The Gothic period is subdivided into a number of phases—each country with varying chronological boundaries and denominations—corresponding to periods when the eponymous style underwent changes. From the mid-twelfth to the early sixteenth century, this art of French origin continued to progress, particularly enriching itself from past experiences as well as exogenous contributions. Its manifestations were felt throughout Europe beginning in the late fourteenth century.
Early on, there was a desire to define the tendencies and singular modes of expression within Gothic art, which were given chronological demarcations of varying quality; a few rounded dates served as milestones for the formulation of the stylistic concepts that were in fashion at a particular moment during the four centuries when Gothic art dominated Europe. If use of the term “style” is problematic, the arbitrary compartmentalization is even more so: were 1200, 1300 and 1400 years in which there was a genuine turning point, or are they simple markers facilitating the art historian’s task? These “moments” of Gothic art in any case coincided with aesthetic realities, and it should be noted that they remain subject to debate, or at least to nuancing, with every attempt at categorization being uncertain and perfectible.
From approximately 1170-1180 to 1230-1240, a singular style appeared in the Mosan region before developing in various areas of Western Europe (Paris and Île-de-France, Champagne, the Rhine, Southern England). The “1200 style,” no longer entirely romanesque but not yet Gothic, was characterized by ancient echoes and Byzantine accents, a search for harmony in composition, greater “realism” in the figuration of individuals, a certain energy, and finally by the taste for supple folds (Muldenfaltenstil) and striking colour. This phenomenon was observed by Arthur Haseloff in 1906—who noted the transformation of painting under the influence of stained-glass windows—and especially underscored by Otto Homburger in 1958. It did not receive its current name until the exhibition The Year 1200, held in 1970 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Its range was then better defined, and its formal characteristics specified. Homburger notably established links between the illustration of the famous Winchester Bible (ca. 1160-1180), and the Portal of the Virgin on the west façade of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral (ca. 1210). He also associated the illumination of the Psalter (ca. 1193-before 1214) of Queen Ingeborg of Denmark, the unfortunate wife of Philip Augustus, with the sculpture of Chartres Cathedral (transept portals) and also Reims Cathedral (group of the Visitation, Portal of the Last Judgment in the north transept). The resonance of ancient models is discernible, notably in the damp or “undulating” folds embracing the bodies that can also be found at Sens, Senlis or Laon, and further away at Cologne (tympan of Saint Cecilia’s Church). The stained-glass windows of the Canterbury Cathedral choir (ca. 1178-1220), like those of the chevet of Laon Cathedral (ca. 1200), were related to this new artistic language. The goldsmith’s art of Nicolas de Verdun, which symbolized both its spirit and its most noteable aspects, was the culminating point of the 1200 style: in the admirable series of prophets from the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne, and even more so on the ambo of the Klosterneuburg Abbey in Austria, enameled in approximately 1181, it is easy to observe the supple line, the more satisfying spatiality, the greater precision in representation of the human figure, as well as the dynamic gestures and increased expressivenes that helped define this style. Nevertheless, this style met with a certain amount of resistance, and took on less clear variations in regions of Europe where other traditions prevailed.
Around 1300, Rayonnant Gothic reached its peak, and did so well beyond the borders of the French kingdom. The exhibition Art During the Time of the Accursed Kings: Philip the Fair and His Sons, which took place in 1998 at the Grand Palais National Galleries in Paris, included a conference on the subject, and enabled a convergence of views regarding reigns that had long been relegated to a position of secondary importance in artistic matters. It was preceded by a number of foundational retrospectives: Gothic Europe, Twelfth to the Fourteenth Centuries (1968), The Art of the Court: France and England, 1250-1328 (1972), and Transformations of the Court Style: Gothic Art in Europe, 1270-1330 (1977), which engaged in a comparative perspective on the European level. The period was marked on both sides of the English Channel by the liveliness of an elegant, and often ostentatious, court art, where the religious and the profane intermingled (Palais de la Cité in Paris, heraldic stained-glass windows of York Minster). More broadly, Europe underwent artistic and architectural ferment driven not only by ecclesiastical, royal, aristocratic or noble circles, but also by friaries and the urban bourgeoisie. Heterogeneous in its manifestations (let us recall the English Decorated Style emerging at the time), art ca. 1300, including architecture, nevertheless had recourse to a generally coherent vocabulary (success of the graphic forms of the Ile-de-France Rayonnant style, presence of humorous marginalia in illuminated manuscripts, etc.).
The late fourteenth century saw, in even clearer fashion, the emergence of a style that gradually extended to most of Europe and reached, aside from royal or noble circles, patrons of varying social origins. A number of formulations attempting to define this artistic phenomenon, which is qualified in France as “international gothic,” coexist: weicher Stil (soft style) in Germany, krásný styl (beautiful style) in Bohemia, gotico internazionale in Italy (or sometimes gotico cortese, this second term being reductive). In 1962, a major exhibition under the auspices of the Council of Europe was held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Europäische Kunst um 1400, dedicated to the International Gothic style: this event sought to gather the artistic production of various European centres, with the goal of demonstrating the existence of a shared style for all of Western and Central Europe ca. 1400. More recently, exhibitions dedicated in 2004 by the Musée du Louvre to Paris 1400: The Arts Under Charles VI, and four years later by the musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame de Strasbourg to Strasbourg 1400: A Centre for Art in Gothic Europe, helped to further research on European art from the transitional period between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Louis Courajod was the first to offer a description of this “international gothic,” particularly marked by the use of sparkling colors, sinuous lines, refined ornamental motifs, and a growing interest for naturalist renderings of figurative elements. Some of these distinctive traits can be found earlier with the Siennese Simone Martini or the Parisian Jean Pucelle, with the style of these exceptional artists in fact inspiring ensuing generations of painters and miniaturists. The circulation of people, ideas and travelling artists—more so than trade in luxury objects—explains the rapid spread of a specific vocabulary from major artistic centres with their concentrations of means and talent, such as Paris, ducal Burgundy (Charterhouse of Champmol), Strasbourg, Avignon (Papal Palace) or Prague (Karlštejn Castle). Moreover, it was a time of essentially secular patronage. All domains and artistic mediums were concerned, in particular painting, sculpture, and goldsmithery, as well as both religious and palatial construction. Europe maintained this uniform formal language until the end of the first third of the fifteenth century, even if later recurrences can be detected here and there in the decades between 1430-1450. As several authors have justly emphasized, International Gothic probably represented the first major European stylistic phenomenon since the remarkable synthesis represented two centuries earlier by the 1200 style.
These dates (1200, 1300 and 1400) thus cannot be reduced to artificial milestones. They can be interpreted in this way, but correspond above all to “times” of evolution, diffusion and appropriation of forms, whose study, which is still underway, shows—if there were a need—the considerable importance of art in the construction of European identity during the Middle Ages.