourished. As her life is seldom discussed in the
Scriptures, scenes from her childhood, her wedding, death and Assumption are derived from
Apocryphal sources. The left tympanum of the Royal Portal at Chartres shows her ascent into
heaven. The central portal of the North transept at Chartres depicts her coronation. She is
also frequently shown in Annunciation and Visitation scenes.

In Romanesque sculpture Christ in Majesty and the Last Judgement were portrayed separate-
ly (for example at Moissac and Autun, respectively). Towards the end of the twelfth century the
Christ in Majesty (Majestas Domtini), surrounded by the Four Beasts of the Apocalypse virtually
disappears. In the centre portal of the South transept at Chartres Cathedral the Last Judgement is
portrayed in a manner which radically differs from previous depictions.

Symbolism and allegory are an integral part of medieval art. Male writes:

"From the days of the catacombs, Christian art has spoken in figures, showing men one thing
and inviting them to see in it the figure of another."

In Gothic art the Old Testament was usually seen in relation to the New Testament: for
example, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham prefigures the sacrifice of Christ.



* Drawn from notes compiled by J. De Jager and N.J. Coetzee for the University of South Africa

 




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