Gothic art told a narrative story through pictures, both Christian and secular.
The earliest Gothic art was Christian sculptures, born on the walls of Cathedrals and abbeys. Christian art was often typological in nature (see Medieval allegory), showing the stories of the New Testament and the Old Testament side by side. Saints' lives were often depicted. Images of the Virgin Mary changed from the Byzantine iconic form to a more human and affectionate mother, cuddling her infant, swaying from her hip, and showing the refined manners of a well-born aristocratic courtly lady.
Secular art came in to its own during this period with the rise of cities, foundation of universities, increasing trade, a money-based economy and a bourgeois class who could afford to patronize the arts and commission works resulting in a proliferation of paintings and illuminated manuscripts. Increased literacy and a growing body of secular vernacular literature encouraged the representation of secular themes in art. With the growth of cities, trade guilds were formed and artists were often required to be members of a painters' guild—as a result, because of better record keeping, more artists are known to us by name in this period than any previous, some artists were even so bold as to sign their names.
The French ideas spread. In Germany, from 1225 at the Cathedral in Bamberg onward, the impact can be found everywhere. The Bamberg Cathedral had the largest assemblage of 13th century sculpture, culminating in 1240 with the Bamberg Rider, the first equestrian statue in Western art since the 6th century. In England the sculpture was more confined to tombs and non-figurine decorations (in part because of Cistercian iconoclasm). In Italy there was still a Classical influence, but Gothic made inroads in the sculptures of pulpits such as the Pisa Baptistery pulpit (1269) and the Siena pulpit. A late masterwork of Italian Gothic sculptures is the series of Scaliger Tombs in Verona (early-late 14th century).
Gothic sculpture evolved from the early stiff and elongated style, still partly Romanesque, into a spatial and naturalistic feel in the late 12th and early 13th century. Influences from surviving ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were incorporated into the treatment of drapery, facial expression and pose.
Dutch-Burgundian sculptor Claus Sluter and the taste for naturalism signaled the beginning of the end of Gothic sculpture, evolving into the classicistic Renaissance style by the end of the 15th century.
Painting in a style that can be called "Gothic" did not appear until about 1200, or nearly 50 years after the start of Gothic architecture and sculpture. The transition from Romanesque to Gothic is very imprecise and not at all a clear break, and Gothic ornamental detailing is often introduced before much change is seen in the style of figures or compositions themselves. Then figures become more animated in pose and facial expression, tend to be smaller in relation to the background of scenes, and are arranged more freely in the pictorial space, where there is room. This transition occurs first in England and France around 1200, in Germany around 1220 and Italy around 1300.
Painting (the representation of images on a surface) during the Gothic period was practiced in 4 primary crafts: frescos, panel paintings, manuscript illumination and stained glass. Frescoes continued to be used as the main pictorial narrative craft on church walls in southern Europe as a continuation of early Christian and Romanesque traditions. In the north stained glass was the art of choice until the 15th century. Panel paintings began in Italy in the 13th century and spread throughout Europe, so by the 15th century they had become the dominate form supplanting even stained glass. Illuminated manuscripts represent the most complete record of Gothic painting, providing a record of styles in places where no monumental works have otherwise survived. Painting with oil on canvas does not become popular until the 15th and 16th centuries and was a hallmark of Renaissance art.
In Northern Europe the important and innovative school of Early Netherlandish painting is in an essentially Gothic style, but can also be regarded as part of the Northern Renaissance, as there was a long delay before the Italian revival of interest in classicism had a great impact in the north. Painters like Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck, made use of the technique of oil painting to create minutely detailed works, correct in perspective, where apparent realism was combined with richly complex symbolism arising precisely from the realistic detail they could now include, even in small works.
Although there was far more secular Gothic art than is often thought today, as generally the survival rate of religious art has been better than for secular equivalents, a large proportion of the art produced in the period was religious, whether commissioned by the church or by the laity. Gothic art emerged in France in the mid-12th century, with the Basilica at Saint-Denis built by Abbot Suger the first major building. New monastic orders, especially the Cistercians and the Carthusians, were important builders who developed distinctive styles which they disseminated across Europe. The Franciscan friars built functional city churches with huge open naves for preaching to large congregations. However regional variations remained important, even when, by the late 14th century, a coherent universal style known as International Gothic had evolved, which continued until the late 15th century, and beyond in many areas. The principal media of Gothic art were sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco and the illuminated manuscript, though religious imagery was also expressed in metalwork, tapestries and embroidered vestments. The architectural innovations of the pointed arch and the flying buttress, allowed taller, lighter churches with large areas of glazed window. Gothic art made full use of this new environment, telling a narrative story through pictures, sculpture, stained glass and soaring architecture. Chartres cathedral is a prime example of this.
Gothic art was often typological in nature, reflecting a belief that the events of the Old Testament pre-figured those of the New, and that that was indeed their main significance. Old and New Testament scenes were shown side by side in works like the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, and the decoration of churches. The Gothic period coincided with a great resurgence in Marian devotion, in which the visual arts played a major part. Images of the Virgin Mary developed from the Byzantine hieratic types, through the Coronation of the Virgin, to more human and initimate types, and cycles of the Life of the Virgin were very popular. Artists like Giotto, Fra Angelico and Pietro Lorenzetti in Italy, and Early Netherlandish painting, brought realism and a more natural humanity to art. Western artists, and their patrons, became much more confident in innovative iconography, and much more originality is seen, although copied formulae were still used by most artists. The book of hours was developed, mainly for the lay user able to afford them - the earliest known example seems to have written for an unknown laywoman living in a small village near Oxford in about 1240 - and now royal and aristocratic examples became the type of manuscript most often lavishly decorated. Most religious art, including illuminated manuscripts, was now produced by lay artists, but the commissioning patron often specified in detail what the work was to contain.
Iconography was affected by changes in theology, with depictions of the Assumption of Mary gaining ground on the older Death of the Virgin, and in devotional practices such as the Devotio Moderna, which produced new treatments of Christ in subjects such as the Man of Sorrows, Pensive Christ and Pietà, which emphasized his human suffering and vulnerability, in a parallel movement to that in depictions of the Virgin. Even in Last Judgements Christ was now usually shown exposing his chest to show the wounds of his Passion. Saints were shown more frequently, and altarpieces showed saints relevant to the particular church or donor in attendance on a Crucifixion or enthroned Virgin and Child, or occupying the central space themselves (this usually for works designed for side-chapels). Over the period many ancient iconographical features that originated in New Testament apocrypha were gradually eliminated under clerical pressure, like the midwives at the Nativity, though others were too well-established, and considered harmless.
In Early Netherlandish painting, from the richest cities of Northern Europe, a new minute realism in oil painting was combined with subtle and complex theological allusions, expressed precisely through the highly detailed settings of religious scenes. The Mérode Altarpiece (1420s) of Robert Campin, and the Washington Van Eyck Annunciation or Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (both 1430s, by Jan van Eyck) are examples. In the 15th century, the introduction of cheap prints, mostly in woodcut, made it possible even for peasants to have devotional images at home. These images, tiny at the bottom of the market, often crudely coloured, were sold in thousands but are now extremely rare, most having been pasted to walls. Souvenirs of pilgrimages to shrines, such as clay or lead badges, medals and ampullae stamped with images were also popular and cheap. From the mid-century blockbooks, with both text and images cut as woodcut, seem to have been affordable by parish priests in the Low Countries, where they were most popular. By the end of the century, printed books with illustrations, still mostly on religious subjects, were rapidly becoming accessible to the prosperous middle class, as were engravings of fairly high-quality by printmakers like Israhel van Meckenem and Master E. S..
For the wealthy, small panel paintings, even polyptychs in oil painting were becoming increasingly popular, often showing donor portraits alongside, though often much smaller than, the Virgin or saints depicted. These were usually displayed in the home.