Historical background and artistic development

1. Rule of Charles IV 2. Papal court at Avignon
3. Social changes 4. Stylizing
5. Representation of the poor 6. Naturalism
7. Timeline

The historic background against which artistic development advanced in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries was rather alarming. Europe was in the throes of the crises of the Holy Roman Empire, the Hundred Years' War, the Great Schism and the danger of the advancing Turks.

Rule of Charles IV

During the rule of Charles IV (1346-1378) the prestige of the Empire was already declining. Charles acknowledged this fact in the Golden Bull he issued in 1356, a charter in which he confirmed the privileges of rule of the princes of provinces and thus finally sealed the political disunity of Germany. Another sign of the decay of the Empire was that the emperor's residence was for a time transferred to Prague, a fact that led to the increasing importance of the eastern part of Europe. East and West Europe were subsequently considered as partners of equal rank in the development of European history; Charles made his contemporaries aware of the presence of the Bohemians (Czechs) and, together with them, of the Poles and Hungarians too. The progress of the peasantry in producing goods contributed to the development of Central and Eastern European towns, which became increasingly important centres of industry and long-distance commerce. Charles's successor, the Emperor Wenceslas (1378-1419), lost all his power; in 1400 the electors forced him to abdicate, which gravely impaired the prestige of the Holy Roman Empire.

The death of Charles IV occurred at about the same time as the deaths of a whole generation of important monarchs: in 1380 Charles V, whom the French had revered as a sage, was succeeded by the insane Charles VI (1380-1422), and during his reign France became the scene of cruel party rivalries. In 1377 the reign of Edward III came to an end in England. His son, Richard II, was deposed from the throne almost simultaneously with Wenceslas and suffered a violent death under mysterious circumstances. The Hundred Years' War between England and France, which caused terrible suffering, had gone on since 1328. The death in 1382 of Louis the Great, the Anjou king of Hungary and Poland, also brought in its wake ruthless struggles for power.

Papal court at Avignon

The removal of the papal court to Avignon (1309-1377) and the schism that took place some months prior to the death of Emperor Charles IV violently shook the belief in the constancy of the papacy. The collapse of the whole way of thinking based upon scholasticism made the overall situation worse. The declining Church of the late feudal period had to contend with heresy gaining ground and the different separatist movements each of which endeavoured to create national churches.

In this context it is worth pointing out that several elements of the political crises at the end of the fourteenth century were conducive to the emergence of the International Style. The European policy of Charles IV resulted in a reciprocal influence between the northern Gothic style and the artistic trends of Italy, as well as of Central and Eastern Europe. The papal court of Avignon commissioned works from the best French and Italian artists, thus, as it were, launching a dialogue between different schools, whilst the religious crisis opened the way for the representation of new themes, as well as to the creation of a new type of picture, the so-called Andachtsbild, the devotional picture, which was intended for use in private worship.

Social changes

An increasing tension was also characteristic of the social situation at the end of the fourteenth century. The most conspicuous feature of social change was the fact that the middle classes gained ever-increasing economic and cultural power. The position of the aristocracy was gravely undermined by the emergent strength of merchants and bankers, rising higher and higher, and by the establishment of bureaucratically administered states. The fight for power and prestige between the greatly endangered feudal nobility and the bourgeoisie continued relentlessly. Confronted with practical problems which seemed insoluble, the aristocracy, in defiance of historic development, which was unfavourable for them, sought escape in illusions. Although by then chivalry had become obsolete, the majority of the nobility had a nostalgia for the dream world of past greatness, for the security of the majestic traditions of the age of chivalry, whereby the rituals, festivities and customs which by then had faded into mere conventions, were revived. The nobility flaunted the magnificent and extravagant apparel of bygone days. No wonder that they embellished their palaces with scenes taken from the glorious past and from romances, and that militant saints (e.g. St George) as well as figures of the history of antiquity, of the Old Testament and of Christianity, often appeared as knightly heroes in the works they had commissioned. Thus, in the series of frescoes representing nine heroes and heroines in the La Manta Castle, for example Alexander the Great, King David and Charlemagne, etc. were depicted, while - and this is characteristic - the ninth member of the most illustrious company became Bertrand du Guesclin, a real chivalric general.

Princes and rulers of provinces enjoyed representing themselves in the roles of the three kings, gathering from three continents and bringing their gifts to the King of Kings, the most powerful Lord of the world, while adoring the Infant Christ. As exemplified by Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi, this theme was particularly suitable for displaying the princely pomp of the age, by evoking the mood of colourful pageants and hunts. In the Ortenberg Altarpiece one may well guess that the figure in the costume of the king on the right was the man who had commissioned the work. His figure is separated from the other two by a sword, he is distinguished by his upright posture, by the two pages who attend him and the tower rising behind him. This latter may refer to his estates, while the sword held up by the servant on the left may point to the ability of the nobleman to fulfil the office of a judge.


Not only was the nobility's nostalgia for the past reflected in the themes of pictures, but also in a style of painting, which revived the declining Gothic mood. After all, art was expected to praise the way of life of romances, that is to say, a Weltanschauung romantic in the original meaning of the word. The nobility expected some compensation to counterbalance its lost position - and this led to immoderate exaggerations, which resulted in a breath-taking cult of pomp, in idealizing conscious distortions of reality and in a stylized artistic idiom - all of which are characteristics of the International Gothic style.

However, the bourgeoisie, which played an ever-growing role in economic life, strove to surpass even the feudal aristocracy in extravagance, display and ostentatious splendour. The nouveaux riches had not yet succeeded in acquiring political power, so their aim could only be to rise to the level of the ruling class. They were dazzled by the world of the nobility and they vied with it both in their way of life and patronizing the arts. As we can see, the art of the nobility had become what it was in an attempt to compensate for their waning power, while the bourgeoisie, who were always eager to acquire the prestige of the nobility - if possible in an enhanced form - also showed an appreciation of the qualities which characterized the art of the ruling classes. This became increasingly important as the social position of the nobility was undermined by the emergence of other classes of society. So even in the most sophisticated German and Tuscan towns around 1400, the work produced in painters' workshops was definitely aristocratic in its mood.

It goes without saying that this phenomenon, which Erwin Panofsky called "an inflation of social exaggeration", developed in various ways in different places. The Tuscan city-states, where the nobility was already in decline and the actual power was already in the hands of the upper middle classes by the thirteenth century, were no exception, because by the end of the fourteenth century the bourgeoisie had lost most of their apparent puritanism. After 1383, in the period of reactionary rule which followed the Revolt of the Ciompi in Florence in 1378, there was growing economic instability, and the prosperous middle classes became increasingly aristocratic and eager to adopt the customs of chivalry. In their imagination they even saw classical antiquity in terms of an idealized chivalric past.

Representation of the Poor

Meanwhile, as a result of recurrent economic crises, wars and epidemics, there was a dangerous expansion in social tensions. The brutal suppression of peasant uprisings, such as the Jacquerie, the revolts of Wat Tyler and the ciompi, was immediately followed in the artistic world by the period of the International Gothic style. In Krautheimer's opinion the art of this period, with its penchant for magnificence and refined elegance, also reflects the self justification of the victorious forces. The way the lower social classes are depicted in this art is enchantingly idyllic. In the folios of the calendars in illuminated manuscripts we can see peasants peacefully tilling the land. Of course, peasants working in the fields are not so elegant and beautiful as the distinguished aristocrats, but the fact that they are represented on the same calendar page as the smartly dressed company of courtiers indicates that the peasants were in no way considered to be dangerous enemies. The somewhat artificial and condescending gentleness reflected by these pictures can be explained in different ways. When discussing the representation of the peasantry at a somewhat later date in the hand-woven Burgundian tapestries, Aby Warburg advanced the idea that, after all, these figures are descendants of the satyrs of antiquity, and played the role of court jesters in the art of the late Middle Ages. Such idyllic interpretations, which often approach the mood of genre pictures, may reflect the bucolic-romantic pastoral theme, which has recurred at intervals since antiquity, and which postulates that real happiness and peace on earth are to be found only in idealized rural life. In Panofsky's view the interest in working people rose at the same time as the International Gothic style, because the ruling class - though still in possession of power, but feeling in a threatened position - enjoyed finding in art a world which contrasted with their own. Crude rural figures appeared as alternatives, from which the nobility proudly dissociated themselves. Of course, the lower classes had been represented before this time but only without any emotions, and with much less interest and attention than in the period of the International Gothic style.

The representation of Joseph, the Virgin's husband who had not yet been canonized, also underwent basic changes in the years about 1400. As a representative of his trade he was taken to typify the poor among the more distinguished personages of the Bible. In scenes of the Adoration of the Magi he is definitely depicted as the symbol of poverty. More and more often he was shown plying his craft as a carpenter or as the modest and diligent father of Jesus, doing household tasks, hanging up napkins to dry or cooking soup. Panofsky has pointed out that these pictures do not always evince a sympathy for poor people. Sometimes Joseph is mockingly ridiculed. In the Ortenberg Altarpiece, for example, the shabbily dressed, tiny figure is so fully engrossed in stirring the soup with a spoon he is grasping with both his hands, that he does not notice the presence of the Magi. Master Francke of Hamburg found the opposite reason for mocking Joseph, for in Francke's picture Joseph is so quick in responding to the Magi that he immediately takes into safe keeping the precious gifts which Jesus has received, and can be seen packing them safely into the family's travelling box. However, these and similar motifs are susceptible of a more positive interpretation. First, because poverty and humility have - throughout this period - remained virtues. Further, it is Joseph (nutritzoris Domini, Nührvater) who is providing the family with food, who is taking care of the divine child and who in his wise foresight preserves the family treasure.


The difference of style in depicting the rich and the poor reflects accurately the difference between the two strata of society. Until now we have discussed only the stylizing tendencies of art in the years around 1400, its exquisite soft pictorial qualities, although in representations of the period a naturalism which strives for exactness in details is equally characteristic. Such trends can also be perceived in works which represent the ruling class, pictures in which sumptuous attire and dazzling jewels are depicted. In these latter cases an ostentatious display of wealth and the emphasis on the strict order of hierarchy reflected in the apparel led to lifelike details. The aristocrats themselves, however, appeared as disembodied puppets, shown in stiff formality with strict profiles or rigid frontal poses. But where the artist had to represent the poor, the trend towards naturalism held good for the whole figure. Here an emphasis on the mass of the body was more frequent, individual characteristics had appeared along with the so-called three-quarter view of figures and faces. Indeed, the inquisitive interest in common people had its impact on the manner of their representations too. Mockery surfaced in the way of these paintings alongside with enhanced attention; the caricatural exaggeration of features and the difference in scale reflect contempt. We may observe in numerous scenes of the Passion, too, that the idealized sublime figures are depicted according to the rules of a canon different from that which governs the cruder minor characters, who are delineated like caricatures; see, for example, the manner in which the enemies of Christ are depicted.


The timeline of historical events and intellectual life as well as of art and architecture in the Gothic period (1150-1500) is shown in the table.