Triumph of darkness or celebration of light?

A “black legend” born in the 19th century labelled it as the dark art par excellence, what with its shadows, dark crypts and dizzying spaces all evoking the fear of God. A paradox born of a revival, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, which took the most hideous and horrifying aspects of the Gothic period. As often happens, it was history reappearing with new (and also) farcical tones. In the medieval mind, however, Gothic art was not darkness, but rather its exact opposite: light.

In the cathedrals of Rouen and Cologne, as in the cathedral of Milan, the – sometimes obsessive – research of the light source is the most important aspect. And it has been so since the very beginning, as one of the first examples of completed Gothic art shows: the Basilica of Saint Denis in Paris.

There is a philosophical background pushing the man who commissioned this church, Abbot Suger, who lived in the 12th century, to think of something radically different. Curiously enough, everything stems from an error: Suger confused Saint Denis, first bishop of the Gauls, with “Pseudo-Denys”, an author working in the Byzantine area who wrote a treatise and attributed it, centuries later, to the man converted by Saint Paul on the Acropolis of Athens, Dionysius the Areopagite.

The treatise written by “Fake Denis” has a strong Neoplatonic imprint, touching subjects such as angelic hierarchies and dazzling supernatural realities. It talks of a “light”, God’s (or perhaps Plotinus’ One’s), which, pure in the beginning, gradually “degrades” as it gets closer to matter. Suger applies this principle to the choir, the upper part of the church, the one where the high altar is located. Behind it, he designs a series of trapezoidal chapels, where the faithful could move around, and places large windows in order to create mystical lighting effects.

That was only the beginning. During the Gothic period, once Gothic art had spread from France to the rest of Western Europe, churches became earthly images of the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem. This is why they had to be large, but also proportionate. The invention of the ogival arch, which made the building look slender, and the use of buttresses played a fundamental role in this theory of spaces. Instead of the frescoes, which reappeared in the fifteenth century, in charge of guaranteeing the presence of colour were the glass windows. The colours were always bright and made of light, which came from the Sun itself. Blue (the colour of air in the Middle Ages), red, yellow and green were the most used.

Under the Normans, Gothic will cross the English Channel and arrive in England. In Italy, this Nordic-flavoured style will never take root: among the few, the best known (but also late) example is the Cathedral in Milan, which was born as a festive occasion: Gian Galeazzo Visconti marries Isabella of France, daughter of the king of France and commissions a sumptuous and imperial temple. Inevitably, a Gothic church. If, on the one hand, Gothic architecture is rare in Italy, on the other, one can rightfully talk of Gothic painting about Giotto, Cimabue, Paolo Uccello and Simone Martini.

A narrative art, capable of describing emotions with greater confidence than the Romanesque masters. And, in its own way, a luminous art: rich – literally – in gold and bright colours, as shown by Stephan Lochner‘s Triptych of the Magi, dated 1445. A painting that connects, in its own way, Milan, the city where the relics of the Magi were once housed, before they were taken by Frederick Barbarossa, and Cologne, another Gothic capital. The majestic cathedral of the German city, which houses the stolen relics, like Milan’s Duomo, was completed only in 1880 sparing no expense to achieve grandeur: for four years, until 1884, it was in fact the tallest building in the world.