The Medieval times were marked by a strong presence of the church in art. Most artists produced religious and sacred themes, as seen in the earlier Byzantine art. With the Gothic style rising at the beginning of the XIV century, the subjects continued the same, but there was a rupture with the former way of representation. Duccio di Buoninsegna paints The Last Supper, which is part of Stories of the Passion for the cathedral of Siena and was celebrated for its breakthrough. Since then, artists gradually start to incorporate more action and a narrative to their work, as well as achieving a more realist and three-dimensional painting, compared to the Byzantine art.
The Holy Roman Empire was what held western Christian culture unified, and with its decline, Europe enters a period of cultural, political and social crises. As the Papal Court moves to Avignon, it loses its extreme authority, thus influencing the way religious themes were portrayed in art and defining the start of Gothic art. With courteous elegance, artists began to paint with naturalistic detail, giving surfaces more realistic textures, exuberant colors and decorative refinement in their work. Many illustrations from this time were portable, meaning that people could carry the works to their home and contemplate their faith in private – a characteristic of the Gothic period.
The many conflicts to burst out in Europe during this time also provoked a drastic change in society and politics, especially the Hundred Years War between France and England – that lasted sixteen years more than the name declares. The aristocrats are deeply affected by the economic crisis, having to let go of the luster and extravagance of the court, as well as the feudal values. Because of this, merchants and bankers of the middle class are now on the uprise.
Jean Malouel shows intense sensibility with his painting entitled Large Round Pieta, an example of how art was portraying a new kind of humanism. The angles that surround the main characters of the painting are smaller in proportion, as fantastical elements to the scene. The suffering of Jesus and the people surrounding him is compelling to the faithful viewer. Giacomo Jaquerio also depicts this religious passion in Road to Calvary, painting a crowd of individuals in an elegant composition. The artists Antonio Pisano, more known as Pisanello would give attention to detail not only when painting the central figures, but also the architecture, plants, animals and anything else he adds to the landscape of his work. A significant part of his paintings portrays animals, as seen in the idealized religious portrait Madonna with a Quail.
Jean, Pol and Herman Van Limbourg, also known as the Limbourg Brothers, were commissioned for an illustrated manuscript by the Duque of Berry, King Carlos V’s brother, Jean. Called the Book of Hours, this elaborated piece contained a text for every day of the year, many sermons and prayers, as well as an illustration for each month. The most famous painting from this piece was Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, representing the month of October. The artists portray a landscape with a beautiful Royal Palace, many plants, and animals, in addition to peasants working in the fields along with aristocrats strolling in the outskirts of the Palace. Sadly, the Limbourg brothers and their patron pass away before the book was concluded.
Another iconic painting from the prime of the Gothic period is The Adoration of the Magi, where Gentile da Fabriano illustrates a Biblical story in a painting filled with many people. He emphasizes the culture of honor and bondage courteously, having the featured characters in lushes clothing. Fabriano was able to join the idealized idea inherited from the Byzantine as a glorified vision from the past, with a detailed and realistic description, a marking narrative that is an essential element of this period.
When comparing the later Gothic works with the earlier ones, like Giotto di Bondone’s Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ), it is easier to understand how the Gothic period developed. This painting is part of a series of frescos made for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, that begun in 1303 and completed in 1305. This particular scene is one of the most intense moments of Jesus Christs’ story, where holy women full of life, and with more natural faces, cry over Christ’s body, opposed to the theatrical faces of the angels above. The way Bondone depicts light and shadow in uncommon for his time and, thus, introducing a new way of painting.