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An example to Europe: 12th century

In the 12th century France is in the forefront of the intellectual and artistic life of Europe. In the visual arts this is most evident in sculpture. The century spans the transition from Romanesque to Gothic, and the surviving French examples are the finest in each style.

The vigorously dramatic carved scenes decorating churches such as Moissac and Conques date from the early years of the 12th century. They are the climax of the Romanesque in sculpture. Just a few years later, in mid-century, Chartres provides the earliest surviving examples of the very different Gothic style.

The sculptures of Chartres: 1150-1220

The earliest porch of Chartres cathedral - the triple entrance in the west façade - introduces Gothic sculpture in its most extreme form. Each of the biblical kings and queens stands on a tiny platform projecting from a tall, thin pillar. To suit their circumstance, their bodies are impossibly elongated within the tumbling pleats of their full-length robes. Yet their faces, by contrast, are realistic and benign.

The result is an effect of ethereal calm, entirely in keeping with Gothic architecture. One of the Chartres sculptors is believed to have undertaken these figures after completing the virgins for the porch of St Denis. So the Gothic style may have been introduced almost in its entirety by Abbot Suger.

The figures in the north porch of Chartres are added half a century later, from about 1195 to 1220. Recognizably in the same style, they are still unusually tall and thin. But instead of being ethereal figures, they are beginning to stir themselves as human beings. Their predecessors in the west porch are aligned with their pillars, as if pinned to them like rare butterflies. The new figures stand more naturally between the pillars. And they look about. They make gestures.

Their creators are beginning to discover a natural way of treating the human figure. Later Gothic sculptors build on that achievement.

From Gothic to Renaissance: 13th - 14th century

An important element of the Renaissance is the rediscovery of the realistic free-standing human figure as sculpted in Greece and Rome. But the emergence of Renaissance sculpture is not nearly as sudden a process as the change involved in Renaissance architecture.

From the time of the north porch of Chartres, in the early 13th century, sculptors create entirely believable people in stone - though attached, invariably, to the walls of buildings. Gradually these figures begin to detach themselves, as if moving towards a more independent existence. The statues liberated in this way are among the masterpieces of Gothic sculpture. But they are also the harbingers of the Renaissance.

The examples usually quoted are mainly from northern Europe. Four figures in the west porch of Reims cathedral, carved between 1225 and 1245, break out of their isolation to relate to a partner. In the right pair the Virgin turns to St Elizabeth in the Visitation; in the left pair she turns to the archangel in the Annunciation.

In the following century another major step is taken in France (or more precisely the duchy of Burgundy) in the liberation of the sculpted human form.

In 1395 the duke of Burgundy commissions a work from Claus Sluter. He is to provide a scene of Calvary, set on a carved base, to surmount the well of a charterhouse near Dijon. The Calvary has been destroyed, but the base survives - surrounded by six sturdy Old Testament prophets. These figures, carved in 1400-1405, stand as free and as convincing as anyone possibly could whose eternal task is to stand guard round a well (the Well of Moses). With these prophets the naturalistic side of the Renaissance makes its appearance in the north, several years ahead of Donatello in Florence.

Conversely, Florence exerts considerable influence on the first great French painter of the Renaissance.

Jean Fouquet: 1445-1460

Jean Fouquet, born in Tours in about 1420, spends four years in Italy in the 1440s. When he returns to Tours, he begins a decade of very fruitful activity blending Italian and northern influences.

One of Fouquet's most striking works, from about 1450, is the portrait of his patron, Étienne Chevalier, seen praying with St Stephen and painted as one half of a diptych for a church in Melun. The realism with which the two men are depicted derives from the example of the Netherlands masters of the time, such as van Eyck and van der Weyden, but Fouquet adds a classical calm of his own.

In about 1452 Étienne Chevalier commissions from Fouquet the work on which his reputation is mainly based. It is a Book of Hours, for which Fouquet provides detailed miniature illustrations of scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints. Fouquet probably completes the work by 1456. The original number of the scenes is not known but forty-seven exquisite images survive, nearly all of them in the museum at Chantilly.

In these small but beautifully controlled compositions Fouquet again brings together two traditions from outside France.

The colourful elegance of Fouquet's scenes develops the tradition of the miniatures of northern Burgundy and of the Limburg brothers, masters of the International Gothic style. But in other elements - his use of the motifs of classical architecture, his interest in persective, the rounded solidity of his figures and of their spatial relationships - Fouquet reveals the influence of what he has his seen in Renaissance Italy, such as the work recently completed by Fra Angelico in Florence.

A link with Italy remains a central characteristic in the next great period of French painting, the 17th century.

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