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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

                           Introduction:The Flowering of the Gothic in

       Northern France

          Introduction: Gothic cathedrals are in many ways the embodiment of the Late Middle Ages. Soaring into the sky, the carved stone vaults and spires of such architectural masterpieces as Chartres Cathedral (fig.1) appear to reach toward heaven.

          If religious ideals of the era sought otherworldly paradise, practical accomplishments displayed high standards of craftsmanship. Both are expressed in the cathedrals of northern France, where the Gothic style first came to fruition. Adorned with an abundance of sculpture on the exterior (fig.2) and jewel-like stained glass windows within, the Gothic cathedrals arose during a period of great economic prosperity in Europe between AD 1050-1350. Three main aspects will be covered in this section: architecture, sculpture, and the literary culture of the period.

          The term "Gothic" was first used as a derogatory term for Late Medieval art and architecture by Italian architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). Contrasting medieval art with that of the ancient Greeks and Romans, Vasari named the medieval style after the "barbaric" Goths, whose migrations and wars contributed to the fall of the Roman empire. Eventually, the associations with "Gothic" became more positive. The late 18th century German writer Johann von Goethe praised the organic style and structural achievements of medieval church architecture. By the mid 19th century, Gothic remains had been transformed into romantic settings by writers such as John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Victor Hugo, whose 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame immortalized the cathedral.

[Fig.1: The Gothic cathedral at Chartres,1194-1235 (photo: Athena Review)].       

          Today the term Gothic is used by art historians to specifically refer to the architecture of European cathedrals in the 12th-15th centuries, which replaced Romanesque methods of construction. Much of the fascination with the Gothic period stems from its intricately stylized decorations and brilliant stained-glass windows (see Chartres), combined with often highly realistic sculptures as seen at Reims, in cathedrals whose verticality reached and sometimes even crossed the limits of technical feasibility.

          Yet Gothic architecture, sculpture, and stained glass comprise only the most visible remains of an era which also included major innovations in literature, poetry, and music. Alongside the building of cathedrals developed the art of courtly love, the telling of fabulous lais (short narrative tales) and romances, and the ribald songs of troubadours and vagabond poets. Eventually, the Gregorian music of the church was extended to secular poetry and even satire, through the refinements of the Ars Nova.

          Such innovations in religious centers, and patronage of the arts, were supported by major economic, political, and intellectual changes during the 12th and 13th centuries, representing a florescent period in European history. The cost of building a Gothic cathedral was immense, and could take a hundred years or more to build (see Schöller). Underlying this was a phase of sustained economic prosperity in northern Europe beginning by AD 1050, when agriculture and the textile industry flourished, and related commerce expanded through river transport and market towns, to a degree not seen in northern Europe since the Roman era (Pirenne 1936). Complex long-distance trade contacts within Europe, and influences from Islamic sources in Spain and the eastern Mediterranean, stimulated the further economic and technical development of Europe. The circulation of wealth within northern France, the heartland of the Gothic cathedral, was facilitated by an expanding money economy and national coinage implemented ca. 1180 by the Capetian king, Philippe Auguste, leading not only to cathedral construction but to the establishment of the first universities, hospitals, and welfare institutions, as well as the burgeoning of mercantile and trade sectors (see Paris under the Capetians).

[Fig.2: Gothic sculpture from the north transept of Chartres Cathedral, portraying Old Testament figures. Left to right: Melchizedeck, the Old Testament priest; Abraham with his son Issac; and Moses holding the tablets of the old law (photo: Athena Review)].

          The Capetian dynasty began with the Parisian count Hugh Capet, king of France from AD 987-996. Before the end of the 12th century, the power of the French monarchy was confined to the region around Paris, parts of the channel region, and several bishoprics under royal control. Since the 10th century, Normans had settled the northwestern region of France (now Normandy), which was ruled by the English in the 12th century. Most of today's France was under the control of local dukes and counts with differing loyalty towards the king. Nevertheless, the king's royal status was acknowledged by the nobility. His divine right to rule was confirmed by coronation ceremonies at Reims where he was anointed with holy oil.

          During the reign of Philippe Auguste, more provinces were assimilated across northern France and Flanders, including the prosperous region of Picardie. In this textile manufacturing zone arose several of the most important early Gothic cathedrals: the capital at Amiens, Senlis, Noyon, Laon, Soissons, and Beauvais.

          Apart from the architectural and sculptural creations as well as the prosperity of the Gothic era, there was of course a much darker face of the late Middle Ages, revealed in almost countless wars stemming from political instability, abuse of political or ecclesiastical power, and a relative lack of rights and poverty of vast parts of the society. Virtual lack of medical knowledge promoted numerous epidemics including the bubonic plague, leading to a short average lifespan. The contrast between the rich and poor, between the nobility and commoner, was as marked in economic terms as that between the saved and the damned in religious terms, as shown in the Last Judgment portals of many Gothic cathedrals. By the early 14th century, political satire reflecting the corrupt administration of rulers such as Philip IV in Roman de Fauvel had become a popular means of expression. There is also a lighter side to the medieval mentality as revealed by the poets of the Carmina Burana.

          Discussion of the Gothic period will begin with a focus on several of the great cathedrals of northern France, and continue in a later issue with selected examples from Germany, Britain, and Italy. The depth of architectural and sculptural innovation, artistic skill, and imagery at these sites should help reveal the unique outlook of the period.

     Gothic Sculpture

          Development of Gothic Sculpture: The exterior of Gothic cathedrals from the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis to Reims cathedral are elaborately decorated with sculptures, with portals and jambs filled with life-size figures of kings, saints, angels, and apostles. By the 1140s, Gothic sculptors took a revolutionary step beyond their Romanesque predecessors in their conception of the freestanding, detached jamb figures (fig.2). The Île de France became home to many workshops or schools of sculptors who traveled from one cathedral to the next, often producing works of extraordinary quality comparable to Classical, Renaissance, and Baroque sculpture.

          By recessing the doors of the western façade and creating a series of arches around the portal, Gothic architects increased the amount of space available for sculptural decoration. The formal, austere appearance of Romanesque churches vanished as groups of sculptures now filled the archivolts, tympanum, and lintel. The Abbey Church of Saint-Denis was the first to introduce a statue of Christ on the trumeau, with him and the Virgin Mary being one of the more common figures. In churches such as Notre-Dame and Amiens, the sculptural decoration became more elaborate, with a series of lower relief panels or socles connecting the three portals. At Chartres, a frieze or upper relief panel showing scenes of the Virgin and Passion of Christ connect the central with the lateral portals. The monumental Gallery of the Kings of Judah at Notre-Dame (fig.3), which spanned the entire width of the façade, became another popular Gothic feature. The interior also contained an array of sculpture such as the carved jube screen at Notre-Dame, and the late Gothic tomb effigies of Saint-Denis - one of the best preserved examples of French funerary art. The west façade, the north and south transept, as well as the church interior literally became an immense workspace for Gothic sculptors who transformed the cathedrals of northern France into timeless works of art.

          The transformation from Romanesque to Gothic owes part of its debt to Mosan goldsmiths (see below), as sculptors imitated nature and strove to portray the figures in a realistic fashion (Williamson 1995). The figures contained a very individualized quality that differed from the formalized type of the Byzantine tradition, becoming more plastic or three-dimensional. Beginning ca.1210 on the Coronation portal of Notre-Dame (fig.4) and continuing through the late 13th century at Reims, sculptors continued to refine and perfect such naturalistic elements in the figures.

[Fig.3: West façade of Notre-Dame cathedral (AD1190-1220).Above the three portals is the Gallery of Kings (photo: Athena Review)].

          Both the sculptures and the stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals were considered by Abbot Suger and others a life-size picture book for the mainly illiterate population with stories from both the Old and the New Testament. Masons carefully chiseled life-size figures on the jambs and miniature biblical scenes on the tympanum and lintel above, all serving an instructional, religious purpose. Those who entered the doors of the cathedral symbolically entered the house of God. The representation of Old Testament kings, queens, and prophets led to the designation of "Royal portal" at many cathedrals - a title which, much later proved hazardous during the French Revolution as revolutionaries often mistook the sculpted biblical figures to be statues of French rulers. While the cathedral sculptures generally portrayed religious themes such as the Last Judgment and Coronation of the Virgin (fig.4), semi-pagan themes such as the Signs of the Zodiac and the Virtues and the Vices were also widely sculpted on the cathedrals of northern France. The artists were also adept at carving grotesque figures such as gargoyles and marmosets (grossly deformed human or animal figures), and organic or vegetative motifs both inside and outside of the church. As the period progressed, the subject matter expanded and became more elaborate, as in the depiction of the events in the life of the Virgin Mary (known as the Marial cycle) at Reims cathedral.

The Gothic and Late Romanesque sculpture of the 12th-14th centuries achieved extremely high standards, as exemplified by the west and north portals at Reims. Indeed, its quality (plus the anonymity of the artists) has probably led to this being one of the more underrated fields of art history.

          Sources of Sculptural Influence: The revival of sculpture began in southern France with the Romanesque tradition in the first half of the 11th century. Romanesque sculpture specialized in the ornamentation of moldings, capitals, and tympanums, often containing decoration such as the interwoven foliage (fig.5) and acanthus leaves highly reminiscent of Late Antiquity. The figures tended to be more formalized, lacking emotion, and were most likely influenced by the Byzantine tradition. Multi-sided capitals from the Late Romanesque period contained narrative biblical characters and scenes, such as capitals bearing religious reliefs of angels and seraphs at the cloister of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières (Hérault). Spreading its influence to the Île de France, the Abbey Church of Sainte-Geneviève and St-Germain-des-Prés (see Merovingian Paris) also contained excellent examples of Late Romanesque sculpture such as that depicting the biblical story of Adam and Eve, now preserved in the Musée du Louvre and the Musée national du Moyen Âge. Religious scenes such as the highly popular Daniel in the Lion's Den and pagan themes such as Signs of the Zodiac characterized Late Romanesque sculpture. While the technique of sculpture was transformed in the Gothic era, the themes remained the same.

[Fig.4: North or Coronation portal of Notre-Dame in Paris (photo: Athena Review)].

          Beginning with the Romanesque church of Notre-Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme), a school of competent sculptors took root in southern France as sculptural decoration became prominent in both cathedral and cloister interiors. Other cathedral schools then gradually appeared at St. Etienne and St. Sernin in Toulouse, St. Pierre in Moissac, and St-Lazare in Autun before catching the attention of artists living in the Île de France. The Byzantine influenced sculptural decoration of the Romanesque churches became an important source of inspiration for the carved figures adorning both the interior and exterior of the Gothic cathedrals in the Île de France.

          Other major changes in Gothic sculpture can be attributed to Mosan goldsmiths of the Meuse valley. The Mosan goldsmiths were a 12th century workshop located in the Meuse Valley of Belgium and northern France that produced highquality gold, silver, and enameled objects. One of the most famous of these pieces is the reliquary of Cologne by Nicolas of Verdun. Their experimentation with three-dimensional form as well as a detailed rendering of the drapery, realistic facial expressions, and relaxed poses greatly influenced stone sculptors of the workshops in the Île de France. From the beginning of the 13th century onward, stone carvers who wished to emulate such naturalism looked to the Mosan style. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis played a role in the revolutionary change in sculpture, as it was he who commissioned the Mosan goldsmiths to create a cross, which no longer exists, to adorn his choir (see Abbot Suger's memoirs). This monumental cross, which impressed all those who viewed it, had a profound impact on the sculptural decoration of subsequent cathedrals including the St. Anne portal of Notre-Dame in Paris and the west façade of Senlis.

[Fig.5: Romanesque capital with the Carolingian foliage showing scenes of the devil from the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis (photo: Athena Review)].

          Additional sculptural influences can be traced to Byzantine ivories, as can be seen in the figure of St. Peter of the north portal of Notre-Dame (fig.4). Other Gothic churches, such as at Reims, continued to be inspired by Classical or Antique Roman sculpture.


Pirenne, H. 1936. A History of Europe. (tr. B. Miall). New Hyde Park, New York, University Books.

Williamson, P. 1995. Gothic Sculpture. New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

The above text appears on pages 17-20 of Introduction: Flowering of the Gothic in Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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