It is from an architectural standpoint or through architectural associations that the northern Gothic sculpture and painting are best approached. The Gothic pictures (mainly known to us through work of the Flemings and Germans) have a crude and awkward appearance when transferred to a modern picture gallery and divorced from the altars and shrines of the cathedrals which they once decorated. It is in the few cases where the old association has been preserved that we can best value their purpose and consequently their art. As for the Gothic sculpture of the north, it was so wholly architectural in association that it is impossible even to mention it apart from the buildings it decorated.
We have seen under what peculiar limitations the early Christian art began its historylimitations of prejudice against that study of the nude form and of anatomy, which is indispensable to the science of the artist; limitations of indifference to physical beauty or appearances of natural illusion ; limitations of the antique art decadence ; limitations of barbarism ; and limitations of Byzantine tradition. The first dawning efforts of independence are dated from the eleventh and twelfth centuries but had not gone far when the Gothic period opened. We have seen that barbarism of sculptured design was still general throughout Italy in the thirteenth century, – the illustration referred to being quite a fair type of the best average work. It should be added, moreover, that the weakness of the sculptor’s art during the Romanesque centuries lay especially in the lack of practiceits surviving monuments (aside from ivory carvings) being confined to a few church bronze doors in Germany and Italy and occasional sculptures of church portals, mainly of the later twelfth century. The phenomenal excellence of those at Freiberg (Saxony) and Wechselburg in , Germany, must have some local explanation related to the occasional survival of classic influences and style during the Middle Ages. The greatest success of Romanesque carving was in its grotesque and scroll ornaments for capitals, etc., in which it was thoroughly successful.
The original deficiencies of Christian plastic art in the Middle Ages were never entirely overcome throughout its whole history, and the comparative inferiority of Gothic sculpture must therefore receive a threefold explanation : first, the lack of a scientific study of design in preceding periods, the influence, that is to say, of historic continuity ; second, its purely decorative purpose, in the sense that its works were all connected with architecture ; third, the enormous amount of production by stonecutters (as distinct from professional artists) due to the architectural destination.
It was the fate of Gothic sculpture in general to suffer from a difficulty of exactly contrary nature to that which had crippled art in earlier medieval centuries. Want of practice was one earlier cause of medieval deficiencies, over-production was another and later cause. The enormous quantity of statues and relief sculpture lavished on single buildings is apparent from the illustrations. The case of Milan Cathedral on which there are two thousand statues has been mentioned.
Under these circumstances rapid stone-mason and artisan work is all that could be asked, and we should rather admire the decorative success of the average workman than criticise his art for not doing the impossible. Not even the talent and dexterity of antiquity could have held the average of work up to the level of standard professional sculpture, under similar conditions. In grasping the religious sense and pith of the story to be told by a relief, in simple dignity and pure feeling, in innocence of expression, the Gothic sculpture has no superior. Its subordination and relation to a general architectural effect must be constantly considered in making proper concessions for the character of execution. We see in one of the portals of Chartres, for instance, that the unnatural elongation of the figures is a decorative accommodation to the slenderness of the columns against which they stand. The spectacle of an entire craft of stonecutters rising to a high degree of artisan excellence in sculpture is the interesting point in Gothic plastic art.
As the small figures of ivory carving admit of larger reproduction, the picture of the English ivory carving will give a fair idea of the average Gothic sculpture in larger dimensions. It is a triptych, made for a bishop of Exeter in the fourteenth century. The ivory carvings of the Gothic in general are also indicated by this view.
The sculptures of Chartres, of Rheims, of Wells, Lincoln, and Strassburg are, taken collectively, among the finest of the whole Gothic time. For the wood carvings of the pulpits, cathedral choir stalls (seats for the clergy) etc., the late Flemish Gothic has many fine examples. Outside of Flemish and German art, survivals of Gothic painting in the north are almost unknown. The great promise held out by the grand and simple frescoes of the Romanesque cathedrals was not fulfilled, unless the splendid stained glass pictures of the Gothic windows are included in our view. In actual fact, and because they took up almost the entire wall surface, these did take the place of the earlier paintings of the north.
The art of stained glass reached a perfection at this time, which has never since been rivaled for brilliancy and harmony of color and for technical merit. The fine revivals which recent nineteenth century art has witnessed in stained glass are distinctly due to the study of the old Gothic windows ; for during the Renaissance period the art was mainly abandoned. In spite of the beauty of many recent examples, it cannot be said that we have yet reached the excellence of the ancient art. Theory and archaeology combined cannot fill the place of the long practice and inherited technical traditions, which were the stock in trade of the Gothic. The fine color sense of individual experts may go far in individual cases, but it cannot cope as yet in its average results with the art of an entire craft working all over Europe, such as made the ancient Gothic windows.
The survivals of these works are more fragmentary than might be supposed. Few cathedrals of France, Germany, or England escaped the assaults of mobs during the time of the Reformation, when Catholic ecclesiastical art appeared to many to be formal idolatry. The windows were the first objects of attack and were the most easily destroyed of all Catholic monuments. Scattered survivals here and there, are sufficient to attest their universal beauty.
Figure painting did not flourish widely in the Gothic time. The natural style or design of the stained glass window was somewhat like that of the Byzantine mosaics as regards its methods and results for other art. No effort was made to avoid the breaks in the figures made by the leaden framework which held the segments of the glass together. These segments were treated, but in larger dimensions, in the style of mosaic. There is consequently a stiffness and formalism of out-lines which tended to react upon and cripple other surface design, in much the same way that the mosaics tended to formalize other Byzantine art.
Of all arts, figure painting is consequently that which made least progress in this time. It was overshadowed by its sister decorative art, that of the stained glass windows. It had to contend with limited patronage and was left in England, France, and Spain, at least, to inferior artists. The art was confined to altar and panel pictures, in general default of wall surfaces. Undoubtedly much was done that has perished, but for modern survivals we are almost absolutely confined to Flanders and to Germany, where the School of Cologne bordering on the Netherlands was the most important.
It was not till the close of the fourteenth century that the art of painting reached even relative success, but in the hands of the Van Eycks of Bruges (two brothers, Hubert and Jan), it blossomed in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries into marvelous perfection. Their most renowned work is the altarpiece of St. Bavo in Ghent (The Adoration of the Lamb), some of whose panels are now in the Berlin Museum (two others in Brussels).
Wherever we find great geniuses in art a substratum and support of coworkers of excellence may always be assumed. This again presupposes a considerable public patronage. Outside of Italy, the most flourishing country of Europe in the fifteenth century was Flanders (modern Belgium), then a part of the great dukedom of Burgundy. It was the wealth of this country under Charles the Bold and his predecessors which explains the perfection of Flemish art at the time of the Van Eycks.
The two countries in which modern painting first developed were Italy and Flanders, because these were the two countries of Europe which first realized the highest commercial and manufacturing prosperity.
Hans Memling and Roger van der Weyden were later successors of the Van Eycks in the same century, of somewhat inferior caliber. The work of Memling rivals in delicacy that of the Van Eycks, but he did not leave works of the large dimensions and powerful execution which distinguished the Adoration of the Lamb. Memling’s most famous works are the reliquary chest of St. Ursula in Bruges, and an altarpiece in Danzig, The Last Judgment.
Roger van der Weyden, who is intermediate in time between the Van Eycks and Memling, has much of the power of the former but is inferior to them in finish and in drawing, his work being somewhat hard and angular. He is however an excellent representative of the average quality of northern Gothic art in painting, before it was overshadowed and displaced in the sixteenth century by the Renaissance design of Italy. His art is well represented in the Berlin Museum. One of his finest pictures is in Madrid.
The School of Cologne, one of the great commercial centers of the later Middle Ages, cannot be compared in average results with the Flemish, but its greatest master, Stephen Lochner, executed the most beautiful picture of the northern Gothic art next to the great work of the Van Eycks. This is the Adoration of the Magi, with flanking panels for the stories of St. Ursula and St. Gereon, now in the choir of Cologne Cathedral, the famous Kolner Dombild. The Gothic paintings of South Germany and of Alsace are more interesting for historical associations and for pious purpose than for color or drawing. They are at least an excellent foil to illustrate the high perfection of contemporary Italian painting. The best painters of Gothic South Germany were Martin Schongauer and Michael Wohlgemuth. The best collections of early German art are in Munich, Berlin, and Cologne. The masterpieces of Flanders are especially found in Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and Brussels. Many have found their way to foreign museums.