French Gothic painting and conclusion

There are in France some few frescoes from the Gothic period, such as those at one of the vaults of the oratory of the house of Jacques Coeur in Bourges with beautifully drawn figures (in this case angels) in the vault’s arches.

Instead, in Gothic France, there were abundant paintings on table (or panel paintings*) of the same high quality of the sculptures and ivory reliefs we’ve already discussed. The altar pieces and furniture that disappeared during the religion wars and the Revolution must have included masterpieces of French Gothic painting. Some of those masterpieces exist today, but they are few, and among them stand out for their extraordinary quality two paintings by Enguerrand Quarton, La Pietà de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon (Louvre), and the Coronation of the Virgin (Musée de l’Hospice, Villeneuve-les-Avignon), both pieces from the first quarter of the fifteenth century.

The “Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon” by Enguerrand Quarton, mid XVth century. Oil on wood, 163 cm x 219 cm, ca. 1455 (Musée du Louvre). The Pietà*, where the dead Christ is supported by his grieving mother, is one of the most common themes of late-medieval religious art, but this is one of the most striking depictions and has been considered as the greatest masterpiece produced in France in the XVth century. The bare background landscape falls away to a horizon with the buildings of Jerusalem, and the sky is represented by a plain gold leaf with stamped and incised haloes, borders and inscriptions. The clerical donor kneels to the left, while the figure of St. John kneels at Christ’s head, the Virgin’s hands are together in prayer, and the crying figure of Mary Magdalene kneels at the right.

Due to the lack of surviving panel paintings from Gothic France, the study of French Gothic painting has been directed more to the miniatures and stained glasses. The art of decorating books with paintings had a glorious history in the French miniature of the Carolingian period followed by a not so productive period during the Romanesque, indeed the French illustrated books of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries didn’t reflect the magnificent works that will be later produced. The importance of French Gothic miniature somewhat belies the size of its manuscripts. Usually, the illuminated books of the Carolingian schools were monumental codices, and the illustrations were rather paintings on parchment than mere decorations of a written text. In the Gothic period, the size of books was reduced to almost resemble today’s books, and the miniatures became an embellishment of the written text. In this sense, miniatures became a part of the art of the book craftsman and not of the painter per se.

The Coronation of the Virgin by Enguerrand Quarton, 1453-54. Oil on panel, 183 x 220 cm (Musée de l’Hospice, Villeneuve-les-Avignon). Although the Coronation of the Virgin is a common subject in art, in this painting there is an unusual representation of the Father and Son of the Holy Trinity as identical figures at both sides of Virgin Mary. Around the Trinity, blue and red angels are deployed. There are also depictions of Rome (bottom left) and Jerusalem (bottom right) in the panoramic landscape. Beneath the landscapes the Purgatory (left) and Hell (right) open up, and in the center the donor kneels before a Crucifixion. On the extreme left a church is shown in “cut-away” style, containing a Mass of Saint Gregory. The landscapes portrayed are Provençal and include perhaps the first appearance in art of Mont Sainte-Victoire, later to be painted so often by Cézanne and others.

The reign of St. Louis marked the apogee of the French school of book illuminators with its center in Paris. In the fifteenth century, Avignon was other important center for manuscript illumination although with a strong Italian influence.

The Gothic French illustrated manuscripts were no longer those bulky Bibles and monastic sacramentaries* of the Carolingian period, but isolated texts, psalters* and Evangeliaria* for personal or domestic use. Whole Bibles didn’t had marginal illustrations but entire pages decorated with scenes enclosed by a frame that was subdivided into small squares.

At the time of Philip Augustus and St. Louis the most characteristic books were psalters. These included two types of miniatures: one that imitated the shapes of the windows or stain glasses and thus divided the page in circles within which the narrative episodes were represented; and a second type of miniature, in which the scenes were enclosed by a frame and with architectures as background: pinnacles, rosettes, roofs and arches with buttresses.

Later, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the so called “books of hours*” were in vogue. These books tended to be beautifully bound with silver clasps. Some of them had in the first page the portrait of its possessor surrounded by the favorite saints of his devotion or simply by the people of his entourage. These initial pages were followed by the calendars, with illustrations for each month and the space for the calendar saint’s days; then it followed the text constituted by the daily prayers with some other miniature in full-page which sometimes offered little relation to the content of its accompanying text. These miniatures included the lives of the saints or the Virgin, the Nativity, Adoration of the Magi or the Visitation, and very rarely they also depicted scenes from passages of the Old Testament.

In the classical era of the Parisian miniature or the period of the reign of St. Louis, miniatures were often richly decorated with gold and bright colors harmonically combined. Then in the fourteenth century, especially in the school of Avignon, the use of gold decreased significantly to use mainly blue and green colors imitating the miniatures produced in Bologna and Siena. Finally, in the fifteenth century, in the schools of central France and Burgundy, the use of gold completely disappeared, the backgrounds recovered their natural colors, and skies and trees were only sprinkled with few dots and fine lines of gold and silver to give more brilliance to the colors.

The best book craftsmen of these Books of Hours from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries were  the Limbourg brothers (Paul, Johan and Hermann) and their masterpieces are the miniatures made for the Duke of Berry beginning in 1410, among which is the famous codex of the Très Riches Heures ( Musée Condé, Chantilly, France).

The calendar folios of The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (between c. 1412 and 1416) by the Limbourg brothers (Musée Condé, Chantilly, France).

During the mid-fourteenth century appeared a new style of miniature with great differences: the scenes were drawn only in chiaroscuro* and are now known as the art of the grisailles. The most characteristic works of this genre are the miniatures that illustrate the famous series of the Miracles of the Virgin, a compilation of small stories related to miracles with the intervention of Mary and gathered by the canon Gautier de Coucy.

The Arrest of Christ (left) and the Annunciation to Mary (right) from “The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux”, an illuminated book of hours (between 1324 and 1328) by Jean Pucelle for Jeanne d’Evreux, the third wife of Charles IV of France (The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The book is very lavishly decorated, mostly in grisaille drawings i.e. with paintings executed entirely in shades of grey or of another neutral grayish color.
Stained glass window at Saint-Denis cathedral.

Another important manifestation of the Gothic painting in France were the stain glasses for the large windows of the cathedrals, these were beautifully decorated with scenes and figures. Kings and prelates took great interest in that the new churches included this type of decorations, and so the family crest of the generous donor was usually present in the borders surrounding the main composition at the center of the window. In France, the first school of stain glass decorators seemed to have been that of Saint-Denis in the time of the Abbot Suger. The glassmakers of Saint-Denis in turn mentored those of Chartres in the art of decorating cathedral windows, and in this city must have formed a school that became the main center of the stain glass craft during the last half of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Chartres artisans would have decorated the windows of other French cathedrals, as these stain glass windows reproduced the same themes that appeared in the windows of Chartres for the first time. During the reign of St. Louis, Paris was also the main center of stain glass decoration in all France; during that time, the beautiful stained glass windows of the Sainte-Chapelle were produced, these windows so wonderfully contributed to the overall light effect experienced inside the building, giving the impression of light and transparency.

The scenes portrayed in the stain glasses were the same as those of the reliefs and miniatures, but perhaps in this art of glassmaking the decorators were more influenced by the requirements of the canons and patrons that ordered them. In the stain glasses is where we find the most convoluted representations of the medieval mystic, the most subtly interpretation of themes with more intimate relationships between the Old and New Testament. The scenes from the lives of saints also reproduced the repertoire of the legends given by Jacobus de Varagine in its Legenda Aurea; each scene was contained within a circle or a square surrounded by a border. The brilliance of colors was accentuated by the contrast of the black contours of the lead that held the glass pieces together.

Stained glass window at the Chartres cathedral representing the History of Joseph.
Stained glass windows at the Sainte-Chapelle (Paris).

The old enamel school of Limoges, from the Romanesque period, was replaced by that of the translucent enamels in which the transparent colors, like a glass, shined more by the metallic reflection of silver and gold on which they were applied. Sometimes the reliquaries represented a tiny church, sometimes they were given the shape of the body’s fragment they kept as relic. Liturgical objects such as censers*, chalices* and lecterns, are true gems, tiny monuments of beauty.

In the Gothic period, usually a craftsman, carpenter or blacksmith were considered artists. With the same methodical rationalism that we have seen prevailed in the great monuments, also in the small furniture, coffers and chests or in closets, the building elements that formed the “skeleton” of the furniture were adopted as decorative motifs; according to this standard, hinges, locks, and reinforcing straps were all decorated.

The ‘St. George aquamanile’ (ca. 1400) (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Firenze, Italy).
The Chalice of Gilles de Walcourt, attributed to Hugo d’Oignies (ca. 1228) (Musée Provincial des Arts Anciens du Namurois, Namur).

We have given to the description of the French Gothic art an extension that seems exaggerated, but that can be justified by the fact that in France Gothic art not only was born and developed but was also perfected. When we later describe the Gothic art in the different European national schools, we will see that they could almost be described as “provincial”. The ideal of European countries during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was to do everything as French as possible, which was the same as doing it in the most “Gothic way”.

The huge influence that France had over Europe was a direct consequence of the fact that the Papacy moved to Avignon. The prestige of the papal Curia, so low during the Romanesque period, was revived by the order of Cluny and popes, away from the eternal battlefield that was Italy and now established on the banks of the Rhone at Avignon, accepted and propagated French culture as the best that embodied the spirit of Christianity. Thus, the Gothic art can be considered to be the unifier force of the Western spirit during those times.


* Book of hours: It is the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript and refers to a Christian devotional book popular in the Middle Ages. They contained a similar collection of texts, prayers and psalms, often with appropriate decorations, for Christian devotion. The typical book of hours is an abbreviated form of the breviary which contained the Divine Office recited in monasteries in those times. It was developed for lay people who wished to incorporate elements of monasticism into their devotional life. A typical book of hours contained: a Calendar of Church feasts, an excerpt from each of the four gospels, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the fifteen Psalms of Degrees, the seven Penitential Psalms, a Litany of Saints, an Office for the Dead, the Hours of the Cross, and various other prayers.

*Censer: (Also known as incense burner, perfume burner or pastille burner). A vessel made for burning incense or perfume in some solid form. These vessels vary greatly in size, form, and material of construction, and have been in use since ancient times in many cultures, in both secular and religious contexts. They may consist of simple earthenware bowls or fire pots to intricately carved silver or gold vessels, small table top objects a few centimeters tall to as many as several meters high. Often, especially in Western contexts, “censer” is used for pieces made for religious use, especially those on chains that are swung through the air to spread the incense smoke widely, while “perfume burner” is used for objects made for secular use.

*Chalice: (From Latin calix, meaning “mug”, borrowed from Greek kulix meaning “cup”). Also known as goblet, is a footed cup intended to hold a drink. In religious practice, a chalice is often used for drinking during a ceremony or may carry a certain symbolic meaning.

* Chiaroscuro: The use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures.

*Evangeliaria: Also known as Book of the Gospels, is a liturgical book containing only those portions of the four gospels which are read during Mass or in other public offices of the Church.

*Panel painting: A painting made on a flat panel made of wood, either a single piece, or a number of pieces joined together. Until canvas became the more popular support medium in the 16th century, it was the normal form of support for a painting not on a wall (fresco) or vellum, which was used for miniatures in illuminated manuscripts and paintings for the framing.

*Psalter: A book containing the Book of Psalms, often with other devotional material bound in as well, such as a liturgical calendar and litany of the Saints. Until the later medieval emergence of the book of hours, psalters were the books most widely owned by wealthy lay persons and were commonly used for learning to read. Many Psalters were richly illuminated and they include some of the most spectacular surviving examples of medieval book art.

*Sacramentary: The book for the priest celebrant, containing all and only the words spoken (or sung) by him, usually assuming the presence of a choir, deacon and subdeacon. On the other hand, sacramentaries provide the priest’s texts at other occasions besides Mass. As they suppose that the celebrant is normally a bishop, they usually supply the texts for ordinations, at the consecration of a church and altar and many exorcisms, blessings, and consecrations that were later inserted in the Pontifical and Ritual.