Hilary Hope Guise, professor of art history, Florida State University, lecturer and artist

Wednesday 25–Thursday 26 January

1.00 pm 


The Gothic period emerged in the early twelfth century. The term Gothic was originally a derogatory term and applied to the extraordinary and soaring cathedrals of northern Europe because they exhibited no classical influences at all. In the bones of the great cathedrals the Christian message was spelt out in stone, yet the master masons who engineered and built these miracles of stone tracery were illiterate. This lecture discusses the difficulties and ingenious solutions that medieval men used to raise these monuments. The cathedrals were saturated with light, inspired by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. When Europe was covered in thick dark forests, and the spiritual ethos was alive with angels and demons, the ambition to expel darkness, both physically and spiritually, becomes more comprehensible.

The building of the cathedrals inspired the making of artefacts to go into them such as the altarpieces for the high altar and the side chapels, reliquaries, illuminated Bibles, ivories and church silver. The skills and materials needed to make these huge altarpieces, and the life of the bustling medieval workshops, are the themes of this lecture. The arduous hunt for pigments, the pounding of gold leaf, the crushing of lapis lazuli and malachite, and the beating of eggs, and above all, the knowledge of the iconography which developed into a complex language over time – all these played into the final achievement of some of the greatest altarpieces, such as the Maestà by Duccio, Cimabue, and altarpieces by Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers.

Lecture titles

1. Building techniques of the Gothic master masons

2. Walls of gold