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Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Art of the Goths

We often think of the Italian Renaissance as the bedrock upon which all modern day art was founded. Yet the styles and traditions of this era were only original insofar as they were amalgamations of the best the antique Roman and Greek art had to offer. In short, they were nothing new. However in Northern France, emerging amidst the darkness of the medieval era there was born an art and architecture that was new. The scholars and artists of the Renaissance knew of it. They didn't think much of it either. It seemed barbarian, reminding them of the Germanic tribes who sacked Rome in the fifth century--the Goths. They called it by the derogatory term, Gothic. To Italian tastes, it called to mind the so-called Dark Ages and the worst the Medieval period had to offer--something they were trying to shrug off.

photo by Oliver Bonjoch
Durham Cathedral
Whereas Renaissance artists decorated their great Romanesque religious sanctuaries with magnificent frescoes hearkening back to the glory of Rome, seasoned with Greek mythology, and only recently covered with a thin veneer of Christianity; the Gothic style, rather than concealing the structural elements with heavily carved ornamentation, integrated a carved stone structure into the design elements of the building, opening up the walls that heretofore might have been covered with paintings, to vast expanses of glass which told an illuminated story of Christ totally devoid of Roman influence or Greek fairy tales. In truth, the style did evolve gradually and it grew out of Romanesque architecture, but the fact that this style predates the Renaissance by several hundred years and outlasted it by several hundred more is something we myopically often fail to realize.

photo by Mossot
St. Denis Basilica choir
The first indications of Gothic style can be seen in Durham Cathedral begun in 1093, but the first truly Gothic structure was inaugurated by Abbot Suger with the planning and groundwork for the St. Denis Basilica begun in 1140. Completed 141 years later, the thin, fluted columns, graceful, new, pointed arches, and awe-inspiring acres of stained glass were light-years beyond the fortress-like structures such as the Sistine Chapel being built in Rome. Speaking of which, had he been born in France, rather than Tuscany, Michelangelo would never have had to fabricate tromp l'oeil architectural elements to frame his Sistine scenes from Genesis. Real structural architecture was already a part of the church ceilings of France. In fact, had he lived and worked in France, not Italy, he could have contentedly carved tympanum sculptures to frame the entrances to these great cathedrals, rather than having had to strain his neck decorating ceilings. And maybe we might today celebrate the French Renaissance.
photo by Oridifana
St. Denis Basilica, west front, 1140-1281

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