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Gothic Art and Architecture
(c. 1140 - 1500)

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Gothic Art and Architecture, is a style in European art and architecture that flourished from about 1140 to the end of the 16th century in many areas. It applies to religious and secular buildings, sculpture, stained glass, and illuminated manuscripts and other decorative arts. 

To start in country less known in the collecting area of Art and Philately, Slovenia, located in Central Europe and bordering The Adriatic Sea, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, it is a pleasure for me to show this very interesting example of Gothic Art in the small, ancient village of Hrastovlje [pron. hrastovlye]. In Slovenian language it means the place of oaks. Since the discovery in the fifties of the Gothic frescoes under several coats of white paint, the name has come to mean the 12th-century village church standing on the slopes above the village. The discovery of the Death Dance -- usually referred to as Dance macabre -- a rare, well preserved, and complete example of one of the most famous images of medieval iconography, has established the church of St.Trinity at Hrastovlje as one of the most significant cultural monuments of Slovenia. 

Slovenia 2005. Dance Macabre, Gothic frescoes in Hravstojlje, Slovenia.  Stamp #1. Slovenia 2005. Dance Macabre, Gothic frescoes in Hravstojlje, Slovenia.  Stamp #2.

Dating back to the 12th century, the church is Romanesque in architectural style. It is the only example of Romanesque architecture in Slovenia, preserving an ancient tradition - with elements of the Eastern European - far into Middle Ages. The first view of the church interior is just as enchanting as the first glimpse of the Hrastovlje from distance. Step through the doorway and the eye is assailed by a plethora of images and warm, rich colours, every space and surface aglow with familiar images of Christian iconography. There is no part of walls, ceiling and arches that does not tell a story or present an allegorical truth. 

Slovenia 2005. First day cover, "Dance Macbre". Frescoes of Hrastovlje, Slovenia.

The most outstanding painting at Hrastovlje, which raises it above the commonplace among the examples of Gothic church art, is the Death Dance or Danse Macabre. Painted along the southern wall, it is among the best preserved paintings of this well-known medieval theme anywhere. A kind of grotesque dance with death, it has remained one of the most powerful and enduring medieval images. Rather rare in medieval Christian iconography, the Dance appeared in the 15th century, painted mainly on cemetery walls. Its origin is not clear. 

  • Slovenia 2005. First day cover, cancelled 23rd Sept. 2005, showing clearly the composite design f the stamps, and a photograph of the full fresco. See enlargement here. Scan by courtesy of Mitja Jancar (Slovenia). 

A pictorial reminder of transitions of life and all things material, it also demonstrates the principle of justice, completely incorruptible and inescapable for all -- young and old, rich and poor, powerful and powerless -- and reminds the spectator of the eternal truth, that we will all end up in the final place: the grave. The Hrastovlje Dance of Death has a special place among the surviving examples. Not the least because of its excellent preservation and completeness.

A set of frescoes from Hrastovlje was issued by Yugoslavia in 1989, showing four different parts of the frescoes of Hrastovlje. All scans by courtesy of Mitja Jancar (Slovenia). 

Yugoslavia 1989. Frescoes (1490) in Holy Trinity Church, Hrastovlje, Slovenia. The Apostle Matthew. Yugoslavia 1989. Frescoes (1490) in Holy Trinity Church, Hrastovlje, Slovenia. Saint Barbara. Yugoslavia 1989. Frescoes (1490) in Holy Trinity Church, Hrastovlje, Slovenia. 4th Day of Creation. Yugoslavia 1989. Frescoes (1490) in Holy Trinity Church, Hrastovlje, Slovenia. 5th Day of Creation.

Yugoslavia 1989. First day cover, with four stamps of frescoes in Hrastovlje, Slovenia.

Originally the word "Gothic" was used by Italian Renaissance writers as a derogatory term for all art and architecture of the Middle Ages, which they regarded as comparable to the works of barbarian Goths. Since then the term has been restricted to the last major medieval period, immediately following the Romanesque style; the Gothic Age is now considered one of Europe's outstanding artistic eras. 

  • France 1998. Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay was declared World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 1979. Perched on a rocky islet in the midst of vast sandbanks exposed to powerful tides between Normandy and Brittany stands the 'Wonder of the West', a Gothic-style Benedictine abbey dedicated to the archangel St Michael, and the village that grew up in the shadow of its great walls. Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, the abbey is a technical and artistic tour de force, having had to adapt to the problems posed by this unique natural site.

France 1998. Gothic Art. Mont-Saint-Michel.

France 1947. Gothic Art. Notre-Dame de Paris.

Gothic style found its greatest expression in architecture. Emerging in the first half of the 12th century from Romanesque antecedents, Gothic architecture continued well into the 16th century in Northern Europe, long after Renaissance style had permeated the other arts. Although a vast number of secular monuments were built in the style, it was as church architecture that the Gothic idiom reached its greatest heights.  Striking example of Gothic architecture are La Sainte Chapelle in Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the Cathedral of Sens, also in France. 

  • France 1947. Notre-Dame de Paris, seen from the backside, located on the island Île de la Cité at the very hart of Paris. Notable for its elegant proportions, it was a model for the French Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. An earlier church (perhaps preceded by a Roman temple) probably existed on the site of the present building, which was begun in 1163 by Bishop Maurice de Sully and completed, for the most part, by 1250. The original plan was later compromised by the construction (late 13th and early 14th centuries) of a run of side chapels completely encircling the nave and choir. 

France 1966. Gothic Art. First Day Cover from Sainte Chapelle.
  • France 1966. First Day Cover cancelled on 22 October 1966 in Paris, showing La Sainte Chapelle and one of the stained glass windows of the chapel. See also the postcard immediately on the right from Sainte Chapelle. 

France 1965. Gothic Art. First Day Cover from the Cathedral of Sens.

  • France 1965.  First Day Cover cancelled on 5th June 1965 in the city of Sens, showing the Cathedral of Sens, and one of the stained glass windows of the cathedral.  

Gothic Art. Postcard. La Sainte Chapelle, Paris.
  • Postcard with the interior of Sainte Chapelle, Paris. The Chapel's beauty is outstanding with its strong high-rising lines from the Early Gothic Period. 

In 1967 The Republic of San Marino issued a very nice set of five stamps, showing Gothic Cathedrals from various European countries. Three of these stamps are shown here. The two stamps not shown here from this set, feature the Cathedral of Toledo (Spain), and the Cathedral of Siena (Italy). 

San Marino 1967. Gothic Art. Stamp #1 in a set of three. Cathedral of Amiens (France). San Marino 1967. Gothic Art. Stamp #5 in a set of three. Cathedral of Cologne (Germany). San Marino 1967. Gothic Art. Stamp #4 in a set of three. Cathedral of Salisbury (Great Britain).

Roskilde Cathedral was built in the 12th and 13th centuries, and was Scandinavia's first Gothic cathedral to be built of brick, encouraging the spread of this style throughout northern Europe. It was the founder of Copenhagen, Bishop Absalon, that started the building of the present Cathedral in red bricks around 1170. 

Since then various porches and chapels have been added to the main building with different architectural designs representing the best of Danish architecture for more than 800 years and European religious architecture too. From the 14th century Roskilde Cathedral has been the burial place and mausoleum for 39 Danish Kings and Queens interred in various ornate sarcophaguses within and outside the cathedral. The church is located approximately 30 km west of Copenhagen, and was in 1995 declared a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO. 

Denmark 1998. Gothic Art. Roskilde Cathedral. Russia 1994. Gothic Art. Roskilde Cathedral. Denmark 1992. Gothic Art. Souvenir sheet for Nordia '94. Queen Margrethe I (1353-1412) Gothic Art. Queen Margrethe I's sarcophagus in Roskilde Cathedral.
  • Denmark 1998. Roskilde Cathedral 

  • Russia 1994. Roskilde Cathedral.  

Painting, Book Illustrations, and Tapestry 
As a result of this diffusion of artistic currents, a new pictorial synthesis emerged, known as the International Gothic style, in which, as foreshadowed by Pucelle, Gothic elements were combined with the illusionistic art of the Italian painters.  

Beginning in Paris in the 1370s and continuing until about 1400 at the court of Jean, duc de Berry, manuscript illuminators working in the International Gothic style progressively developed the spatial dimensions of their illustrations, until the picture became a veritable window opening on an actual world. This process led eventually to the realistic painting of Jan van Eyck and the northern Renaissance and away from the conceptual point of view of the Middle Ages. Thus, though the International style is sometimes described as Gothic, it nevertheless lies beyond the boundaries of the Gothic period itself, which by definition is also medieval. Giotto, Jan Gossaert, and Master Theodoricus were among the prevalent artists. 

Belgium 1993. Gothic Art. Romanum Book of Masses.
  • Belgium 1993. A very nice block showing a painting by an unknown painter, "Christ calls the apostles Peter and Andrew". Detail from the Romanum Book of Masses (1487). The block is preserved on piece, and is commercially used, cancelled in Leuwen on 3rd June 1993. 

Italy 1966. Gothic Art. Painting by Giotto. Belgium 1985. Gothic Art. Painting by Gossaert "The Madonna of Leuwen".
  • Italy 1966. Painting by Giotto. 

  • Belgium 1985. Painting in the series "Europalia", by Jan Gossaert (1478-1532).  "The Madonna of Leuwen". It is difficult, even for art historians, to categorize Jan Gossaert who is considered artist of the Gothic Style as well as of the Renaissance, but mostly Gothic.  

Czechoslovakia 1967. Gothic Art. Work by the Czech Master Theodoricus.
  • Czechoslovakia 1967.  Gothic Art by the Czech Master Theodoricus (14th century), issued for Expo 67, Montreal.  Stamp by courtesy of Gerhard Batz, Germany.  

Belgium 2003. Gothic Art. King Matthew and Queen Beatrix on a detail from the Romanum Book of Masses (1487).

Sweden 2003. Gothic Art. St. Birgitta's 700th birth anniversary.

Saint Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373), is an interesting character from this period. She was a mystic, who founded the Roman Catholic Bridgettine Order and became the patron saint of Sweden. 

In 2003 Sweden celebrated her 700th birth anniversary. The stamp shows the saint reading a holy book. The stamp was engraved by the Swedish engraver Lars Sjööblom. 

  • Sweden 2003. Sancta Birgitta. 700th anniversary of St. Birgita's birth (issued 20th January). 
Originally named Birgitta Persson, she was the daughter of a nobleman who was one of the wealthiest landowners of Sweden. 

She married in 1316 and bore eight children, one of whom, Catherine, is listed as a saint in the Roman martyrology. 

It is a very nice sheet telling that she was canonized in Rome in 1391 The background shows her handwriting telling about her revelations. 

The whole sheet is a detail of an altar piece from the 15th century. The sheet was engraved by the Swedish engraver Lars Sjööblom. The sheet appears exactly as shown, slightly torn in the edges, to signify the age of the altar piece from which the detail is taken. 

  • Sweden 2003. Sancta Birgitta. St. Birgitta's Jubilee (issued 30th May). The stamp is high value stamp. 

  Sweden 2003. Gothic Art. Saint Birgitta souvenir sheet.

Sweden 1941. Gothic Art. St. Birgitta (15 ore). Sweden 1941. Gothic Art. St. Birgitta (120 ore).

Sweden 1984. Gothic Art. Vadstena Abbey and Monastery.

Upon her husband's death in 1344, Birgitta left home and began a life of poverty and prayer near Alvastra Abbey, a Cistercian monastery. Since childhood, Birgitta had experienced extraordinary visions, including one of Christ crucified, and these now became more frequent. 

She dictated her revelations to the prior of Vadstena Abbey, Peter Olafsson, who translated them into Latin. In one of her visions, she claimed Christ commanded her to found a strict new religious order that would aid in the reform of monastic life. For this purpose, she moved to Rome in 1349, although she did not receive papal confirmation of her order until 1370. 

With the exception of several pilgrimages, she remained in Rome for the rest of her life, urging ecclesiastical reform (especially the return to Rome of the Avignon popes), sheltering the homeless, and counseling rich and poor alike. She was canonized in 1391. Her feast day is July 23. 

  • Sweden 1941. Sancta Birgitta of Sweden in two different face values. 
  • Sweden 1984. Vadstena Abbey and Monastery. 

During this period the Dutch brothers, Hubert & Jan van Eyck, invented the oil painting by mixing pigments with oil.  Painters of the time were Giotto, Jan van Eyck, Hugo van der Goes, Melchior Broederlam, Master Theodoricus, Hans Memling, and Hieronymus Bosch. 

Belgium 1958. Gothic Art. Jan van Eyck "Margarita van Eyck". France 1987. Gothic Art. Melchior Broederlam "Escape from Egypt". France 2005. Gothic Art. Hans Memling: "The Virgin and the Child". Ajman. Gothic Art. Hugo van der Goes. "Le Peche Originel".

Gothic style is by art historians divided into 3 periods:  Early Gothic, High Gothic, and Late Gothic.  The most significant differences are the rather stiff figures in the Early Gothic (see Czech stamp above),  a more "dynamic" style for the High Gothic (see French stamp above), and the "S-shape" in the female figures for the Late Gothic (see Ajman stamp above). 

One of the greatest achievements during this period was the invention of oil paint by Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert van Eyck. Until now the normal media was tempera.  

Sources and links:

Listing in alphabetical order of the best known artists of the Gothic period. Click on the active links to go to the individual artist's page. Those marked with an asterisk are represented on this page. 

  • Giotto di Bondone  

  • Melchior Broederlam *
  • Robert Campin (Flémaille Master) 
  • Cimabue
  • Duccio
  • Hubert van Eyck
  • Jan van Eyck *
  • Gentile da Fabriano
  • Jacques Fouquet 
  • Hugo van der Goes * 
  • Pietro Lorenzetti
  • Ambrogio Lorenzetti
  • Hans Memling *
  • Rogier van der Weyden 
  • Konrad Witz 



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