Architecture was the most important and original art form du-ring the Gothic period. The principal structural characteri-stics of Gothic architecture arose out of medieval masons' efforts to solve the problems associated with supporting heavy masonry ceiling over wide spans. The problem was that the hea-vy stonework of the traditional arched barrel vault and the groin vault exerted a tremendous downward and outward pressure that tended to push the walls upon which the vault rested out-ward, thus collapsing them. A building's vertical supporting walls thus had to be made extremely thick and heavy in order to contain the barrel vault's outward thrust.
Medival masons solved this difficult problem about 1120 with a number of brilliant innovations. First and foremost they deve-loped a ribbed vault,in which arching and intersecting stone ribs support a vaulted ceiling surface that is composed of mere thin stone panels. This greatly reduced the weight (and thus the outward thrust) of the ceiling vault, and since the vault's weight was now carried at discrete points (the ribs) rather than along a continuous wall edge, separate widely spa-ced vertical piers to support the ribs could replace the con-tinuous thick walls. The round arches of the barrel vault were replaced by pointed arches which distributed thrust in more directions downward from the topmost point of the arch.
These elements enabled Gothic masons to build much larger and taller buildings than their Romanesque predecessors and to give their structures more complicated ground plans. The skillful use of flying buttresses made it possible to build extremely tall, thin-walled buildings whose interior structu-ral system of columnar piers and ribs reinforced an impression of soaring verticality.
Sculpture was closely tied to architecture, since it was used primarily to decorate the exteriors of cathedrals and other religious buildings. The earliest Gothic sculptures were stone figures of saints and the Holy Family used to decorate the doorways, or portals, of cathedrals in France and elsewhere.
The sculptures on the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral were little changed from their Romanesque predecessors in their stiff, straight, simple, elongated, and hieratic forms. But during the later 12th and the early 13th centuries sculptures became more relaxed and naturalistic in treatment, a trend that culminated in the sculptural decorations of the Reims Cathedra.These figures, while retaining the dignity and monu-mentality of their predecessors, have individualized faces and figures, as well as full, flowing draperies and natural poses and gestures, and they display a classical poise that suggests an awareness of antique Roman models on the part of their cre-ators. Early Gothic masons also began to observe such natural forms as plants more closely, as is evident in the realisti-cally carven clusters of leaves that adorn the capitals of columns.
Monumental sculptures assumed an increasingly prominent role during the High and late Gothic periods and were placed in large numbers on the facades of cathedrals, often in their own niches. In the 14th century, Gothic sculpture became more re-fined and elegant and acquired a mannered daintiness in its elaborate and finicky drapery. The elegant and somewhat arti-ficial prettiness of this style was widely disseminated throughout Europe in sculpture, painting, and manuscript illu-mination during the 14th century and became known as the In-ternational Gothic style. An opposite trend at this time was that of an intensified realism, as displayed in French tomb sculptures and in the vigorous and dramatic works of the fore-most late Gothic sculptor, Claus Sluter.
Gothic painting followed the same stylistic evolution as did sculpture; from stiff, simple, hieratic forms toward more re-laxed and natural ones. Its scale grew large only in the early 14th century, when it began to be used in decorating the reta-ble (ornamental panel behind an altar). Such paintings usually featured scenes and figures from the New Testament, particu-larly of the Passion of Christ and the Virgin Mary. These paintings display an emphasis on flowing, curving lines, minu-te detail, and refined decoration, and gold was often applied to the panel as background colour. Compositions became more complex as time went on, and painters began to seek means of depicting spatial depth in their pictures, a search that even-tually led to the mastery of perspective in the early years of the Italian Renaissance. In late Gothic painting of the 14th and 15th centuries secular subjects such as hunting scenes, chivalric themes, and depic-tions of historical events also appeared. Both religious and secular subjects were depicted in manuscript illuminations, the pictorial embellishment of handwritten books. This was a major form of artistic production during the Gothic period and reached its peak in France during the 14th century. The calen-dar illustrations in the grave; Riches Heures du duc de Berry(1416) by the Limburg brothers, who worked at the court of Jean de France, duc de Berry, are perhaps the most eloquent statements of the International Gothic style as well as the best known of all manuscript illuminations.
Manuscript illumination was superseded by printed illustrati-ons in the second half of the 15th century. Panel and wall painting evolved gradually into the Renaissance style in Italy during the 14th and early 15th centuries but retained many more of its Gothic characteristics until the late 15th and early 16th centuries in Germany, Flanders, and elsewhere in Northern Europe.