James Alexander Cameron on Stephen Murray’s Plotting Gothic and Jonathan Foyle’s Lincoln Cathedral
“Gothic.” Originally coined as a term of exclusion — things of the barbarian Goths, not of the Roman Renaissance — today can elicit a plethora of popular notions, ranging from vampires to post-punk youth subculture. To uncover authentic foundations for the great pointed-arch style which united the artistic production of medieval Christian Europe, scholars dig endlessly through the historiographic topsoil, themselves piling up mounds of their own judgments and interpretations. In Plotting Gothic, Stephen Murray, a prodigious author of intense studies of French cathedrals, abandons discussions of building breaks and dating evidence to get to the sources of the Gothic, much in the manner of Paul Frankl’s 1960 The Gothic. He realizes the folly of “letting the building speak for itself”: no building has a voice unless it is given one by a human interpreter, be it an over-eager cathedral volunteer or a medieval theologian. Therefore three witnesses to the early days of Gothic are called to the stand: Villard de Honnecourt, the self-identified author of a pictorial treatise on Gothic art and architecture preserved in the Bibliothèque National in Paris; Gervase of Canterbury, a monk who offers an account of the rebuilding of his cathedral after a great fire in the 1170s and 80s; and Abbot Suger of St Denis, who made significant record of his contributions to the administration, construction and construction of his revamped abbey church to the north of Paris. All might be familiar suspects, but nevertheless have extraordinary testimonies to recount regarding the forms, material, and meaning of Gothic.
Villard’s unique notes on his Gothic world belie his status as an amateur. It has long been noted that his drawings of buildings betray his incompetence regarding architectural mechanics, particularly flying buttresses. Villard was almost certainly no master mason. Instead, Murray shows him to be a kindred spirit with the modern art historian: a fellow keen to explain, to point out, to collect and assign meaning to objects. Gervase of Canterbury’s unique year-by-year account of which column went up when seems almost too perfect for some. Peter Kidson suspected monastic arson: Thomas Becket’s cult was just taking off and there was also a plot afoot to move the archbishop’s seat away from Canterbury, so a new, stylish, and expansive east end was highly desirable for the monastery. Conspiracy aside, Gervase still emerges as the cool, calm logistics man: capable of covering up endless “agile” decisions with a linear plot of misleadingly inevitability. Abbot Suger is also a controversial figure in modern scholarship; the famous thesis of Erwin Panofsky that his theology was directly causal of the creation of Gothic architecture has been gradually demolished by skeptics. Yet this churchman remains vital in the creation of the meaning of Gothic: manipulating perception of forms through his engaging rhetoric. The “plot” of the title is a graphical rendition of the synchronic intersection of these witnesses against the Gothic monument. A medievalist may initially sneer at Murray’s choice of cover illustration as bit of Romantic clip-art. However, the frontispiece of Violett-le-Duc’s Dictionnaire Raisonné serves as a more attractive visualization of the three witnesses’ Gothic plotting: artistic production; financial assistance and logistics; and the Church’s demands on symbolic connotations.
It is the production of meaning, rather than the means of production, which takes up the most pages in this tome. In a rich discussion of historiographical literature Murray lucidly explains Gothic as a phenomenon simultaneously natural (abundant arboreal allusions); historicist (appropriation of earlier Merovingian forms in the columns at St Denis), and modernist (the pointed arch as an indexical sign of a break with the past). Murray’s plot offers thought-provoking perspectives on how this style spread and engrained itself so deeply in the culture of Christian Europe. Its initial propagation was a result of certain forms — pointed arches and rib vaults — becoming objects of desire for ambitious prelates. Its spread was facilitated by episodes such as that recorded at Canterbury: masons carrying new forms and techniques abroad, and a delight in their modernity and rhetorical potential by churchmen. But it is Villard who is perhaps the most crucial witness for the spread of Gothic beyond the Cathedral: into the parish church, the imagined worlds of painting, and ephemeral material culture. As a compulsive looker, collector, disseminator, and reinterpreter, this enigmatic artist represents the propagation of forms by a decentralized force, leading to the Gothic becoming essential language for medieval visual invention. The final outcome of this plot is that meanings are not fixed to the object, but that perspective is everything: good news for art historians.
At one point, Murray briefly calls a fourth to the Gothic witness box: the author of the Metrical Life of St Hugh. This writer — often thought to be identified as Henry of Avranches — dedicated a sizeable section of his hagiography to the saint’s work on his Cathedral: the subject of Jonathan Foyle’s Lincoln Cathedral: The Biography of a Great Building. In distinction to the handsome, yet sparsely illustrated Plotting Gothic (for which to remedy, Murray suggests a visit to mappinggothic.com), Foyle’s book is typical of a Scala publication with its near square-page format and lavish color images throughout. The Metrical Life is much less cited than Suger or Gervase in art-historical literature: much of it relies of stock classical topoi of inexpressibility of scale and beauty. Some of its imagery — such as the high vault which not only converses with birds, but spreads wings like them — however, is quite appropriate to the extraordinary building that serves as the writer’s inspiration. Unlike France, England lacks a tradition of the modern cathedral monograph. With the occasional exception aside, like Ute Engel’s Worcester Cathedral: An Architectural History, the majority of scholarly discussion is bound up either inside the British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions (beginning in 1978, visiting a different site each year) or larger, discursive publications, such as Paul Binski’s Becket’s Crown or Peter Draper’s The Formation of English Gothic. Therefore Foyle’s book stands as an accessible frontispiece to these studies that might be inaccessible for a general reader wishing to learn about Lincoln Cathedral.
And learn about Lincoln Cathedral one should, for it is not just any great building, but one with a claim to being the finest example of English Gothic architecture. As Murray shows, although Canterbury was the first English cathedral to use Gothic (Wells has a claim to equal first place, although much less survives of its original east end), it is ultimately a rather indecisive, if very pleasing mix of the French manner with Anglo-Norman Romanesque decorative gusto. Lincoln however — the majority of which is the result of a Gothic plot begun after an earthquake in 1185 that brought down the retro-fitted stone vaults of an early Norman Cathedral — has been suggested by Draper as the earliest pure essay in what would come to be known as Early English Gothic (“E.E.”). Foyle, as the building’s interlocutor, assumes the rhetoric of human biography. He begins with its Anglo-Saxon ancestors (although Lincoln was a Roman settlement of some importance, the status of the predecessor of the Cathedral is unclear until the Norman invaders re-established the See), its birth as one of the triumphal monuments of the new regime, and then into its glorious Gothic youth with St Hugh’s titular choir. With his background in architectural design as well as interpretation, Foyle has literally explored his subject. His photograph of the half-finished vault inside the north-east transept is a striking illustration of the abandonment of flanking towers. There are points that decorative system of E.E. went a bit askew: Foyle notes the curious way that the inventive syncopated dado arcades that encircle the choir terminate, and the bewilderingly eccentric (and, frankly, quite comical) bent arches on the galilee porch off the south transept are visible in an illustration. Although Foyle reserves his highest praise for the nave of the 1230s and ‘40s as representing the maturity of the system established in St Hugh’s Choir; one could also see it as the builders simplifying the scheme in order to finish the building before anything else fell down (the central tower took a tumble in 1237). Regardless, Foyle does not shy away from illustrating how the nave had to veer north in its final bay to connect with the Norman west front with a photograph taken from the top of the crossing tower. His account of the Angel Choir — the extension of 1256-80 built to house the shrine of the newly-canonized Bishop Hugh — focussing largely on its astonishingly rich schemes of architectural sculpture and imagery, starts to bring to a close the building’s active history. Its prime — a new central tower and pulpitum in the busy fourteenth-century Decorated Style — give way to the ultimate mid-life crisis: the catastrophic English Reformation. It now hobbles into seniority, to be admired and cared for. There ends this tale of a great building: no doubt there are many more stories to be extracted from the venerable remains of English churches by those keen to explain the skeins of the Gothic plot.