Gothic Era


(Gothic and Early Renaissance)


European Painting from the 13th to the 15 th Century



Gothic Art Map
Exploration: Revelations (Art of the Apocalypse)
Exploration: Gothic Era  (Gothic and Early Renaissance)
 M. of the Glatz Madonna Masaccio Starnina Taddeo di Bartolo
 M. Theodoric Masolino M. Westphalian Marco Zoppo
 Torriti Jacopo Hans Memling M. of Schloss Altar Holbein the Younger
 Stefan Lochner Rogier van der Weyden M. Norwegian Andrea Mantegna
 Bonaventura Berlinghieri Hugo van der Goes Derick Baegert Cosme Tura
 M. Bertram of Munden Gerard David Lukas Moser Holbein the Elder
 M. of Kaufmann Crucifixion  Antonello da Messina M. of Albrecht Altar M. of Book of Hours
 M. of Wittingau Piero della Francesca Frances Nicolas M. of Alkmaar
 Lippo Memmi Pedro Berruguete Master E.S. M. Francke
 M. of Narbonne Parament M. of Westminster Altar Martin Schongauer M. of the Gothic Art
 Malouel Jean M. of Psalter of de Lisle Israhel van Meckenem Bernat Martorell
 M. of Wilton Dyptych M. of Cologne Workshop Bartolome Bermejo Michael Pacher
 Borrassa Lluis Sassetta Fernando Gallego Quentin Massys
 Pisanello Jaume Huguet Hans Multscher Nuno Goncalves
 Konrad of Soest Nicolas Froment Colantonio Martinus Opifex
 M. of the Ortenberg Altar M. of St. Veronica  Lluis Dalmau Juan de Levi
 Filippo Brunelleschi M. of the Paradise Garden Barthelemy d'Eyck Saxon Workshop
 Joos van Gent Limburg brothers M. of Life of the Virgin Lorenzo Monaco
 Bartolo di Fredi Robert Campin M. of St. Bartholomew Jean Fouquet
 Hubert & Jan van Eyck Konrad Witz Dieric Bouts Jacopo Bellini 

Albrecht Durer

Bernat Martorell

See also collection:

Michael Pacher

Quentin Massys (1)

Massys Quentin (2)



End of the Gothic era

With the passing of the high point of Early Netherlandish painting in the 16th century, so too the age of the anonymous artist came to an end. This, coupled with the complex nature of the production process, the endurance of the workshop system and the still artisan status of the artist, suggests that the Middle Ages, at least in the North, only ended with Durer. The continuing importance of line, and the fact that paintings were essentially being commissioned for the same purposes and same places as ever, point to the same conclusion. With the advent of the Reformation and iconoclasm, however, all of this would collapse - and with it the economic foundation of the old system.
When Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed up his theses in 1517, it marked the climax of the religious unrest which had already manifested itself in the outbreak of the Hussite Wars in 1419. It especially affected the flourishing centres of the Netherlands. Whether religious reformationists were purging churches of their visible excrescences and aberrations, or whether they were attacking worldliness and love of luxury -art was always amongst the first in the line of fire. The situation was compounded by the greed of certain rulers, such as Henry VIII (1491 —1547), who coveted the treasures previously held by the Church. Artists were hit harder by the religious upheavals than any other secular profession.
In England, Germany and the Netherlands in particular, there was a rapid decline in both production and artistic standards. The chain of compositional solutions and figural types, technical formulae and practical skills which had been handed down through the generations, was abruptly broken. For the artists concerned, this release from old constraints was synonymous with the loss of the basis of their existence. Having previously worked predominantly upon commission, they were now exposed to the tough rules of the free market. Business records confirm that the secular genres of painting, first and foremost the portrait, failed to compensate for this loss of trade. Other than after similar crises in the past, new departures were rare.
Artistic activity was now significantly scaled down and found a niche only amongst the patrician classes in a few towns and cities, and above all in the ever more powerful courts of the nobility. Thus the innovative impulses of the 16th century outside Italy are associated, not without good reason, with the Fontainebleau of Francois I (1494-1547) and, subsequently, with the Prague of Rudolf II (1552-1612). It is a bitter irony that painters — people with a religious sensibility which went beyond the average — at times even played an active part in destroying sacred works of art, and through their positions in civic guilds were involved in the "cleansing" of churches and thus the sealing of their own fate. On the other hand, in view of the radical changes being wrought by Mantegna, Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo, it may also be said that the Late Gothic traditions of the North had already had their day.
Art aside, the era marked the final parting from the Middle Ages in other respects, too. In 1492 Christopher Columbus (1451—1506) reached America, and in that same year the last Jews and Muslims were driven out of Spain — marking the end of a thousand years of tolerance and of scholarly exchange between East and West, as the age seemingly so dark to modern eyes had also stood for. In the long term, paradoxically, Luther's action also led to lesser diversity — all over western, northern and southern Europe, nations began to assume solid shape. As they expanded outwards, inquisitions and Protestant rigorism internally were placing ever tighter restrictions upon the freedom of the individual. Thus Henry VIII in England, Francois I in France, Charles V (1500-1558) in Germany and Spain, and later his son Philip II (1527—1598) laid the basis for the absolutism of the 17 th century.


What survived?

Within just a few months of the Reformation, in many European countries the medieval paintings that had hung for centuries in churches, monasteries and even private homes had been all but destroyed. In England, the sculpture and above all panel paintings, frescos and stained glass of the Middle Ages were almost entirely lost thanks to the "reforms" of Henry VIII. Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) later completed the work of destruction. The standard of the few works that remain make the loss all the more painful, since — in their less graceful linearity and their drawing, which tends towards caricature — they fall clearly short of the French art to which they are closely related. The picture was equally bleak in the Switzerland of John Calvin (1509-1564).
In France, after the Huguenots, the Baroque and the Revolution, the situation as regards panel painting looked little better, although some patient detective work reveals that far more works have survived than is generally known. In the Netherlands, by far the larger part of medieval church art fell victim to the iconoclasts of the early 16th century — not just in the overwhelmingly Protestant north, the modern-day Kingdom of the Netherlands, but also in Flanders, Brabant and Hainaut in today's Belgium. Hungary's reserves of medieval art, which the surviving fragments suggest were once so rich, were decimated under Turkish rule.
In Bohemia, the art produced around 1350 at the imperial court at Prague, then the most flourishing art centre in northern Europe, had already been largely destroyed by the Hussites within a hundred years. Germany's regions and cities were affected by the Reformation to widely varying degrees. The Upper Rhine and Lake Constance area was another flourishing artistic centre to meet with widespread devastation. Some works survived, only to fall victim to the ravages of later wars — as in the case of the rich treasures of the Palatinate, savagely attacked by Louis XIV (1638-1715).
In some areas churches suffered the loss of virtually all their works of art, while in others they escaped remarkably unscathed - often, paradoxically, in Protestant areas, where the all-powerful influence of the Baroque was felt less strongly than in Catholic regions. Assisting their survival was the fact that, even though the earlier practice of commissioning and donating an altarpiece had largely fallen out of fashion in Protestant times, people were too reverent or simply too lazy to clear out the old works of art. The volume of surviving works is particularly healthy in Italy — despite the impact of the Baroque and despite the ravages and plunderings of foreign armies, from Charles V to Napoleon I (1769-1821). An astonishing amount has also survived in Spain and — again because of, rather than despite the Reformation - in Scandinavia. Christianity had only recently arrived in Scandinavia, and had brought with it a high demand for church art, which could often only be satisfied by imports. While there was no shortage of funds to pay for such art, thanks to wool production, trade and raiding activities in Scandinavia and to ore mining in Spain, it was not always possible for imported paintings conceived for a less sophisticated public, let alone the works produced by local artists, to compete with works from the leading European centres of art. Popular in Spain were enormous retablo walls extending the full height of the eastern nave. In some cases these were only dismantled in our own century and thereby satisfied the demand for new acquisitions, in particular amongst North American museums, for decades!
Even the poorer quality works on the fringes of Europe frequently allow us to draw meaningful conclusions about what has been lost from the centre, however. Thus the development of English painting can virtually only be reconstructed via its reception in Norway, with which England maintained very close maritime trading links. These peripheral regions often offer thematically very unusual paintings for which no parallels survive in the centre. It would nevertheless be wrong to expect the native artists of such "fringe" countries to be no more than second-rate. Thus the Catalan Bernat Martorell (active from 1427—1452) is a figure of European stature. His Christ and the Samaritan Woman goes beyond all boundaries of time and place to form one of most successful solutions for this subject ever found.
The Alps are a case apart. Waves of both iconoclastic destruction and radical innovation often passed over their inaccessible valleys and conservative inhabitants without a trace. South Tyrol alone offers a quite extraordinary wealth of murals dating from pre-Carolingian times to the Late Gothic era and beyond, many of them of very high artistic quality. In the shape of Michael Pacher (c. 1435-1498), it brought forth one of the central figures of the late Middle Ages. Even his work, however, derives its fascination from its geographical context, namely a region sandwiched between North and South, in which the influences of the two major artistic trends dividing the West are combined in a highly complex fashion.
Thus no region of Europe, however far off the beaten track, has preserved its full complement of medieval art. Even without external catastrophes, wars and iconoclasm, the ravages of countless fires, natural wear and tear, incompetent attempts at restoration or simply industrious woodworms have all taken their toll. Even private collections were not always able to provide a safe haven. The Thirty Years' War (1618—1648) scattered, devastated or utterly destroyed not just cities and landscapes, but also some of Europe's greatest collections of art, including the treasures of Emperor Rudolf II, taken from Prague to Sweden. The Whitehall Fire of 1698 left an irreper-able hole in the collections of the English royal family; Holbein the Younger's masterpiece, Henry VIII's Family, was just one of the many works destroyed. The fire that ravaged the Alcazar in Madrid over Christmas 1734 engulfed 537 paintings, and thereby one third of the royal collections. As an indirect consequence of the Franco-Prussian War, countless art treasures went down with the Tuileries wing of the Louvre in 1871.
In the same war, Prussian troops bombarded Strasburg Library, while in the First World War, the cultural history of the European continent was permanently impoverished by the loss of Louvain University Library. The archives at Tournai were also reduced to ashes, and with these three libraries not just their Illuminated Manuscripts and thus many works of art themselves, but also the last possibility of shedding more light on the lives of such important artists as Gerhaerts, Campin and Rogier van der Weyden. At the start of this century in Berlin, Richard von Kaufmann's precious collection of Early Netherlandish art was destroyed by fire. In 1945, 400 paintings from the Berliner Galerie disappeared perhaps for ever, including works central to the Gothic era. Even though we at least have photographs of them, they have vanished from the public eye.
Such documented cases aside, it is impossible to offer any serious estimate of just how much art is no longer with us. But we can gain a sense of the scale of the loss when we remember that the biggest churches in the Late Middle Ages could contain up to a hundred altars. Many of them would have carried altarpieces, which even in the Middle Ages would have been periodically replaced in line with changing fashions. A similar picture emerges from the written documents of the period, which again have survived only in a very fragmentary state, and which record the names of countless artists of whom not a single work has survived. In view of all these factors, taken across Europe as a whole, the percentage of medieval works that has come down to us must be infinitesimal, certainly under 10% and probably under 5%.
To what extent the fraction that has survived is representative of the original whole is another question altogether. There are indications that Netherlandish masterpieces had a considerably higher chance of being saved for posterity. Alongside the Ghent Altar and Rogier's Descent from the Cross, a number of other works have survived which were already being written about and enthusiastically copied in their own day. Of the paintings mentioned in the inventories of Margaret of Austria (1480—1530), probably the most important collector of the early 16th century north of the Alps, a relatively large number are also still extant. The same is true of many of the medieval works which appear in the large Flemish gallery paintings of the 17th century. We know that an altar by Quentin Massys (1465/66—1530) was expressly spared destruction because of its artistic quality, and elsewhere, too, private individuals, clerics and collectors must have stepped in to protect the works of art they loved. Even the greed of the Spanish governors occasionally proved a blessing, albeit not always in the long term.
A number of major works have survived in the form of copies or more or less faithful reproductions, such as Rogier van der Weyden's Justice panels, which succumbed to French bombardment along with Brussels town hall in 1695, and the wings of Hugo van der Goes' Monforte Altar. Even if it cannot always be so well documented elsewhere as in the field of Early Netherlandish painting, it is naturally to be hoped that in other regions, too, it was the more mundane art that was lost, while the celebrated masterpieces were looked after.


  Martorell Bernat

(b Sant Celoni; fl 1427; d Barcelona, between 13 and 23 Dec 1452).

Catalan painter. The name Master of S Jorge was coined by Bertaux to refer to the painter of the altarpiece of St George (Chicago, IL, A. Inst.; Paris, Louvre). This was the most spectacular of a group of works attributed to an anonymous artist who was recognized as one of the finest Catalan painters of the 14th and 15th centuries. His works made a transition between those of Lluís Borrassà and Jaume Huguet, and it was thought that he could be identified with Bernat Martorell, the painter recorded as most in demand in Catalonia between 1427 and 1452. The identification was finally proved by the publication in 1938 (Duran i Sanpere) of the contract for the Púbol altarpiece of St Peter Enthroned (Girona, Mus. Dioc.).





Bernat Martorell
The Nativity (detail)
Collection Lippmann, Berlin




Bernat Martorell
Saint George Killing the Dragon
Art Institute of Chicago, ChicagoS




Bernat Martorell
The Legend of Saint George: The Flagellation
Musee du Louvre, Paris.


Bernat Martorell
The Legend of Saint George: The Saint Dragged through the City
Musee du Louvre, Paris


Bernat Martorell
The Legend of Saint George: The Saint Decapitated
Musee du Louvre, Paris



Bernat Martorell
Saint Peter Altar
Museu Diocesa de Girona



Bernat Martorell
Saint Peter Altar (detail)
Museu Diocesa de Girona


Bernat Martorell
Saint Peter Altar (detail)
Museu Diocesa de Girona


Bernat Martorell
Saint Peter Altar (detail)
Museu Diocesa de Girona


Bernat Martorell
Christ and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob's Well
Santa Creu Cathedral, Barcelona


Bernat Martorell
Altarpiece of Saint Vincent
Around 1435-40


Bernat Martorell
Altarpiece of the Saints John



See also collection:

Michael Pacher

Quentin Massys


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