Artistic transfers in Gothic Europe

During the Gothic period, Europe saw a considerable amount of artistic mobility. Associated with the question of the movement of artists and works from the 12th through the 16th century is the question of the effect of these artistic transfers on the development of European culture. The multi-author work, Les transferts artistiques dans l’Europe gothique (1) furnishes new answers to the latter question. 

COVER Transfert artistesIn recent years the question of mobility has taken on a new sense, as it regards the soil of Europe. The Treaty of Maastricht and the implementation of the Schengen Space moved the construction of Europe forward, raising as they did so many questions about the movement of goods and persons. In the new environment, favourable to cultural exchanges, a project of research into artistic transfers during the Gothic period was planned. It is supported by the National Institute of Art History of Paris, the Département Transitions of the University of Liège, and the University of Toulouse II - Le Mirail, and after a number of workshops and journées d’étude, an initial publication (2) has appeared.  Its objective is to “provide news about the question of the movement of artists, of know-how, forms, works or models, and to understand the role of mobility in the artistic developments of the medieval period in the West”. 

The decision to focus on the Gothic period was motivated by the fact that this part of the Middle Ages was particularly favourable to mobility among artists and the transfer of works. It was a time of social change and of a significant change in people’s taste, which carried within itself the seeds of the Renaissance. The Gothic style originated in France in the 12th century, and eventually appeared in other European countries. The Gothic the Stiftskirche of Wimpfen im Tal (Germany), dating to the 13th century, was referred to by its dean as an opus francigenum. This Latin tag, as Strasbourg professor Marc Carel Schurr explains, is a direct reference to architectural style. 

Over and above this historical context, the work approaches the idea of artistic transfer in a novel way. The meaning assigned to the expression is a matter of some importance, as Liège professor of medieval art history Benoît Van den Bossche, a co-director of the publication, explains. “For a long time, art historians have talked about works of art in terms of influences. Such and such a painting by Antonello da Messina, gives evidence of Flemish influence, etc. But this term, which occurs so frequently, is not clearly defined”. What is more, the term assumes that forms and artistic practices are like autonomous beings that can influence things or be influenced by them. But art objects, themes and techniques do not disseminate anything by themselves. The artist must copy them or decide to be inspired by them, etc. 

This is why these researchers decided to start talking about “artistic transfers”, abandoning the vague (though relatively flexible) contours of the term “influence”. This expression is often taken as equivalent to “cultural transfers”. But in this book, the two expressions are connected to different realities, according to Simone Hespers (scientific co-researcher from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg). To be more exact, it is a matter both of the physical displacement of artists and their creations, but also of the transposition of styles, iconic themes, or techniques from one region that are adopted in others. Of course, the transfers we are talking about are not at all limited to copying. Mathieu Piavaux (University of Namur) demonstrates this in his examination of the Sainte-Chapelle de Paris, emblematic of the Gothic style. This style spread throughout Europe, but not without being transformed to some degree by contact with different themes or techniques. A variety of case studies are examined in the book (which are detailed in the sequel to the article) – attest the richness of an approach focusing on artistic transfers.

(1) Les transferts artistiques dans l’Europe gothique, directed by Jacques Dubois, Jean-Marie Guillouët and Benoît Van den Bossche, Paris, éditions Picard.

(2) In addition, this research project has given rise to a database concerning the Gothic period, in which artists demonstrating mobility during the period are listed. This database will continue to be expanded in the future. 

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