Beauty as Style
Magnificent colours and courtly elegance, gracious figures with lovely faces, precious gowns with sweeping folds, faithful depictions of plants, exotic details: these are among the key features of what is termed the “Schöner Stil” [literally “beautiful style”], or Internationals Gothic. Around 1400 it typified book illumination and panel painting, sculpture, gold work and textile design right across Europe. This was the first time a vocabulary of forms captured the whole of the West – art became globalised.
How did this new style spread so rapidly? One reason lies in the mobility of the artists, their clients, and the artworks themselves. Artists became acquainted with distant parts during their years as apprentices and journeymen. Merchants travelled for their business, as did the powers that be for political ends. Some would take artworks with them, such as devotional paintings or even tapestries. Artist’s pattern books, containing architectural drawings or depictions of plants and animals, could be transported as easily as handy little items made by goldsmiths.
Lying between Burgundy and Prague, France, the Netherlands and Westphalia, Cologne was drawn into an international network of styles. The Cologne artists adopted ideas from abroad and likewise influenced their colleagues. Recent research indicates that there were two or three dominant workshops in Cologne between about 1410 and 1440, with a workforce whose numbers varied according to the state of the respective order book. This also means that there must have been a certain number of ‘freelance’ artists and craftsmen who moved to and fro between the workshops.
In one respect the term “Schöner Stil” is misleading: the depicted splendour and the extremely precious paints and colours (such as lapis lazuli and gold leaf) were not a pretty end in themselves, but part of the religious message: the preciousness of the materials embodied the preciousness of the painted idea.