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Early Gothic, Late Gothic, and Italian Gothic Sculpture

Updated on April 4, 2014

The change from Romanesque to Gothic was a gradual one, occurring at different times (about 1150–1250) in various parts of Europe. The new spirit in sculpture, as in architecture, was a natural development of the fundamental premises laid down in Romanesque. Some authorities see its beginnings in the royal portal of the Chartres cathedral and in the work of Benedetto Antelami in Italy. Others regard these as the final flowering of Romanesque.

These are the chief ways in which fully developed Gothic differs from Romanesque: 1) Whereas Romanesque figures are conceived in relief as an outcrop from the background and are completely dependent on it, Gothic figures are conceived organically around an axis of their own. They are not spread out over the background but move autonomously against it. 2) Gothic sculpture reveals a growing interest in the natural world—in plants and animals—and in the real behavior of drapery and the structure of the figure. 3) It is more humanistic than Romanesque. The hieratic quality of Romanesque gives way to the expression of ordinary human feeling such as the tender smile of the Vierge Dorée ("Golden Virgin") of Amiens.

Royal Portals of Chartres
Royal Portals of Chartres | Source

Early Gothic

The first real flowering of Gothic was in the Île-de-France in the 2d quarter of the 12th century. A comparison of the architecturally disciplined severity and unnatural proportions of the jamb figures of the royal portal at Chartres with the more mobile, freer forms of those of the north and south transepts illustrates the direction in which early Gothic sculpture was developing.

A major influence on the development of Gothic in this area was the classicism of the Mosan goldsmiths, especially the great Nicholas of Verdun. This classical aspect of Gothic monumental sculpture reached its zenith in such figures as the Visitation group in the Reims cathedral. By the mid-13th century the Gothic style had spread from the workshops of such places as Reims, Paris, Amiens, and Chartres to the rest of Europe, and an enormous amount of sculpture was being produced.

Well of Moses
Well of Moses | Source

Late Gothic

The noble statues of the founders in the cathedral of Naumburg, Germany, reflect the high ideals of chivalry of the 13th century. But the influence of court tastes in the 14th century led to a loss of seriousness and high ideals in much of the sculpture—a substitution of charm and fashionable elegance for the deep religious feeling of early Gothic. By the 15th century, however, court influences waned, and the tastes of the new burgher class introduced a more solid, down-to-earth quality into sculpture. A great center for sculpture at this time was Burgundy, where the finest sculptor of the period, Claus Sluter, worked. The prophets on his Well of Moses and the figures on the portal of the Carthusian monastery of Champmol, near Dijon, have a massiveness and dignity that strike a new note in sculpture.

The late Gothic sculpture of the 15th and early 16th centuries is especially rich in works for the interiors of churches. This was the great period of medieval wood carving, the richest examples of which were made in Germany, Austria, and Flanders. The greatest works of the period are the wooden altarpieces of such sculptors as Veit Stoss, Tilman Riemenschneider, and Michael Pacher. Other major achievements in Gothic sculpture are the splendid tradition of recumbent tomb effigies, the free-standing groups representing the entombment of Christ, and the devotional statues, especially the Madonnas.

Italian Gothic

Gothic sculpture in Italy follows a rather different course from that of northern Europe, and in many respects it anticipates the Renaissance. The names of most of its greatest artists are known to us. They include Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni, who carved a magnificent group of marble pulpits; Arnolfo di Cambio; Tino di Camaino; Lorenzo Maitani; and Andrea Pisano, who made the first of the great bronze sculptured doors for the Baptistery of the Florence cathedral.


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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 3 years ago from Australia

      Such an amazing period of history. I'm continually amazed at the creativity that sprang as if from nowhere, before the birth of the Renaissance. I wonder what it would have been like living in Chartres and the like at the time; did they realise what wonders they were creating? Voted up.