New Visions of Space
New Visions of Space gohtic art
Space was not the abstract concept it has become in modern art. The word meant “interval” or “extent” and referred to something that could be tangibly apprehended and measured. Though its symbols might point to the next world, a cathedral’s confident manipulation and mastery of space were means of affirming control over this one. It has been estimated that eighty cathedrals were built in France between 1180 and 1270, part of the massive geographical and political expansion of the royal domain under King Philip Augustus (r. 1180-1223), which made it the wealthiest country in the West. ” That novelty was perceived as a positive force in this period was itself a new phenomenon, and along with what contemporaries described as the new poetry, the new music, and the new philosophy, Gothic architecture represented a break with tradition.
Even from the outside Gothic churches were built to communicate. They were constructed as advertisements in stone, heralding the promised glories of things to come. Inside, what the builder of the first Gothic space, Abbot Suger, called “the new light” helped to create more complex interiors, not only in cathedrals, but also in smaller churches and chapels. Gothic art also became important in the expanding towns and cities of Europe and exerted its influence on the structuring of new forms of public and private space.
The Heavenly Jerusalem
One of the largest and most splendid of English Apocalypse manuscripts lays out this very vision in shimmering gold and colors, dwarfing the tiny internal viewers, St.John and the angel (fig. 16). No actual church could be as literal a transcription of the Heavenly Jerusalem as this image. Nevertheless its “wall great and high”and its crystalline appearance, “pure gold, like unto glass” and adorned with jewels, give us a good impression of some of the rich polychrome surfaces which once articulated the now dull and weathered portals of cathedrals.
Considering that most people lived squashed together in dark, smoke-filled huts, it is not surprising that cathedrals seemed so spectacular. They displayed the wealth and power of the Church Triumphant on earth and were financed at enormous cost to local communities. They were not without their critics. The early Gothic churches of the Ile-de-France have been linked to the power and wealth of the Capetian kings, especially Philip Augustus. But more often it was the wealthy bishops and cathedral chapters (the collegiate bodies of canons, presided over by the dean) themselves who were the driving force behind building schemes. This was certainly the case in England, where powerful bishops constructed peculiarly English alternatives to French churches.
By extending the western towers outside the line of the nave walls and bending the arches and quatrefoils around the corners of the buttresses, this scheme emphasizes the geometrical complexity of the space and forms, not so much an entrance for the people who went into the church through another door to the north, but a screen onto which were projected visions of political as well as supernatural power.
architectural but also in social terms. At the cathedrals of Salisbury and Wells, for example, the sacred enclaves, including housing for canons and the bishop’s palace, are quite separate from the surrounding urban area, in contrast to the cathedrals built in France and Germany, where the heavenly city was more integrated with the earthly one.
Wells cathedral, constructed under the bishopric of Jocelin, also has a very different kind of west front from that of French Gothic churches, although it still succeeds in evoking the “many mansions” of the Heavenly Jerusalem 0ohn 14.2; FIG. 17). Its designers were working in a different visual tradition, one which prуferred varied pattern to consistent logic. The emphasis in the front is not upon the depth of the portals, as in the French cathedrals, but upon the screen-like canopies that house 297 life-size sculptures (there were originally 384) representing a vast Last Judgment. The enthroned statues of the lay benefactors are placed on the north side, while the ecclesiastical donors are on the south, forming the pillars or buttresses of the Church Triumphant. The whole scheme came to life on Palm Sunday, when a procession dramatizing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem entered this western door to the singing of heavenly choirs (in the form of choirboys dressed an angels) whose voices emanated through specially designed holes behind the stone angels in the quatrefoils at the lower level.
The Gothic building-boom has partly to be seen in terms of the renewal or rebuilding of old structures that had been destroyed by fire – like Canterbury in 1174, Chartres in 1194, and Rheims in 1211.
But the very first Gothic building, St. Denis (1140-44), just outside Paris, was according to Abbot Suger, the man behind the scheme, a response to the need for more space to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. Competitiveness between bishops, cathedral chapters, and even towns meant that an excuse was often sought to build a new church on a lavish scale. At Chartres the relic of the Virgin’s tunic-miraculously survived the fire of 1194. This was seen as her instigation to erect an even bigger church in her honor. In one of its many stained-glass windows local people are shown bringing gifts to the new silver-sheathed statue that was placed on the main altar along with the relic (fig. 18). Although this statue is a Romanesque type of enthroned Virgin and Child, its new setting and function transformed it into a Gothic image. Many of the great churches are, in a sense, such image- tabernacles writ large. The cult of the Virgin was a major stimulus to the erection of Gothic churches and chapels, her image proliferating more than any other, except for the crucifix. They were built to house relics or statues that attracted pilgrims. The body of Mary was a symbol of the Church itself, for through it the tangible bond between God and humanity had been established. Just as, in this geometrical design, the roundel above that of the statue on its altar represents its prototype – the Virgin enthroned in heaven so too the cathedral itself was an icon, representing the sacred reality that lay above and beyond it.
Technological advances, however, do not explain cultural change and especially not art-historical development. They simply provide tools which people use according to their imaginative needs. The east end of Rheims seems to be about to take off, aided by the fluttering wings of gigantic angels, perched under the openwork tabernacles of the pinnacled buttresses. Monstrous beasts, called chimeras, crouch like sentinels on the blind arcade. Below, life-size angels are placed between the choir’s tracery windows.
If the angels between the tracery windows seem effortlessly to sustain the ethereal stones of the choir, the Atlases, straining to hold up the massive blocks of stone above, seem, in the words of Pope Innocent IV, “crushed by the insupportable debts” that burdened the town (fig. 21).
Our view of Gothic architecture of the thirteenth century is so overwhelmed by the massive scale of the great cathedrals that we forget that there were smaller churches and that they, too, transformed their environments. A good example is the church of St. Urbain at Troyes, started by Pope Urbain IV (r. 1261-64) on the site of his father’s cobbling shop (fig. 22). This precious little church turns the architectural vocabulary that half a century before at Rheims had signaled the might of ecclesiastical authority – flying buttresses, tracery windows, and crocketed (ornamented with buds or curled leaves) pinnacles – to more playful ends. Its exterior presents the effect of a wall sliced vertically into thin slivers of stone, so that every element – the buttresses, the windows, and the gables over them – seems to be detached from the walls. There is no glass in some of the tracery, no weight for the flyer to support, sometimes no wall at all – just thin air. Every carefully cut edge of this giggling Gothic fantasy, whose whimsical insubstantiality continues on the interior, reveals something quite different from the scholastic logic that we tend to think controls French Gothic architecture. This is the importance of the faculty of the imagination, that capacity to build castles in the air, which was discussed by experts on the imagination.
Strasbourg cathedral, plans for the west front.
On the left is Scheme A, c. 1260-70, and on the right, Scheme B, c. 1277. The latter is more fully worked out and closer to the existing front in its multiple pinnacles and towers.
The history of Gothic architecture is often described in terms of phases. The first experiments that took place around Paris from about 1140 to 1200 (when the Romanesque still prevailed in the rest of Europe) are usually referred to as Early Gothic. The next phase, the High Gothic, describes those buildings erected from about 1200 to 1260, including the great cathedrals of Chartres, Rheims, and Amiens. St. Urbain is usually taken to exemplify the next, more mannered, phase, called Rayonnant. It, too, began around Paris and from about 1260 to 1300 exploited more linear, transparent effects. But in mdny ways St. Urbain, in its complex ambiguity, anticipates the final phase of Gothic, the Flamboyant style of the later fifteenth century. English Gothic is seen to have followed its own path of development: the quite distinct Early English beginnings, the aptly named Decorated style of 1250-1340, and finally the vertical screen-like forms of the Perpendicular, from the mid-fourteenth century. Such labels have a limited use, however, especially if we want to understand how contemporaries viewed these amazing structures, not as styles but as spaces.
The Gothic master-mason did not conceptualize his building as a modem architect does, in terms of plan and elevation. Very few architectural drawings survive from the Gothic period. At Strasbourg cathedral, drawing of the west facade, c. 1365. Ink on parchment, approx. 13′ long (4 m).
Drawn on six parchment sheets glued together, this may be the work of more than one artist. Gothic is a multi-purpose, multi-media style and one can imagine a design like this being taken over and used in the creation of a metalwork shrine or even an altarpiece frame, serving other craftsmen over several generations. This mobility of models was crucial to the rapid and wide transmission of Gothic art throughout Europe.
Soissons and at Rheims inscribed geometrical designs have been discovered on the stones themselves, suggesting that planners conceptualized the building process on site, rather than on paper or parchment. A remarkable series of drawings has survived from different periods in the creation of the west front of Strasbourg cathedral, which was begun, following French Rayonnant models, by German master-masons in c. 1277. They probably represent different proposals, from which the patron might choose, rather than working drawings (fig. 23). Another more detailed drawing for Strasbourg survives. It dates from later in the fourteenth century and has been associated with the great family of central European master-masons, the Parlors. It is partly executed in delicate colors and instead of being a functional “working drawing” is a scheme to work out the placement of statues in niches (fig. 24). Sculptors clearly had to work in close cooperation with architects. (They were often one and the same person, as is the case with the Parlers.) For just as each piece of rib or tracery was created to fit into a specific place, so too were more complex sculptural elements, carved below in the workshop and then hauled into place. The sculptor had to adapt the demands of objective proportion to those of the subjective eye of the beholder, who might be looking at it from far below. He often sculpted the features broadly, and with distortions, to accommodate the steep angle of vision. The Strasbourg tower was never completed, but the statues from the gallery of kings on the west front of Amiens and those high up on the exterior of Rheims suggest that, well before the Renaissance, Gothic sculptors were aware of the problem of viewpoint.
Like the Virgin and apostles on the lowest tier of the Strasbourg drawing, most figures in Gothic art were set within an architectural.
This reliquary also gives us an idea of the vertiginous effects sought by later Gothic architects, who built churches and chapels around such bodily fragments enclosure. Providing a locus, a place for viewing, it functioned something like the frame in modern painting. More importantly, it allowed the viewers to position themselves in relation to the representation within. Very rarely in Gothic sculpture does one find a totally freestanding isolated figure without an overhead canopy – except for gargoyles, whose very isolation in space, jutting out into the street beyond, signals their ungodly ejection from the church as well as their function as gutters for rainwater. The envelope of the arch thus not only contains and protects the figure, it elevates it, no matter how lifelike it has become, within an eternal, ecclesiastical order.
Enclosing arches were used in many parts of a church, on altar screens, choir enclosures, tombs, bishops’ thrones, and they were made in multifarious media varying from marble to oak. Everything was suspended below the glacial verticality of pinnacles and points. The arts of the goldsmith, especially during the Rayonnant period in France and the Decorated style in England, led the way in evolving these ever-more-convoluted spatial envelopes. A reliquary in Aachen, probably Flemish and known as the Three Towers Reliquary, reverses the usual relation between outside and inside in Gothic art in a way typical of this “avant- garde” medium. It places the relics on the exterior of the structure and the statues within (fig. 25). This reliquary is thus structured as a visionary experience. At famous shrines like those of St. Thomas at Canterbury, St. James at Santiago de Compostela, and of the Three Kings at Cologne, the pious pilgrims, kneeling like the deacon here, might experience visions of the total body whose fragmented pieces they had come to venerate.
From its beginning the Gothic style was more than just architecture. Although it was church-builders who first sought to remake the world in heavenly terms, these effects could only be achieved by a combination of all the arts, in a multi-media extravaganza. What is clearly being celebrated in the writings of Abbot Suger at St. Denis is the combination of architecture with sculpture, stained glass, goldsmithing, and painting.
In the center of the rose sits the Virgin, dark and ineffable, surrounded by doves and angels. The five great lancet windows below show how the designers, who had to set each piece of glass within a lead armature, made allowances for these figures to be readable from a great distance. The tall prophets, and St. Anne and the Virgin in the center, are all created out of broad masses of red, blue, and green glass. The royal house of Capet also weaves its genealogy into this scheme, the corner spandrels showing the yellow fleurs de lys and castles on a red ground of its donor, Blanche of Castile, the Queen of France and mother of Louis IX.
Gothic art has often been associated with the metaphysics of light, particularly with the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius, a supposed fifth-century Christian mystic whose ideas about God as an “incomprehensible and inaccessible light” were revived in the twelfth century. This is specially evident in the writings of Abbot Suger, who sought to link this mystical author with St. Denis, the patron saint of his own royal abbey. However, the apprуciation of what we might call the “aesthetics” of light was not uniform throughout the Gothic period. A profound change occurred between the stained glass of Chartres, which embodies the kind of opaque, almost dark, mystery described by Abbot Suger, and the stained glass of the later thirteenth century, which allows far more actual light to penetrate it. There was a similar tranformation in taste toward the refractive properties of highly transparent stones like crystal and diamonds, at the very time that the perspectivist philosophers were exploring the refraction of light through transparent media in the humors of the eye itself. This urge to make spaces more visible by allowing more light in can also be seen in the changing techniques of making stained glass, such as the use of silver stain, which developed around 1300. White becomes an important color in later stained glass.
We can also see this increasing ethereality of light in other media, like enamelwork and manuscript illumination, where transparent layers of lighter color replace the deeper blues and reds of the thirteenth century. In a depiction of God’s creation of light in an English Book of Hours, we can see this change toward transparency, both in the form and the subject-matter of the image. Fiery rays of light emanate from the figure of God, who stands
in the middle of a series of white, luminous angelic forms (fig. 28). Robert Grosseteste (c. 1168-1253), Bishop of Lincoln, who combined Neoplatonic ideas about light with Aristotelian observations about its transmission, wrote an account of the creation of light which, like this picture, linked it to the creation of angels. The medieval artist, like the philosopher, thought in terms of dialectical contrasts. So here the creation of the purest light is combined with the first dark heresy against God. The rebel angels tumble into the darkness below and become more and more monstrous the farther away from the light they fall. In the middle of the page are the turning spheres of the medieval cosmos, with the earth as its static center, surrounded by the other three elements, water, air, and, the most elevated, fire. At the bottom of the page Satan lies chained in the darkness of hell. Even without any theological or metaphysical training, the woman who owned this little Book of Hours was provided with a primer in medieval visual theory. Light is associated with the elevated and dark with the base, each element having its color, each sphere its place.
For most beholders of Gothic art, however, light was something more tangible still. At Canterbury cathedral the new architecture was part of an important spatial experience for pilgrims, who moved from the darkness toward the light when they were guided from a cult site down in the crypt up two levels to where the relics of St. Thomas a Becket (1118-70) were displayed in the new Trinity chapel. The shimmering metalwork shrine built in 1220 was destroyed by King Henry VIII in 1538, but its setting still remains. The eyes of the past have not made marks nor left visible traces as have the bodies, feet, and knees of the countless pilgrims who over the centuries have worn away the steps leading to this space (fig. 29). But we can still imagine startled eyes adjusting to the brightness of the space after the diness below. Along with the rich variety of Purbeck marble columns in the east end these stained-glass windows were part of a carefully choreographed pilgrimage route within the cathedral. They represented the miracles that occurred on this very site when the lame walked and the mad were calmed through the intervention of the recently martyred saint. The kneeling and prostrate figures depicted here are literally guides to those pilgrims seeking a repeat performance. Canterbury cathedral displays the accretion of architectural styles typical of English great churches. It has a Romanesque crypt, Perpendicular nave, Early English choir, and horseshoe-shaped extension in the form of the Trinity chapel, with its extra corona, called “Becket’s crown.” But all was held together in a unified visual experience by the saint’s cult.
From the viewpoint of this photograph the effect is one of shimmering translucence, making it difficult to isolate and “read” any single element of the narratives in the glass.
In the royal palace complex on the lie de la Cite in Paris, Louis IX built his own gigantic reliquary for displaying the relics of Christ’s passion, including the crown of thorns, which had been bought from the Latin emperor of Constantinople (fig. 30). In the upper chapel, masons, sculptors, and painters created an interior that reflects light like a multifaceted diamond. The shimmering walls of stained glass, the gilded statues of the twelve apostles on the piers and the narrative medallions painted on glass and silver grounds so as to catch every gleam of light give today’s viewer some idea of the chromatic brilliance presented by Gothic interiors, most of which have now been “toned down” to suit the more austere tastes of subsequent centuries. Louis, who died on a crusade, wanted to make Paris the new holy land, or locus sanctus, and the sumptuousness of this interior was meant to add luster not only to the sacred relics but also to the line of Capetian kings.
Sixty years later, in a private chapel on a much smaller scale, the Italian painter Giotto used a different combination of media, not to transport viewers to a heavenly realm, but to bring the divine down to their level (fig. 31). The Arena Chapel contains 36 consecutive narrative scenes of the life of Christ and the Virgin, framed within an illusionistic structure that places the viewer in the very center of the chapel. Also, the light which creates the scheme is not reflected from gold, gems, or semi-transparent materials, but is evoked in paint. In Italy stained glass had not supplanted the use of fresco as the major space-defining medium. The reason for this was light itself: the hot sun of the south demanded massive areas of cooling wall. If Giotto was still painting with light, it was not the divine lux that emanated from precious stones and stained glass, but the material effects of lumen as it bounced off the forms of his painted bodies.
This interest in representing the light of the world itself can be seen in the illusionistic chapels that Giotto painted in the Arena Chapel on both sides of the altar wall. This is an imaginary Gothic space, lit by a lancet window – a high, narrow window crowned by a pointed arch – and a wrought-iron lantern suspended from the apex of the vault. Light entering the church was often associated, as we have seen at Chartres, with the Virgin Mary, whose life-story winds around these walls. This vaulted space can thus be seen as an image of the pure and enclosed body of Mary and the sanctity of the church. Space is never just what it seems, even with as superb a space-maker as Giotto. In the Arena Chapel he reveals himself to be an artist in the Gothic tradition at the very point where, in other respects, his art looks forward. According to the contemporary poet Giovanni Boccaccio, Giotto was the “one who brought light back to art,” but this light also has to be seen through the eyes of the man for whom the chapel was built. Enrico Scrovegni was a wealthy land-developer and son of an infamous usurer. The iconography of the painted scheme has been related to his need to expiate the guilt of his father, in scenes like “The Pact of Judas,” in which the dark devil is identified with money. But in choosing the most advanced painter of his time to paint his chapel, Scrovegni was surely also seeking something more. The unified space and light, which render things to graspable and materially present to the observer, can be linked to his acquisitive view of space as private property, not as symbol. The empty chapels, with their strong outer barriers, are not only sacred symbols, but safes cut into the wall.
If Giotto’s light in the interior of the Arena Chapel seems ahead of its time. It has been suggested that the multi-media splendor visible in this space and in Charles’s adjoining private oratory at Karlstein embodies the emperor’s vision of himself as the new Constantine. Perhaps he sought to create what he imagined were “Byzantine” effects transposed into a Gothic mode. Certainly nowhere else in Europe is the claustro- 32. Karlstein castle, chapel phobic opulence of sacro-political power made more manifest. of the Holy Cross, c. 1365.
Although Gothic architecture had first been introduced into Italy by the Cistercians, it was the very different kinds of churches which were built to serve far larger groups by the new mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans which presented a new vision. These opened up their interiors to light and to new types of images.
The use of several foci of light makes this space more complex than it first appears. Stained glass, occasionally used to great effect in Italian churches, was originally placed here in the tall lancet window depicting the scene of the stigmatization of St. Francis. Taddeo was obsessed by light in this chapel, partly, it has been suggested, because he was nearly blinded when trying to observe a total eclipse of the sun in 1332.
It has its own visual hierarchy: predella panels containing single figures provide a base for the main panel, above, with its densely crowded haloed figures. Different image-types demand different pictorial styles. The altarpiece, painted in tempera (where egg or another viscous liquid other than oil is used as a medium for the powdered pigment) on panel with gold and rich, incised patterns on the dozens of haloes (which we should not forget are signs of spiritual radiance), is in a far more conservative mode than the more naturalistic narrative scenes in the frescoes around it. This is not only because painting in tempera produces different effects from fresco-paint- ing. Just as important was the fact that the way in which one looked at an altarpiece was different from the way in which one looked at a wall-painting. The wall was part of the world and thus lit like it, by the sun; the panel, which was placed on the consecrated altar, emitted its own light. Before it the flickering candles and vessels used in the ceremony of the mass would share in the shining.
Hundreds of churches dedicated to the Virgin were built throughout Europe in the fourteenth century, differing greatly according to local traditions and materials. In the north, churches like that of Our Lady of the Pastures at Soest (begun in 1331) is typical of the expansive hall-like spaces, whose massive lancet windows light the interior with its focal points of altars and images (fig. 34). In the north of Europe the altarpiece itself rather than wall-painting carried more narrative weight and it developed into a more complex shrine-like structure, frequently with sculpture and with folding wings that opened and closed as required by the liturgical calendar. The Annunciation painted by Melchior Broedcrlam (c. 1381-1409) is part of the left outer wing of the altarpiece made for the chapel of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, at the Chartreuse de Champmol, near Dijon. His version of the Annunciation takes place in a deeply receding, multifaceted interior, one space opening up into another just as the altar- piece itself is hinged to open and reveal new vistas (fig. 35). Broed- erlam exploited the unusual shape of the picture field, dictated by the fact that it had to fit the outer wing of the central shrine of an altarpiece that contained sculptures. The golden rays coming from God’s mouth follow the sharp angle of the frame at the left. Here architecture also plays a symbolic as well as a space-defining role. The domed pink structure in the distance, with its Romanesque round arches, represents the Old Testament, while the hall attached to it, surmounted by Gothic traceried forms, represents the New Testament. The bare, rocky landscape in which the Visitation of the angel can be seen taking place plunges upward and outward, deep into space.
The thrill of this image to a medieval beholder was what was called its varietas, or pictorial richness. Its spaces drew one into a layered system of symbols, from the lily, a sign of virginity, which stands in the foreground, to the distant tower. The rapidly receding corridor on the left represents the enclosed space of the Virgin’s purity. Its opening up represents, not so much the rationalistic conquest of territory by the scientific eye attuned to perspective, as the idea of her impenetrable body, which, like transparent glass, or an enclosed garden, remained perfect unto itself. The rays shining down through the tracery of the Gothic window are likewise a material manifestation of the Word – direct from God’s mouth – made incarnate within her body. One of the favorite objects associated with the Virgin, as we have seen at Chartres and in the Arena Chapel, was the window. Here again, but in the medium of panel painting, she is the “window of heaven,” the fenestra coeli “through which God shed the true light on the world.” Just as this represented space is densely packed, so too were the actual spaces of fifteenth-century churches crammed with things. In the German empire, the hall church developed into a single, light-drenched space which made it easy to see the devotional loci that were also monuments to their patrician patrons. The church of St. Lawrence in Nuremberg, for example, has a polygonal plan with piers flowing uninterruptedly up into the star-vaulting, its outer wall broken only by two tiers of tracery windows (fig. 36). These light the images displayed inside. The great stone tabernacle built to house the consecrated host, which nearly reaches the vault to the left of the altar, was the work of Adam Kraft (c. 1455-1509) and was commissioned by the Nuremberg alderman Hans Imhoff the Elder in 1493. Another citizen of Nuremberg, Anton Tucker, later commissioned a wooden Annunciation from Veit Stoss (c. 1445-1533), which is suspended from the vault. Both these works have been cited as examples of the art of the northern Renaissance. That is to see them in isolation. As they function within the interior of the church, they are part of the Gothic tradition.
The impact of Gothic is to be seen more in the thousands of smaller parish churches and chapels that were built throughout Europe than in the great churches and cathedrals. Gothic was never a single, uniform style. It took on multiple variants and quite different forms depending on local traditions. One example will have to suffice. On the island of Gotland, off the coast of Sweden, is the small parish church of Larbro, built at the end of the thirteenth century with far less money than those royal, ecclesiastical, and burgher buildings we have looked at thus far (fig. 37). The north wall of the chancel shows that even with limited resources people sought to make their spaces Gothic. A winged dragon – a Romanesque or perhaps even a pagan vestige – lingers on the base of the arch, its tail spiraling out from its three-dimensional head. Christianity came as late as 1026 to Gotland. So here religious art was still part of the process of conversion. There was neither the money nor the local skill to create an architecture of light stone members, and yet some of its effects were sought by a community who had links with the rest of Europe through Hanseatic trade. Twelve painted apostles, like those carved at the Sainte Chapellc, are here painted in simple earth colors, holding their foundation crosses to mark the consecration ceremony. Although the parishioners could not afford to get an Adam Kraft to create a sculpted tabernacle for their host, they could still honor its sacred substance through the painted illusion of a crocketed gable over the cupboard in which it was kept. Even more importantly, the truth to which the host pointed, Christ’s crucifixion, is painted above. The Virgin standing alongside, her heart pierced by an arrow to represent her sorrow and compassion with her son, is another instance of a recently developed theme, making its way north. Here, in the long evenings of summer, the light plays on the soft plaster and accentuates the pointed wall-openings. In countless smaller parish churches throughout Europe, the Gothic image was a similarly simple, minimally colored wall-painting.
How did people conceptualize the world in which the Gothic style spread so rapidly in the thirteenth century? In a contemporary psalter, a full-page image of the world places Jerusalem at its center (fig. 38). Jerusalem was also the center of the Crusades, still being fought to regain possession for Christendom of the Holy Land from Muslim rule. Jerusalem was the spiritual goal that pilgrims most longed to reach, however, because it marked the most important Christian site in the world – the place of Christ’s crucifixion. Orienting maps by placing what we call east, not north, at the top, derived from the fact that Christ, like the sun, was expected to rise in the east at the Last Judgment. Maps like this one, showing Christ’s dominion over space, though on a much larger scale, were sometimes placed in churches. One is still kept, for example, in Hereford cathedral. In 1236 King Henry III ordered a mappa mundi to be painted on the walls of his palaces at Westminster and Winchester, suggesting that for temporal rulers such images held a clear territorial meaning. Placing what were thought of as the monstrous races at the earth’s edges, such maps mingled biblical, mythological, and geographical legends with actual spatial relations. Despite their symbolic structure, such maps are testaments to the increasing compartmentalization and visual organization of real space that took place during the Gothic age.
A major consequence of territorial expansion for both the French and English kings and their nobles was castle-building. As they conquered new territories and guarded their borders, monarchs laid out a system of defences as carefully plotted as any of the lines on the psalter map. A castle was a building made for loojing out of, for gaining a vantage point. But, like the great churches, castles also developed so as to emphasize their exterior appearance, with a system of signs that came to stand for the power of those people who held them. Just as the purpose and meaning of the church were established by certain symbolic structures – pointed arches, buttresses, pinnacles – the safe stronghold carried messages by architectural forms which began as functional aspects but soon became part of its symbolic meaning. These forms included the massive circular towers or donjons, the system of moats, and the jagged battlement crenellations (for which, in the thirteenth century, one had to obtain a royal license).
Conwy castle was begun in 1283 by Henry Ill’s son, Edward I (r. 1272-1307), to secure his conquest of Wales, and though ruined today, it still gives a powerful sense of the spatial dynamics of royal authority (fig. 39). Its strategic position on an estuary provided vantage-points for looking out over vast tracts of land to spot an oncoming enemy. Conwy has internal vantage-points too, allowing the king to witness the celebration of the mass in his own private room above the chapel and opening up vistas, like that from the outer ward which looked over the castle to the walled town beyond it that was built at the same time. Looking at the ruins of medieval castles today, one can only imagine the visual richness they once enclosed. The great halls and the royal chambers would have been decorated with banners and textiles, the wooden beams brightly painted, and the guards and attendants color-coordinated in embroidered livery.
The great cathedrals rose amid the hustle and bustle of market towns and depended upon urban commerce to finance their building. Marketplaces themselves had pointed arches, as was the case with the arcades, or couverts as they were called, of Montpazier, a new town founded by King Edward I in 1285 (fig. 40).
Typical of the bastide towns set up by the English in their conquest of Gascony, in what is now southwest France, Montpazier is laid out on a grid with a marketplace and church on either side of the central axis. Such a systematically planned urban space was as much a combination of the symbolic and the practical as any cathedral. At the four corner entrances to the market square two arcades met at sharp angles. Called cornieres, these provided shelter for stalls and places of surveillance from which access to the market could be denied to interlopers without trading rights. In some towns the erection of public buildings like town halls and market halls came under communal control. Such was that still visible at the important North Sea trading port of Liibeck, whose dark glazed bricks and imposing pierced arcades, though heavily restored, exemplify civic Gothic splendour(FiG. 41). Every architectural element, every gate or boundary stone, was a sign of social control. A contemporary allegory of the game of chess, where pawns representing different urban trades vie for control of space, compares a chessboard, with the restricted movement of its pieces, to the layout of a town.
The most celebrated of all cities in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was undoubtedly Paris, with the royal palace and the Sainte Chapelle at its center, the massive cathedral of Notre Dame on the lie de la Cite, the great markets and residences of the aristocracy on the right bank, and Europe’s greatest university on the left. A manuscript of the life of St. Denis (fig. 42), the first bishop of Paris, is set against the contemporary urban context, full of the bustle of fishing boats on the Seine and the mercantile activity that made Paris the first “art” city in Europe. Road-pavers are shown laying down stones, creating the arteries by which goods and services flowed through the capital. That it was a great city was signified by the great walls that circled it. “Parisus paradisus” it was called – the Heavenly Jerusalem brought to earth, not as a sacred space, but as a place of exchange. “Here you will find the most ingenious makers of all sorts of image, whether contrived in sculpture, in painting, or in relief,” wrote the Parisian scholar Jean of Jandun. Paris was already the fashion center of Europe. The very concept of fashion – following a particular style in dress, for example – developed at this time among those people wealthy enough to cultivate an “image” and Paris, then as now, was where you went to see fashion displayed in the streets.
Of the magnificent royal palace on the lie de la Cite, where the St. Denis manuscript was presented to Philip V in 1317, only the Sainte Chapelle survives. It is, indeed, difficult to get a sense of these great Gothic audience halls. That at the Palace of Westminster in London, also dating from the late thirteenth century, was destroyed by fire in the nineteenth. Even though it was built much later, by Benedict Ried (c. 1454-1534), the combined throne-room and jousting hall in Hradcany castle, Prague, is the finest great chamber still extant (fig. 43). The unique undulating ribs that flow in swirling, flame-like curves from floor to ceiling create a single space of breathtaking audacity, typical of the secular ruler’s urge to enthral with the Gothic fantastic.
The most extensive surviving monuments of Gothic secular decoration are in the great Italian city-states. The frescoes of Ambro- gio Lorenzetti (fl. 1319-48) in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena are among the most pictorially and politically complex images of the period (fig. 44). The nine “good and lawful merchants” of Siena who formed the ruling council sat under the fresco of “The Virtues of Good Government” on the north wall of this room. Inscriptions in the rhyming vernacular addressed them directly – to look to the left at “The City State Under Tyranny” and then to the right where “The Good City Republic” was painted: “Turn your eyes to behold her, you who are governing.” The secure city has a new orientation, with the striped stones of its cathedral now placed high in the corner. In the center is the brilliantly foreshortened wall of Siena, showing off the skill of the painter. No longer a hierarchical space of levels or concentric circles, Siena has walls that divide a social space in which citizens move freely, from those dancing before the ordered porticoes within to those harvesting in the fields beyond. Yet this is still a rigorously controlled space, in which social roles are clearly demarcated. The organization of these fields into geometrical plots, pastures, and meadows is an outcome of agrarian policies organized from within the city. We are, in that sense, looking at the countryside from the city dweller’s point of view – which increasingly became the artist’s point of view also. The multiple perspective exploited by Loren- zetti here also means that the farmers in the fields can plant and harvest in the same season. The frame ties the whole into as idealized and systematic a philosophical view of the world as any cathedral facade, except that here the urban liberal arts of arithmetic and geometry are placed beneath the city and the planetary movements of astrology below the countryside. The vista that stretches out beyond the gates of the city has been called one of the first “landscapes” in western art. But this is a space viewed not for its aesthetic but for its economic and political value.
Across the Alps, those urban merchants who formed a new class of art patrons tended to model their tastes on the royal mania for display. This is evident in the mid-fifteenth-century house of Jacques Coeur(1395-1456), who until his political downfall was financier to the kings of France and controller of a trading empire that stretched from Scotland to Palestine. A great traceried window and a flamboyant tower are placed over the double entrance gateway, one for horses and a narrower one for pedestrians (figs 45 and 46). The canopy and niche above the main entrance once held an equestrian statue of the king, while Jacques’s own equestrian image graced a matching portal on the inside, making him ruler within his own domain. The most startling aspects of the facade still visible today are the two fake balcony windows, from which life-size statues of a male and female servant lean out to peer down the street. The real windows are two tiny openings above them, which allow light to enter the twin oratories of their master and mistress within. Unlike the four-part tracery window that lights the chapel itself, these illusory windows do not reveal but conceal what lies behind them.
The elaborate outer facade screens off a private courtyard around which are organized, on the first floor, the major public spaces of dining hall and porticoes where merchants could display their goods and, on the second, Coeur’s private chapel and living space. This interplay of public and private areas is part of this fun house of mirrors, where great fireplaces are carved and painted with Jacques’s cockleshell, the sign of his patron saint (St. James), alternating with a heart (coeur). The interior lacks grandiose halls and state rooms. It is made up of numerous smaller spaces, each with a designated function, suggestive of the transition from a public, aristocratic space to a private, domestic environment. Bedrooms lead to service corridors for the vast array of servants who fetched and carried from the lower kitchens. Whereas a castle, constructed around the communal hall, allowed little in the way of privacy to its inhabitants, this house has its secret side. This new interest in privacy is intimately suggested in a miniature, made by a Parisian illuminator in c. 1410, which shows a couple having intercourse in bed. Although their lower bodies are discreetly hidden by a curtain, two voyeurs have a more direct view as they watch them through an internal window. The bed was the only really private space in the medieval home. Elaborately canopied and decorated, it was often one of the most prized and expensive of household objects. The bed scene shown here illustrates the chapter on human reproduction in a popular encyclopedia of the period, the Livre de la Proprietes des Choses (fig. 47). Allowing the viewer to take a peek within an opened-up building, it shows the same interest in the interplay of public and private space that is visible in domestic architecture of the period.
If space and objects already seem to have become private property at the house of Jacques Coeur, it is worth going back a little to the turn of the fifteenth century, to an aristocratic patron whom Jacques was probably emulating – Jean Due de Berry, brother of King Charles V (r. 1364-80) and one of the richest men in France. By crippling his subjects with the highest taxes in France Jean amassed great wealth. He owned two residences in Paris and no fewer than seventeen castles in his duchies of Berry and Auvergne. He is often described as one of the first art connoisseurs, as if taking pleasure in beautiful things for their own sake redeems his vicious vanity, at least in the eyes of art history. His tastes were typical for his time.
Inventories made at his death in 1416 show that his collection included, in addition to antique cameos, tapestries, clocks, jewelry, and illuminated books, a vast collection of hunting dogs, one of Charlemagne’s teeth, drops of the Virgin’s milk, and the bones of a giant dug up near Lyons in 1378. Many of these curiosities were stashed at his favorite chateau, Mehun-sur-Yevre, built near Bourges in the late fourteenth century, where he also kept live swans and bears, his personal emblems, based upon the name of one of his mistresses. By 1393 the castle had become so famous that his brother, Philip the Bold, sent his own court sculptor to study “the works in painting, figure sculpture, and carving” to be seen there.
Called by the chronicler Froissart “the most beautiful house in the world,” Mehun-sur-Yevre, like so much secular building from the Gothic period, is now ruined. Its delicate pinnacles and white towers can still be seen, however, in the Due de Berry’s most famous prayer book, Les Tres Riches Heures, painted by the Limbourg brothers (fl. 1400-15; fig. 48). The Limbourgs certainly presented an unusual portrait of their patron’s favourite castle, since this page illustrates the riches of the world that Christ refused when he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Christ can be seen at the very top of the picture looking down. The viewer, the duke himself, also gazes upon his castle, with its menagerie of exotic animals. The image invites the duke to identify all the riches of the world with his own possessions, surely not, like Christ, in order to reject them, but rather to enjoy them. The Heavenly Jerusalem has finally come to earth, but in the form of an illusory Gothic object of desire – the modem “work of art” – whose representation exists mainly for the pleasure of the individual beholder.