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(EN) HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE GOTHIC 1.1: The origin of the term and its association with the goths



Gothic is a term that has its root in the name of a Germanic people, the Goths. The historian of the Gothic, Richard Davenport-Hines, points to the importance of the Goths in the history of the Gothic, as they were folks from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe who terrorized the Roman Empire, leading to its downfall in the 3rd century. Thus, Gothic was a term associated with dark powers, domination and cruelty. In Hines' point of view, the Goths have more to do with the Gothic Revival than Gothic church artisans and architects (HINES, 1998, p.2). According to Hines, in the 18th century, it happened the Gothic Revival, which took place mainly in England in the area of architecture, art and literature, also called the Neo Gothic movement.

The Goths were groups of people who migrated to eastern and southern Europe and who faced the people of the Roman Empire, dominating much of Italy. There have been books about the Goths since the first century, as in Natural History of Pliny the Elder; until the sixth century, as in the History of the Goths by Cassiodorus, and in Getics by the Gothic-Byzantine historian Jordanes and On the Gothic War by Procopius of Caesarea. But the characterization of the Goth people as barbarians, and the use of the Gothic adjective as monstrous, was first recorded in Western literature in a text by the Italian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). Vasari was considered the first “art historian”, he wrote biographies of artists and about artistic techniques in the 16th century. In one of his books, Vasari on Technique, he describes Germanic architecture, which was arriving in Italy, and calls it “Gothic” with pejorative intent. He refers to the style as monstrous, barbaric and calls it Gothic because, just like the Goths who destroyed ancient architecture and killed the architects of Classical Antiquity in the wars, the "remaining Goths" built the architecture of this "Gothic" style .

“We come at last to another sort of work called German, which both in ornament and in proportion is very different from the ancient and the modern. Nor is it adopted now by the best architects but is avoided by them as monstrous and barbarous, and lacking everything that can be called order. Nay it should rather be called confusion and disorder. In their buildings, which are so numerous that they sickened the world [...]. This manner was the invention of the Goths, for, after they had ruined the ancient buildings, and killed the architects in the wars, those who were left constructed the buildings in this style.” (VASARI, 1907, p.84)

Therefore, the art and architecture created in the middle of the 12th century and the beginning of the 15th century was called “Gothic Art”, famous for its cathedrals. According to Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl, in their book entitled “Gothic Art”, the Romanesque style influenced by Roman Antiquity was, little by little, replaced by the new style arrived in Italy, which was called “Gothic” by Vasari. The Italians associated the new style with the Germanic people, as mentioned in Vasari's text above, however, the Gothic style emerged in France, near Paris, and not in the region of Germany, the region from which the Goths would have come. Later, the apex of Gothic architecture took place in the current region of Germany: in Colonia, Ulm, Freiburg, Strasbourg, Regensburg and Vienna (CHARLES, CARL, 2008, p.7).

According to the two authors, Goethe admired the Cathedral of Strasbourg (Notre Dame) and, later, other German Romantics saw Gothic architecture as an art of the highest standards (idem). We must remember that this period is of transition between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age. Thus, Gothic churches accompanied the growth of cities: the population grew and the space within the churches also grew. The churches, tall and well lit, were a symbol of power and growth for a city (ibid.). The exaggerated height of the churches and their warheads are the most striking characteristics of the style and, although there are religious explanations, as in the quote below, the authors warn that the desire to put into practice a new technique was more important for the architects and builders of the time than simply spiritual reasons for reaching the heights.

"Additionally there were religious reasons, namely the deep pity that constituted the ethical foundation of medieval man and his yearning for the bliss of Heaven, which is visible externally in the towers reaching for heaven and internally the pillar constructions that lift the vaults up to vertiginous heights" (CHARLES, CARL, 2008, p.7)

Gothic art was produced until the beginning of the 15th century, because a new era would begin. At the end of the 14th century, in Italy, a movement emerged to revalue the ideals of Classical Antiquity. This movement spread across Europe and across several areas of knowledge, coming to be called the Renaissance. And this topic is for the next post!


CHARLES, Victoria, CARL, Klaus H.. Gothic Art. Nova Iorque, Parkstone Press Ltd, 2008.

HINES, Richard Davenport-. Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. Londres: Fourth State, 1998.

VASARI, Giorgio. Vasari on Technique. Londres, J. M. Dent & Company, 1907, p.83.

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