November 30, 2012

Notes on Gothic architecture

I've spent the better part of this semester dealing with a constant influx of tedious, technically demanding assignments. Rather than academic writing, it's been a lot of drawing, painting, cutting, and pasting. As part of my design program, I was also required to take a design history course with a more familiar workload: a term paper of 1000-1200 words, as well as the usual midterm and final exam. I've found the course agonizing, not only because it involves a weekly three hour lecture, but because its approach is crudely reductive and often misguided. I just finished writing my term paper and, despite the limitations of a first year research paper, I did enjoy writing something short and concise. Considering that my last written assignment was a 45000 word thesis, it was a bit of challenge reigning in my subject and not following all the tangents that arose as I was writing.

The paper is bland so I won't post much of it here, but some of my sources proved rewarding in the end. Most of all, it was Roland Recht's recently translated book, Believing and Seeing: The Art of Gothic Cathedrals (The University of Chicago Press), that gave the best analysis of my subject. I decided to write on the architecture of Gothic cathedrals; more specifically, I gave a brief analysis of the reconstruction of Canterbury cathedral in the later part of the 12th century, right around the time of Thomas Becket's dispute with Henry II and the archbishop's subsequent martyrdom/veneration. Recht's book argues that Gothic cathedrals supported an emerging appetite for images that made visible the signs of scripture: "Metalworkers, for example, fashioned intricate monstrances and reliquaries for the presentation of sacred articles, and technical advances in stained glass production allowed for more expressive renderings of holy objects." Recht reads this growing emphasis on the visual alongside developments in the theory of optics, the elevation of the divine Host in the ceremony of the Eucharist, the increasing influence of tradesmen and their consolidation into a pivotal class.

I started out hoping to use some of John Ruskin's writing on Gothic cathedrals to frame my argument, but I wasn't all that surprised when Ruskin's sweeping projections weren't of much use. Reading through parts of The Stones of Venice again after almost a decade, I was struck by the bizarre dynamic he sets up between architecture, labour, and history.
Whenever the workman is utterly enslaved, the parts of the building must of course be absolutely like each other; for the perfection of his execution can only be reached by exercising him in doing one thing, and giving him nothing else to do. The degree in which the workman is degraded may thus be known at a glance, by observing whether the several parts of the building are similar or not; . . . if, as in Gothic work, there is perpetual change both in design and execution, the workman must have been altogether set free. (93)
This positive view of human labour, which arises from Ruskin's deeply Christian humanism, is nothing surprising. It's fairly well-known that his valourization of medieval Europe had less to do with historical conditions than it did with specifically Victorian concerns over crises of faith, the brutal working conditions of English factories, and profound confidence in scientific progress. But when you actually look at the way most Gothic cathedrals were built, their stylistic incongruities had little to do with the unique wills of their workmen or a space of freedom in which to pursue their individual desires. Ruskin's affirmation of the workman's freedom has more to do with the fact each individual will was reigned in by the humbling framework of Christianity. In the case of Canterbury, for example, the addition of the Gothic style to an already existing Romanesque foundation occurred because a French architect was charged with rebuilding a choir that had been damaged in a fire; five years into the project William of Sens fell off a scaffold and the project was given over to an Englishman. Further changes can be traced back to the political disputes between the Catholic church and the English crown, not unlike the conflicts that led unsanctioned murder of Thomas Becket. It should also be remembered that these buildings took decades (or longer) to finish, which doesn't really allow for the kind of flippancy Ruskin ascribes to their planning. At the same time, Ruskin's interpretation of Gothic architecture does do us the service of distancing the medieval imagination from the formal limitations of our own:
And it is one of the chief virtues of the Gothic builders, that they never suffered ideas outside symmetries and consistencies of what they did. If they wanted a window, they opened one; a room, they added one; a buttress, they build one; utterly regardless of any established conventionalities of external appearance, knowing (as indeed it always happened) that such daring interruptions of the formal plan would rather give additional interest to its symmetry than injure it. So that, in the best times of Gothic, a useless window would rather have been opened in an unexpected place for the sake of surprise, than a useful one forbidden for the sake of symmetry. Every successive architect, employed upon a great work, built the pieces he added in his own way, utterly regardless of the style adopted by his predecessors; and if two towers were raised in nominal correspondence at the sides of a cathedral front, one was nearly sure to be different from the other, and in each the style at the top to be different from the style at the bottom" (Ruskin 98).
For Ruskin, such irrationality reflected human conditions of understanding and fallenness; like a good Augustinian, Ruskin believed that such epic inconsistencies actually glorified God and avoided the pitfalls of idolatry and hubris. Yet it's hard to imagine the medieval workman as a free individual, or as someone whose daily toil was actually dignified and ennobling, unless such work is read through a nostalgic lens that privileges a theological structure (for its own sake) over a social and economic one.

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