Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Spirit of Gothic

Salisbury Cathedral
I have always adored Gothic architecture. From the high Gothic forms of the great medieval cathedrals to the vernacular examples of the Tudor, Jacobean and the Arts & Crafts periods. However, for many years it was a mystery to me as to why. It certainly lacks the regularity, the order of Classical architecture to which it at the same time seems indebted. During the Enlightenment a view would develop that Gothic was simply a derivative work, poor copies in a Dark Age from a brutish understanding of the ruined glories of Rome. Gothic became a term of unmitigated contempt.

Despite being indoctrinated in this history, my love for the Gothic never wavered. Why love an architecture at all? I recall from my childhood the 2nd commandment from Moses: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them." Yet here I am, myself a maker of graven images, also an adorer of the work of the hands of men. And I've determined the source of my adoration! A sympathetic act of communication across place and time from one human being to another. The Gothic in its essence is a highly humanistic architecture, I would contend the most human architecture ever conceived.

In the 19th century author, artist, naturalist John Ruskin wrote a book entitled "The Stones of Venice" in which he devoted an entire chapter to "The Nature of Gothic". He described Gothic first in terms of its internal nature, the moral characteristic, the mental expression, the source of its power that he simply describes as its Spirit. Ruskin further elaborated on the external identifying physical features, what he describes as the Forms of Gothic. Let's consider the former, 6 of these moral elements that constitute the Spirit of Gothic.



Rouen Cathedral
Ruskin contends that the origin of the term "Gothic" had little to do with any Gothic lineage but rather wholly conceived to express the barbaric character of the nations among whom the architecture arose, "a perpetual reflection of the Goth and the Roman at their first encounter." And so it is that while Renaissance architecture and the Greek and Roman architecture before it were works of order, reason and repose, the Gothic by contrast is savage and wild. This characteristic acknowledged, is it a motivation for reproach or for reverence? The allowance of imperfection, the acknowledgement of mortality and the rough hewn work of man endows a dignity, solemnity and honorableness all its own.



Rouen Cathedral
"Wherever the workman is utterly enslaved, the parts of the building must of course be absolutely like each other...the degree in which the workman is degraded may be thus known at a glance." I don't have to wonder what Ruskin would think of contemporary architectural practice, where the design process is entirely segregated from construction and workers are held to machine like tolerances from dictated, theoretical designs. Under such conditions, for a modern workman to be satisfied in his work he must be a complete dullard, incapable of independent thought, only monotonous obedience.

Order of course is vital. I would go so far as to say that love of order is a foundation for good architecture. But Ruskin was quite correct in stating, "Do not let us suppose that love of order is love of art. It is true that order, in its highest sense, is one of the necessities of art, just as time is a necessity of music; but love of order has no more to do with our right enjoyment of architecture or painting, than love of punctuality with the appreciation of an opera." There is a certain pleasure in the symmetry of a building, it can provide a rhythm just like melody; however, just as a pleasant rhythm can transform into a beautiful song with changes in verse, a building can tell a compelling story with a bit of variety. "Great art whether expressing itself in words, colors, or stones, does not say the same thing over and over again."



The Gothic period is the culmination of a progression most notably from the Byzantine then Romanesque traditions. As such it inherited the conventionalized system of ornamentation from these same traditions. However, there is a strong tendency in the Gothic to forego stylization in favor of veracity and vitality. This love of nature prevails over the idealized sense of beauty that the conventionalized forms attempted to capture, taking delight in the actual beauty nature has to offer even in imperfection. Ruskin noted how this naturalistic morality extended to human portraiture by "not exalting its kings into demi-gods, nor its saints into archangels, but giving what kingliness and sanctity was in them, to the full, mixed with due record of their faults." 

Palazzo Ducale



The Lincoln Imp
There is no shortage of the grotesque in Gothic architecture. It often appears hidden in the nooks and crannies, a bit of playful conversation that the masons had amongst themselves, perhaps anticipating the surprise to be discovered by the careful observer. In many examples monstrous images are a point of contrast and focus, intended to pass on an allegory, an instructional or warning example. These subtle reminders were understood by the collective understanding of the society at the time the cathedrals were built. What differentiates the Gothic from other grotesque is that they are never intended as simple decoration, devoid of meaning. The discovery of the little monsters and divining their meaning is one of the most pleasurable aspects of visiting a grand cathedral.



Beauvais Cathedral
What is that peculiar character that makes lighting forked rather than curved, the limbs of the oak angular rather than bending? Resistance, the dynamic contra-position of force. This too distinctively characterizes the Gothic. Whereas Egyptian, Greek, Roman architecture and their later derivatives are typified by a static, superimposed system of post and beam or arch, the Gothic is marked by tension, opposition and the exposed, articulation of force from one member to another. It is this wild, defiant, obstinate spirit that pushed the cathedrals heavenward, opened up the walls and let in the light.



By generosity I mean an accumulation of ornament. That may sound strange in a world stripped of ornamentation, a modernist world that has aesthetically cleansed every form of enrichment in the name of good taste. I suppose the thinking is that a bland meal offends no one. I quite agree with Ruskin's sentiment regarding "clean" architecture, "No architecture is so haughty as that which is simple; which refuses to address the eye, except in a few clear and forceful lines; which implies, in offering so little to our regards, that all it has offered is perfect; and disdains, either by the complexity or attractiveness of its features, to embarrass our investigation, or betray us into delight."

Notre-Dame de Paris

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Contributed by Patrick Webb


  1. Patrick,
    A great quote from Ruskin on the plight of our modern artisan brethren.


  2. Loved the quotes, and very well written

  3. Thank you for this excellent essay.

  4. It was such a pleasant topic to write about. Thanks for the kind words everyone!

  5. Thanks for this post, Patrick. I have always loved Gothis as well. Something about the mystery, the ancient feeling. Even though it is a more recent style than classical Greek and Roman architecture, yet it feels somehow older, more elemental. And in the later Gothic cathedrals (and parish churches as well) there is a soaring, ecstatic upward thrust, lifting our eyes and hearts towards heaven. It does seem to me a more fitting setting for worship (in the natural) than the more orderly, more earthly oriented classical buildings. In the spiritual sense, however, one can worship anywhere, so any place that is uplifting in feeling works well for me.