New Ways of Seeing Gothic Art
New Ways of Seeing Gothic Art
Gothic” is a label with its own complex history (fig. 2). Although we use this term to describe buildings and objects whose forms are based upon the pointed arch produced from the middle of the twelfth to the end of the fifteenth century in some parts of Europe, the word was actually unknown during this period. It was Renaissance humanists who first used it as a derogatory term to describe what they saw as the “barbaric” architecture produced between the decline of classical civilization and its glorious rebirth in their own time.
The word – and the style – came back into fashion only during the late eighteenth century, first among antiquarians who sought to preserve the ruins of the past, and later among architects such as A.C. Pugin (1768-1832), and religious revivalists such as his son, A.W.N. Pugin (1812-52), who, in his True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture of 1841, saw it as an answer to current social and cultural crises. A year later construction of the final part of Cologne cathedral, begun in the thirteenth century, was at last under way and the following decades saw hundreds of churches, schools, and even factories built in the revived Gothic style all over Europe.
Gothic soon came to define not just an artistic style, but a whole historical epoch – “the Gothic Age.” For French Romantic writers like Victor Hugo (1802-85) it was a great age of faith. For English critics like John Ruskin (1819-1900) it was a socialist golden age of the craftsman before the onset of industrialization. For German Expressionist artists and critics at the beginning of the twentieth century, the later, tortured forms of Gothic seemed to prefigure their own modern angst. Viewed through so many different prisms in the past, it would be hard indeed to define what Gothic means in postmodern culture today.
There are currently two major approaches to the study of Gothic art and architecture, both inherited from the nineteenth century. The first, which is rationalist and secular, was pioneered by the historian and restorer Eugene Emmanuel Viollet- le-Duc (1814-79), who saw the great cathedrals as products of progressive technology and functional engineering. His carefully drafted cross-sections of cathedrals like the one at Amiens are still used by architectural historians to analyze the different architectural elements of a great church, from the bases and piers of each bay to the curved ribs of its high vault (fig. 3). The second approach to Gothic art, which is more mystical and literary, is also a system of classification, not of the masonry elements of a building, but rather of the symbols that make up its meaning – an approach that has come to be known as iconography. This is best exemplified by the writings of the French scholar Emile Male (1862-1954), who sought to “read” cathedrals, like that at Amiens, as though they were “books in stone.” Both these methods are valuable, but in separating form and meaning the first tends to reduce the objects of inquiry to cross-sections and plans and the second to written programs and texts.
The Gothic Look
When people at the end of the thirteenth century looked around them as they stood in the nave of Amiens cathedral (fig. 4), they were neither seeking to label architectural components, nor deciphering symbols. They were the enraptured witnesses to a new way of seeing. They experienced its thin walls, wide windows, and soaring vaults as constituting a new kind of architectural space, to be discussed in detail in chapter one. Amiens, like all cathedrals, was built for the performance of the yearly cycle of the liturgy. This crucial ordering of time in Gothic art is explored in chapter two. The interior of Amiens as we see it today is bare compared to the cluttered appearance it would have presented to the medieval visitor. Its painted columns would have been draped with tapestries and its windows filled with thousands of figures in stained glass which have been mostly destroyed. The chapels and altars would have been crammed with statues, altarpieces, and reliquaries (cases or shrines to hold sacred relics), which were the real goals of the pilgrim’s gaze. This saturation of Gothic space with images is the subject of chapter three. Still visible in the nave of Amiens, however, is the richly carved band of flowers and leaves that runs, like a window box, along the bottom of the trifo- rium, or gallery above the nave arches. At the same time as it provided a means to grasp the unseeable, Gothic art provided a new focus for the representation of nature, discussed in chapter four. Ambitious structures like Amiens cathedral are often thought to be the work of a mass of selfless, anonymous masons and artisans. But at the center of the nave a magnificent labyrinth maze, laid down in 1288, spells out the names and praises the skill of its three master-masons, Robert de Luzarches and Thomas and Renaud de Cormont. The rise of this creative self-consciousness, in which the artist’s own perception played an increasingly important role, is the theme of the concluding chapter.
Looking at Gothic art as the embodiment of medieval visual experience is, of course, only one way of presenting a coherent view of more than three hundred years of image-making and viewing. The difficulty in discussing Gothic, as compared, say, to Romanesque art and architecture, is that many more works survive. It is also the first truly international style, spreading throughout Europe. Gothic artists were in this sense the first to create what we would call today “fashion.”
The traditional tripartite picture of medieval society which was described as being composed of three orders, those who prayed (clergy), those who fought (nobility), and those who ploughed (peasants), gave way to a much more complex social structure which included merchants and craftspeople. Constructing not only churches and chapels, this new class created networks of communication and encouraged the circulation of goods, for example between Italy and Flanders in the fourteenth century, which had a real impact upon artistic production. The period which saw the development of Gothic coincides not only with this crucial economic growth but also with the growing ambitions of secular rulers.
Historians have described the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a period of increasing weakness of the church, threatened not only by royal claims to authority. But this decay of ecclesiastical institutions should not be taken as a sign of the secularization of society. In fact this period saw a demand for ever more intimate involvement in spiritual matters among lay folk, much of it using images. From baptism to burial the local parish church structured people’s lives, and it is impossible to understand Gothic art without an awareness of how this Christian ideology increasingly sought to control minds as well as bodies.
At the same time as seeing these continuities with our own experience, we must also be aware that vision has a history. Only by an effort of imagination can we understand perceptions that took place in a sensory universe quite different from our own. We can never quite see through the eyes of another historical period, but we can nevertheless attempt to experience images and buildings from the viewpoint of the particular person or group for whom they were made. This is a way of avoiding the all-seeing, God’s-eye view of the past and, instead, locating vision in a particular time and place.
On entering a great church or cathedral, each medieval visitor would have noticed quite different things, depending upon his or her knowledge and expectations, but many would have followed the model of St. John, as depicted in illustrations of the Book of Revelation, in which the angel urges him to “Look and see!” (fig. 5). Similar to the meandering lines in this drawing are the ribs of the so-called “crazy-vault” at Lincoln cathedral (fig. 6). The pleats of matter in both the manuscript “illumination,” and the vast vault of the church are constructed to lead the eye through a restless path of line, light, and shadow. Unlike the restless, convoluted forms found in earlier, Romanesque pattern-making, however, these forms are based on geometrical principles. Their movement not only conforms to an underlying order, but takes place in a single direction. It has an aim.
Modes of Vision
In the late twelfth century Richard of Saint-Victor (d. 1173), prior of the Parisian abbey of the same name, wrote a commentary on the New Testament Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation, in which he separated “spiritual” from “corporeal” levels of seeing in formulating four distinct modes of vision. Corporeal vision was divided into two levels. The first involved opening one’s eyes to “the figures and colors of visible things in the simple perception of matter.” The second corporeal mode also involved viewing the “outward appearance” of something but, in addition, seeing its “mystical significance.” Seeing one image in terms of another in this way was not peculiar to Gothic art, but it became an increasingly important way in which images were made tools for knowledge. The third level was that of spiritual perception, which, according to Richard of Saint-Victor, meant the discovery of the “truth of hidden things…by means of forms and figures and the similitude of things.” This level best corresponds to the revelation experienced by St. John in the Apocalypse.
These categories were not just theological distinctions. They were directly related to the kinds of images that artists made and that their patrons wanted to see. Kings, queens, bishops, and wealthy churchmen pored over these lavishly illuminated books precisely because they could identify with the evangelist, whose spiritual vision had witnessed God face to face at the end of time.
St. John’s dynamic figure embodies one crucial difference between our current notion of vision and how it was thought to work during the Middle Ages. Whereas we tend to think of vision in passive terms, as the reflection of inverted images upon the retina, medieval people thought of it as a supremely active power. Whether they were scholastic philosophers making diagrams of light rays in their optical treatises, or farmers worried about their cows being bewitched by the “evil eye,” sight was a potent force. Philosophers like Thomas Aquinas and his teacher Albert the Great (c. 1200-80) believed that it was so powerful a sense that it could leave its tactile imprint upon matter. Pregnant women were warned not to look at anything ugly, lest they give birth to a monster. One could literally be infected by a venomous look. Or one could fascinate (which in those days meant to bewitch) one’s enemies through image-magic, a crime of which Pope Boniface VII was accused in 1303. Visions discussed by medieval writers included not only the corporeal ones of everyday sight, or the spiritual ones experienced by St. John, but also the extraordinary appearances of portents, dreams, visitations from the dead, and demonic possession. In a world thick with presences, unseen as well as seen, images of things were far more powerful than they are today.
This vision differs from the usual marvels and monsters of medieval romance, for as the king is going to bed a voice speaks to him: “Evelac, just as the child entered your room the Son of God passed into the Virgin Mary.” The pagan ruler is thus converted to Christianity. The miniature is a representation of the Virgin’s miraculous conception, so often represented in symbolic terms in religious paintings. It suggests that we should not make a rigid distinction between secular and religious experiences. There were not sacred and profane modes of vision in Gothic art, only different degrees by which audiences could be transported to a higher, spiritual realm, through the stepping stones of the senses.
Seeing and Knowing
Aristotle presented a radically different model of perception from that outlined by St. Augustine or the four levels that Richard of Saint-Victor had described. He placed vision at the top of the hierarchy of the five human senses, and emphasized that knowledge could only be obtained through perception of the visible world. For an Aristotelian like Roger Baco, who studied at both Oxford and Paris, “the whole truth of things in the world lies in the literal sense…because nothing is fully intelligible unless it is presented before our eyes.”
How did Gothic images present themselves to people’s eyes? During the Middle Ages there were basically two quite different theories of how the eye grasps an object – extromission and intromission. Extromission viewed the eye as a lamp that sent out fiery visual rays, which literally lighted upon an object and made it visible. This essentially Platonic theory had been most common during the earlier Middle Ages, when it was tied up with popular beliefs, like the malefic powers of the evil eye. There were problems with it. It did not explain why, if our eyes and not something outside them are the source of vision, we cannot see in the dark. Nor could it account for the phenomenon of the afterimage, which lingers long after one has observed a bright object.
The alternative theory, called intromission, reversed the argument: the image, not the eye, sent forth rays. Partly because Aristotle seems to have favored this notion, it was the one ascendant in the thirteenth century, eloquently espoused by experts on the geometrical foundations of optics, who became known as “perspectivists.” Intromission described how the object itself emitted “species” into the air, which were then carried to the eye in straight lines or rays along a visual pyramid whose vertex was the eye and whose base was the thing seen. The eye’s receptive status was often made evident in images of people experiencing visions, where the rays were depicted as flowing from the divine object to the experiencing subject (fig. 10).
John Pecham (c. 1235-92), like Roger Bacon, wrote treatises on optics. For both these scholars the more vision was related to geometry the more reliable it was thought to be. The straight lines of light, at the very center of the visual cone, were considcred more reliable than those rays which were refracted as they passed from one medium to another, and appeared bent, as a stick does when it is placed in water. Pecham was Archbishop of Canterbury, and like many Franciscan scholars he sought to use his scientific knowledge to gain a greater understanding of the Scriptures. He carefully noted the anatomy of the eye (fig. 11), and, following the Arab scholar Alhazen (965~c. 1040), labeled its four layers and three humors.
He emphasized that the power of sight lay in the glacial humor, which he described as like glass, and sensitive to light.
Vision was not completed in the eye, however. One only perceived something when the “species” traveled to the brain, where the internal senses were located. The system of five cells or ventricles, drawn in a Cambridge diagram of the early fourteenth century (fig. 12), presents the scheme of the influential Arab philosopher Avicenna (980-1037). It illustrates how the visible species passed first into the “common sense,” or sensus communis, which apprehended appearances, located at the front of the brain. Next came the cell of imagination, the ymag- inatio vel formalis, which retained these forms; above it, the esti- mativa judged them. Finally, at the back of the head was the storehouse of memory, the vis memorativa with its little flap, the “worm of the cerebellum,” which opened to let the images flow in and out. This was why, it was thought, people trying to recall something often tilted their heads backward, to allow things to flow from the chambers of the imagination into the anterior cell of memory. This diagram shows that medieval people conceived of what we think of as largely psychological processes in very physical and material terms.
The intromission model of vision, coupled with this receptive notion of comprehension, changed not only the way that artists thought they saw, but the images that they made and the ways that people looked at them. For this system gave the object as well as the viewer a dynamic role in perception. It set up a crucial distance between subject and object, seer and seen, which simultaneously “objectified” the thing seen and “personalized” the subject
looking at it. To see something now meant gaining direct knowledge of an object in the external world.
These issues of optical truth and the geometry of visual rays were not totally divorced from artistic practice. They can be seen in a panel painting made for the Dominican church in Pisa representing the triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas (fig. 13). God inspires the saint from above by means of ruled geometric golden lines of light. More lines splice through the shimmering paint to touch the books of Moses, St. Paul, and the four evangelists alongside. Also aiming their open books like ray-guns are Aristotle and Plato, who stand on the lower level, representing Thomas’s debt to classical learning. But there are enemies to be defeated in this battle of the books, like the Arab philosopher Averroes (1126-98), who argued that rational knowledge was superior to faith: he lies defeated below. A single ray of light pierces the heretic’s book as it lies, face downwards, on the ground. Also in this lowest region are groups of laymen and clerics, bathed in the rays of learning that emanate from the open book on the saint’s chest, inscribed with the biblical phrase, “My mouth shall speak truth and wickedness is an abomination to my lips.” This panel is situated halfway between an earlier oral culture and modern visual culture. Although the Dominicans emphasized preaching in the battle against heresy, the word of God is communicated here through visual order. The image has become dogma, and light the sign of learning.