Gothic Art

Every year as autumn comes around and holidays like Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, and All Hallow’s Day grow nearer, we often hear the word Gothic bandied about. When we think of things Gothic we’re apt to conjure up images of gloomy, foreboding castles, vampires with wings and fangs, and other downright spooky things — all the sort of things that might go bump in some dark night. We might think, too, of Goth sub-culture, all those troubled teens dressed in black, writing bad poetry filled with angst.

In today’s world, all of those things are considered gothic, and you’ll find some very good art and a lot of good gothic or dark ambient music. I’m a fan of  Siouxsie and the Banshees, Dead Can Dance, and Lustmord to name just a few of my favorites. The genre itself is eclectic and has spun off into so many different sub-genres it will make your head spin with it. Since this post isn’t really about goth music, I’ll just leave it at that and move on.

The original Goths were Germanic tribes — Visigoths and Ostragoths — who invaded the Roman Empire and ultimately brought it down. While it’s interesting to know this history, it really has little, if anything, to do with what became Gothic architecture and Gothic art. The only real connection is that gothic became a synonym for barbaric, a pejorative term used to insult newer styles of architecture, sculpture, and art. The critics of the day felt that these new styles were bringing down the art world as surely as the Goths had sacked Rome in 410 AD.

Italian artist and writer Giorgio Vasari described gothic art as “a monstrous and barbarous disorder”, and Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (better known as Moliere) wrote of “the besotted taste of Gothic monuments, these odious monsters of ignorant centuries, which the torrents of barbary spewed forth.”

Gothic is a term most often applied to architecture, and perhaps the most famous example is Catedral Notre-Dame de Paris — scene of a devastating fire last April.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Gothic architecture and sculpture gradually led to a gothic style of painting. This gothic art period began around 1200. Notable changes include figures that are more animated, more expressive, and more freely arranged in a composition than in the previous Romanesque period. This gothic style appeared first in France and was often called “French-work”. It made its way from France to Germany and on to Italy. Where painting was concerned, four areas were of special interest during the gothic period:

  • Frescoes
  • Panel paintings
  • Manuscript illumination
  • Stained glass

Famous artists of the gothic period include Jan van Eyck, Simone Martini, Roger Van Der Weyden, and Robert Campin.

Simone Martini “The Annunciation”

In our world today, the word gothic has been co-opted, stripped of its original meanings and handed over to frightening, mysterious, shadowy things like castles on the moor, horror movies, and dark art. We have gothic literature, gothic music, and a new gothic sub-culture built around cemeteries, the spectre of death, and all the evils of life.

As the darker times of year approach and we begin hearing more Gothic tales, maybe we should take time to remember that Gothic art was not about darkness, death, and despair. It was more about change, about daring to do something different, about finding new ways to express ideas about life, love, God, and mankind. And in that sense, maybe we should all embrace a bit of real Gothic culture.





    1. Funny you should mention that. I’ve said those exact same words before in earlier posts about different artists and art styles. I love reading art history, especially when I can find essays or books written by my favorite artists. It is fascinating to “get inside their heads” and read their personal thoughts about art, and about life itself. Yes, I should have been an art historian. No doubt about it!


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