Gothic Devotional Objects
Gothic art existed as monumental religious sculpture in churches, such as in the Cologne Cathedral, and as small, portable sculptures during the mid-12th century. Primary media in the Gothic period included sculpture, panel painting, stained glass fresco, and illuminated manuscripts. The earliest Gothic art existed as monumental sculpture on the walls of cathedrals and abbeys. Elaborate sculpture was used extensively to decorate the facades of these buildings.
By the end of this module you will be able to:
- Identify and describe the form, content, and context of key Gothic devotional artworks
- Define the critical terms and how they relate to Gothic devotional artworks
- Discuss the various materials and methods used to create a wide range of devotional objects in the Gothic period
The Cologne Cathedral is a renowned monument to German Gothic architecture as well as a World Heritage Site home to numerous works of art and decorative sculpture. Its exterior serves as a stunning example of German Gothic architecture, while its interior houses numerous examples of gothic sculpture and artwork.
One of the important works in the cathedral is the High Altar, installed in 1322. It is constructed out of black marble, with a solid slab 15 feet long forming the top. The front and sides are overlaid with white marble, nine inches into which figure are set, with the Coronation of the Virgin at the centre.
The most renowned work of art in the cathedral is the Shrine of the Three Kings. It was commissioned by Philip von Heinsberg, archbishop of Cologne from 1167 to 1191, and created by Nicholas of Verdun. It is traditionally believed to hold the remains of the Three Magi or Three Wise Men, whose relics were acquired at the conquest of Milan in 1164. The shrine takes the form of a large reliquary in the shape of a basilican church, made of bronze and silver. It is gilded and ornamented with architectonic details, figurative sculpture, enamels, and gemstones. The entire outside of the shrine is covered with an elaborate decorative overlay. There are 74 high relief figures in silver gilt in all, not counting smaller additional figures in the background decoration. On the sides, images of the prophets decorate the lower sections, while images of the apostles and evangelists decorate the upper part. On one end, there are (across the bottom, from left to right) images of the Adoration of the Magi, Mary enthroned with the infant Jesus, and the baptism of Christ. Above, one may see Christ enthroned at the Last Judgment. The opposite end shows scenes of the Passion: the scourging of Christ (lower left), and his crucifixion (lower left), with the resurrected Christ above. The figures, with their fully modelled bodies and wet drapery, demonstrate how sculptors in the Gothic period were familiar with classical references and were able to employ them in their works.
Near the sacristy is the Gero-Kreuz, a large crucifix carved in oak with restored paint and gilding. It is the oldest large crucifix north of the Alps, as well as the oldest known free-standing Northern sculpture of the medieval period.
Aside from monumental sculpture, smaller, portable sculptural pieces were also popular during the Gothic period. Small carvings, made generally for the lay market, became a considerable industry in urban centres. Gothic sculptures independent of architectural ornament were primarily created as devotional objects for the home or intended as donations for local churches. Nevertheless, small reliefs in ivory, bone, and wood covered both religious, as well as secular subjects, and were for church and domestic use. Such sculptures were often the work of urban artisans. The most typical subject for three-dimensional small statues is the Virgin Mary alone or with child. Additional objects typical of the time included small devotional polyptychs, single figures, especially of the Virgin Mary, mirror-cases, combs, and elaborate caskets with scenes from romances.
Gothic Metalwork and Ivory Carvings
France is credited with exporting the Gothic style of architecture during this period. Compared to Gothic architecture, which was better known for its large dramatic features such as flying buttresses and elaborate stained glass, metal and ivory artwork was often more diminutive—but it was still quite striking. Metalworkers and sculptors working in ivory made an impact on the art, architecture, craft, and interior design world of France during the period.
Ironwork during the Gothic period took on various styles and trends, from large rough wrought-iron works to more delicate items. In France, the dominant trend was towards the ornate, especially decorative pieces used as components on doors. These included door knockers, locks, and even hinges with elaborate adornment. These works required high levels of skill and craftsmanship. The door to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is a key example. Notre Dame is one of the first buildings to use a , which became characteristic of Gothic architecture. It is also well known for its sculptures, stained glass, and gargoyles. But the door of the cathedral is, in and of itself, a work of art, particularly when one takes into account the limited smithing techniques of the time.
Ivory became available once again in Europe in the Middle Ages and created a trend for ivory sculptures of various forms. In addition to small figures and talismans, there was a fashion for narrative panels in groups of two or three (diptychs and triptychs) or multi-panel polyptychs. Paris became a center for the creation of these works. Additionally, their popularity spread beyond church art, and these pieces could be found in homes and used for decorative furnishing. These works were considered luxury items; ivory work could often be found on the backs of hairbrushes, mirrors, and other luxury items. The works often portrayed scenes of romance and love rather than the religious scenes more typical of Gothic art.
An architectural structure built against or projecting from a wall that serves to support or reinforce the wall. Stands apart from the structure that it supports, and is connected to it by an arch (flyer).