The Best Gothic Art Books to Understand French Churches

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When you want to understand the features of a Gothic cathedral or church, you can find a lot of information on the web. However, there are two reasons why books are still a good option. First, I am myself very fond of reading a paper-based document. Second, not everything is (yet) discoverable on the internet… Books offer more specialised info with high-quality illustrations you rarely get online. This little selection of my favourite Gothic art books will definitely help you if you’re visiting a Gothic church in France or just want to learn more from your armchair!


My selection of the best books about Gothic art

There is a lot of resource available in your local or online bookstore. The problem is: what book to choose from?

By the way, choosing a book is often a personal action. You may like the look of the cover, whether it is paperback or hardcover. Maybe like me, you are sensible to the quality of illustrations… and when the reading is too technical… well, you just read diagonally (hoping it will get easier later!!)

What comes next is a short selection of my favourite books that you can order online (I’m not looking for books that can only be found by chance at a flea market or which are not published anymore).

Let me know what are your favourite Gothic Art Books by filling the comment box below! Who knows… I may have missed listing a really good book!


What is Gothic art in France?

But before we start the list, I just want to clarify what we are talking about when we use the word ‘Gothic‘.

You’d have already guessed it’s not about wearing black clothes, to dye your black while listening to good old metal.

We’re talking about an artistic movement that originated in the Ile de France (Paris region) in the early 12th century. It succeeded to other artistic movement: Romanesque art.

The façade of Strasbourg Cathedral © French Moments

The façade of Strasbourg Cathedral © French Moments

One of the earliest Gothic churches was built by Abbot Suger to the north of Paris: the basilica of Saint-Denis.

In the following centuries, Gothic art would spread to all of the country and Western Europe.

In France only, lofty cathedrals and churches were constructed: Amiens, Reims, Rouen, Beauvais, Strasbourg, Metz

Metz Cathedral © French Moments

Metz Cathedral © French Moments

It’s important to note that, even if Gothic is often referred to architecture, it also encompasses painting, sculpture, glassware, and printmaking…

The South Rose Window © French Moments

The South Rose Window of Notre-Dame de Paris © French Moments

A discredited art

The word Gothic was not the one used in the Middle Ages to describe the artistic movement. It was then known as the “Opus Francigenum“, that is the French Art or French Work.

Gothic” was first used in a letter to Pope Leo X by Raphael in 1518. And it was not in a positive way. In fact, the painter had “Barbaric” in mind, and therefore used it pejoratively.

Then, a few years later, in 1530, another Italian artist and writer, Giorgio Vasari, described Gothic art a “monstrous and barbarous… disorder“.

Chimera of Notre-Dame © French Moments

Chimera of Notre-Dame © French Moments

Then came Gothic Revival…

But the perception toward Gothic art changed in the 19th century, at least in France.

An other artistic era started: Gothic Revival or neo-Gothic.

In 1816, French scholar Alexandre de Laborde wrote that “Gothic architecture has beauties of its own“. 

The following year Victor Hugo published a historical romance novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It starred not only Esmeralda and Quasimodo but the Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. The fiction was a huge popular success.

Notre-Dame de Paris © French Moments

Notre-Dame de Paris © French Moments

From the 1840s, French architect Viollet-le-Duc restored most of France’s symbolic churches and castles in France, including Notre-Dame de Paris, the abbey of Vézelay, Carcassonne, Mont Saint-Michel, Pierrefonds Castle and the Popes’ Palace in Avignon.

Carcassonne 132 © French Moments

Castle of Carcassonne © French Moments


Gothic Art Book #1

Gothic: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting by Rolf Toman

Publisher: Ullmann, ISBN-13: 978-3833135125

Gothic Art Books: My copy of the book "Gothic: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting"

This book has been for me a great resource that helped me better understand the Gothic movement in art from the 12th century to the Renaissance. An architectural style that first originated from France and spread all over Europe.

Over 500 pages it focuses on the development of Gothic architecture with many illustrations and photographs, but not only. I’ve also found interesting the in-depth discussion of the most diverse art forms, including painting, sculpture, metalwork and even book illumination! It also includes specific coverage of the Cathars’ Heresy and the Papal Palace in Avignon. And, of course, it mentions the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris!

This is definitely the book I recommend if – like me – you love everything about Gothic such as churches, gargoyles, stained glass, flying buttresses and so much more. In fact, this is my favourite of all the Gothic Art Books of this list…

Order it online!


Gothic Art Book #2

Romanesque & Gothic France: Art and Architecture by Viviane Minne-Seve and Hervé Kergall

Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, ISBN-13: 978-0810944367

Gothic Art Books: Romanesque and Gothic France Art and Architecture Book

This great book is tells about the history of Romanesque and Gothic art across France, and focuses in particular on architecture and sculpture.

It also includes a good review of ecclesiastical structures, paintings, manuscripts, and stained glass, while putting each landmark in its historical setting.

A great resource for those doing school reports on cathedrals and churches in France (I particularly like the glossary!).

Order it online!


Gothic Art Book #3

Gothic Cathedrals: A Guide to the History, Places, Art, and Symbolism by Karen Ralls PhD

Published: Ibis Press, ISBN-13: 978-0892541737

Gothic Art Books: Gothic Cathedrals A Guide to the History Places Art and Symbolism

In this book the author – a medieval historian – leads us to the glorious medieval times of the Gothic cathedrals. 

This study focuses on the artistic beauty and expert craftsmanship which have served for centuries to inspire feelings of spiritual reverence and aesthetic wonder. The author included the study of:

  • the relationship between architecture, geometry, and music,
  • the concept of the labyrinth
  • the great pilgrimages,
  • what are Black Madonnas?
  • astronomical calculations in the design and location of cathedrals,
  • stone and wood carvings,
  • gargoyles,
  • the teachings of Pythagoras and the later Neo-Platonists, and more.

Order it online!


Gothic Art Book #4

The Gargoyle Book: 572 Examples from Gothic Architecture by Lester Burbank Bridaham

Publisher: Dover Publications, ISBN-13: 978-0486447544

Gothic Art Books: The Gargoyle Book - 572 Examples from Gothic Architecture

Instead of presenting the visible spires and arches in Gothic cathedrals, this book focusses on down-to-earth architectural details that are sometimes overlooked by visitors:

tympanum sculpture, gargoyles and chimeres, heads, capitals and other compositions, or woodwork.

You’ll learn a ton of things about Gothic churches and will want to explore them in turn!

Order it online!


Gothic cathedrals and church on the blog!

Finally if you are looking for more precise info about particular cathedrals and churches, check out my pages! Here’s a selection of Gothic sanctuaries we’ve been working on:

In Paris and historic Ile de France

In Rouen

In the north-east of France (Grand-Est)

South of the Loire


 

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

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