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Gothic Genius

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Medieval Art - An Introduction

At the beginning of the third millennium, our ideas about the Middle Ages are more sophisticated. Although generations of schoolchildren still equate the Middle Ages with the Dark Ages (6th century), the neo-gothic Romantic filter is a dim memory, and "dungeons and dragons" have found their place in computer games. Instead, we now know that the Carolingian renaissance is a forerunner of European Union, that the Romanesque period developed the first truly indigenous pan-European style and that the great Gothic cathedrals are, looking back on these two millenia, Western Europe's most imposing and enduring monuments to date. In dealing with works from this latter period I have seen more than one person feeling inspired by them without knowing why. One thought because in comparison to these markedly original works, the academic resuscitation of obscure Greek legends and motifs from the later Renaissance to the 19th century began to seem contrived, if not decadent. Another because after centuries of destruction and deconstruction the figure of Christ as well as His Mother, the two most common subjects in medieval art, now appear as remote yet compelling as a Buddha.

Gothic Genius

There are various views about the time-span occupied by "gothic" art, a term which first took its meaning, in a negative manner, from the Italian humanists who dismissed it as the barbaric interval between the antique (classical) and its revaluation in the Renaissance. Today, we use the term as an art historical distinction of style between this latter and what preceded it, the Romanesque. The agreed time is roughly from 1150 to the end of the 15th century. Within this span there is a further distinction which Panofsky [1] summarised as Early, High and Late, or, in the architectural terminology which is the foundation for stylistic classification, as Early, Radiant and Flamboyant. Precisely because it is an architectural distinction defined by the use of the ogive arch one must be wary of applying "gothic" to other disciplines, - sculpture, painting, - which show much greater diversity within this time frame. However, by 1400, its success, and the patronage of the likes of Jean Duke of Berry and Gian-Galeazzo Visconti, has enabled art historians to speak of "International Gothic". Of course, the gothic period found different forms of expression in different countries at different times, lasting much longer in England and Spain for example, even into the early 16th century, than in Italy, and subsequently France, where the renaissance took root in the 15th century.

Gothic art first appeared at a time of economic and intellectual expansion in the 12th century, and flowered in the 13th, when knowledge began to be organised and totalised into logical Summa, and not just loosely compiled into encyclopaedias. It is a commonplace to say that the works of St Thomas Aquinas, Dante's Divine Comedy, but also Cathedrals were constructions drawing on all the science available at the time [2] .

Though the Middle Ages had as many indifferent artists as any period, it is worthwhile investigating the singular beauty of many of the surviving pieces. Abbot Suger's enthusiastic ambitions for his new St Denis and St Bernard's condemnation of the morally ambiguous beauty of Romanesque capitals are the two most frequently cited sources concerning the notion of an aesthetic sentiment or programme in the Middle Ages. Of course, as Jean Wirth has pointed out [3] this masks the fact that there was no discourse on Art at the time (this being a 19th century invention). "Artistic" activity was ranged under the "Artes Mechanicae" like engineering or surgery.

Paradoxically, we in turn value these works precisely because they predate the invention of printing, and all the other forms of "mechanical" reproduction that followed in its wake. Thus we endeavour to distinguish the slavish copy from the one where artisan or scribe has put something of himself in it, while remembering that most artists worked from copies, without shame, moreover, as only God was deemed able to "create". To take a pertinent example, neo-gothic work of the 19th century is often an embarrassing copy if not a downright fake, whereas Art Nouveau is a refreshing translation or reinvention in a new idiom of medieval decorative principles.

The second paradox is that we rarely have a signature from a medieval work, yet because every single one is made by hand, there is always a trace of this hand (and hence the mind) on the object it fashioned. This establishes the relation of communication between two individuals, - any one of us and the original artist -, which is indispensable for the enjoyment of what we call a work of art. It also challenges us into scrutinising the collection of traits, the singularities of a "hand", that make up a style and are the true signature of a work.

Hence the third paradox: that we rarely have an "artist" as such with a name. Scholars instead say "Master.of the St Ursula Legend", or "Boucicaut Master", thereby following the medieval appellation (retained in Magister Artium) of a Master in his workshop with pupils. In fact, as a trade which was to be organised into Guilds, across a range of materials, these artists were called "Ymagiers", and the Prevot of Paris in 1254, Etienne Boileau, listed a 101 corporations involved in image-making. Any Ymagier could, and often did, work in more than one medium, illumination and glass painting for example.

Moralised Art

There was no discipline called aesthetics nor was there a notion of "art for art's sake", yet artistic practice rested on the most solid of foundations, that is, structural rather than "decorative" ones. From St Augustine onwards, most scholars commented on the sentence from the Book of Wisdom (11,12) that God "ordered all things according to measure, number and weight". In this question of the mathematical basis of beauty, the middle ages was perfectly in tune with the ancients well before the Renaissance. They drew on Boethius who had consolidated the Pythagorean principle of beauty, as a relation of harmony or consonance between the parts and the whole. When Vitruvius (who was quoted by Vincent de Beauvais in the 13th century) said that the "decor of a temple only appeared when the form was consistent with the idea of the divinity to which it was dedicated and which it recalled symbolically", he could have had a cathedral in mind.

The structure or order uncovered in "all things" also covered the content and was based on two general presuppositions. The first was that all of Nature was beautiful because it was made by one Creator. The second was that this nature had to be moralised. These underpin most artistic expression in the gothic middle ages. The two together make up the remarkably joyous nature of medieval art which de Bruyne called "aesthetic optimism". Nature was seen as the thought of God [4] hence nothing in nature was extraneous to God. All of life was beautiful. St Augustine, in his commentary on the phrase from Wisdom, shows that even worms, because they have measure, number and weight, have a place. Secondly, as man was made in God's image, nothing was more beautiful, after God, than what resembled God most: man. However, as man was given stewardship over nature he had, and still has, to make choices with respect to it. This inescapable moral dimension of our existence was given a particular focus in the middle ages. The optimism of the time saw this relation as oriented in a particular direction: salvation. Since St Paul, the idea of salvation had given rise to a whole new doctrinal programme: drawing out correspondences between the Old and the New Testaments, in such a way that the one could be shown to prefigure the other. This relation also came to be defined as the literal (historical) sense and its moral counterpart. This is the basis of medieval symbolism as of allegory. It is most clearly embodied in the proliferation of medieval texts beginning "Speculum.". Everything in this world could be read as a mirror image of something else and correspondingly any image made by an artist had two levels of meaning. One of the most beautiful products of this way of seeing is the "Moralised Bible" of c. 1220 in which the links between Old and New testaments are shown in parallel rows of miniatures [5] .

It is a relation which extended to the whole of creation. This is what was meant by the moralising of that other Book of God's called Nature [6] . It is no more than what we have rediscovered today as the fact that man affects all of nature as a matter of course, whether for good or ill. Ugly, therefore, was only what did not share in salvation, whatever refused the form-giving power of the second figure of the Trinity, the Word. The symbol of that optimism, which has become a stylistic trait so common as to go unremarked, is embodied in the numerous dragons and lions subjected to the power of the Word, especially in manuscript illumination [7] .

Just as it values structure over decoration, Medieval art deals with substance (in the scholastic sense as something credited with existence) rather than appearance; yet paradoxically, as with Plato, the invisible was given more being than what was perceived by the senses. When Emile Male said medieval art was eminently symbolic he meant that it centred on a symbolic system in which the visible pointed to the spiritual and where standard figures, Saints with their attributes for example, were embodiments of values.

More than music and geometry, Boethius conveyed the central importance of the Word as the medium of eternity. As important a bridge between antiquity and the Middle Ages was pseudo-Denys the Aeropagite [8] . Instead of Logos, however, pseudo-Denys elevated Light to the status of divine principle, a medium in which one could pass from the material to the intelligible or spiritual. These two founding fathers of the Middle Ages (their texts would be commented on, together with Aristotle, for nearly a thousand years) really laid the audio-visual foundation for its art.


In this art, it is the question of the relation between material, light and spirit, which is particularly fascinating. It is not, however, obvious.

One barrier to the appreciation of medieval art is that, like most art from so-called "primitive" cultures, some of the objects had a liturgical or "ritual" function. This fact alone should lessen the surprise of the paradox that "art" today is often referred to as a Religion even when it pursues the most profane of subjects. In other words, a lot of art shares a space with what we sometimes call the "sacred". Moreover, the way "art" is displayed today, on bare white walls where nothing is allowed to distract the viewer, shows that it aims to create an experience which is out of the ordinary. That we go as much to Art galleries as to Church on a Sunday inherently confirms the obvious: that art involves what is called "spirit". St Paul and St Augustine elaborated a dialectic between letter and spirit which we still unconsciously refer to. Let us just say, with contemporary thought, that where there is language there is spirit or mind. Like Crusoe finding a sign of life in Friday's footprint, it is evidence that we are not alone in the world. What makes us pause in front of a work of art, and it does not need to be a reaction of shock or disgust, far from it, is the trace of intelligence. It is possible to state as fact that a work without the spark of spirit is a dead letter.

The medium of this spirit for many medievals was light. St Ambrose, for example, said: "Light is the purest essence there is, the most sublime beauty, the thing whose presence engenders most joy". Abbot Suger described the choir of his great project of St Denis as "bathed in a new light". Secondly, the incarnation of light in the material world was colour. This presents a second difficulty for our appreciation because in most cases, excepting manuscripts, which have lain closed for centuries, this world of colour has been lost to us. On bronze, wood, ivory and stone we still have patina, and terms like lustre, sheen, even brilliance, are all relevant. We also still have gold, lots of it, on reliquaries and the one that was meant to symbolise a light glowing from within rather than as a reflection, the burnished gold of illumination, which seems to do exactly that. The double meaning of the term illumination is not accidental.

But what we have lost was brought home only some months ago when the West portal of Amiens Cathedral was "re-polychromed" by means of lasers, drawing gasps from the crowd.

After the goldsmiths, polychromers were some of the most respected and highest paid artisans. Even the intellectuals referred to it. Albertus Magnus divided an object into material, form and colour, the latter, "polychromy", being its crowning glory. In fact, St Bonaventure, as also Thomas of Citeaux and William of Auvergne, compared the soul itself to a polychromed sculpture [9] "sculpted in creation, coloured in passion and irradiated [lit] in glory". Correspondingly, the skin or complexion was most appreciated, not only as something beautiful (when it was midway between red and white) but as something good: it was the index of bodily health. St Augustine, when he spoke of "omnis pulchrito est partium congruentia cum quadam suavitate coloris" [10] laid the foundation for the medieval pursuit of this "suave colour".

It also shows that the medievals were perfectly aware of what science distinguishes as the two components of visual experience: figure and colour, or more basically, line (Geometry, sense of space) and light (tonality, colour). They had, moreover, a great sensitivity to materials. Within the apparently simplistic division of the categories of existence into mineral, vegetal, animal and rational, there was a "moralised" respect for the properties of each. Hence only certain types of blue pigment like lapis lazuli was pure (and expensive) enough to depict the Virgin. In contrast to the 20th century, where artists began to specialise, following the new analytic rigour of academic criticism, - one focusing on light only, another on form, a third on colour, then just texture, or a concept or simply likeness itself, - the medieval artist very much remained focused on the subject, rather than the material or the technique.

In other words, where modern art is analytical in the chemical sense of isolating (abstracting) a particular element (colour, form, etc.), medieval art used all available elements to represent a specific vision. Insofar as this vision sought to establish the relation between God, nature and man, it has been called by historians, precisely with respect to the 13th century, "Synthetic". The aesthetic challenge of the time was to reconcile line and light, proportion and colour, Boethius and pseudo-Denys. It is interesting to note that in modern times only one artist has made paintings reconciling line and colour in their simplest and purest form: Mondrian.

Beau Sire Dieu

Perhaps the main difficulty for our appreciation is understanding something of the subject of medieval art and thereby its style. Again, modern art seems simple in this respect, because its chief subjects are straightforwardly secular, "woman" and "death". And, of course, what links them, money. This is best seen in the (commercial) success of those artists who have profoundly understood these themes, Picasso and De Kooning for the one, Warhol and Hirst for the other. Medieval art, Christian from its beginning, had as subject, especially in its beginning, the triumph over death, with and without the mediation of a woman. From the theme of God's protection of His own (Daniel in the lion's den in catacombs), to Christ as Salvator Mundi (Tympani of early cathedrals), it movingly unites the themes of Christ's birth and death in images of the Virgin & Child .

It is not that there were no secular subjects in medieval art; after all, we still cling today to a notion of "romantic" love derived from courtly love and the Arthurian "romances". Paradoxically, we have had to wait for the 1960s to be able to represent sex and death as frankly as then. Yet secular literature borrowed freely from the more subjective, if not erotic, relation of man to God propagated by various commentators. St Bernard on the Song of Songs, the most studied of Biblical texts after the Psalms, was an influential example. The subject of medieval art is love in all its forms.

Jacques Lacan, modifying a saying of Buffon, said: "Style is the man - to whom one addresses oneself" [11] . If the history of Art is often a question of grouping styles, the Middle Ages forms a unity insofar as many works are addressed to the same person, the difficulty being that this person is called God. What is striking, at least in the prayers one often finds added to Psalters and Books of Hours, is the way this God is addressed: Beau Sire Dieu. This is an odd term, until one remembers that Beau was but rarely distinguished from Bien, and then only to show their convergence. The most famous surviving artistic example is the Beau Dieu on the West portal of Amiens cathedral. The one Biblical text from which the medieval approach to beauty derives as no other, the Psalms, make this clearer. Psalm 103. 1: "Confessionem et decorem induisti, amictus lumine sicut vestimento", that is, God is "clothed" in glory and splendour. Psalm 44: "you are beautiful and your form surpasses that of the sons of man".

It is one striking detail of medieval art that splendour and form, the line and the light converged especially on clothing. In painting as well as sculpture the attention to details of drapery, in form as well as texture, remains unsurpassed.

Insofar as beauty was defined as indivisible and identical to itself, and insofar as this definition applied both to light and to God, it was easy to equate all three, literally, for one anonymous commentator, metaphorically for St Bonaventure.

One could summarise the medieval love of light with a quote from its greatest exponent, Ulric of Strasbourg. St Thomas had likened, in a very modern manner, the intellect to a light, a lamp with which to grasp something of the universe. Ulric, who, together with Thomas was a disciple of Albert the Great in Paris where they had both heard this latter lecture on the "Divine Names" of pseudo-Denys, refined on this. After discussing that light was not only the external cause of the appearance of things, but their formal cause, that is, "the very substance of beauty", he defined an interior light called Spirit or Mind. "Everything bears a trace of the Spirit. It is this reflection of the spirit, pure light and infinite diffusion, which makes its charm and beauty." [12]

It is this enduring trace, this reflection of spirit, this glimmer of light, which is pursued in the fragments offered here.

[1] 1951 To top
[2] Mâle, Panofski, Focillon
[3] 1989
[4] Focillon p. 502
[5] Vienna library
[6] Alain de Lille, Vincent of Beauvais
[7] Psalm 91:13 "Thou shalt tread upon the adder and the basilisk and trample underfoot the lion and the dragon"
[8] Supposedly Vth century
[9] serm. De Tempore IX, 449
[10] Enarratio Psalmos. 3, in Migne, P.L. 33,65.
[11] Lacan, Ecrits, Paris 1966
[12] De Pulchro
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