In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gothic Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Sculpture
  • Metalwork and Tapestry
  • Interdisciplinary Studies
  • Iconography and Meaning
  • Gothic Reconsidered

Medieval Studies Gothic Art
Alexandra Gajewski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0040


Hardly any category of style covers as complex a phenomenon as Gothic. Chronologically, it can be traced from its beginnings in France in the early 12th century to its perpetuation, in some regions, into the 16th century. Geographically, Gothic spread as far as Western Christendom itself. The diverse artistic achievements of the period include illuminated manuscripts, carved and painted altar retables, as well as austere mendicant churches. But among all the works, the Gothic cathedral with its lofty vaults, painted windows, and carved portals is considered most emblematic of Gothic art. Scholarly preoccupation with the cathedral is rooted in the field’s own history. The earliest commentators, 15th- and 16th-century Italian humanists, such as Vasari, compared the Gothic of their immediate past unfavorably with the classical styles of Antiquity, of which they regarded themselves as the direct heirs. This pejorative sense was only shaken off (if it ever was) in the context of late-18th-century romantic admiration for Gothic architecture. The threat of the “death of the cathedral” (Proust) in post-revolutionary Europe galvanized archaeologists, architects, and clergymen to save churches from further destruction and to turn the study of medieval architecture into a serious discipline. By the late 19th century, French scholars and poets had raised Gothic to the position of a national art and the cathedral to a symbol of a harmonious society (see Gothic Reconsidered). The initial contribution of architects and archaeologists helps to explain the predominance of architectural studies. But the origins of the discipline have also shaped the approach to Gothic art in a number of other ways. The need to define empirical guidelines for research generated a fragmentation of the discipline into different areas of expertise. Only recently have scholars explored more integrated approaches aimed at contextualizing buildings and objects; see Interdisciplinary Studies. Moreover, Gothic art is perhaps the only style whose origin historians want to attribute to a specific moment, a specific place, and even a specific person: the Abbey of Saint-Denis, near Paris, under Abbot Suger (c. 1081–1151). Unsurprisingly, this formative event has benefited from a particularly intense scholarly debate; see France and Paris and Selected Sources. The acknowledgment that Gothic has both a beginning and a center, around Paris, has meant that Gothic is traditionally studied chronologically, starting at Saint-Denis and following its diffusion first into northeastern France during the Early Gothic (c. 1140–c. 1190) period and then into the rest of Europe during the High Gothic (c. 1190–c. 1230) period. Regional studies provide an important balance to such a Franco-centric understanding of Gothic, although only recently has regional Gothic shaken off the image of provincialism and has awareness been raised that current borders do not necessarily reflect Gothic reality; see Regional Architecture. Moreover, the later periods of Gothic—for example, in France, Rayonnant (c. 1230–c. 1380) and Flamboyant (c. 1380–c. 1500); and in England, Decorated (c. 1290–c. 1350) and Perpendicular (c. 1330–c. 1500)—are still being discovered by scholars. Most surveys on Gothic art cover only the period up to c. 1300 for architecture, or up to c. 1400 for painting, after which time the spotlight is usually moved onto the Italian Renaissance, especially as the universalizing term “International Style” for the period of c. 1400 is now being rejected as too sweeping. Indeed, for northern Europe, the later chronological limit we give to Gothic art is currently fluctuating. Increasingly, the term “Northern Renaissance” is applied to late Medieval art, after 1400, and a consensus about terminology is not in sight. This select bibliography follows the general emphasis of scholarship and publications by concentrating on the earlier periods but hopes to provide sufficient indications for those readers seeking to work on later aspects of Gothic art. Books on single buildings and objects are usually not included. Moreover, although recently scholars have been calling for a more integrated approach to the study of ecclesiastical and secular architecture, literature has often treated the secular architecture of this period as a separate field of enquiry. So in this short bibliography it has not been included as a category of Gothic art.

General Overviews and Textbooks

In 1938 Focillon’s study of the Middle Ages (Focillon 1963) set new standards in art-historical writing. Gothic art was shown to be part of an evolving history of forms, a continuous narrative. Although the emphasis on forms has given way to an interest in the social context of art, each textbook or survey creates its own narrative around the facts and objects, and no single textbook could be described as covering all aspects of this period.

  • Camille, Michael. Gothic Art: Glorious Visions. New York: Abrams, 1996.

    Also published as Gothic Art: Visions and Revelations of the Medieval World (London: Calmann and King, 1996). An unorthodox, thematic approach to the subject from one of the most challenging scholars of medieval art. For Camille, the specificity of Gothic lies not in its stylistic features but in the underlying vision (of time, space, God, nature, and self) it represents.

  • Focillon, Henri. The Art of the West in the Middle Ages. 2 vols. Translated by Donald King. London: Phaidon, 1963.

    Focillon’s classic, magisterial study was first published in French in 1938 on the brink of World War II, and it needs to be read in the context of its time. Volume 2 traces Gothic art from its beginnings to the Renaissance. This panoramic view looks at architecture, sculpture, and painting in a broad European context and weaves together for the first time an analysis of the artistic evolution within a general narrative. Includes an introduction by Jean Bony and a glossary by Peter Kidson.

  • Luttikhuizen, Henry, and Dorothy Verkerk. Snyder’s Medieval Art. 2d ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.

    The revised version of this textbook (first published by Snyder in 1989) is richly illustrated with color photographs and includes a detailed index, an updated bibliography, and several maps. Part 6, “The Late Middle Ages,” is a general introduction to the Gothic period and includes a chapter on medievalism.

  • Martindale, Andrew. Gothic Art. World of Art Libraries, History of Art Series. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

    This book, first published 1967, has been the standard textbook for many years and retains its importance on account of Martindale’s unsurpassed evocation of what defines Gothic objects, images, and buildings. Organized chronologically, the book includes a chapter on Italy and finishes in 1400.

  • Pearsall, Derek. Gothic Europe, 1200–1450. Arts, Culture, and Society in the Western World Series. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2001.

    Written by a literary historian, this book offers a fresh view of the period, emphasizing the importance for visual culture of contact with non-European civilizations, of secular society, and of “fragmentations” or moments of crisis. The term “Gothic” is used in a broad and inclusive sense.

  • Sekules, Veronica. Medieval Art. Oxford History of Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    In tune with the concept of the series, the author adopts a thematic approach and boldly rejects the use of the terms “Gothic” and “Romanesque” as stylistic categories. She also includes material normally considered to belong to the Renaissance period. The objective is to set medieval art in its social and historical context. The resulting lively and colorful account does perhaps not replace a more standard textbook, but it makes an excellent complementary reading.

  • Stokstad, Marilyn. Medieval Art. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004.

    This richly illustrated survey aimed at undergraduates and the general public contains four chapters about Gothic art that provide the basic information about the period. Includes a timeline and glossary.

  • Toman, Rolf, ed. The Art of Gothic: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting. Translated by Christian von Arnim. Cologne, Germany: Könemann, 1999.

    The book combines fantastic images with scholarly essays on various subjects, ranging from the early Middle Ages up to the Renaissance. The emphasis is on architecture, but there are also sections on sculpture, painting, stained glass, and metal work. Helpful bibliography and index.

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