The Definition of “Late Gothic”

The Definition of “Late Gothic”

The title of our exhibition – Late Gothic: The Birth of Modernity – contains what might seem to be a contradiction. Can something that stands at the end of one epoch simultaneously constitute the beginning of another?


Notre-Dame de Paris © Fabian Fröhlich

The Gothic as an Art-Historical Era

Today, the term “Gothic” is applied to all art forms that emerged in Europe from the early 13th century. In the German-speaking world, the “late Gothic era” spans from around 1430 to 1500, constituting the final phase of medieval art before the onset of modernity. The profound changes of this era led to the art of the Renaissance, and the compositional and technical innovations that occurred at this time continue to shape our understanding of images.

Gothic as an Architectural Style

Concepts such as “late Gothic” and “modernity” are inventions created by the discourses of (art) history. Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), who is often credited as being the founder of art history, used the term “Gothic” to describe the architecture of the preceding centuries. The concept derives from the Goths, the Nordic tribes who first entered the territory of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. However, “Gothic” architecture has nothing to do with the Goths. Rather, Vasari used the term to establish a clear cultural divide between this architecture and the Italian architecture of his own time, enabling him to characterise older styles of architecture as inferior. In Italy, from the 15th century, architecture took its cues from classical antiquity, while Gothic aesthetics were based on forms that had emerged in the mid-12th century around Paris, characterised by elements such as ogives and ribbed vaults.