The Mediecal Millennium: Objects of Desire

Lectures 11&14. Gothic (two sessions)


Toman, R., The Art of Gothic, Cologne 1999.

Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis

  We have already considered the concept of "style" and have recognized the difference between historically-based style designations ("Early Christian," "Byzantine," "Carolingian" etc and the terms "Romanesque" and "Gothic".

The two sides of "style" may be seen as (1) something that we have created through the process of organizing things in visual categories and (2) as rooted in the response and experience of makers and users. "Change" and the search for novelty as the result of critical response under unusually favorable circumstances (economic; institutional; personal).

"Romanesque," - - the meaning is "derived from Roman" (with a slightly pejorative judgmental flavor) - - was coined in the early nineteenth century. "Gothic" and "Germanic" were synonymous and conveyed the disapproval of thinkers of the Renaissance for a style that was thought to be crude, uncivilized and barbaric and was associated with the northern peoples who destroyed Rome.

Attempts have been made at various times to come up with a better designation -- for example, the French coined the term "style ogival"--- an ogive is a "rib" of the kind characteristic of the architecture of the mid-twelfth century and later. In some ways the concept of "Gothic" is entirely appropriate in light of the apparently deliberate subversion or contradiction of classical forms inherent in buildings of the mid-twelfth century and later.

Medieval people did not use any of the style designations we are familiar with. There is evidence of the acute visual memory of certain medieval people; an awareness of difference -- novelty. What we call "Gothic" suggests a new awareness and an expression of time and place. Thus, we find the recognition of geography in a German recognition of Gothic as "French work" or Gothic might be referred to as "modern" work.

We will consider the phenomenon in two categories: architecture and sculpture.

1. Architecture: In the simplest terms, Gothic architecture may be distinguished from Romanesque in its use of pointed arches rather than round; a skeletal system with exposed supports (flying buttresses) rather than thick walls; rib vaults rather than barrel or groin vaults and generally a breakdown of the clear distinction between interior and exterior since the exterior frame is now left outside and the upper edifice (clerestory windows) is turned into a translucent membrane.

Where was this new kind of architecture first found? There are two answers. First, it is clear that experiments were taking place in new types of structure and articulation over a very wide geographical area from northern Italy to northern England. Pointed arches were used in the late-eleventh century abbey church of Cluny in Burgundy. Ribbed vaults were used about the same time in the cathedral of Durham. Experiments were driven by critical response -- in other words, the recognition that existing buildings might be assessed and while some forms might be incorporated into new buildings, in other areas novelties might be introduced. This was clearly a kind of modernism.

The second answer to the question refers to certain great buildings which must, at the time, have been considered thoroughly revolutionary. The church that is most often cited in this context is the monastery of Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, partially rebuilt under the famous abbot Suger between the late 1130's and the mid 1140's. Saint-Denis has the characteristic twin-towered facade that was to be used in many later Gothic cathedrals, and an entirely rib-vaulted choir with ambulatory and radiating chapels.

However, since Saint-Denis has been extensively rebuilt and we are uncertain about aspects of its original form, we might turn to Notre-Dame of Paris, entirely rebuilt after 1160. This was the first northern building to surpass a height of one hundred feet. While aspects of the church refer to the past (the cylindrical columns, the double aisles and the one-hundred foot height evoke Old Saint Peter's), the envelope was radically conceived in terms of the new technology -- flying buttresses more than thirty feet long support the main vessel. This is the first surviving building (as far as we know) entirely designed for flying buttresses. This revolution made possible a string of great cathedrals including Chartres (after 1194), Reims (1210), Amiens (1220) and Beauvais (1225).

The phenomenon of Gothic accompanied the rapid growth of northern cities often enclosed in newly built walls. We should also recognize the coincidence of Gothic with the continued formation of clearly defined cultural identity in the form of national units like France and England. Gothic was a common language of identity (koine) with marked local dialects.

2. Sculpture.

Sculpture on Romanesque portals is often concentrated on capitals. Biblical or moralizing scenes mingle with classicizing (acanthus) and fantastic forms (animals, monsters etc). Romanesque portals sometimes had a powerful sculptured theophany in the tympanum (Toulouse, Moissac, Autun, Vézelay etc).

In Gothic, human and animal forms tend to disappear from the capital in favor of a new bud-like form known as the crocket. Attention is focused upon portals. The various parts of the portal (jambs, trumeau, lintels, tympanum, voussoirs) allow the grouping or clumping of images to facilitate complex programs. Particularly important was the appearance of the column figure, first found on northern Italian portals, then appearing quite abruptly in the north at mid-twelfth century Saint-Denis (the column figures were removed) and at Chartres as well. The new language of the Gothic portal renders possible complex combinations.

The popularity of the column figure provoked a sequence of speculations that drew upon the forms of contemporary life (the garments worn by the figures on the Chartres west facade) to classical (Reims) to Italo-Byzantine (Amiens).