German Gothic Art
History, Characteristics of Architecture, Sculpture in Germany.

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Cologne Cathedral, Germany.
One of the greatest examples of
Gothic arches, tracery & sculpture.

German Gothic Art (c.1200-1450)


German Gothic Architecture
Strasbourg Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral
Freiburg Cathedral
German Gothic Hall-Churches
The Brick Structure
German Gothic Sculpture
Late Gothic Wood-Carving
German Gothic Glass Painting & Altarpieces

To see how German Gothic architecture, sculpture and painting fits into the general evolution of European culture, see: History of Art Timeline.

For a short guide to specific
groups, see: Art Movements.

See: Architecture Glossary.


Following on from Romanesque art, the second great style of Medieval art was derisively called 'stile Gotico' by the Italians, a style introduced by the Goths, the barbarians from the dark north, and foreign to the balance and harmony of established architectural forms. The upward flow of these new structures - so alien to Romanesque basilicas - seemed not only to contradict the current ideas of taste but to challenge the divine order of things. Indeed, the arrival of Gothic art - a style found predominantly in Gothic architecture , though also in Gothic illuminated manuscripts - marked a complete break with tradition. Although Romanesque architecture had spread all over Western Europe by 1200, its characteristic features were not adopted by Gothic architects, who introduced entirely different spatial concepts. (For more, please see English Gothic architecture c.1180-1520.)



German Gothic Architecture

The heavenward urge of this new form of Christian art contrasted sharply with the massive, earthbound motifs of Romanesque structures. The round arch, an expression of closed, self-contained movement, was replaced by the pointed arch, a symbol of the surge upward, the striving towards an unattainable goal. In Romanesque times the walls of the church stood as a solid bulwark against the forces of evil; the Gothic concept opened them up by enormous windows - in which connection see our short guide to Stained Glass Art and our article on Stained Glass, Materials/Methods - and reduced their significance by an intricate pattern of slender shafts, delicate traceries, buttresses and flying buttresses. The westwork was abandoned in favour of a richly decorated Facade with one or two towers. Romanesque sacred structures expressed the equality of worldly and spiritual power, whereas Gothic churches symbolized a longing for the hereafter. The massive simplicity of Romanesque architecture represented a sum of its units; Gothic cathedrals tended towards spacial concentration, their inert masses of masonry were enlivened by a wealth of individual designs, while slender arches, ribs and vaults rose to impressive new heights. The proportions of width and height in Romanesque churches were 1 : 1.8 or 1 : 2, while those of French Gothic cathedrals were 1 : 3, or even 1 : 3.3.

By the end of the twelfth century Gothic architecture was flourishing in France, but in Germany Romanesque concepts had taken such deep root that the new upward flow of the French Gothic was not immediately accepted, and Romanesque cathedrals continued to be built east of the Rhine. Some comparative dates illustrate this point: the first French Gothic cathedral at St. Denis was completed in 1157, the Benedictine Abbey at Maria Laach was consecrated in 1156, the chancel of Notre Dame in Paris was completed in 1170, the cathedral at Chartres in 1220, the cathedral at Worms in about 1230, and the westwork at Mainz in 1239. For details of pre-Gothic architecture in Germany, see: German Medieval Art (c.800-1250).

While the perfection of Romanesque designs remained for a time the main preoccupation in Germany, certain Gothic features began nevertheless to be introduced from France: the circular window of the westwork at Worms was modelled on the French rose window and Gothic rib vaulting was used at Worms and at Mainz. Only very gradually, and not until the Romanesque style offered no further possibilities of development, did Gothic structural concepts find general acceptance in Germany.

For more about Gothic designwork emanating from France, see Rayonnant Gothic Architecture (1200-1350) and its successor Flamboyant Gothic Architecture (1375-1500).



Strasbourg Cathedral

The first major cathedral in Germany designed in the Gothic style was built in Strasbourg during the second half of the thirteenth century. Although originally planned as a Romanesque structure, upon completion of the chancel the decision was taken to follow the challenging example of neighbouring France and construct the nave in Gothic style (1250). The walls were opened up by large Gothic windows but the interior remains predominantly Romanesque; the piers are widely spaced and the proportions of the nave are 1 : 2.5. The design for the western Facade by Erwin von Steinbach (1276) combined horizontal and vertical elements in accordance with earlier ideals. This was abandoned after completion of the lower storeys, and the present facade and north spire date from the fourteenth century. The earlier heavy substructure is surmounted by a slender third storey of high lancets, an arrangement of free-standing tracery elongates the effect of the broad second storey windows, and an open-work gable with pinnacles over the massive main portal further emphasizes the purely vertical rhythm of the facade.

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral was started in 1248 by Master Gerhard who is thought to have modelled it on the cathedral at Amiens, but he developed the Gothic concept further and reached an unrivalled level of technical achievement. French Gothic elevations consist of arcade, gallery and clerestory but at Cologne the gallery and clerestory are combined to form gigantic windows which are separated by slender piers.

The construction of Cologne Cathedral extended over many centuries. The chancel was consecrated in 1322 and work proceeded with frequent interruptions until 1560, by which time the western facade, with the exception of the spires, had been completed. In the nineteenth century the Romantic movement brought a resurgence of interest in medieval culture, and upon the discovery of the original plans construction work was taken up again and the cathedral was eventually completed in 1880.

The influence of French Gothic made itself felt most strongly at Strasbourg and Cologne. Further east of the Rhine the combination of Gothic structural concepts with certain Romanesque elements resulted in a number of national developments which count among the most interesting contributions made by German architecture.

Freiburg Cathedral

The cathedral at Freiburg provides an excellent illustration of a specifically German development in the Gothic style. Construction began around 1200 with the erection of a purely Romanesque chancel and transept. During the thirteenth century a Gothic nave was added, modelled on that of neighbouring Strasbourg, but the architectural possibilities of the Gothic style remained largely unexploited: the nave, although higher than the Romanesque transept, is low compared to French Gothic naves; the clerestory windows are relatively small so that the wall continues to be a structural element in its own right; buttresses and flying buttresses are almost provincially plain and in no way shroud the rigidity of the structure. In about 1350 the Romanesque chancel was replaced by one of High Gothic design with radiating chapels and net vaults. These three stages of development, Romanesque transept, Early Gothic nave and aisles, and High Gothic chancel, can be easily identified to this day by their differing heights. Another fourteenth-century addition was a massive tower erected over the western end of the nave; its pyramidal octagonal spire is decorated with open-work tracery of exceptional beauty.

The single-tower Facade soon spread in southern Germany. At Ulm and Landshut as well as at Freiburg a steeply rising tower counters the horizontal element of nave and aisles. The structure no longer flows organically towards the east like French Gothic cathedrals, but becomes once again the sum of its units.

German Gothic Hall-Churches

The second important development of German Gothic is the hall-church. Its origin can be traced to France but it was completely abandoned there during the Gothic period. The distinguishing feature of the hall-church is the equal height of nave and aisles. Two parallel arcades continue to divide the interior but the spatial impression has changed radically; the nave is lit from the aisles and the arcades rise like massive trees into the sweeping expanse of space, which seems less high because three parallel aisles of equal height are seen as one homogenous unit. Thus the Romanesque ideal of equilibrium between vertical and horizontal lines is applied to the Gothic structure. In this return to a structural harmony of contrasting elements the regular flow of light plays an important part. Low aisle windows and high clerestory windows create a mystical interplay of light and darkness in the Gothic basilica, while the unbroken and even flow of light gives the hall-church an open, almost worldly character.

The first Gothic hall-church in Germany, begun in 1235, was the Saint Elisabethkirche at Marburg. The Gothic character of this church is apparent from the outside. Two slender towers rise at the west front and the walls are entirely taken up by rows of high windows. Solid buttresses and delicate window tracery provide a characteristic ornamental pattern, one which nevertheless differs considerably from that of Gothic basilican churches; buttresses fail to turn into flying buttresses and remain heavily and solidly attached to the walls. A rich system of piers and rib vaults animates the interior where step and vision are no longer directed unequivocally towards the altar but, because of its spaciousness, equally into breadth as into depth. Chancel and transept form a trefoil pattern, a favoured motif of Early Romanesque and one which evokes the old concept of the centrally planned structure.

At about the same time the only Gothic circular structure, the Liebfrauenkirche at Trier, was built on the other side of the Rhine (about 1240). The ground-plan is based on the Greek cross; a clever disposition of radiating side chapels transforms it into a circle from which the chancel projects to the east. This central plan, which has been combined with the characteristic elements of Gothic architecture, is undoubtedly modelled on the Palatine Chapel at Aachen.

The Brick Structure

Germany's most important Gothic contribution to the history of art in Europe, aside from the single-tower facade and the hall-church, is the brick structure. It originated in northern Germany where an absence of natural sandstone, combined with the lack of efficient transport to ensure a regular supply of natural stone from the centre of Germany, made it necessary to build in brick in order to satisfy the demand created by the rapid growth of the Hanseatic towns. The structural advantages of brick were soon recognized and at the beginning of the thirteenth century sacred and civil architecture developed brick construction in a highly original way. The simplicity of brick structures, dictated by the building material, proved to be better suited to the northern German plains than the splendour of sandstone structures.

The principal example of a thirteenth-century North German brick structure is the Marienkirche at Lubeck. Originally planned as a hall-church it was later modelled on French cathedrals and built as a basilica. A nave and two aisles are terminated by a chevet and the vaulting of the ambulatory is combined with that of the radiating hexagonal chapels to create a single spatial unit. The transept as such has been omitted but the aisles, which are considerably lower than the nave, are enlarged by one bay to form the chevet. Neither complex traceries nor crockets and mouldings can be executed in brick and consequently the intricate variety of delicate designs which shroud the structural severity of Gothic sandstone cathedrals is absent from brick churches. However, the solidity of their structure, their massive shape and the clarity of their overall design are characteristic features of German medieval architecture in general.

German Gothic Sculpture

The influence of French Gothic was felt not only in German architecture, but also in sculpture. The famous Royal Horseman of Bamberg represents the first departure from Romanesque concepts and the first approach towards the French ideal of beauty and harmony; it does not follow the traditions of German Romanesque sculpture but shows a definite stylistic similarity with the royal figures at Reims Cathedral. This suggests a lively artistic exchange between France and Germany, but there can be no doubt that the Royal Horseman is the work of a German. The similar work of figurative Gothic sculpture at Reims portrays a worldly-wise monarch who is familiar with political intrigue and with the cunning games of diplomacy. The Royal Horseman on the other hand radiates a solemn idealism combined with steadfastness and an indomitable will-power. It is not known whom the youthful monarch was intended to portray, but he now stands as a symbol of that glorious period in history, the age of medieval chivalry.

With the portraits of the founders at Naumburg Cathedral, realism in German Gothic sculpture reached its height. Ekkehart and Uta are not shown as idealized figures in timeless classical garments, surrounded by saints and angels, but as lifelike human beings, dressed in the everyday costume of their time. No heavenly aura surrounds them, they are not theology turned to stone, they are men and women who carry the burden of life on their shoulders, the burden of their humanity; they are German figures, solid and strong, proud and dignified. Uta seems to reject all superficiality as she protectively raises her cloak, and her gaze towards an uncertain future expresses the melancholia of the outgoing Middle Ages. The brilliant era of German knighthood was passing, and the dark clouds of political conflicts were rising on the horizon.

For contemporaneous plastic art, see: English Gothic sculpture.

Late Gothic Wood-Carving

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, when Renaissance art was flourishing in Italy, the Late Gothic style continued to prevail in Germany and a number of remarkable Late Gothic sculptors raised German wood carving to new heights. Tilman Riemenschneider was active at Wurzburg where he created a wealth of large and small-scale sculptures and carved a number of wooden altarpieces of great formal beauty. His delicate portrayal of the maidenly Virgin for the altar at Creglingen revives the transcendental character of earlier sculptures and surpasses them with a new radiant splendour and an unequalled perfection.

At about the same time another eminent German wood-carver, Veit Stoss, created a carved altarpiece for the Marienkirche at Kracow. In 1496 Stoss settled in Nuremberg, where his genius reached its greatest maturity. His Virgin and Child is closely linked to the beautiful madonnas of French Gothic, but in its quiet reticence expressed by the simple contours and the self-contained forms, this sculpture transcends the mannerism and spiritual emptiness of the Late Gothic style. The works of Tilman Riemenschneider, Veit Stoss and some of their contemporaries such as the Austrian Michael Pacher and the North German Bernt Notke, sum up the artistic wealth and experience of the Middle Ages and create a worthy ending to this era. Another common image carved by Stoss and Riemenschneider, as well as other German wood carvers of the Gothic era, was the Pieta - exemplified by the Rottgen Pieta (1300, Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn).

German Gothic Painting

During the Late period of Romanesque painting, the richer articulation of wall surfaces provided less space for large-scale murals and when, with the advent of Gothic, wall space was further diminished by columns and pillars, the art of fresco painting was almost forgotten. But the transcendental tendency of Gothic architecture and the ever increasing size and ornamental importance of the windows brought with it the need for colourfully painted glass. The art of glass painting was developed and, predictably, reached its heights in France, where Gothic architecture offered the widest scope. In Germany a different form of painting, independent of architecture, developed during the fourteenth century: that of panel painting. The basic idea of a painted panel came from medieval artists in Byzantium (for more, see: Icon Painting), where the icon had always occupied a traditional place in the church. During the thirteenth century, for liturgical reasons, the importance of panel painting increased, in Italy particularly. (In Russia, too: see Novgorod School of Icon Painting.) Ecclesiastical reforms had changed the rites of the holy mass, and the priest, who hitherto had stood behind the altar facing the congregation, now stood in front of it with his back to the people. Whereas before the altar could only be decorated by an altar frontal, the antependium, it was now possible to erect a high altarpiece, the retable. This created an opportunity for various types of altarpiece art, using tempera on differing combinations of wood panels: diptych altarpieces had two panels; triptych, three; and polyptych, many.

Towards the middle of the fourteenth century Prague, a favoured residence of the German emperor Charles IV, became the centre of German panel painting. The emperor's close connection with the Papal court at Avignon and with humanist circles in Italy furthered the rapid dissemination of new ideas and artistic forms. Artists of the fourteenth-century Bohemian school combined the mannered style of French illuminated manuscripts and the hard, realistic trecento art of the Italian painter Giotto in a most original way and exercised a decisive influence on subsequent developments in German painting.

Around 1350 an unknown master painted an altarpiece consisting of nine panels, for the Cistertian monastery at Hohenfurth in southern Bohemia. The Nativity clearly shows the different stylistic elements that influenced the painter. The gold background is in the style of Byzantine art and so is the representation of the stable with Mary lying on the bed, while the strangely cubical rocks are reminiscent of Giotto's Proto-Renaissance art. The long-limbed figures with almond-shaped eyes also suggest an Italian influence, whereas the loving treatment of details is taken from International Gothic style Burgundian manuscripts, which abound in painstaking representations of flowers, plants and trees. (For details, see: International Gothic illuminations.) The attention lavished on the idyllic presentation of scenes from everyday life, such as Joseph and the nurse preparing the bath, is a characteristic feature of German medieval painting of the period.

Since Giotto had introduced the third dimension to fine art painting, European artists had become preoccupied with the problem of space. In the Resurrection by the Master of Wittingau, the diagonal position of the stone coffin gives added depth to the foreground of the picture which is carried to its logical conclusion by the mountain silhouettes in the background. The vivid presentation of the Resurrection shows the figure of Christ as a supernatural apparition, seemingly floating without gravity above the sarcophagus, and the untouched seals on its edge prove that a miracle has taken place. The faces of the guards in the background express horror, uncomprehending curiosity and complete disinterest; only the knight in the foreground, for whom the gesture of blessing seems to be intended, watches with spellbound interest. Compared with the picture-book effect of the Nativity by the Master of Hohenfurth, the unity and spiritual intensity of this painting represent a remarkable achievement.

At the turn of the century the Westphalian Conrad von Soest was active in Dortmund where, in 1422, he completed an altarpiece for the Marienkirche, suggesting that the artist was acquainted with French book illustration and with paintings from the Bohemian school. The fame of Central European artists spread from Westphalia to the Hanseatic towns of North Germany. Hamburg and Lubeck developed into important art centres and from there German paintings soon began to travel along the trade routes to neighbouring Scandinavian countries and across the Baltic. Since the founding of the Hanseatic towns, North Germany had become the political, economic and cultural link between Central Europe and Scandinavia, a role which they continued to play until well into the seventeenth century. During the Middle Ages North German brick architecture was adopted by the countries along the Baltic and as a result Gothic brick churches can be found not only in Lubeck, Wismar, Stralsund and Danzig but also in Copenhagen, Odense and Turku (Finland). When the art of panel painting spread across Europe it was once again the North German coastal towns which provided the link between Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. Pictures by North German masters were sent to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and further east. At first these were merely intended for the Hanseatic trading stations abroad, but when they aroused interest and admiration among the indigenous population, the merchants discovered that a painting was as profitable a commodity as wheat and spices and soon a lively trade in pictures began to develop.

Two artists in particular established the fame of North German painting: Master Bertram and Master Francke. Because of the methodical book-keeping of Hamburg clerks their names are well documented by numerous invoices of the city's finance department. Master Bertram came from Westphalia and although nothing is known of his artistic development it is generally assumed that he learned his trade in Bohemia. Master Francke was born in Hamburg. His main work, the St. Thomas altarpiece, was commissioned by an association of Hamburg merchants, the St. Thomas Company of Traders with England. The Adoration of the Magi shows Francke as a typical representative of the soft Gothic style which developed at the turn of the century in reaction to the hard monumentality of Italian and Bohemian masters. The soft flowing lines of the pensively quiet figures extend to the rich folds of their luxurious robes and create a magical effect. Majestic dignity without a trace of pathos characterizes the figure of the Virgin and makes her the spiritual centre to which the other figures relate in posture and gesture. No interfering movements disturb the tranquility of the scene, or of the gentle hills and the star-covered sky in the background. And yet the picture does not lack human warmth. With clumsy fingers the Infant Jesus reaches into the open treasure chest, while Joseph is concerned with removing the valuable gift to safety.

The Nativity by the Westphalian artist Johann Koerbecke is more worldly and realistic and clearly demonstrates the influence of Flemish painting on German painters. The spatial depth of the richly graduated landscape, the detailed description of the old, weatherworn roof, the little patch of grass in the foreground and the pointedly graphic technique, are all features modelled on the realism of Jan Van Eyck and his followers. But in Koerbecke's painting this striving towards reality remains in conflict with older conventions. The realistic landscape is set against a traditional gold sky and the figures of the Virgin and the angels in particular remain isolated from their surroundings. Their transcendentalized existence as well as the decorative lines of the richly flowing folds of their garments belong to the Late Gothic tradition.

This charming fusion of new trends with medieval concepts can be observed in all German paintings of the mid fifteenth century. One of those most successful at reconciling tradition and progress was Stefan Lochner, a master of the Cologne school of painting who originated from Lake Constance. His Presentation at the Temple is a magnificent assembly Of celestial and human figures who are brought closer together by the idealization of the human figures and an earthly portrayal of the heavenly ones. The children carrying candles emanate a more angelic aura than the circle of fluttering angels against a gold ground, and the Virgin Mary can only be distinguished from the rest of the lovely and radiant ladies by her more luxurious robes and her halo. She is no longer portrayed as an emissary from heaven but as one chosen from the people. Another very human touch has been added: the holy rites at the altar seem to be forgotten while everybody glances at the endearing procession of children; not only the figures to the left and right of the altar but Mary herself is momentarily distracted. The barrier between heaven and earth seems reduced.

The strength of Late Gothic painting in Germany (which intermingled not inconsiderably with German Renaissance art) lay not in its monumentality or in its bold intellectualism, but in its poetic fantasy and its loving treatment of detail, through which all formal contradictions were resolved. It hardly seems to matter that the stylized figures of the bride and bridegroom in the picture by an unknown Swabian Master, painted about 1470, stand in a naturalistically portrayed woodland where the ground is covered by a rich carpet of plants, which are drawn with botanical precision: ranunculis, clover, dandelions, lilies of the valley, primroses, valerian and others. In these earthly surroundings the mannered movements and postures of the bride and bridegroom, which correspond to Late Gothic concepts, make them appear almost unreal, but this juxtaposition of reality and transcendentalism creates a magical effect and gives the scene a delightful harmony of its own which is characteristic for German paintings of this epoch. See, for instance, the Danube School (1490-1530) led by Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538). In other countries painting had long ago wholeheartedly adopted a worldly realism.

German Gothic art can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world, including German galleries such as the Gemaldegalerie SMPK Berlin, the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden and Pinakothek Museum in Munich.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from Deutsche Kunst (German Art) - published by Georg Westermann Verlag, Brunswick, and translated by Pall Mall Press Ltd - a book we strongly recommend for any serious students of Gothic art north of the Alps.

• For the greatest painters and sculptors, see: Best Artists of All Time.
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