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The Production of Meaning

The Production of Meaning

(p.133) 6 The Production of Meaning
Plotting Gothic
Stephen Murray
University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter matches material production with the production of meaning: the power of the cathedral to communicate through a language of conventional signs and to lead us to a world beyond. Amongst our three witnesses it is with Abbot Suger that we negotiate the passage from the material to the immaterial. Our exploration of the production of meaning is further facilitated through the intervention of Durandus, bishop of Mende, the most informative source on the ways that the material church represents the spiritual. We proceed to examine four topoi or commonplaces: the etiological myth of forest origins, the way that meaning is conveyed as one building points to another, the notion of Gothic as radical rationalism or modernism and the ontological myth of the Gothic cathedral as an image of heaven.

Keywords:   production of meaning, conventional signs, passage from material to immaterial, Durandus, Bishop of Mende, etiological myth, ontological myth, rationalism, modernism

Now that we have considered stories of the material production of Gothic in relation to the third side of our plot, the one to the left, it is time to extend and to complete our boundaries with a fourth dimension (top of our schema, plot III): the astonishing power of Gothic architecture to generate the illusion of the ability to “speak” through a language of conventional signs, and beyond this, to become a medium, a vehicle, able to transport the visitor to a world beyond itself. The investigator here, rather than working as a detective, will proceed though the domains of iconography, semiotics, and anthropology to an awareness of the sublime.1

Just as the material building came into being through production—understood as the establishment of the logistical structure necessary for construction, including provision of funds, materials, and direction—so, too, meaning is produced. Architecture brings spatial and temporal dimensions that complicate and enrich this process. Our notional plot (plot III) may help to remind us that levels of meaning are produced at multiple points and times: as the interlocutor points and talks, introducing figurative language (bottom right corner of the plot), or as the builders developed their agenda, selecting appropriate materials and establishing working practices (bottom left). The builders certainly had their own programs (religious and ideological), which they hoped the building would project (top left corner); we may assume that architectural choices were generally reached purposefully, not (p.134) by accident. The building might be equipped with figurative programs; once finished, spaces would be used and sometimes found inadequate and in need of modification for liturgical, devotional, and other purposes. Finally, the modern visitor/interlocutor may interrogate the edifice and begin to narrate a story to himself or herself or to others. Visitors may reach forward compulsively to grasp meaning in the same way that the reader of a particularly engaging novel wants to anticipate and to unravel the story line, half revealed and half concealed (top right corner).2 Whereas evidential signs can be offered in a court of law not just as evidence but as proof, signs considered as language are much more intractable—the meanings that the interlocutor draws out of the building are not necessarily the same as those that the builders put in; the same signs can be construed quite differently by different individuals or audiences.3

Whereas the lowest limit of our plot, representing the building itself, is understood entirely diachronically as extending over time, the production of meaning is, at least to some extent, synchronic. Some of the levels of meaning programmed into the cathedral by the builders are not altogether lost to the modern user, just as some elements of liturgical practice (celebration of the sacraments; the divine office) have survived, though transformed. Other aspects of modern interpretation, on the other hand, might never have occurred to the medieval builder/user. This does not, of course, necessarily make them “wrong.”

We coopted Villard de Honnecourt as the essential interlocutor of our Gothic quest, while Gervase of Canterbury mediated at the intersection between our monument and the material context in which it was produced. It is left to the Abbot Suger to begin to acquaint us with the problems and anxieties associated with the production of meaning in Gothic.

Suger returned repeatedly to the power of the forms of his church to propel the beholder to a world beyond, from the material to the immaterial. Thus the inscription upon his golden doors: “In what manner it be inherent in this world, the golden door defines: the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material, and, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submission.”4 Similarly, the inscription on the Golden Altar Frontal invites Denis to “cause us to be received in the dwelling of Heaven, and to be sated at the heavenly table instead of at the present one. That which is signified pleases more that that which signifies.”5 Our abbot is also well aware of the power of individual architectural elements to carry meaning; his new chevet is born up by the apostles and prophets represented in the supports of the main arcade and ambulatory.6

But we have seen that Suger was no theologian. His greatest concern (p.135) was whether the works he had commissioned would be intelligible to the beholder—whether visitors would be able to connect signifier with signified—and, of course, he wanted them to recognize and remember the role of the abbot. To help us further with the production of meaning at the moment of (or close to) the period of construction of the Gothic cathedral, let us recruit another mediator, a professional theologian, to explain how meaning in the age of Gothic was thought to be generated by the material forms of the church and its furnishings. This is William Durand (also Durandus), bishop of Mende.7

In the 1290s Durand wrote a treatise on the symbolism of churches and church ornaments. The prologue outlines the author’s agenda. Observing that the task of professors in the liberal arts as well as practitioners of the mechanical arts (painters and builders) is to understand reasons and causes, Durand concludes that priests, too, need appropriate knowledge in order to understand doctrine. Critical for this knowledge is the distinction (drawn from St. Augustine) between natural signs (material “evidence”) and conventional signs or “figures”: “We rightly receive the sacraments as signs or figures since figures are not themselves the virtues but signs of the virtues, just as men are instructed through writing. Moreover, some signs are natural while others are posited by men.’”8 “Whatever belongs to the liturgical offices, objects, and furnishings of the Church is full of signs of the divine and the sacred mysteries, and each of them overflows with a celestial sweetness when it is encountered by a diligent observer who can extract ‘honey from rock and oil from the stoniest ground’ [Deut 32: 13].”9 Such signs or “figures” allow passage from what is seen with physical vision to deeper spiritual meanings: “For example, in white vestments we understand in a certain sense the beauty of our souls, namely the glory of our immortality which we cannot plainly see.”10

Durand then lays out the standard medieval understanding of the four levels of reading the Scriptures: historical, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical.11 “History is when the words describe an actual event—as for example when the children of Israel, after their deliverance from Egypt, made a Tabernacle to the Lord. Allegory is present when what is said literally has another meaning spiritually; for example, when one word or deed brings to mind another. If what is represented is visible, then it is simply an allegory; if it is invisible and celestial, then it is called anagogy.”12 Tropology brings concern with the correction of manners, and anagogy conveys the “upwardleading” passage from visible to invisible things. Phenomena like the Trinity, the orders of angels, and the celestial rewards at the end of time can never be seen with human eyes—but they can be anticipated through anagogical ascent. “Similarly, Jerusalem is understood historically as that earthly city that (p.136) pilgrims seek; allegorically, it represents the church militant; tropologically, any faithful soul; anagogically, the heavenly Jerusalem, or our homeland.13

Durand owns up to what the modern reader looking for a mechanically assured passage from sign to significance may find particularly frustrating in his exposition of meaning: “Often in this work different senses of interpretation are employed for the same thing, passing from one sense to another, and the diligent reader shall be able to observe how this happens.”

Our author goes on to apply his concept to the meanings of the church building and its parts, beginning with the premise “The material church thus represents the spiritual.”14 The passage from the material forms of the church to spiritual meanings is then illustrated with a series of examples. Remembering Abbot Suger’s concern with intelligibility, I would suggest that while the beholder could begin to grasp some of Durand’s linkages through clues or visual signs in the form of the building, others would be unintelligible without the mediation of an interlocutor. This was, after all, the whole point of the writer’s exercise: Durand, as a good, learned bishop, had set himself the task of providing parish priests the equipment to impart to unlettered layfolk the means of understanding the allegories of the church expressed in its physical edifice.

The somatic nature of the physical structure of the church is available to visitors both in its visible forms and in some of the names applied to its parts: a “rib” (as in rib vaults) is, after all, a body part—what was originally a metaphor has become a standard designation—as indeed was the case with so many of the names that we apply to the parts of medieval buildings.15 Durandus points to the resemblance of the plan of the church to a human body: “The arrangement of the materials of the church can be likened to the human body. The chancel, that is, the place where the altar is, represents the head; the cross, from either side, represents the arms or the hands, while the remaining part extending to the west is seen as the rest of the body.”16 The church is palpably the body of Christ—this understanding is visually available to the audience, with the help of the interlocutor.17

However, we learn from Durand that there are also hidden aspects of the meaning of the church derived not from any kind of visible similitude but from analogy between the structural behavior of the edifice and human society. There is no direct physical resemblance between stones and human beings; we need the help of the interlocutor to grasp the idea that the stones of which the edifice is made are the faithful, placed in an appropriate position in relation to their virtues. Stones are shaped and polished by the Great Artisan and bound together with the mortar of water, sand, and lime, which (p.137) is the spirit of charity. And the cornerstone is Christ. Ecclesia, after all, is not just the material structure but also the community of the living faithful and saints.18 But I repeat—these meanings, powerful though they may be, will not necessarily be seen by the uninitiated visitor without the guidance of the interlocutor.

We can see, then, that the passage from signifier to signifier in the mind of medieval viewers and users might be triggered (and meanings produced) both by visual clues and linkages created by visual similitude and through promptings of a structural and cerebral kind. For the second kind of passage the role of the interlocutor is critical. But in the end, of course, there can be no fully coherent system to organize the way that meaning is extracted from the Gothic cathedral by the visitor, medieval or modern.19

I propose, then, that in the following pages we entertain four of the many different ways in which the experience of the Gothic building might stimulate passage to meaning(s).20 We might envisage a shifting scale from mimesis (the building looks like something else) to abstraction (the building represents the builders or the societal values that produced it, not through resemblance but through analogy or metonymic association). Each passage is, of course, mediated by the beholder’s preparation—including assumptions and prejudices and theories—and by the insistent promptings of the interlocutor.21

First, the story of architecture has, at least since Vitruvius, been told in terms of the physical resemblances between tectonic and natural forms.22 Indeed, as every student of Gothic knows, the very definition of the phenomenon came through the alleged resemblance between sinuous, lacy architectural forms and a forest. Second, architectural forms may also point to other buildings. More than anything else, a building looks like another building. Through deliberately planned resemblances to prototypical architectural forms (biblical, celestial, or actually existing structures) the builders could transfer meaning and value from older to new structures and from older to current systems of societal order. Third, the forms of Gothic have commonly been explained as radical modernism: pure expressions of the application of reason to problems of structure, light, and articulation. It is through reason that builders were able to make a break with the well-tried forms and practices of the past. It has been maintained, fourth, that Gothic cathedrals take on their principal meaning through their visual references to something never seen by human eyes but only imagined by visionaries and prophets—the Celestial City of Jerusalem, as articulated in the liturgy of dedication. The written sources leave us with no doubt of the builder’s intention (p.138) to endow the cathedral with this meaning, but the question of exactly how the beholder responds to the visual clues of the building to effect the passage to heaven has been bitterly fought over.

Similitude to Nature; Local Roots

The story of architecture in general and Gothic architecture in particular begins with the myth of natural origins.23 Such origins might be found in the great Creation story; they might invoke the first house of Adam and Eve; they might be rooted in Vitruvius’s account of the origins of the Orders; or they might be based upon the assumption (dominant in the Middle Ages and Renaissance) that human creativity is limited to mimesis: just as the images of figurative art are (more or less) simulacra of things actually seen, so humans as they create tectonic forms and spaces copy Nature.24 Viollet-le-Duc, profoundly influenced by Georges Cuvier, believed that Gothic builders followed the same principles that can be discovered in the formation of the natural forms of the earth.25 Gothic is right because it is natural.

In the following pages we will explore a thesis and an antithesis. My thesis is that “natural” forms, pointing to origins in Creation, might lend significance and legitimacy to a particular way of building, promising universal understanding and approval. Through the ingenuity of mason and ymagier those forms can lead the desiring beholder to prototypes in Creation, to the Garden of Eden before the fall, to the promised land, to the living tree upon which Christ died, and to Paradise. And of course the forms of nature also point emphatically to the here and now—the trees and vegetation of the countryside surrounding the cathedral city. This thesis—the promise of approval and comprehension—may be countered, however, with the following questions. Does this “natural” architecture conform to our own norms of taste, and do we approve of what the building stands for in cultural and historical terms? Do we like it? Does it look right? Considered as a metonym or an index, does it represent or stand for our cultural values or might it represent theirs?

The coining of an appropriate designation for what we call Gothic was, right from the start, inextricably intertwined with the construction of local identity: indeed, the very first known epithet applied to the architectural mode associated it with the Franks or French, opus francigenum.26 However, it was up to the Italian humanists of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to offer an “explanation” of the phenomenon by linking the arboreal look of the thing with forest origins in the Gothic North.

(p.139) Natural Origins of “Gothic” in the Eyes of Italian Humanists

The category of artifacts that we call Gothic was, as far as we know, first so named in the writings of Italian humanists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Working in collaboration with Angelo Colocci and Baldassare Castiglione for Pope Leo X, at a date toward 1519 Raphael famously reported:

This architecture [of the Germans] did make some sense, however, as it was derived from trees, not yet cut down, whose branches were bent over and made to form pointed arches when tied together. And although this origin is not wholly to be despised, it is nevertheless weak; for huts made from fitted beams arranged as columns, with gables and a covering roof, as Vitruvius describes with respect to the origin of the Doric order, would be stronger than the pointed arches with two centers. For indeed, according to the law of mathematics, a semi-circular arch, with each part of its line related only to one center, can carry much more. And beside this weakness, the pointed arch does not have the same grace to our eye, for the perfection of the circle is pleasing, and one sees that Nature seeks almost no other form.27

Time and space were here collapsed in the deft equation of that forest look familiar to every visitor to a Gothic church with the culture of Germans, whose ancestors were believed to have lived and worshiped in forests. The underlying reason for the animus is, of course, not mentioned: dislike of those same Germans (Goths), who had destroyed Rome, whose living representatives (especially the French) continued to humiliate Italian armies militarily, and whose alternative humanism Italians might find unacceptable.28

The cyclical theory of historical “development” linked the decline of the Roman Empire and the fifth-century invasion of Rome by the Germans or Goths with a loss of quality in artistic production. Raphael proposed a classification system in which the style of buildings might be understood in relation to historic and cultural decline. This was not a dispassionate or detached system of classification since the word maniera, “style,” carried moral and judgmental undertones, meaning “a kind of deportment, a put-togetherness that the ancient Romans called ‘concinnitas.’”29 Ingrid Rowland explains the maniera thing most adeptly: “The ancient Romans had had it, the barbarians had lost it, the Germans had begun to recover it, Bramante had brought it back to vibrant life, and [Pope] Leo … could use it to attract Christian souls to a life of virtue.”30

Thus the alleged failure of “Gothic” could not be blamed on a lack of (p.140) dependence on Nature but rather with the association between the way it looked and what it represented or stood for in a metonymical sense.31 Rowland has contrasted the lofty agenda of Popes Julius II and Leo X to unite Christendom through lavish artistic patronage to the self-defeating parochial campishness of the literati of the papal court, who spoke of the Germans (Goths) as barbarians and their architecture as an aberration.32

From the time of Pope Nicolas V (1447–55), indulgences and pardons offered in the North had provided a copious cash flow for the Apostolic Chamber, facilitating the construction of sumptuous monuments in Rome.33 In 1517 a renegade Augustinian monk who in 1510–11 had spent a miserable winter in Rome at the Convent of Santa Maria del Popolo published his ninety-five theses against abuses in the Roman Church.34 Northerners, like Martin Luther, might feel that their own people had paid for lavish works of art and a hothouse culture that was openly hostile to them. In this way the very mechanism that had been proposed as a means of bringing Christians together (lavish patronage of the arts, spectacular architectural commissions) contributed to the alienation of northerners and the destruction of the unity of the Catholic Church in the Reformation. Paradoxically, the collapse of the moral base of the Renaissance church accompanied the triumph of the forms of Italian art and architecture in the North.

Discussing the artistic production of the period after the decline of the Roman Empire, Georgio Vasari invoked the same combination of factors. Buildings and other artifacts from this period are associated with their German creators (maniera tedesca) and are found offensive in their appearance. References to natural forms (vines, tendrils, foliage) found in such works only served to enhance their irreparable ugliness:

There is another type of works called tedeschi [German], which in their ornaments and proportions are very different from the antique and the modern. Today they are not used by the most gifted architects, who instead flee from them as monstrous and barbarous and forsaken of all that comprises order—which should rather be called confusion and disorder—for they have made in their buildings, which are so numerous that they have polluted the world, portals adorned with columns that are thin and twisted like vines and do not have the strength to bear a load, no matter how light. … And in these works they made so many projections and breaks, little corbels and vine tendrils, that they threw their works out of proportion; and often, by placing one thing above another they reached such a height that the top of a portal touched the roof.35

(p.141) Anne-Marie Sankovitch offered a most perceptive commentary on this text and on Vasari’s approach to categorization in general: unlike “true classical orders which imitate the rational proportions of the human body, the maniera tedesca imitates the frail forms of twisted vines. … Furthermore, the buildings seem to swarm with tendrils, vines, and leaves, as if overtaken by and in imitation of rampant Nature.” The phenomenon is found threatening on account of both its awesome geographical “spread” (like a weed) and its temporal persistence.

However, Vasari had trouble fixing the hated maniera tedesca, which ultimately refused to be bound by temporal limits and burst out again not as a historical phenomenon (associated with the destruction of Rome and loss of architectural expertise) but as an aesthetic one.36 Thus Antonio da Sangallo’s wooden model (ca. 1540) for St. Peter’s was criticized for its “look”—its multiple little members and projections and arches piled on arches and columns on columns imitating the “maniera et opera tedesca rather than l’antica et buona which today the best architects follow.”

We may conclude by reflecting upon the potential for deception inherent in the path to meaning offered by the eloquent interlocutor: although that interlocutor may claim to derive meaning from the building through his reading of this or that visual clue (readily available to the audience) and its linkage with an extraneous meaning-giver (leaves, foliage, tendrils, pointed arches, and the forest) or from the laws of physics (the allegation that the round arch can bear more weight than the pointed one), it is, in fact, cultural prejudice and taste that finally determine, to a great extent, what meaning is extracted.37 We must not underestimate the extent to which the personal animus of Popes Julius II and Leo X against northerners, particularly the French, might have affected attitudes to the cultural production dubbed “Gothic.”38

Gothic as “Us”: Creating Northern Identity

It has sometimes been assumed that the pejorative understanding of “Gothic” proposed by Raphael and Vasari quickly found universal acceptance. However, Esmond de Beer showed that the term Gothic, applied to architecture, only gained general currency in the North as late as the seventeenth century, when it had lost its immediate association with the historical Goths.39 By the end of the same century it was applied alongside the adjective modern in a nonpejorative way as an epithet to describe pre-Renaissance architecture in general.40 In England the term probably came into use in the (p.142) circle of Inigo Jones and Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel; it is first documented in the diaries of John Evelyn (1641) and other English travelers from the midcentury.41 Builders, particularly in England, continued to practice in the same mode as their ancestors, and, as we shall see, French architectural writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and later continued to show considerable respect and understanding for the forms and underlying sense of Gothic architecture.42

In the late eighteenth century the forest story took on “scientific” weight for northerners in an extraordinary crossover between the study of Gothic architecture and the new interest in the natural sciences. Sir James Hall was an eminent scientist whose major contribution was an understanding of how the stratified form of rocks resulted from origins forged in the crucible of the earth. In his two study trips of Europe, Hall became fascinated with Gothic architecture and the theory of its origins in nature. He set out to “demonstrate” empirically how the forms and spaces of a Gothic cathedral, including the flowing forms of curvilinear tracery, could be created though flexible living willow wands.43 He published the results of his work first in a paper delivered to the Royal Edinburgh Society in 1797 and then in a book in 1813 (fig. 26).

Like Raphael, Hall took that forest look and turned it into an evidential sign, allowing one to deduce origins with positive certainty. It is easy to ridicule Hall’s naive horticultural experiment—yet his testimony provides a cogent demonstration of the power of a building to project meaning through visual signs.44 And of course such “scientific” work served to reinforce the arboreal images already formulated by romantic poets.45

It has been suggested that the forest theory for the origins of Gothic, rather than being a gratuitous invention of hostile Italian literati, might actually reflect awareness of attempts made by German builders and their patrons to develop theoretical underpinnings for the forms of Gothic that could match the theories of Alberti and Vitruvius.46 The publication of both Vitruvius and Alberti’s De re aedificatoria in 1485 may have produced such a response on the part of German patrons and builders. One year later Matthäus Roriczer published his little book on pinnacles, laying out a Vitruvian framework for Gothic design based on squares inscribed inside squares (“quadrature,” fig. 27).47 This publication project, initiated by Roriczer’s patron, Wilhelm of Reichenau, bishop of Eichstätt (1464–96), a humanist and first chancellor of Ingolstadt University, was an attempt to establish a cultural community (a field, in the spirit of Pierre Bourdieu) around a self-conscious combination of practice and theory in an attempt to exploit that forest look in order to establish national roots. Tacitus, in Germania (available in published form after 1473), (p.143)

The Production of Meaning

Figure 26. James Hall’s “natural Gothic,” from J. Hall, Essay on the Origin, History and Principles of Gothic Architecture.

The Production of Meaning

Figure 27. Matthäus Roriczer, quadrature applied to pinnacle design, from M. Roriczer, Büchlein von der Fialen Gerechtigkeit.

(p.145) had described Germans setting up their altars in the depths of the forest and creating a sacred precinct without firm enclosing boundaries. Increasing use of foliate vaults in German fifteenth-century churches might be understood, then, as a conscious allusion to the natural forms of ancestral places of worship.

Ethan Matt Kavaler has added exciting new dimensions to our understanding of the significance of natural forms in Gothic.48 In the aftermath of the French incursion into Italy in 1494, and the appearance of southern or “antique” decorative forms in northern France, northerners were fully aware of Gothic as a mode, a conscious choice, as against an opposing Italianate repertoire. Kavaler explores the possibility that contemporaries might have compared the “living” forms of the suspended vault ribs at Ingolstadt, for example, with “perfect” abstract geometric forms to see a kind of degeneration of the perfect laws originally built into the world by God. Such dense vegetal ornament sometimes obscures or denies architectural form to the beholder, who was “required to parse these veiled forms.”49 The process of parsing, articulated verbally, will, of course, transform the beholder into the interlocutor. Intense “reading” of the puzzling combination of half-concealed structure and exuberant foliage is pleasurable, inducing jouissance.50 The transformation of architectural members into seemingly natural growth suggests “a mystical manifestation of the divine.”51

Thus the notion of Gothic, with its ethnic and natural origins, considered by Italian humanists as a pejorative designation, might have drawn upon theories invoked by the very builders of Gothic edifices to justify and theorize their art in the face of invasion by an alien style.52 Is it possible that such thoughts on natural origins go back to the beginnings of Gothic?

Who Put Nature in the Cathedral?

Our plot invites us to consider the production of meaning both as the response of viewers and as the intention of builders. Kavaler and Crossley have convincingly argued that late medieval (fifteenth-century) builders and viewers in the North were aware of Gothic as opposed to Italianate, and that foliate forms were used in a self-conscious way to convey meaning. Can the same assumptions be made about the builders and users of twelfth- and thirteenth-century churches?53 We have no specific testimony to match that of Raphael or Vasari, although Neoplatonic thinkers returned repeatedly to the analogies between the world’s creation and human creativity, between macro and micro.54 But the most compelling evidence can be found in the buildings themselves. More than half a century ago Denise Jalabert undertook (p.146) what she considered a comprehensive study of foliate capitals, proposing a three-stage evolution from generalized forms, not based directly upon nature (early Gothic), to naturalistic forms derived from direct observation (reaching a crescendo in the Ste-Chapelle), to the most “realistic” foliage of late Gothic.55 Jalabert did little to set this “evolution” within a broader cultural context but returned repeatedly to what she considered the essentially French character of the phenomenon. Naturalistic foliage is seen as “developing” and “spreading” from the Île-de-France to contiguous areas.

Jalabert’s thesis has recently been extended by Meredith Cohen and Xavier Dectot in the catalogue of the exhibition Paris ville rayonnante, where it is suggested that by the mid-thirteenth century ymagiers were venturing beyond the trees and plants they might find in the immediate vicinity of the city to locate a wider range of prototypes from more distant forest environments. The intense interest in naturalistic forms is associated with the writing of Albertus Magnus (particularly De natura aut de rerum principiis), work presumably known by ecclesiastical patrons.

In his remarkable study of Gothic naturalistic foliate capitals, The Leaves of Southwell, Nikolaus Pevsner had already made extensive reference to Albertus Magnus. But he does much more than this, dealing both with the visitor’s response to the capitals in the passageway and chapter house of Southwell and with the mentalité that lay behind their manufacture. Lifelike images of oak and hawthorn were put into the building not just to create a kind of natural history museum demonstrating the Aristotelian empiricism of Albertus Magus but to express the “inexhaustible delight in live form that can be felt with all senses” that was also articulated in rhetorical expressions ranging from the preaching of St. Francis of Assisi to the romance of Wolfram von Eschenbach.56

Each of our three witnesses, Suger, Gervase, and Villard, can be summoned to lend his testimony on this “inexhaustible delight” of the senses. For Suger the delight is not so much in the living and changing forms of plants as in the natural crystalline forms that express changelessness and eternity. His writings abound with loving references to gemstones: “Every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, the topaz, and the jasper, the chrysolite and the onyx, and the beryl, the sapphire, and the carbuncle, and the emerald.”57 Gervase of Canterbury is quite clear about the references to Paradise made by the cathedral; for example, when the old choir burned down, the monks were exiled from their beloved space “like as the children of Israel were ejected from the land of promise, yea, even from a paradise of delight.” But it is, of course, in the Villard Enterprise that we find the most direct testimony of the sense of delight in the forms of nature. The pages of Villard’s (p.147) little book teem with images of creatures great and small.58 He shows us foliate elements of the kind used to decorate capitals, cornices, and voussoirs. And there is the famous image of the lion, which the text assures us was drawn al vif. Most commentators on Villard have dwelt upon the gap between this claim and the schematized, sometimes misunderstood renderings of the objects, natural and artificial, that “Villard” has encountered. His architectural foliage belongs to Jalabert’s first category of generalized forms not “counterfeited” directly from nature. However, within the skeptical framework of interpretation proposed in the first section of this book, we no longer need to understand the texts in Villard’s book as entirely sincere informational notes supplied by an earnest artist; added later, they sometimes deliberately set out to obscure or deceive. But the user needs no explanations in order to experience Villard’s delectation in the world of nature.

In addition to our three witnesses, we may summon a fourth, whose testimony will serve to extend our appreciation of the meaning of those forms of nature in the cathedral: the author of the Metrical Life of Saint Hugh of Lincoln.59 T. A. Heslop has suggested that the author with his image of the foundations of the cathedral buried in the earth, the wall soaring toward the clouds and the roof toward the stars, leads us to “see that the church is like a tree with roots, trunk and canopy.”60 The cathedral “seems to be the result not of art but of nature.” Most memorable, in relation to our concerns with nature in the cathedral, is the author’s almost ecstatic response to the colored and variegated marble shafts employed in St. Hugh’s choir. I shall quote at length:

The work is supported by another costly material consisting of black stonework [Purbeck marble], as though it is not content with thus having just one colour. It is not so open and porous as the other stone but flashes with glint upon glint, firmed as it is by its rigid positioning. It does not deign to be conquered by any iron tools, save when it is conquered through a special skill, that is, when the surface is softened by heavily applied sand-rubbing and the solid marble is penetrated by strong vinegar. On being closely inspected this stone can hold people’s minds in suspense as they wonder whether it is jasper or marble; but if jasper, then dull jasper, while if marble, an aristocrat of marbles. Of this substance are the shafts which encircle the pillars in such a way that they seem to be keeping up a kind of ring-dance there. Their outer surface, more polished than a fresh-growing fingernail, presents a starry brilliance to the dazzled sight, for nature has painted there so many varied forms that, if art should toil with sustained endeavor to produce a similar painting, it could hardly copy what nature has done. Thus (p.148) handsome jointing arranged there in seemly rank a thousand shafts which, strong, precious and gleaming, render the whole structure of the cathedral durable with their strength while enriching it with their costliness and brightening it with their gleam. For the shafts themselves stand soaring and lofty, their finish is clear and resplendent, their order graceful and geometrical, their beauty fit and serviceable, their function gratifying and excellent, their rigid strength undecayingly sharp to the touch.61

We may conclude that the forms of nature were put into the cathedral for a range of reasons: to refer both to Eden and to Paradise and to the living cross upon which Christ died; to convey legitimacy; to induce a sense of becoming or transformation; to create a sense of local identity, of the passage of time, of hereness and nowness as well as the sublime. In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance such forms may have been seen as evidential signs pointing to local and ethnic roots. In some cases, foliage can be considered as representational, as, for example, in the rich band of leaves of cress that encircles the interior of Amiens Cathedral at triforium level. This extraordinary undying garland may refer to the miracle of the leaves and flowers that accompanied the invention of the relics of St. Firmin, when a winter’s day became summer with leaves and blossoms testifying to a miraculous transformation. On the saint’s feast day members of the clergy were crowned with foliage.62 Similarly, in tympana depicting the Coronation of the Virgin (Notre-Dame of Paris, for example) the richly exuberant foliate forms represent the images of plants and flowers in the Song of Songs.63

Tens of thousands of foliate capitals must have been produced between the mid-twelfth and the mid-thirteenth centuries. It is clear that as makers and users responded critically to this extraordinary output, they expressed their desire for ever more lifelike forms. This is what gives us the extraordinary impression of growth in Gothic sculpture and its geographical spread—almost like the natural growth of a plant or animal.64 The extreme statement of this transformational phenomenon is found in the famous leaf masks, where man appears to have changed into plant or plant into man.65 There is every reason to believe that clerical patrons, who might have read Albertus Magnus, would have been delighted with the new level of naturalism.66 We must not forget another potential audience group, the rustici—men and women of surrounding villages who, having come into the great cathedral from the fields and forests, found familiar plants and flowers miraculously eternalized in this sacred space.67 These images would empower ordinary men and women to become interlocutors, pointing and identifying natural forms that they might know from their own environment.

(p.149) It was, then, not by accident that natural forms found their way into the Gothic cathedral—such forms were put there by the builders to allow the edifice to speak and to be spoken, to tell the story of creation and to induce a sense of hereness and nowness, of growth, and of enchantment and delight.

Similitude to Other Buildings

Although viewers may grasp the presences of nature in both the envelope and the details of the Gothic cathedral, in fact, of course, more than anything, a cathedral resembles another cathedral—and this is especially true of Gothic. This obviously involves meaning put into the cathedral through the desires of the builders, who defined their agenda through references to known architectural prototypes, as well as meaning taken out of the building by the beholder who brings to the viewing experience a certain horizon of expectations.68 Our observation that Amiens Cathedral (fig. 1) is particularly tall, light, and spacious implies comparison with, for example, Noyon Cathedral, which is lower, narrower, and darker. There is a specificity in the exploration of the forms of a building in relation to previous buildings, and a satisfying element of relative certainty in the knowledge that the builders were forced, willy nilly, to define their expectations in relation to existing structures, and that references to such structures could provide a powerful means of transferring meaning from a desirable prototype that could be seen to stand for a set of aspirations derived not just from architectural form but from the total packet of circumstances associated with that older building. Conversely, lack of similitude could signify a revolt against all that older building(s) represented. To the (post)modern student of architectural history working within the clearly defined protocol of the Academy with its requirements that ideas get published and properly documented with footnotes, the pursuit of such issues has seemed much more appropriate than the exploration of Gothic “style” or vague concepts of similitude to nature or, even worse, Dionysian visions of heaven.

Thus it is not surprising that the intellectual legacy of the writer who defined the concept of “the iconography of architecture” has set the gold standard for scholarship in the history of medieval architecture for more than a half-century. In 1942 Richard Krautheimer published an essay that has arguably had more impact on the study of medieval architecture than any comparable single publication in the ensuing period.69 Drawing upon both analysis of the form of the building and written sources (especially dedications), Krautheimer explored the problem of “copies” in medieval architecture, concluding that a “copy” need not embody a high-level formal similitude in (p.150) order to convey aspects of the meaning of the prototype. Krautheimer concluded that among the numerous “copies” of the Holy Sepulcher built between the fifth and seventeenth centuries—many of them confirmed as such not just by the shape but by the dedication—no two specimens were the same: “It would seem as though a given shape were imitated not so much for its own sake as for something else it implied” [my italics].70

Unlike Hans Sedlmayr (whom I will consider later), Krautheimer located the desire to convey meaning to the edifice within a specific historical, political, and ideological framework. Thus in an article published in the same year as “Iconography,” Krautheimer tracked the appearance of the basilica with stubby T transept, associating the appearance of this type in the North not with any kind of disembodied desire to return to antiquity but with the very specific program of northern builders in the age of Charlemagne to articulate links with the agency of Emperor Constantine and the triumph of the church.71 The resemblance between churches and their prototypes formed part of ideological programs that were not just to establish links with some ideal image of the Forest, or the Celestial City, but were part of a very earthly struggle for structures of authority and power.72

What has this to do with Gothic? In the revisionist atmosphere of the 1980s, it became popular to challenge the old idea (associated with the work of, for example, Viollet-le-Duc, Panofsky, and Bony) that Gothic was an essentially pioneering, forward-moving phenomenon, and to apply instead concepts derived from Krautheimer’s notion of the “iconography of architecture.” An important early trumpet blast came from Willibald Sauerländer, who pointed out that despite Vasari’s case that the canons of ancient art had been violated in German works, early Gothic architecture should be considered in the context of the “Renaissance of the Twelfth Century” which consciously sought a revival of classical forms and literature.73 Though there was an inherent conflict between the elegant column beloved of the ancients and of the early Christian church and the masonry vault, important in the agenda of twelfth-century builders, the two elements are combined in certain great monuments of the mid-twelfth century, notably S-Denis, S-Germain-des-Prés, and Notre-Dame of Paris. Other “early Gothic” monuments, like S-Remi of Reims (western frontispiece), clearly drew upon local pre-Christian Roman monuments.

William Clark, like Sauerländer, argued that early Gothic should be understood essentially as a historicizing phenomenon. Many of the features normally considered “new” in early Gothic—particularly S-Denis—were, in fact, deliberate appropriations and/or imitations of the Merovingian forms (p.151) of the old abbey church.74 The conscious appropriation of architectural forms that made reference to the Merovingian past was part of a larger program to reestablish Paris as the seat of kings and to enhance the image of S-Denis as the preferred royal monastery.75

Within the spatial framework of our notional plot, “historicism” must involve the production of meaning both at the moment of building and at the moment of reception. It has to reflect clear intentionality on the part of the builders: the desire to encode meaning in the edifice through a language of signs. The intelligibility of this language then depends upon the ability of beholders to unscramble the code and to read the message that will conduct them from the edifice before the eyes to another edifice, one endowed with profound significance. Clark offers ample evidence of the intentions of Suger—they match the abbot’s reflections on the historical significance of the archive sources of S-Denis, which, he claimed, provided evidence of extensive holdings that the abbey once enjoyed but that it had subsequently lost. The abbot masked his aggressive campaign of territorial acquisition under the guise of a righteous restoration of the good old past. The abbot’s repeated verbal references to Dagobert were clearly intended to help consolidate the status of S-Denis as the monastery preferred by kings. However, as we have seen, the very loquaciousness of the abbot and his writings, together with the inscriptions he had placed in various part of the church, indicates that he realized that without direct verbal explanation (oral and written) the visitor/user would, in fact, be quite unable to unscramble the message. Indeed, modern art historians were themselves generally unaware of the hidden message of the reused elements and replicated dimensions at S-Denis until relatively recently. It seems doubtful that a twelfth-century pilgrim visiting the S-Denis crypt would have spontaneously exclaimed: “My word, look at those archaic columns and capitals—they really take me back to the days of the glorious Dagobert!” But certainly in a more general sense, the visitor to the S-Denis crypt would have gained a direct, somatic, and dramatic experience of descent into a space, dark, moist, and mysterious, that represented a mythic past.

The idea that meaning is produced principally through the transfer of value through architectural references (whether they be “copies” or “quotations”) to known prototypes has played a powerful role in the study of medieval architecture in the past half-century.76 In 1989, I interpreted the intention of the builders of the Gothic cathedral of S-Pierre of Beauvais in political as well as architectural terms.77 Milon de Nanteuil, founding bishop, attempting to resist the growing power of the king of France, claimed to be directly (p.152) dependent upon the papacy; the form of his cathedral with its stepped-up pyramidal elevation was directly dependent upon Old St. Peter’s in Rome and the third abbey church at Cluny. After the king forced Bishop Milon out of office, his successor, Robert of Cressonsac, capitulated. The parts of Beauvais Cathedral undertaken under Robert’s tenure make direct reference to Louis IX’s favorite monastery, Royaumont, and the continuation of construction at Beauvais into the upper choir points to architectural forms in use in the capital city, especially the work of Pierre de Montreuil.

However, in my own work on the primary written sources for Gothic construction I have also established that references to older monuments do not necessarily carry meaning. For example, in 1455 when Master Bleuet was asked to design a western frontispiece for the unfinished cathedral of Troyes, he responded that the prototype should be found in three existing cathedrals: Reims, Amiens, and Notre-Dame of Paris.78 The written sources (chapter deliberations; fabric accounts) do not suggest that these monuments were chosen for ideological reasons—it is more probable that they were identified simply because they were familiar, constituting a shared habitus. As it happened, however, the scheme that Bleuet chose to follow was not derived from any of these famous prototypes; it is probable that he simply followed a parchment plan that had existed in the workshop since the mid-thirteenth century.

The force of the Gothic movement is derived partly from the fact that Gothic buildings principally resemble not faraway monuments but other Gothic buildings located in a nearby city, often, in early Gothic, Paris or the surrounding area.79 The acute sense of here-and-nowness of the period is thus captured by lively references to both the local built environment and, as we have seen, to the natural environment. One of our three witnesses bears precious testimony to this mechanism of imitation or sameness in Gothic architectural production. Villard de Honnecourt’s plan of the choir of Cambrai Cathedral (begun around 1220; demolished in 1796) indicates a very close connection with the cathedral of Reims (begun in 1211). The link is confirmed in the text attached to the elevation of the radiating chapel of Reims Cathedral, which asserts that this is how the Cambrai chapels will look if they are done right.80 Carl Barnes has suggested that Villard was a kind of ‘talent scout” for the chapter of Cambrai, gathering the drawings that would allow them to fix the form of the new cathedral choir.

The production of thousands of lookalike buildings and the percolation of characteristic forms from monumental church architecture to secular buildings, and to the so-called minor arts, are part of a larger cultural plot that will be examined in the last section of this book.

(p.153) Modernism and Reason

In a continuing stream of thought, documented from the Middle Ages to the present, Gothic architecture has been interpreted as a sign of startling modernism: resulting not from slavish imitation—neither of nature nor of other buildings—but from the a priori application of reason and ongoing creativity.81 I cannot possibly document the full extent of all the manifestations of this mode of thought; let me, rather, provide some illustrations of the ideas of some of those who have made the most emphatic case for Gothic as modernism, and then conclude by asking our three witnesses to present their positions. As we explore the ideas of those who represent Gothic principally in terms of the application of reason, we will encounter a paradox: it was, of course, precisely the reasoning and the inventive power of the skillful artist that allowed him to rediscover the working principles of the creation of the world, especially the laws of physics, and to apply those principles to create illusionistic works of art that astonish the beholder through their similitude to natural forms “out there.”

Marvin Trachtenberg has made a powerful case for “Gothic” as a kind of anticlassicism or deliberate rejection of Roman and “Romanesque” styles.82 Medieval modernism, like the modernism of our own time, rooted in the concept of the critical power of reasoning over precedent and authority, deployed radical new forms to challenge the dominance of the old order. In order to advance our understanding of the phenomenon, Trachtenberg argues, we must abandon the older criteria for Gothic that focused upon visual or formal characteristics—skeletal form, diaphaneity, linearity, diagonality, square schematism, and the like—and focus instead on the working out of the tension between historicism and modernism. “Romanesque,” deeply historicizing, was driven by a strongly self-conscious view of history; “Gothic,” on the other hand, brought a clear paradigm shift where historicizing forms progressively disappear.83 The transformative process was driven by the builders’ critical response to the limits of the groin vault; this led to “mutations”—including the modernist pointed, or broken, arch, an “indexical sign of the revolution”—in addition to being a fix for reconciling the heights of the arches, the ribs, and the crown of the vault.

The Gothic turn to modernism did not happen all at once. The mid-twelfth century saw a revival, for example, of the classical column (choirs of S-Denis, S-Martin-des-Champs, and S-Germain-des-Prés, as discussed above). However, such historicist forms were rapidly subverted, beginning with the adoption of steep (“anticlassical”) proportions with columns and colonnettes thinned down and extended to the point that capitals shriveled (p.154) to a speck and disappeared and all connections with antique sources were eliminated. With the introduction of window tracery the interior became entirely anticlassicist; flying buttresses did the same to the exterior.

There is, of course, nothing new about the understanding of Gothic as the application of reason to architectural problems. Robin Middleton has provided the most complete narrative of the continuing tradition in French postmedieval writings.84 Philibert de l’Orme (ca. 1514–70), the great arbiter of Italian taste in architecture, having been trained in the old building practices of traditional craftsmen, demonstrated a pragmatic attitude toward what worked, using the epithet modern to describe the style we would call Gothic.85 His manner of describing is factual, rational, and well-provided with appropriate technical terms: arcs, doubleaux, liernes, tiercerons, formerets.

A century later François Dérand (1591–1644) also presented a rational image of Gothic, with what has been called the first written definition of the Gothic rib vault as a “clearly defined as a functional, structural member.”86 Construction in the Gothic style continued in projects like the seventeenth-century rib vaults installed in the nave of S-Germain-des-Prés and the reconstruction of Ste-Croix of Orléans. Such public visibility and the support of powerful patrons conveyed to l’ordre gothique respectability and cultural meaning. Within this positive framework, thoughts could proceed beyond the representation of single monuments to the problem of how they should be grouped and the question of how the “style” had been formed. It made no sense to derive the forms of “Gothic” from the Goths, who from their pre-Roman environment had left no stone architecture. Florent le Comte in 1699 proposed other points of origin, including Islamic Spain and the other countries of the Arab world.87 Accumulated knowledge of the forms of medieval buildings and the beginnings of a systematic knowledge of chronology allowed the details of the edifice, moldings, for example, to be read as an index for date—it is said that Jean Lebeuf (1687–1760), a pupil of Bernard de Montfaucon, was able to date moldings to within about twenty years.88

Remarkable for his ability to find appropriate words to represent Gothic was the military engineer A. F. Frézier (1682–1773; Traité de stéreotomie, 1738). Frézier represented Gothic architecture as “a precise calculated affair, dependent upon a carefully worked out system of vaulting.”89 In a way that was not generally realized until a century later, Frézier reached an understanding of the Gothic system as a unified organism with forms conceived in relation to their function.

French thinkers of the eighteenth century realized that illusionism and mimesis were possible only through the application of reason: “Gothic taste builds upon the principle of the interruption of masonry [mass], which was (p.155) used as sparingly as possible in order to facilitate big windows and other openings linked together by very slender supports that seem hardly sufficient to carry the mass, in such a way that masonry, deployed almost regretfully, only serves, so to speak, as the frame for the windows and other openings.”90 Gothic was more about deception than about “truth”—it might provide an illusionistic re-creation of the glimmering light of the forests of the Gauls. “The effect [addresse] of a long and delicate pillar is of a beauty that is deceptive, because it does not at all support the weight with which it seems to be charged.”91

In Marc-Anthoine Laugier’s (1713–69) Essai sur l’architecture (1753), Gothic architecture was treated as a prime architectural model. Laugier wrote of his entry into Notre-Dame of Paris:

At first encounter my attention is seized and my imagination is struck by the extended space, the height, the openness of this vast nave; I am forced to devote some moments to the surprise evoked in me by the majesty of the ensemble. Pulling back from this first admiration, if I look carefully at the details I find countless absurdities, but I place the blame on the infelicity of the time. In such a way that having carefully picked my way through and critiqued [the forms of the building], returning to the middle of the nave I am still in admiration and the impression that remains in me makes me exclaim, “Here are plenty of faults, but here is grandeur!”92

The building makes Laugier speak—of the affect that he has experienced. The emotional tone of this response was new for French thought.

It was in the context of the conversations over the structural problems experienced during the construction of the Parisian Pantheon that we encounter the most cogent statement concerning the relationship between reason and mimesis in Gothic.93 Jean-Rodophe Perronet (1708–94) wrote in the Mercure de France: “The magic of these latter edifices [of Gothic] consists principally in having been constructed as some kind of imitation of animal structure: the thin extended columns, ribs with transverse arches; pointed arches with tiercerons could be compared with [animal] bones, and the vault cells of only four to five inches thickness to the section of the flesh of those same animals. Such edifices can subsist like a skeleton, or the carcass of boats which seem to have been constructed after the same models.”94 The same debate produced not only a continuing refinement of the rhetorical means of representing architecture but also the beginnings of an empirical attempt to understand in the laboratory the essential properties of stone and how it behaves under compression.

(p.156) The end of the eighteenth century marked a turning point in the representation of Gothic in France. With the hostility of a younger generation of architects, the support of Gothic fell to romantics like A. L. Millin (1759–1818) and François-René de Châteaubriand (1768–1848). The English literary tradition triumphed: in his seminal article on French rational theory on Gothic, Robin Middleton concluded, “French architects learned to think their way through the attractions and affectations of the Gothic style while the English were lost in a mediaeval dream-world.”95

Middleton’s work has provided a glimpse of the intellectual context we need for understanding the thought of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, probably the greatest interlocutor of Gothic of all time, who insisted that the essential qualities of Gothic were not the result of imitation—neither of nature nor of existing buildings. In his representation of works of architecture Viollet-le-Duc marshaled a powerful tool—highly innovative graphic imagery—to depict states of architectural being and becoming. In order to animate his buildings he favored dramatically angled views, often from above; combining discursive and analytical elements (fig. 28).96 Similarly eloquent are his exploded diagrams, which invite the beholder to participate (vicariously) in the reassembly of the constituent elements (fig. 29). Such views were calculated to enhance the understanding of the building as an organic entity: similar techniques were being used at the time in the illustration of natural organisms. We might compare the new digital media’s capacity to facilitate a similar animation of architectural form and space, creating a potential for wordless representation.

To represent a particular building in images and words is relatively easy compared with the formidable task of creating verbal representations not just of individual buildings but of the phenomenon of “Gothic” as a whole. Viollet-le-Duc first took an encyclopedic approach of the kind pioneered in the eighteenth century, where the alphabetical arrangement of entries conveyed the appearance of an “objective” tool that allowed the user to explore a phenomenon whose natural existence could be taken for granted (Dictionnaire raisonné). In the individual entries (Architecture; Cathedral; Construction; etc.), however, the reader will find the expression of powerfully held theories—spelled out even more clearly in the latter part of his life, when he turned to a discursive rather than an analytical vehicle: his Entretiens sur l’architecture.

Viollet-le-Duc’s argument may be summarized under three related propositions. First, that the forms of Gothic constituted a reasonable system susceptible to being explained and understood in its own terms. Second, that while (p.157)

The Production of Meaning

Figure 28. E. E. Viollet-le-Duc, “Construction” from Dictionnaire raisonné, analytical view of a barrel vault from raking angle.

a Gothic building was not intended to be a simulacrum or copy of nature, the processes underlying the creation of the cathedral could be compared to the Creation of the earth. And third, that Gothic was comprehensible as the expression of a particular moment within the dynamics of social and national change. My three categories overlap in all kinds of ways—but let us explore each of them as a separate entity.

First, we deal with Gothic as a self-contained and eloquent architectural system. The dictionary entries “Architecture” and “Construction” invite us to consider the forms of Gothic as a kind of palpable internal logic where beauty resides “in the judicious use of the means and the materials that the builder has at his disposition.”97 Architecture cannot be judged on the basis (p.158)

The Production of Meaning

Figure 29. E. E. Viollet-le-Duc, “Construction: Voûtes” from Dictionnaire raisonné, analytical deconstruction of the springer of a rib vault.

of the moeurs of the builders or users—“a building can in no way whatsoever be ‘fanatical,’ ‘oppressive,’ or ‘tyrannical’ … how can mute buildings really be the accomplices of those who inhabited them …?”98 In his narrative of construction techniques from Roman to Gothic, our interlocutor stresses the alleged monolithic behavior of Roman vaults supported on inert and immobile walls. Gothic, on the other hand, incorporated the principle of elasticity, developed from the experiments of builders to resolve potential movement in arches, vaults, and supports.

(p.159) Our author then provides a series of demonstrations of the problems involved in designing and constructing groin vaults—specifically, the difficulty of reconciling the height of the crest of the vault with the transverse arches that frame it, a problem that became particularly serious in rectangular bays. This kind of internal problem led to the adoption of pointed arches to lend greater flexibility in the relationship between spans and heights. The author invokes a chain of reasoning: “In the kinds of construction carried out by peoples who are naturally builders, logical deductions generally follow one another with a fatal rigor. One forward step can never be the last step: it is always necessary to go on. Once a principle has been established as a result of a valid chain of reasoning, reason soon becomes the slave of that principle. … No one at all could any longer have prevented Romanesque architecture from becoming the new architecture that came to be called ‘Gothic.’”99

The new system no longer incorporated rigid monolithic vaults but a series of panels with curved surfaces resting on flexible arches. Particularly important was the introduction of wall arches that would provide support in a longitudinal direction, allegedly transferring the weight of the vault to the four supports, freeing up the wall. The elements of the building are expressive—to the enlightened beholder they actually speak of their roles. Such a conviction is also embodied in Viollet-le-Duc’s drawings (figs. 28 and 29).

One of the most eloquent diagrams in the entire Dictionnaire is the one that illustrates “the chain of reasonings and the process of trial and error through which the builders of the Middle Ages had to pass in order to move from ignorance to scientific knowledge” (fig. 30).100 Here Viollet-le-Duc presents the transverse section of a groin-vaulted basilica, based upon La Madeleine of Vézelay. To orchestrate the combination of reading and seeing, critical parts of the building are marked with letters of the alphabet. With this most effective teaching device, our interlocutor tells the story of the building—or, rather, he allows the building to tell its own story. The basilica has been subject to oblique forces at two levels. The high vaults tend to push outward, and in order to arrest deformation iron ties have been inserted (CD); however, the ties have broken, and outward-leaning deformation has developed in the upper wall and sagging in the keystones of the transverse arches at H. Exterior support has been improvised through the addition of flyers, E, that sit awkwardly atop the buttresses of the outer walls. Lower down the aisle, vaults have also exerted an oblique thrust, inducing movement in those same outer walls and buttresses. Viollet-le Duc identifies a “law”—just like the laws governing natural science: “These effects were produced (p.160)

The Production of Meaning

Figure 30. E. E. Viollet-le-Duc, “Construction” from Dictionnaire raisonné, transverse section of a basilica based upon La Madeleine at Vézelay.

everywhere in exactly the same fashion.“It is as if the entire story of Gothic could be told in a single diagram. Distortion is to be understood as a sign, allowing the building to speak to us.

The builders’ application of reason to problems observed in our edifice led to the discovery and deployment of the pointed or broken arch. There is a triumphal certainty in Viollet-le-Duc’s account of the invention of the “pointed equilateral arch” that provided the breakthrough. This is an arch designed as two arcs struck from center points placed upon the baseline: “a true revolution in the art of building.” And here comes the link between the internal logic of the building and the social logic of the builders: “The pointed equilateral arch appeared precisely at the moment when the analytic spirit and the study of natural philosophy and the exact sciences were beginning to germinate within a society that had been pretty much a theocracy up to that point … at the moment when architecture began to be practiced principally by the laity.”101 Such an arch was featured in the image on the frontispiece of the Dictionnaire, showing the three people critical to medieval building projects—clerical patron, knight or seigneur, and master mason—the latter demonstrating his tracing on a plaster surface of an arch of this kind (fg. 5). In this way the underlying design of the building participates in the logic of society.

In a second clump of thought, our interlocutor leads us to reconsider the (p.161) relationship between Gothic architecture and nature, understanding architecture as “a logical system equivalent to the workings rather than the appearances of nature” (my italics).102 Modern architects could gain not from slavish copying of Gothic as a model but from inspiration by the same rational principles. Architecture was not a language to represent existing buildings or even nature; it should be governed by the same laws as Creation: it is creation itself.

To represent such a phenomenon, Viollet-le-Duc employed the strategy pioneered by the savants of the eighteenth century—that of the encyclopedia. Yet his formidable knowledge of the buildings themselves, coupled with the sophistication of his means of representation, allowed him to trump previous manifestations. The alphabetical format of the Dictionnaire (a kind of deconstructive antinarrative) can be understood as a comment on the limitations imposed upon the representation of buildings or architecture in a traditional rhetorical format—the discursive essay or treatise.103 For Violletle-Duc the encyclopedic vehicle was intended to consolidate the underlying vision of Gothic as an entirely rational or natural phenomenon that might be understood from any of multiple points of entry. This was a scientific exploration of an organic structure allowing the interlocutor to dissect the nature of the thing and all its various parts. The working methods and conclusions of Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) everywhere found their way into Viollet-le-Duc’s verbal representation of a Gothic edifice.104

Viollet-le-Duc saw Creation as the reconciliation of opposites: the separation of light and dark, of water and land, of solid from air. His story of architecture reflects this dialectic: stone and wood are presented as opposites to be reconciled through a judicious combination of both. Gothic represents the third stage of this kind of development, synthesizing Roman vault with Greek frame, just as the third estate represents that last and most perfect stage of the social development of France.105

Thus we are led to the third and last body of thought: Viollet–le-Duc’s social theories. Our interlocutor told a tale of the simultaneous appearance of France with its new bourgeois class, its populous cities and new national monarchy, and the appearance of a new kind of “ogival” (ribbed or arched) architecture. Whereas Augustus Welby Pugin thought that Gothic resulted from a unified and harmonious Christian society, our French architect proposed that architecture developed in opposition to the structure of the society to which it belonged. Thus Gothic was not the expression of the feudal and monastic Zeitgeist but an attack on it—hence the significance of its radical modernism.106 Gothic in its essentially lay character and its oppositional stance was seen as the counterpart of the nineteenth-century worker’s (p.162) struggle for rights. In national terms, this kind of architecture corresponded to the period where French society (language, geographical extent, institutions, and customs) reached a form that was recognizably “modern.”

Viollet-le-Duc’s writings reveal more clearly than any other writer the discursive trap into which tellers of the Gothic story may stumble. Having suggested the metaphor of an unstoppable chain reaction for Gothic, where it was not possible to break a single link of the chain and where every subsequent link had been forged by virtue of the same principle by which the first link had been forged, he continued, “And we may say that it would perhaps be easier to study Gothic architecture in its decadence, moving from its effects back to their causes, and from its consequences back to their principles, than it would be to trace its natural developments as they occurred. This, indeed, is the way most of us who have studied the origins of this kind of art have approached the subject. We took Gothic architecture in its decline as our starting point and then moved back upstream to its source.”107

Here we encounter again the same central issue in the narration of Gothic that I touched upon in the opening pages of this book—you can define what a Gothic building is only by referring to a “mature” specimen, which will invite you to look to the past to discover how it became what it became. And in doing this you will construct that deterministic chain of necessity where only one outcome was possible—this is entelechy, or a self-fulfilling process. Yet architectural production is a historical phenomenon, and in the affairs of history nothing is inevitable. On the Sunday of the decisive Battle of Bouvines (1214) either side might have emerged victorious.108 Château Gaillard was not predestined to fall to the troops of Philip Augustus in 1204—the disaster might have been avoided if Philip Augustus of France had faced King Richard of England rather than his vacillating brother John.109 Yet we are asked to believe that Gothic had to be Gothic! The deductive logic of the detective may require us to work backward in constructing causes from effect—but we may make a mistake when we click from reverse into forward, assuming that that our etiological chain of reason somehow represents historical “reality.”

Jolting the narrative back into forward mode, we might alternatively tell the story of Gothic architectural production as risk-taking: builders trembling at the critical moment when formwork was removed and watching with uneasiness and disquietude for displacements. Such vivid experiences were the basis of the education of masons; the only models they had were the buildings themselves. In a most poignant passage Viollet-le-Duc addresses the unknown builders of Notre-Dame of Paris as those who had contributed most to the liberation of architecture from worn-out traditions: “You (p.163) opened up the way to progress and bold and hardy innovations in construction; you already belonged, in short, and on many counts, to modern civilization; you were among the first to adopt, along with a desire for knowledge, a spirit of the impartial research that sought such knowledge.”110 This revolution is expedited not just through the systematic application of rib vaults but also through the introduction of massive pylons (culées) girdling the exterior: “Once they had decided to erect such great buildings with such light materials and with functional parts occupying so little of the total surface, opposing oblique thrusts with obstacles of active rather than passive resistance, the Gothic builders of the twelfth century did not require a great deal of time before they learned the lesson they still had to find some inert stability somewhere.”111

Toward the end of “Construction,” Viollet-le-Duc also has some poignant things to say about the role of the interlocutor. The new class of artists and artisans, “vital, active and intelligent,” tended to work in silence and not call undue attention to themselves. Our interlocutor is impassioned in his representation of these silent and gifted artisans, and he begs for your help: “If only others would undertake the task of describing the achievement of these original artists and artisans! Up to now it has hardly been told anywhere else but by us here.”112

I began this section with Marvin Trachtenberg’s case for modernism, which might appear to run entirely counter to William Clark’s case for historicism. What do our three witnesses tell us about these opposing positions? Abbot Suger insisted that the forms and dimensions of his new frontispiece and chevet respected the forms of the older building. Given the apologetic nature of the abbot’s writing, this may indicate his awareness of the extent to which the new work was actually in opposition to the old. Certainly his account of the mosaic installed in the northern portal of the western frontispiece indicates his intense awareness of the modern/historicizing dialectic. Villard de Honnecourt’s choice of images also indicates intense awareness of old and new. His figural style has been explained in terms of the historicizing “antique revival” of the decades before and after 1200; his choice of architectural prototypes, on the other hand, privileges the modern: the architecture of Reims, Cambrai, Chartres, and Laon Cathedrals, the sculpture of Chartres. But it is, of course, Gervase of Canterbury who provides the most systematic and enthusiastic celebration of the new in his extraordinary juxtaposed descriptions of the Romanesque and Gothic choirs of Canterbury.

(p.164) An Image of Heaven

That arboreal, fibrous look in the cathedral; that conflicting sense of Otherness and familiarity (when you have seen one Gothic cathedral, you’ve seen them all); astonishment at architectural affect (light, space, dynamic movement) achieved through the application of human industry, ingenuity, and reason—these aspects of the Gothic cathedral, explored in previous pages, are all readily grasped. How one proceeds to convert intuitive response into meaning will depend upon one’s own predisposition and the insistent verbal nudging of the interlocutor. This was precisely what led each of our three witnesses to add words to images in an attempt to fix meaning. There is, however, one passage from visual sign(s) to target meaning(s) that might seem more assured than the others: the sanctuary of the great church was—and still is—widely understood as heaven.113

Of our three witnesses, Villard has nothing to say about this, and Gervase very little. The abbot of S-Denis, on the other hand, wants to tell us at some length about the image of heaven envisaged and realized by the builders of the new chevet: “We made good progress with His own cooperation, and, in the likeness of the things Divine, there was established to the joy of the whole earth Mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the Great King.”114 The meaning that was anticipated by Suger during construction was, the abbot declared, fully revealed through the liturgy of consecration when attendees “believed themselves to behold a chorus celestial rather than terrestrial, a ceremony divine rather than human.”115

Similarly, after the consecration of the altars as the mass was simultaneously and harmoniously celebrated both in the upper choir and in the crypt, the unified harmony “deemed a symphony angelic rather than human.” Participants exclaimed

with heart and mouth, “Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His Place. … By this sacramental unction with the most holy chrism and by the susception of the most holy Eucharist, Thou uniformly conjoinest the material with the immaterial, the corporeal with the spiritual, the human with the Divine … Thou invisibly restorest and miraculously transformest the present [state] into the Heavenly Kingdom. Thus, when Thou shalt have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father, mayest Thou powerfully and mercifully make us and the nature of angels, Heaven and earth, into one State.”116

While the notion of the Gothic sanctuary as an image of heaven is clearly attested in medieval written sources and may be cogently felt by modern (p.165) visitors, professional art historians remain troubled. How exactly the passage from the material to the immaterial is negotiated is open to different interpretations—we have already encountered the debate about whether Suger himself fully understood the intellectual mechanism of the “anagogical” ascent.117 Let us continue to explore the ambiguities of that ascent with the juxtaposition of the commentaries of two modern scholars: Hans Sedlmayr and Otto von Simson. Both belonged to an age that had become skeptical about Viollet-le-Duc’s rational functionalism—the belief that the vaults are actually carried by the ribs or that pinnacles had a purely functional role in providing vertical ballast that helped stabilize the buttresses.118 Our two modern interlocutors agree upon heavenly significance but disagree emphatically on how the passage is negotiated. Particularly intriguing is the realization on the part of the second scholar, von Simson, that images of the transcendent can serve very nicely in the real push and shove and manipulation of temporal power. As we will see at the end of this chapter, however, neither of our two modern interlocutors has fared well in subsequent art-historical discourse.

Hans Sedlmayr (1896–1984)

In 1950 appeared what is arguably the most controversial book on Gothic ever written: Hans Sedlmayr’s Die Entstehung der Kathedrale.119 Negatively received by specialists, the book has never has been translated into English and is known to the English-speaking world mainly through the disparaging comments of its critics.120 A brief review of its intellectual underpinnings and sketch of its content will serve to illustrate mid-twentieth-century debates about the role of the interlocutor or narrator.

Sedlmayr belonged to a small but enormously influential group of art historians active around 1930, known as the New Vienna School. Renewed interest in the work and ideas of these scholars may, at last, facilitate a more sympathetic evaluation of Sedlmayr’s explanation of the way the Gothic cathedral generates meaning.121 In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Otto Pächt and Hans Sedlmayr adapted ways of thinking that had originally been developed by the Viennese museum curator Alois Riegl, attempting to push the discipline from a preoccupation with connoisseurship and empiricism to an investigation of underlying aesthetic principles, not just of individual works of art but of an entire “style,” or the artistic impulse of an entire culture. The key concept was Strukturforschung: the attempt to go beyond the surface “look” of the work of art to establish the essential design principle (Gestaltungsprinzip) that informed the entire work or style. The achievement of (p.166) this goal, Otto Pächt tells us, is possible only through an act of re-creation by the “art historian who is seeing like an artist.”122 Pächt was particularly concerned with the problems that result from the verbal representation of works of art, and the way such a representation itself may become a work of art; yet while he believed that the art historian had to see like an artist, he deplored “poeticizing belletristic attempts to transpose intuitive, subjective responses to works of art into language.”

Sedlmayr defined his working assumptions and methods in his critical article “Towards a Rigorous Study of Art” (1931), where he proposed a two-tier working structure.123 The first level of activity, collecting and arranging data to establish “facts” like date and provenance, should be understood as nothing more than the study of dead works of art (Kunstleichen, or “art corpses”). These corpses can be animated only through the second level of study, which involves imaginative acts of interpretation of aesthetic constructions (Kunstbilde). Sedlmayr poignantly reflected on the bitter sense of disappointment or loss on passing from the direct experience of a beloved work of art to “objective” level-one analysis: “You come from some robust, lively thing [the work of art] that has affected you, look up the existing scholarship about it, you read and read … and afterward you have the distinct feeling that you have accumulated a great deal, yet it all amounts to nothing. Somehow, that which had seemed most important and most essential—the heart of the matter—has gotten lost in the process.”124 Does the arduous process of scholarly publication indeed kill the best-beloved object?

The second level of research requires a certain attitude or vision for the business of looking—Gestaltetes Sehen, “shaped vision” or “structured seeing.” This kind of art history can investigate the properties of works and their internal organization and structure; it can accurately classify works according to their natural groups and establish genetic connections among works on the basis of their properties; it can arrive at an understanding of the historical events whose products it is studying and of the forces at work behind these events. It can also accomplish tasks that belong to the “first” art history—relative dating, attribution by establishing “natural groups” and “aesthetic personages.”125

In “Towards a Rigorous Study,” Sedlmayr developed these astonishingly (naively?) optimistic ideas into a dogmatically projected manifesto. The work of art must be re-created each time it is viewed, and the “correct” viewing is possible only if one brings the right attitude or way of looking.126 He believed it was possible to correlate his understanding of that attitude with contemporary (medieval) viewers by establishing a strict working protocol.

Given the tumultuous events of the twenty years that followed, it is remarkable (p.167) how completely Sedlmayr’s big book Die Entstehung der Kathedrale (1950; The rise of the cathedral) fulfills the concepts mapped out in the early years. The opening pages present an image of the Gothic cathedral as a poor remnant of its former self, having lost many of the essential elements that once contributed to its totality as a Gesamtkunstwerk. For example, the cathedral was originally painted; it was equipped with liturgical furniture and filled with the sounds of music, liturgical celebrations, and drama.127 Sedlmayr’s catastrophic picture of the blackened, denuded hulk of the present-day cathedral is matched by his depressing account of deficiencies in the representation of the cathedral by his colleagues in previous and current scholarship.128

Sedlmayr then asked his reader to join him in putting back (in the mind’s eye) the missing elements of the cathedral—in developing the correct vision that will allow one to experience the totality of the cathedral as it once was. He appealed for a completely fresh vision: we must see the cathedral with the eyes of someone who knows only a limited rural environment and has never seen such a thing before, or we must see it through the eyes of a child.129

The appeal for a new kind of vision—one that does not “normalize” the forms of the existing cathedral and looks beyond the surviving disfigured or transformed remains—provides a shrewd preparation for what comes next: the chapter titled “Die Phänomene der Kathedrale,” where the reader is asked to take an extraordinary leap to see the forms of the cathedral as resulting from the application of a single basic visionary spatial element. That element is made up of the canopy formed by a rib-vaulted bay—apparently floating yet linked to the ground with the attenuated shafts.130 There are no weight-bearing walls, Tragwände, just Füllwände: “screen (or lattice) walls.” Sedlmayr finds the roots of this spatial vision in the form of the early Christian ciborium with its slender supports and vaulted canopy sheltering the altar. The form of the baldachin, multiplied and modified in scale to the bays of the main vessel and aisles, provides the single essential element of the Gothic cathedral. Reims, which is Sedlmayr’s “typical” cathedral, has sixty-three such cells; Cologne has ninety-two. He goes on to enumerate the other features of the Gothic cathedral that go with this Baldachinarchitektur.

Sedlmayr brought extraordinary perceptiveness to his characterization of the essential visual elements of Gothic cathedrals, including the diaphanous quality of the upper wall with its grid of stone tracery, the appearance of light that seems the result of more than just its passage through translucent screens of glass (the selbstleuchende Wände), and the way arcaded forms run together and overlap (übergreifende Form).131 However, his critics remained hostile. Paul Frankl mounted a display of deliberate obtuseness to (p.168) ridicule Sedlmayr’s suggestion that the quality of light leads one to question whether this is just natural light filtering through colored glass or is generated by the windows themselves and, similarly, whether vaults are supported from below or floating, whether shafts ascend or descend. Yet Sedlmayr is obviously not saying that the shafts are actually descending or vaults floating. His point is that that there is a powerful illusionism inherent in Gothic that makes things appear other than what they actually are. And how could one disagree?

At the same time, the sense of intense irritation felt by Frankl and other readers (including me) is understandable in light of Sedlmayr’s dogmatic certainty. One may at times find one’s own thought anticipated in Sedlmayr, but then it is rendered absurd by being pushed too far.132 Yet we might surely all agree that the interior effect of the Gothic cathedral is denial of its own materiality. The glistening colors of the stained glass and the painted interior contribute to the impression of walls made of crystal, rubies, and sapphires.

After an excursus into the links between the illusionistic forms of the cathedral and the poetic description by the younger Titurel of the Temple of the Grail, Sedlmayr concludes his treatment of the artistic intention of the builders as reflected in the forms of the cathedral. The dominant aspect is the way that the essential structural forms are hidden from the viewer of the interior of the edifice. This is the result of not only the externalized buttressing but also the diaphanous walls and the domed-up quality of the cells of the rib vaults. Pol Abraham got it right in his interpretation of the illusionism that contributes to “un edifice idéal et aérien … destiné à créer une illusion.”133 The critical question is finally posed with a directness few others have dared: if this is illusionistic architecture, what, then, is being depicted?134

This question, powerfully proposed, provides Sedlmayr with the springboard to leap to his conclusion: the cathedral is a portrait of heaven—depicted with the same visual traits as one finds in medieval poetic descriptions.135 Essential to the argument is the distinction between illusionistic depiction and symbolic representation.136

That architecture can be understood as a mimetic form of art was, Sedlmayr argues, perfectly understood in antiquity: the Pantheon, for example, could be understood as a simulacrum in miniature of the cosmos. The difference between representing a thing in purely symbolic terms (Symbol) and depicting it (Abbild) lies in the relationship between the image and the thing represented: the former leaves the two on different planes, while the latter imports significant visual aspects from the model into the representation—it lies on the same plane.137 To illustrate the medieval understanding of the relationship image and prototype, Sedlmayr offers a hierarchy derived from (p.169) Pseudo-Dionysius: likeness can be reckoned according to how much of the prototype is contained in the representation, ascending from umbra to vestigium, imago, and similitudo.138

That the sanctuary of the church represented the Heavenly Jerusalem to medieval beholders was, for Sedlmayr, self-evident.139 The most powerful written evidence for this assertion comes from the foundation-laying and consecration ceremonies where the singing of the hymn “Urbs Jerusalem Beata” is documented from at least the tenth century.140 Sedlmayr suggested that a part of the consecration ceremony made specific connection between the laying out of the church with ropes (plotting) and the laying out of a city by agrimensores.141 While the choir sings the hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus,” a priest links together the four principal axes of the church diagonally with bands of ash.142 The bishop moving from left to right across the transept traces with his crozier the characters of the Greek and Latin alphabet. Then on the east-west axis the bishop fixes the emplacement of the altar.143

Sedlmayr thus offers us two bodies of thought. First, the essential space-defining unit of the Gothic cathedral is the vaulted bay with attenuated shafts at its four corners (the baldachin); the illusionistic quality of Gothic is easily demonstrated and widely recognized.144 Second, the written (liturgical) sources indicate without doubt that the church in general and the sanctuary in particular were widely understood as the Heavenly City. Given the correspondence of aspects of the physical appearance of the cathedral and verbal representations of the Heavenly City, Sedlmayr concludes that the one is a portrait (Abbild) of the other. This portrait is most perfectly embodied in the cathedrals of the first half of the thirteenth century (Reims and the Amiens nave). It then remained for Sedlmayr to document just how the architectural elements of this image were “developed,” particularly in Norman architecture, and how variations were possible in the various regions—a very traditional story of the “development” of Gothic, where the outcome is, in a sense, predestined at the start.

In light of the almost universal dismissal of Sedlmayr’s work in the English-speaking world, I have wanted to appeal for a more sympathetic reading. Yet in the end, his enterprise clearly falls short. The two basic principles forming the essential underpinnings of his argument are in conflict. On the one hand, he invokes a “scientific” or objective framework for fixing the meaning of the Gothic cathedral; on the other hand, he then insists that one must bring the “correct” attitude to the business of looking. One is thus asked to be objective and subjective at the same time.145 There is no doubt that someone who really desires to find the image of the Heavenly City represented in the forms of the cathedral will find just that. But our stories of (p.170) Gothic have revealed that the cathedral may serve as the starting point for all kinds of other interpretative responses, which might be triggered at multiple points within the notional space of our plot.

Otto von Simson (1912–93)

Otto von Simson’s book The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order has probably reached a wider audience in the English-speaking world than any other book of its kind on Gothic—yet it did not find favor among specialists in the field of Gothic architecture.146 Von Simson began with the premise that the cathedral was designed as an image—but not an illusionistic one providing a direct representation of anything we may encounter in nature or in other buildings. It was designed, rather, to provide a set of visual stimuli that would allow the medieval user to effect the passage to heaven using intellectual rather than purely visual clues of a representational kind. Von Simson first broaches this idea somewhat anachronistically with reference to King Henry I’s response to the dedication of the new choir of Canterbury Cathedral (1130—that is, Romanesque rather than Gothic), which the king declared to be more splendid than any since the dedication of the Temple of Solomon. After the chanting of the liturgical “Awesome is this place: truly, this is the house of God and the gate of heaven and will be called the court of the Lord,” Henry swore “by the death of God” that truly the sanctuary was awesome.

Chronologically more appropriate for Gothic are the liturgical celebrations described by Abbot Suger (which I have outlined above) for the consecration of the new choir of S-Denis (1144), where heaven and earth, the angelic hosts and the human community, seemed to merge into one in the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrament.

For von Simson such written testimony was enough to cement the idea of a passage to a single destiny: the discovery of heaven.147 The mechanism propelling such a passage was not the superficial similarities of the forms of the cathedral with anything actually seen—who, after all, has seen heaven? The message was, rather, encoded symbolically: “For medieval man the physical world as we understand it has no meaning except as a symbol.”148

Our author declares himself more interested in the “how” than the “what.” The outward forms of Gothic (rib vault, pointed arch, flying buttress, etc.) were the constructive means, not the artistic ends. What is important is the way the language of Gothic made itself intelligible to the audience. Von Simson emphasized analogy as the cognitive mechanism that facilitates passage from visual clue to the production of meaning: “At the basis of all medieval (p.171) thought is the concept of analogy. All things have been created according to the law of analogy, in virtue of which they are, in various degrees, manifestations of God, images, vestiges, or shadows of the Creator.”149

Von Simson provides an admirably perceptive response to the question “What is Gothic?” with an exploration of what he considered its two principal features: the relationship between structural form and appearance and the unique quality of light. Whereas in Byzantine and Romanesque architecture “structure is a necessary but invisible means to an artistic end, concealed behind painted or stucco ornaments,” Gothic articulation is “entirely subordinated to the pattern produced by the structural members, the vault ribs and supporting shafts.”150 Despite one’s awareness of the critical structural role of the flying buttress, which is invisible from the interior, “we cannot enter a Gothic church without feeling that every visible member of the great system has a job to do.” “There is no inert matter, only active energy”; structural tectonics have been translated into “a basically graphic system.”151 Through the dynamics of their vertical lines the shafts express the principle of supporting; the ribs represent the statically important ridges where the “tunnels” of a groined vault interpenetrate.152

We then pass from this satisfying visual exploration of the essentially deceptive nature of Gothic articulation to the abrupt assertion that “the church is, mystically and liturgically, an image of heaven.”153 This image is created, we are told, through the two essential qualities of Gothic architecture defined at the start: the intensely linear quality of the articulation, which leads us to seek for geometric ratios and harmonies, and the unearthly quality of the light.

Audible and visible harmonies derived from Christianized Neoplatonism embody vestiges of Creation and intimations of that ultimate harmony to be experienced in the world to come. Architecture, “in the solemn language of its forms, conveys insights that transcend the world of imagery.”154 For Thierry of Chartres, who sought the Divine Artist in his Creation, theology was conveyed by geometry. The mystery of the Trinity was revealed in the equilateral triangle; Christ was begotten by unity just as the square results from the multiplication of magnitude by itself. This was the train of thought that conceived of God as the elegans architectus and architecture as applied geometry. The Gothic cathedral is, then, best understood as a model of the cosmos.

Luminosity was, for Otto von Simson, the second essential characteristic of Gothic—a phenomenon that he links with metaphysical thought of the twelfth century, when light was understood as the source and essence of all beauty. Beauty was understood not purely in visual terms but as the radiance (p.172) of truth and the closest approximation to pure form, the creative principle in all things.155 Creation was seen as an act of illumination; all creatures as lights bear testimony to the divine light. It is through the critical cognitive tool of analogy that humans can penetrate knowledge—corporeal light was understood as an analogy to divine light.156 This passage is facilitated through the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrament, which was understood as divine light transfiguring the opacity of matter.157

Neither Otto von Simson nor Hans Sedlmayr fared well in the sharply revisionist atmosphere of the 1980s (neither did Panofsky, nor Bony). Particularly derided were starry-eyed notions of “luminosity,” “transcendence,” “the Gothic dream,” and social order or consensus.158 Readers may be particularly irritated by the dogmatism inherent in Otto von Simson’s assertions about “medieval man.” There is little room in his thinking for the role of the artisan or the means of production; the theologian or churchman is dominant in the business of placing meaning in the building. Yet exercise of control over the space of the site through the application of geometry was, above all, the business of artisans. The perfection of the stone cutting that creates the linear spider’s web of the Gothic cathedral resulted from the professionalism of the masons, not the intellectual predispositions of the clergy—yet for von Simson it is as if ideal thought could be translated into stone without human agency. And as Sumner Crosby correctly concluded half a century ago, the title of the book The Gothic Cathedral is unsatisfying since he deals with one abbey church, one cathedral, and only a part of another. The promise of the subtitle, Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, is never really met.

Yet despite all this The Gothic Cathedral, it seems to me, still deserves to be read. Von Simson is not actually attempting to establish a transcendent “dream cathedral”; rather, he provides the most perceptive introduction to the problem of how that Gothic “look” may help convey meaning. His critics have tended to neglect his very useful treatment of the unstable temporal context of the creation of Gothic. His valuable insights may be related to the theme of his older book on Ravenna, Sacred Fortress.159 Much of The Gothic Cathedral is actually not about issues of Christian experience or transcendence but bears more upon what von Simson calls “statecraft.” For example, it is intimated that the appearance of “order” was deceptive since Gothic articulation actually created a fictive structural reality. The appearance of legitimacy could be turned to establish the real thing. Otto von Simson’s story of Gothic contains breathtaking accidents and manipulations. It was a concatenation of circumstances that led Dionysian metaphysics to enter (p.173) into the political bloodstream of France. These circumstances included the sending of the collection of Dionysian writings to France and the happy confusion over the identity of the Denises; the close links between Abbot Suger and Kings Louis VI and VII; the interaction of the great prelates Henry of Sens, Geoffrey of Chartres, and Abbot Suger. In von Simson Gothic was not an inevitable “development,” not the “logical sequence” to Romanesque—it was created as anti-Romanesque within a human dialectical process.160 For von Simson the essential mechanism for the origin of Gothic was a human one: the combination of a French-leaning pope; intense rivalry between the French monarch, the English king, and the German emperor; a group of like-minded prelates; and the overwhelming appearance of legitimacy conveyed by Gothic form and light.

And so the pendulum swings … Perhaps Panofsky, Sedlmayr, and von Simson presented their conclusions in the wrong way; perhaps they were “tainted” by their immediate cultural circumstances (as, indeed, we all are)—yet this has not prevented a procession of scholars (including Christopher Wilson, Dieter Kimpel, Robert Suckale, and Alain Erlande-Brandenburg) from basing their interpretative structure upon the premise that the cathedral builders and early users found the Celestial City in the Gothic cathedral.161 More recently, scholars have returned to the problem of how exactly Neoplatonic thought might have informed the early users of the Gothic cathedral. Ann Meyer, for example, has provided an admirably cogent demonstration of how the passage from signifier to signified takes us from the material church to the Celestial City at S-Denis—it is, of course, through the liturgy.162 Margot Fassler, with her intense study of the liturgy of Chartres in relation to the spaces and figurative programs of the cathedral, returns repeatedly to the image of the cathedral as the Jerusalem Temple of Solomon (with Christ as the new Logos).163 And Dominique Poirel, who has looked to reestablish links between Gothic architectural form and the Neoplatonic/Dioysian thought of the School of S-Victor, emphasizes the role of liturgical practice as the way that meaning is produced.164 Sedlmayr’s “structured seeing,” necessary for the production of meaning, might have resulted from the repeated cycles of the Psalms, the sacraments, and special feasts like the annual celebration of the consecration of the church. The monks of S-Denis had no need for an interlocutor to coach them in the intricacies of Dionysian or Neoplatonic thought. The essential mechanism was there in the chanting they performed each day in the choir—where repeated glimpses of the Celestial City might allow them to find that objective in the breathtakingly illusionistic forms, spaces, and light of their own choir.

(p.174) Conclusion

We have explored four commonplaces in the stories about the meanings of Gothic: that the architectural mode was derived from forests or that it signified forests; that it can be explained by the need to find legitimacy through references to other chosen buildings; that it marked a modernistic rupture from existing architectural forms and practices resulting from the rigorous application of reason to structural problems; and that it harnessed material forms to produce an earthly representation of heaven.

We have seen that each of our three medieval witnesses, troubled by the problem of controlling the production of meaning, hastened to add words (spoken and written) to images and architecture in order to direct the thoughts and fix the understanding of beholders and users. Matching the anxiety of our medieval interlocutors is the negativity expressed by many (post)modern scholars about these and other passages to meaning traditionally associated with responses to Gothic architecture. A common theme found in critiques of Panofsky, von Simson, Sedlmayr, Bony, and others is that their ideas are expressive of the prevailing ideology of their own time more than of the ideas and responses of the builders and users of the great churches of Gothic.165 We have learned to be skeptical of any notion of an assured passage from architectural form to target meaning.166 Modern scholars in their debates have lived out the conundrum predicted by Bishop Durand: the same sign can lead to very different meanings. A great deal hangs on what kind of sign we think we are dealing with: where Sedlmayr saw iconic signs, von Simson found symbols.

It is, of course, the property of our scholarly production to sweep and resweep the intellectual arena—but what, finally, should we do in the resultant empty space? The organization of that space as a notional “plot” presented here provides a means of visualizing the complexity and multiplicity of passages to meaning. Such passages may begin where the figurative language of the interlocutor meets the materiality of the edifice.167 In order to translate architectural form, space, and experience into words, the eloquent interlocutor must rely upon figurative speech and allegory—an enormously powerful cognitive and communicative tool, but one liable to spin out of the author’s control.168 Passages to meaning may continue as the materiality of the building dissolves into illusion, bringing a potential for endless storytelling.

Each of our three witnesses, in addition to the information he has provided, has reminded us that deception has been a critical part of the storytelling about Gothic right from the start. In rehearsing some of the traditional (p.175) stories of Gothic, I have attempted not to validate them but rather to locate them in our conceptual space where many stories, “true” and “false,” conflicting and overlapping, can exist side by side.

However, our plot is by very definition a limited one: it is a static plot, unable to accommodate movement. Yet movement is essential in the generation of meaning in Gothic: in the processions and gestures of the liturgy (about which we learned much from Abbot Suger and from Gervase); in the dynamic relationships between our Gothic church and a thousand others; and in our own responses to passage through Gothic space. A cathedral is not a picture—a unified two-dimensional surface that can be scanned from a static position. To see and comprehend the cathedral the visitor becomes a pilgrim, leaving his or her normal place of abode and undertaking a journey—an operation that generates its own peculiar meanings.169 The spatial dimensions of the cathedral preclude instantaneous comprehension. The edifice invites the visitor to approach, to enter and move through; the very passage and the encounters along the way will convey meaning.

“Venés au moustier, venés au moustier!” (Come to church, come to church!) exclaimed the preacher of a sermon delivered to county folk in the vicinity of Amiens in the second part of the thirteenth century.170 Passage from the surrounding region to the great church was understood as pilgrimage, bringing forty days of true pardon from purgatory. Pilgrimage is essentially directed toward an object of desire. It is with this thought that we will pass to the third part of this book, where the static plot explored above will give way to a dynamic one.


(1.) Paul Binski, “Reflections on the ‘Wonderful Height and Size’ of Gothic Great Churches.” Sublimitas in its original usage simply meant lofty. Longinus (Treatise on the Sublime) carried the notion over into rhetoric; Binski (136–43) has provided a very useful reminder of the power of the terrifying height and steep proportions of Gothic buildings to transport the viewer to the transcendent.

(4.) Abbot Suger, De administratione, ed. Panofsky, 47–49. The verse was probably not composed by Suger himself.

(5.) Ibid., 55.

(6.) Ibid., 105: “The midst of the edifice, however, was suddenly raised aloft by twelve columns representing the number of the Twelve Apostles and, secondarily, by as many columns in the side aisles signifying the number of the [minor] Prophets, according to the Apostle who buildeth spiritually.”

(7.) William Durand of Mende, The Rationale Divinorum Officiorum. William Durand, “unquestionably the most renowned liturgical scholar of the later Middle Ages,” was born near Béziers in Provence around 1230 and was educated in cathedral schools in Provence and (ca. 1260) the University of Bologna. For two decades he served as chaplain, lawyer, diplomat, and adviser for Pope Gregory X. In 1285 he was elected bishop of Mende, and he took up residency in 1291. The Rationale was written around 1291/92 with a second redaction in 1294/96. He died in Rome in 1296. Two hundred medieval copies of the Rationale exist; it was one of the first nonbiblical books printed at the Gutenberg Press in Mainz.

(8.) Ibid., 2.

(9.) Ibid., 1.

(10.) Ibid., 3.

(13.) Ibid., 5.

(p.249) (14.) Ibid., 11.

(17.) Francesco di Giorgio represented the analogy in his church plan with a superimposed body; see Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles, fig. 1a. The author of the Metrical Life of Saint Hugh of Lincoln, 55–60, made similar use of the allegorical potential of the forms of the church:“Its state as it rose fitly expressed the form of a cross.” “These parts, though they have been described with a child’s simplicity, import an allegory. On the outside the church is like a hard shell, but inside is formed a kernel; outside it is like wax, but inside it is a honeycomb.”

(18.) The author of the Metrical Life of Saint Hugh of Lincoln, 55, follows a similar path: “The gripping mortar glues the white stones together, all of which the mason’s hand has hewn true to the mark. But although the wall is put together from the mass of separate stones, it seems to disdain this fact and gives the semblance of joining in a continuum the contiguous parts.”

(19.) Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image,” 38–40, understood the problem as one of anchoring the “floating chain of signifieds.” Paul Crossley, “Medieval Architecture and Meaning,” 120, suggested that by the 1950s attempts to find a grand theory of meaning had come to an end.

(20.) There can, of course, be no question here of attempting a survey of all the possible meanings of the Gothic cathedral—I merely want to apply the new thinking derived from our plot to the illustration of four commonplaces offered by our interlocutors.

(21.) In the spirit of Hans Sedlmayr, beholders bring their own “shaped vision” (Gestaltetes Sehen): The Vienna School Reader, 33; more on this later.

(24.) Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s House in Paradise. The clearest articulation of the dependence of architecture upon Nature can be found in William of Conches: “It must be recognized that every work is the work of the Creator or the work of nature, or the work of a human artisan imitating nature. The work of the Creator is the first creation without preexisting material.… The work of an artisan is a work that man engages in because of a need, as making clothes for protection against cold or a house against bad weather. But in all that he does, the artisan imitates nature.” See Marie-Dominique Chenu, Nature, Man and Society, 41.

(25.) Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Discourses; Barry Bergdoll, introduction to The Foundations of Architecture, trans. Whitehead, 19–20. Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), a pioneering natural scientist, in Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe told the story of creation based not on Genesis but on his study of a range of natural evidence, including fossils and geology.

(26.) Burchard von Hall, chronicler of Wimpfen in Tal, recounted that the prior “summoned a mason highly skilled in architectural design who came recently from Francia from the city of Paris and ordered him to build the church of hewn ashlar in the Frankish manner … People flocking from all sides admire the uncommon work, praise its master craftsman.” See Jan van der Meulen, “Gothic Architecture,” 582.

(27.) Paul Frankl, The Gothic, 273. Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s House in Paradise, 100, has suggested that Raphael may have based his text upon Lucan’s description (Pharsalia 3.390) of a shrine in the woods near Marseilles, whose “interlacing branches enclosed clear cool central space.” See also Ingrid Rowland, The Culture of the High Renaissance, 228–30, and “Raphael, Angelo Colocci and the Genesis of the Architectural Orders.”

(28.) See Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw, The Italian Wars, 97–101, for the humiliation of the papacy at the hands of the French. Paul Frankl, The Gothic, 259, found the word Gothic first applied to signify rude or rustic and associated with the question of the use of an artistic mode considered appropriate. Erich Auerbach, Literary Language, 33, has addressed the question of cyclical theory and appropriateness in the interpretation of modes of literary production. It is intriguing to associate the genre of sermo humilis in literature with Gothic architecture. Ingrid Rowland, “Raphael, Angelo Colocci and the Genesis of the Architectural (p.250) Orders, 95, notes, “It is worthwhile here to remember that goffo, the adjective by which Raphael’s letter describes medieval style, is the direct ancestor of our own pejorative ‘goofy.’ I have already alluded to Ernst Gombrich’s pertinent question “Do you have to like a thing to understand it?”

(30.) Ibid., 228.

(31.) We can, in fact, extract no fewer than four levels of meaning from our text: the forms of Gothic are (1) evidential signs of forest origins; (2) signs of the agency of Goths or Germans; (3) ugly; (4) structurally weak. Only the last allegation is subject to factual recourse. Recall that the laws of physics have determined that the strongest kind of arch is the catenary arch, which is close to a pointed arch; see Jacques Heyman, The Stone Skeleton, 7–21. A pointed arch is actually much stronger than a round one.

(33.) In the mid-fifteenth century such indulgences might also go to northern churches; thus in 1451/52 those contributing to the fabric of Troyes Cathedral, then under construction, were granted a general pardon. See Stephen Murray, Building Troyes Cathedral, 62.

(36.) Anne-Marie Sankovitch, “The Myth of the ‘Myth of the Medieval,’” 39, documents the continuing adjustments Vasari made to his theory between the first and second editions (1550 and 1568).

(37.) The question of how much actual looking at “Gothic” buildings Vasari did has been raised by Sankovitch and by Gombrich, who suggested that Vasari’s famous verbal response to Gothic resulted not from looking at buildings but from reading Vitruvius’s description of “decadent” wall paintings where the images are not based upon nature; see Ernst Gombrich, Norm and Form, 83.

(38.) Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw, The Italian Wars, 97, discuss the animus that Julius II held toward the French, and the pope’s personal role and humiliation in the unsuccessful defense of Bologna in 1499–1500. In 1512, soon after the very bloodly battle of Ravenna where the Spanish and papal forces of the Holy League were crushed by the French, the papal legate Cardinal Giovanni de’Medici was taken prisoner—the cardinal was later to become Pope Leo X and would entertain dreams of a Medici principate.

(39.) Esmond Samuel de Beer, “Gothic,” 150: In 1610, the Jesuit C. Scribianus in describing the Antwerp Bourse used the following phrase: “Hic columnis triformes insistunt arcus de opere Gotico.” In 1619 the Parisian canon Bergeron described the château of Beuvrages near Valenciennes as “bâtie d’une espèce d’ordre ionique et corinthe mais un peu gothique et non ordonné comme nos batÎments de France.” Martellange, the Jesuit architect of the cathedral of Sainte-Croix d’Orléans, presented in 1626 “ung desseing à la Gotique pour la croisée.” The same architect wrote of “aultres Eglises basties à la Moderne et d’ordre gotique.”

(43.) James Hall, Essay on the Origin, History and Principles of Gothic Architecture. For Hall’s place in the long history of speculations on the forest origins of Gothic, see Jurgis Balstrusaitis, Aberrations, esp. 108–35, “The Romance of Gothic Architecture.”

(44.) The idea of the green cathedral is still alive and with us: in 1987 Marinus Boezem planted his Groene Kathedraal near Almere in the Netherlands.

(45.) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Von deutcher Baukunst (1773), compared Strasbourg cathedral to a “giant tree with a thousand branches, twigs and leaves” (quoted by Ethan Matt Kavaler, “On Vegetal Imagery in Renaissance Gothic,” 297).

(p.251) (46.) Paul Crossley, “The Return to the Forest.” This was an idea already advanced by Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s House, 101, where the author contrasts the silence of medieval writers on the forest metaphor for Gothic to the “vast increase in the use of plantlike ribs and columns” toward the end of the fifteenth century. Rykwert attributes the phenomenon to readings in Vitruvius’s account of the origin of the Orders. It should be added that Vitruvius was much better known in the North than in Italy throughout the Middle Ages; see Peter Kidson, “Vitruvius.”

(48.) Ethan Matt Kavaler, “Nature and the Chapel Vaults at Ingolstadt,” 230, proposes a structuralist argument of opposing principles, suggesting that the foliate forms took on significance in relation to the opposing “abstraction” of the purely geometric forms as the organic elements partly mask the geometric ones. Interestingly, Kavaler raises the possibility of a negative reading, where the vegetal imagery is understood as a “perverse corruption of divinely ordained matter, as a departure from God’s initial plan.”

(50.) An idea derived form Roland Barthes, Le plaisir du texte.

(52.) Raphael’s account invokes evidential signs to suggest a causal relationship between forest forms and Gothic origins; Northern use of forest forms may be understood as a conventional language.

(53.) Etienne Hamon, “Le naturalisme dans l’architecture française autour de 1500,” 332, finds himself led back in time from the hundreds of late Gothic (ca. 1500) monuments with naturalistic foliage to the “metamorphosis” of natural to lithic leaves, a phenomenon going back to antiquity, in the period around 1200, citing the extraordinary nave pier of the church of Vermenton, where the foliage of the capital spreads into the en délit shafts and the abacus, continuing to sprout in the springing of the arcade arch, as well as the images of foliage in the carnet of Villard de Honnecourt.

(57.) Abbot Suger, De administratione, ed. Panofsky, 62–63.

(58.) Roland Bechmann, Les racines des cathédrales, 25–51 and 100–112, has attempted to put Gothic architectural production in its natural/ecological context.

(63.) Ethan Matt Kaveler, “On Vegetal Imagery in Renaissance Gothic,” 298, suggests that carved vegetal images might retain some of the magic significance of the real thing, as defined in scripture, herbal writings, and other sources.

(64.) The notion of the organic “spread” of Gothic foliage is projected by the rhetoric of the interlocutor; thus Ethan Matt Kavaler, “On Vegetal Imagery in Renaissance Gothic,” 297, wrote: “In the years around 1500 vines creep across the surface of the vaults.… Architectural members suddenly morph into living forms, an effective artistic conceit and an instrument for conveying the mystical nature of religious experience. These botanical forms, these vines, branches, flowers and the like, could communicate the miracle of animation, of vivification and its divine origins.” Lottelise Behling, Die Pflanzenwelt der mittelalterlichen Kathedralen, 50–85, has a chapter titled “Die blühende Kathedrale.”

(66.) Secular patrons too—it is intriguing to find the crescendo of naturalistic capitals in the Sainte-Chapelle, commissioned by King Louis IX.

(p.252) (67.) On the place of the rustici in the cathedral, see Stephen Murray, A Gothic Sermon, 9–12; also Jacqueline E. Jung, “Beyond the Barrier,” 634–40.

(68.) Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, 25: “The horizon of expectations of a work allows one to determine its artistic character by the kind and the degree of its influence on a presupposed audience.”

(69.) Richard Krautheimer, “Introduction to an ‘Iconography of Mediaeval Architecture.’” See the critique by Paul Crossley, “Medieval Architecture and Meaning: The Limits of Iconography.” Of the work of the four principal scholars who sought to elucidate meaning in medieval architecture (the others being Günther Bandmann, Erwin Panofsky, and Hans Sedlmayr), that of Krautheimer has the most enduring value since, according to Crossley (120) he realized that layers of meaning may be contradictory, only half-defined, and focused not on styles or periods but on “individuals locked in situations of choice and conflict.”

(72.) Stephen Nichols, Romanesque Signs, 1–14, explored the power of history writers to establish the appearance of legitimacy through a kind of “mythic resonance” between, for example, Clovis and Constantine. Similitude in architecture has the same power. Nichols’s notion of the Romanesque “white mantle of churches” as an allegory of transfiguration and baptism (Romanesque Signs, 16) is also enormously illuminating for the Gothic phenomenon.

(75.) Louis VI (1108–37) at the end of his reign made Paris his principal residence.

(78.) Quoted in Stephen Murray, Building Troyes Cathedral, 149 (1412–13): “Pour les despens de Bleuet, maistre maçon de Rains, pour avoir son advis par quelle maniere en poursuivrat pour faire les tours devant l’eglise, 27s. 6d. Lequel a bailliee response a messrs. qu’il seroit bon de visiter plusieurs eglises comme Rains, Amiens et Nostre Dame de Paris et se la fait il donroit son advis.” Ibid., 141: “Pour 1 voyaige fait par led. Nantes at maistre Thomas Michelin, maçon, a Bourges et a Meun sur Yevre, pour veoir les clochiers des eglises desd. lieux, qu’on disait moult bons.”

(79.) We might talk about the “narcissism” of Gothic; the same point has been made for Netherlandish artistic production by Amy Powell, “A Point Ceaselessly Pushed Back,” who suggests that the validity of a devotional image might be related to its resemblance to multiple images of its type and time rather than to any authoritative prototype.

(81.) The word modernism, I believe, is appropriate where not only is the novelty of artistic forms recognized but the self-conscious application of these forms is part of a wider cultural agenda. During the period of construction, what we call Gothic would be designated simply as “new work”—yet as we will see, our Witnesses appear to recognize its modernistic potential.

(84.) Robin Middleton, “The Abbé de Cordemoy,” 1:290: “But in France, the rational interpretation of Gothic was clearly familiar long before Viollet-le-Duc emerged during the nineteenth century to elaborate and codify it. The germs of this self-conscious mediaevalism can be traced back to the Middle Ages themselves.”

(85.) Philibert de l’Orme, Les nouvelles inventions pour bien bastir et à petits frais (Paris, 1561), and Architecture (1567). De l’Orme’s knowledge of Gothic came from actual involvement in the edifices themselves—churches such as S-Etienne du Mont in Paris, and (1548) the completion of the Ste-Chapelle of Vincennes. See Robin Middleton, “The Abbé de Cordemoy,” 1:292.

(86.) François Dérand, L’architecture des voûtes, ou L’art des traits et coûpes des voûtes (1643), (p.253) 392: “These vaults, employed particularly in France and in other northern countries, are made up of ribs and conoids [de nerfs et pendentifs]. The ribs are projecting bodies decorated with various moldings, which carry and support the conoids.” Cited by Middleton, “The Abbé de Cordemoy,” 1:293; my translation.

(87.) Florent le Comte, Cabinet des singularitéz d’architecture, peinture, sculpture et gravure (1699); see Robin Middleton, “The Abbé de Cordemoy,” 1:303. John Evelyn published the same idea two years earlier; Christopher Wren made the same suggestion about “Saracen” style in 1713.

(89.) Ibid., 1:289.

(90.) H. Leblanc, L’architecture des églises anciennes et nouvelles (1733), cited by Robin Middleton, “The Abbé de Cordemoy,” 1:319, my translation.

(91.) Ibid., 1:320.

(92.) Marc-Anthoine Laugier, Essai sur architecture (1753), 201, cited by Robin Middleton, “The Abbé de Cordemoy,” 2:101.

(93.) Jacques-Germain Soufflot (1713–80) was inspired by Gothic structure; his principal critic, Pierre Patte (1723–1814), however, claimed that the four central piers of the Pantheon were inadequate to support the proposed dome.

(95.) Ibid., 2:118–20.

(96.) Charles Eastlake, A History of the Gothic Revival, 318, records the sense of shock that these drawings induced in contemporaries: “M. Viollet-le-Duc not only supplied geometrical drawings of such features [plans and sections] but added perspective sketches, in which the parts to be illustrated are dissected in a manner that renders them intelligible to everyone at first sight.… One looks down upon a church or town hall, partly stripped of its roof or gable, and straightway the whole anatomy of its walls is revealed.”

(98.) Ibid., 116–17.

(99.) Ibid., 133.

(100.) Ibid., 140.

(101.) Ibid., 145.

(102.) Introduction to ibid., 15–16.

(104.) For Viollet-le-Duc’s dependence upon Georges Cuvier, see Barry Bergdoll, introduction to The Foundations of Architecture, 18–22.

(106.) The idea of Gothic as lay, bourgeois, secular, almost Protestant was inspired by the writings of the scholar-statesman François-Pierre-Guillaume Guizot (1787–1874).

(107.) Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, “Architecture,” in The Foundations of Architecture, 90.

(109.) On the improbability of France’s becoming France, see Yves Renouard, “Comment les traits durables de l’Europe occidentale moderne.”

(111.) Ibid., 179–80.

(112.) Ibid., 188.

(114.) Abbot Suger, De consecratione, ed. Erwin Panofsky, 105.

(p.254) (115.) Ibid., 115.

(116.) Ibid., 121. Paul Crossley, “The Integrated Cathedral,” 173, concludes that in Suger’s response linking the material and the immaterial; the corporeal and the spiritual “we come close to what the twelfth century may have described as the ‘holistic cathedral.’”

(118.) Viollet-le-Duc’s theories had come under vigorous attack, especially by Pol Abraham, Viollet-le-Duc et le rationalisme médiéval.

(119.) Hans Sedlmayr, Die Entstehung der Kathedrale. Sedlmayr was professor of art history in Vienna from 1936 to 1945, in Munich from 1951 to 1964, and in Salzburg from 1965 to 1969. He joined the National Socialist German Workers Party in 1932 and following World War II lost his position at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, eventually moving to Bavaria, where he worked for Wort und Wahrheit, a Catholic magazine. In 1951 he became a professor at the Ludwig Maximillians University of Munich.

(120.) Added to the sense of contamination from Sedlmayr’s Nazi past was the irritating assertiveness (not to say dismissiveness) of his tone, which made a scholarly reductio ad absurbum quite easy. The review most available is Paul Frankl, The Gothic, 753–57. See also Louis Grodecki, Critique 65 (1952): 847–57; Ernst Gall, Kunstchronik 4 (1951): 14–21, and Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 14 (1951): 14–21; anon., Times Literary Supplement, January 4, 1952; Roland Recht, Believing and Seeing, 23–24. Levels of disapproval are sometimes high-pitched: Frankl called the book an “aberration,” and Paul Crossley, “Medieval Architecture and Meaning,” 119, found Sedlmayr’s vision “bizarre,” complaining that it runs “counter to the whole character of medieval symbolism to transform this metaphorical meaning [cathedral as heaven] into a literal one.” Yet several scholars, including Paul Binski and Peter Fergusson, have recently returned to the representational potential of medieval architecture: at Canterbury Cathedral the axial chapel known as Becket’s Corona mimics the form of the severed crown of the martyr’s skull.

(121.) The Kritische Berichte zur kunstgeschichtlichen Literatur 1917–37 provided a platform for younger, theoretically oriented art historians including Sedlmayr, Pächt, Panofsky, Schapiro, Gombrich, Pevsner, Wittkower, and von Einem. Sedlmayr and Pächt launched Kunstwissenschaftliche Forschungen, which published the former’s “Towards a Rigorous Study of Art.” Their methods failed to seduce the English-speaking world, however, and Meyer Schapiro published a very critical review in the 1936 Art Bulletin. The reevaluation of Sedlmayr’s ideas is facilitated by the sympathetic foreword by Bernhard Rupprecht in the new edition (Graz, 1988); some of Sedlmayr’s writings have been translated in The Vienna School Reader (with an excellent introduction by Christopher Wood, 9–72); see also Otto Pächt, The Practice of Art History.

(123.) “Zu einer strengen Kunstwissenschaft,” Kunstwissenschaftliche Forschungen (1931), 1.

(124.) Hans Sedlmayr, “Towards a Rigorous Study of Art,” in The Vienna School Reader, ed. Wood, 138.

(125.) This passage is a précis of ibid., 139–41.

(126.) Ibid., 144: “This thing only possesses artistic properties when it is approached with an ‘artistic’ attitude, and it only possesses specific artistic properties when it is seen in accordance with a specific attitude.”

(127.) Sedlmayr’s desire to take the reader back to the original state of the cathedral with its color, sound, and furniture resembles the current quest for the “holistic cathedral.”

(128.) In the last twenty years that blackened hulk has been, to a great extent, cleaned up with the application of a range of problematic new techniques (the laser) and discredited old ones (sandblasting, scraping, and refacing), and many churches have been entirely repainted. Responses have been mixed.

(130.) Ibid., 60: “Den Eindruck des Schwebenden haben vor solchen Bauten fast alle Beschauer seit jeher gehabt. Es is ein irreales Schweben, mit nichts vergleichbar.” We might (p.255) remember Procopius’s image of the dome of Hagia Sophia appearing to be suspended from golden chains from heaven.

(131.) The idea of the diaphanous wall had been articulated by Hans Jantzen, Zur Beurteilung der gotischen Architektur als Raumkunst (1927), cited by Paul Frankl, The Gothic, 784. The English-speaking world knows about this author’s ideas principally through his High Gothic (1962).

(132.) Sedlmayr has most perceptive observations about the fragmented planes (Splitterflächen), the layered facades, and the aesthetic qualities of the newly invented flying buttress system.

(134.) Ibid., 92: Sedlmayr uses a stronger word than depicted—what is being “shammed”? (vorgetäuscht): “was denn durch diese “unwahrhaften” Formen vorgetäuscht werden sollte.” One thinks of Villard’s engiens and Gervase’s machinas (words synonymous with tricks or ruses) and of the “counterfeiting” of geometry in the Regius Manuscript. The word Kunst (art) also brings undertones of deception.

(135.) Ibid., 95–96.

(136.) Ibid., 96: “Man muss lernen, den Symbolsinn des Baues von seinem abbildenden Sinn zu unterscheiden.”

(137.) Peirce would distinguish between icon and symbol.

(138.) Hans Sedlmayr, Die Entstehung der Kathedrale, 102. This hierarchy of resemblance was current in thirteenth-century thought, for example, in St. Bonaventure; see Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 2:268.

(140.) Sedlmayr renders the hymn thus:

  • Urbs Jerusalem beata, dicta pacis visio
  • Quae construitur in coelis, vivis ex lapidibus
  • Et angelis coornata velut sponsa nobilis …
  • [Blessed City of Jerusalem, vision of and assurance of peace
  • Built in heaven out of living stones
  • And adorned by the angels like a bride for her consort …
See Stephen Nichols, Romanesque Signs, 24–25.

(142.) Patricia Stirnemann, “P,” in “L’inscription alphabétique.” Here the singing is said to be “O quam metuendus est locus.”

(144.) Gervase of Canterbury emphazises the ability of the keystone to represent the entire vault or ciborium.

(145.) Wilhelm Schlink, “The Gothic Cathedral as Heavenly Jerusalem,” 285, calls the notion of the Gothic cathedral as Heavenly Jerusalem “pure fiction by the Vienna Art-Historian [Sedlmayr, Schlink’s teacher]. But it is more than a harmless fiction; for it is the product of a neoconservative ideology with mystical and utopian predispositions and with a strong anti-intellectual touch.”

(146.) Otto von Simson was born in Berlin, 1912; studied with Hans Jantzen, Walter Friedlander, and Kurt Bauch at Freiburg, and with William Pinder at Munich with a dissertation on Rubens. He converted to Catholicism in 1937. In 1939 he came to the United States, teaching at Marymount College, Tarrytown, Notre Dame, Indiana, and the University of Chicago. He published Sacred Fortress (1948) and then The Gothic Cathedral (1956), which received general acclaim, except from art historians (Crosby in Art Bulletin). In 1957 von Simson returned to Germany to teach at Frankfurt, later becoming director of the Kunsthistorisches Institut of the Freie Universität in Berlin. His work was ridiculed by Willibald Sauerländer, Première architecture gothique. See also Roland Recht, Believing and Seeing, 24–25.

(p.256) (147.) Otto von Simson, The Gothic Cathedral, xvii: “The medieval sanctuary was the image of heaven. King Henry I and Abbot Suger both describe it as such.”

(148.) Ibid, xvi–xvii. For his definition of the symbolic vision he relies on Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580–662):“the ability to apprehend within the objects of sense perception the invisible reality of the intelligible that lies beyond them.”

(149.) Ibid., 54. Analogy may be understood as the cognitive process of transferring meaning from one subject to another target subject. It is a key element in all processes of cognition.

(150.) Ibid., 5.

(151.) Ibid., 7.

(152.) This is, of course, a misunderstanding: rib vaults cannot be understood entirely as the intersection of two half-rounded tunnels, and while a groin vault results in theory from the intersection of two barrel vaults having the same height, the reality of such a geometrically perfect phenomenon is rare indeed.

(154.) Ibid., 25.

(155.) Ibid., 50.

(156.) Ibid., 52.

(157.) Ibid., 55, where it is observed that the opening verses of St. John’s Gospel were read at the close of the Mass: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that light but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”

(158.) Willibald Sauerländer, “Première architecture gothique” and “Integration.” In Sauerländer’s pages the notion of the “spiritualized middle ages” attributed to von Simson and Sedlmayr is dismissed as a product of post–World War II longing for redemption. This line of thought is continued in “Gothic: The Dream of an Un-classical Style,” where we are told that “the dream of the cathedral is over;” transcendent meaning is dead, we should desist from reading Pseudo-Dionysius and stick to the Ordinaries and studying devotional/functional traditions.

(162.) Ann R. Meyer, Medieval Allegory and the Building of the New Jerusalem, esp. 69–97, “Liturgy at St.-Denis and the Apocalyptic Eschatology of High Gothic.”

(164.) Dominique Poirel, “Symbolice et anagogice,” 169, argues that a building cannot be a direct translation of the written word. Theology is expressed in spirituality, which is translated into liturgy: “C’est par la liturgie, qui leur est commune, que les moëllons d’une église et les concepts d’une théologie entrent en contact, se frottent l’un à l’autre et finissent par s’épouser.”

(167.) The concern with the significance of materials has been a most useful dimension of recent scholarship: see Aden Kumler and Christopher Lakey, “Res et significatio,” as well as the other essays in Gesta 51 (2012). Also Yves Gallet, ed., Ex Quadris Lapidibus, and Arnaud Timbert, ed., L’homme et matière.

(169.) Arnold Van Gennep addressed the cross-cultural significance of movement, transition, and entry in his 1908 pioneering work The Rites of Passage, 20, where he introduced the notion of liminality: “The door is the boundary … between the profane and sacred worlds in (p.257) the case of a temple. Therefore to cross the threshold is to unite oneself with a new world.” Such rites might include the laying of a foundation stone or the consecration of the finished edifice; one thinks of Suger’s ecstatic sense of union of material and heavenly at the consecration of the new chevet. The moment of liminality between two states or regions may bring regeneration (182). Van Gennep’s ideas were extended and applied to pilgrim responses by Victor and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage; see especially “Pilgrimage as a Liminoid Phenomenon,” 1–39. The experience of the pilgrimage may produce a “cleansing of the doors of perception” or a transformative effect that will enhance the impact of images and religious buildings, particularly those encountered toward the end. Caroline Bynum proposes a useful critique, “Women’s Stories, Women’s Symbols: A Critique of Victor Turner’s Theory of Liminality,” suggesting that such experiences are tempered by gender and class.

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