The Romanesque style dominated church building in the eleventh and most of the twelfth centuries. The Gothic style, following it and developing from it, began in the late twelfth century and prevailed down to the fifteenth. Among the great Romanesque churches were those built at Mainz, Worms, and Speyer in western Germany.
Another great Romanesque monastery church, with its surrounding buildings, was the complex at Cluny, and yet another was the pilgrimage church of St. James (Santiago) at Compostela in northwestern Spain. In the twelfth century from 500,000 to 2 million pilgrims a year made their way to this site, using what may be the first “tourist guide” ever written, the Pilgrim Guide of 1130.
Beginning in the late eleventh century Romanesque structures began to change substantially. From being round, the arches now gradually rose to points at the peak. Similarly, the roofs also rose more and more steeply as the smooth flow of the arch was sharply broken and two loftier curves met instead at a point.
This pointed arch and great windows to let in light were the chief features of the newer medieval architecture known as Gothic. It enabled the builder to carry his buildings to soaring heights. Pillars were used to take the place of a whole section of solid Romanesque wall, and the spaces between the pillars could be used for windows. Outside, too, increased lightness and soaring height were achieved by arched support, called “flying buttresses.”
Into the new window spaces the craftsmen of the thirteenth century fitted a new form of art: windows in multicolored (stained) glass, glittering with gemlike colors in ruby, sapphire, and emerald, and showing biblical episodes or episodes from the life of the saint whose church they illuminated.
Gothic architecture flourished for at least two centuries everywhere in Europe. Its first and perhaps greatest moments came in northern France, between the 1190s and about 1269, with the building of the cathedrals of Chartres, Rheims, Amiens, Notre Dame of Paris, and other celebrated churches. Open and vast, solidly built, soaring upward, the Gothic cathedral terminated in aerial towers.
Though its great windows let in the light, the stained glass kept the interior dim and awe inspiring. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries ornamentation grew richer, decoration became more intricate, and Gothic architecture on the Continent moved toward its decline. In England, however, the later, richer Gothic produced such marvels as King’s College Chapel in Cambridge and the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey in London.
Shortly before 1100 a revival of European sculpture began. The tradition had never been lost, as demonstrated by early medieval Irish and English crosses, but the finest surviving examples of the art of sculpture before the Romanesque revival were in ivory and metalwork. Now the stone of the churches began to blossom out with rosettes, palm leaf ornaments, and grapevines, and hiding behind the foliage would be mythical beasts. Scenes from the Bible also appeared on the capitals above the columns.
Gradually sculpture in the round became more common. Lifelike representation of drapery and the firm balance of the figures on their feet are principal characteristics of these new statues, occurring chiefly in northern France. Similar traits are seen elsewhere in metalwork and in manuscript illumination, rather than in monumental sculpture.
The influences from outside that helped make the development possible came through Byzantine art, then undergoing a kind of classical renaissance, which became available to Western eyes through renewed and intensified contacts between East and West by pilgrims, travelers, and warriors during the period of the Crusades.
The career of the Florentine architect, sculptor, and painter Giotto di Bondone (c. 1266-1337) is particularly illustrative of how one stage of artistic development is father to the next. A friend of Dante’s, Giotto often followed the Byzantine models so popular in his day, but he also sought to make his paintings more lifelike and emotional. He learned from Italian sculptors who had studied the sculptures on the portals of Gothic cathedrals, especially at Chartres.
Giotto executed similar forms in frescoes, creating the illusion of three dimensions by the use of foreshortening and perspective. Between 1304 and 1306 Giotto painted thirty-eight frescoes depicting the lives of the Virgin and of Christ. His scenes of the Kiss of Judas and of the Entombment became highly influential in the development of Renaissance art.
Even before the Renaissance, Giotto exemplified the Renaissance artist’s approach to his work—individualistic, intent upon fame and success, expecting lucrative commissions, and engaging in business activities (in this case as a debt-collector and a landlord to weavers) for further profit. Money and art were wed through patronage, as when the great banking families of the Bardi and Peruzzi of Florence employed Giotto to apply his art to the Church of Santa Croce.
Dante, Chaucer, Giotto, the soaring Gothic spire all attested to the primacy of the Christian God. Each sought to show life as a pilgrimage, a search for salvation in an ever more complex world; each sought to draw the eye upward, literally to follow the Gothic tower toward heaven. Each was lively, energetic, fond of exquisite detail. The complexity of one of Chaucer’s pilgrim’s tales, the intricacy of an inner circle of Purgatory in Dante’s vision of a netherworld, the carefully rendered individuality of one of Giotto’s figures spoke to the desire to see the individual in relation to God.
For most of the medieval West the dominant authority remained the church. Few leaders in the area that was to become Germany thought that there could be a secular state, for all theory relating to governance derived from the church, which was an intermediary with God. Even architecture reflected this view.
However, in the two areas that were becoming France and England, the contest between authorities was clearer. In both countries there were philosophers and statesmen who felt they could discern clear boundaries between temporal and spiritual matters. And in both countries science and literature were developing themes that, while Christian, nonetheless anticipated the rise of the secular domain.