International Gothic is a phase of Gothic art which developed in Burgundy, Bohemia, France and northern Italy in the late 14th century and early 15th century. It then spread very widely across Western Europe, hence the name for the period, which was introduced by the French art historian Louis Courajod at the end of the 19th century.
In this period, artists and portable works such as illuminated manuscripts traveled widely around the continent, creating a common aesthetic among the royalty and higher nobility and considerably reducing the variation in national styles among works produced for the courtly elites. The main influences were northern France, the Duchy of Burgundy, the Imperial court in Prague, and Italy. Royal marriages such as that between Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia also helped to spread the style.
It was initially a style of courtly sophistication, but somewhat more robust versions spread to art commissioned by the emerging mercantile classes and the smaller nobility. In Northern Europe “Late Gothic” continuations of the style, especially in its decorative elements, could still be found until the early 16th century, as no alternative decorative vocabulary emerged to replace it before Renaissance Classicism. Usage of the terms by art historians varies somewhat, with some using the term more restrictively than others.
Some art historians feel the term is “in many ways … not very helpful.. since it tends to skate over both differences and details of transmission.”
The important Bohemian version of the style developed in the court of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor in Prague, which for a brief period became a leading force in the development of European art. Charles came from the Luxembourg dynasty, was tutored by the future Pope Clement VI, and as a youth spent seven years at the French court, as well as visiting Italy twice. This and family relationships gave him intimate links with the various courts of France, including that of the Avignon Papacy, and from 1363 the separate Valois Duchy of Burgundy under Philip the Bold. The Bohemian style initially lacked the elongated figures of other centres, but had a richness and sweetness in female figures that were very influential. Charles had at least one Italian altarpiece, apparently made in Italy and sent to Prague, near where it remains today in his showpiece Karlštejn Castle. For St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, he first used a French architect, and then the German Peter Parler.
Much of the development of the style occurred in Italy, and it probably spread north of the Alps to influence France partly through the colony of Italian artists attached to the Papal Court at Avignon, and the works displayed from the residence there in the 1330s and 1340s of Simone Martini, a Sienese precursor of the style. Republican Siena had a large influence on the development of the style, but kept to its own dignified Gothic style throughout the period, and afterwards, while the flamboyant Visconti court at Milan, also closely related to the French royal family, was the most important Italian centre of the courtly style.As the style developed in Northern Europe, Italian artists were in turn influenced by it.
In painting and sculpture, the style is sometimes known in German as the “Schöne Stil” or “Weicher Stil” (“Beautiful style” or “Soft style”). Stylistic features are a dignified elegance, which replaces monumentality, along with rich decorative colouring, elongated figures and flowing lines. It also makes a more practised use of perspective, modelling, and setting. Figures begin to be given more space in their settings, and interest is taken in realistically depicted plants and animals.
In some works, above all the famous calendar scenes of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the beginnings of real landscape painting are seen. Decoration became increasingly ornate as the style developed in Northern Europe, whereas in Italy the increased sophistication of figure painting was absorbed into Early Renaissance painting.
In sculpture the leading Italian artists remained closer to classicism, and were less affected by the movement; Lorenzo Ghiberti is in many respects close to the style, but already seems infused with Early Renaissance classicism. Claus Sluter was the leading sculptor in Burgundy, and was one artist able to use the style with a strongly monumental effect.
Most sculptors are unknown, and the style tended to survive longer in Northern sculpture than painting, as the detailed realism of Early Netherlandish painting was harder to translate into sculpture. Smaller painted wood figures, most often of the Madonna, were significant, and being relatively portable, probably helped to disseminate the style across Europe.
Notable artists included:
- Fra Angelico (1395 – 1455)
- Jacopo di Cione (1362 – 1398)
- The Limbourg brothers (all dead by 1416)
- Giovani Dei Grassi
- Gentile De Fabriano (1385 – 1427)
- Lorenzo Monaco (1370 – 1423)
- Antonio Pisano or Pisanello 1395 – 1455)
Illuminated manuscripts remained important vehicles of the style, and in works like the Sherborne Missal were the main English contribution, apart from the stained glass of John Thornton in York Minster and of Thomas Glazier in Oxford and elsewhere. Nottingham alabaster carvings, produced in considerable quantities by workshops to standard patterns, were exported all over Western Europe to value-conscious parish churches. The Hours of Gian Galeazzo Visconti from Milan was a key work, as was the Wenceslas Bible (with the text in German) of Charles IV’s son. Both, like the Sherborne Missal, are marked by extravagantly decorated borders. John, Duke of Berry, son and brother of French kings, was the most extravagant commissioner of manuscripts, and the main employer of the Limbourg Brothers and Jacquemart de Hesdin, as well as using many other artists. Other large-scale collectors included Wenceslas, the son of Charles IV, John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, son of Henry IV of England and “Regent” of English-occupied France, and the Dukes of Burgundy. In the fifteenth century the cities of Flanders, especially Bruges, came to outstrip Paris as a centre of both manuscript illumination and panel painting.
In a period lasting approximately between 1390 and 1420 there was a particularly close correspondence between works produced far apart in Europe. In the north the miniatures of the Très Riches Heures Limbourg brothers, in Italy the Adoration of the Magi of Lorenzo Monaco, and sculpture and miniatures in many countries show very stylised tall figures, the older men with imposingly long beards and swaying figures. Exotic clothes, based loosely on those of the contemporary Middle East or Byzantine Empire, are worn by figures in biblical scenes; many figures seem to be included just to show off these costumes. The number of figures in many standard religious scenes is greatly increased; the Magi have large retinues, and the Crucifixion often becomes a crowded event. This innovation was to survive the style itself.
The unveiling of Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi (below) in Florence in 1423, “the culminating work of International Gothic painting”, was almost immediately followed by the painting of the Brancacci Chapel by Masolino and Masaccio (1424–26), which was recognised as a breakthrough to a new style.
In similar fashion the Limbourg brothers’ masterpiece the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry was followed within a few years by the Turin-Milan Hours, a continuation of a manuscript started decades before by the Parement Master for the Duke of Berry, which despite a Gothic framework pioneered a very different style of painting. But outside Florence and the leading courts the International Gothic still held sway, gradually developing in directions that once again diverged considerably between Italy and Europe north of the Alps.
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