09.02.03, Recht, Believing and Seeing

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Charlotte A. Stanford

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.003


Recht, Roland. Believing and Seeing: The Art of Gothic Cathedrals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Pp. 376. ISBN: 9780226706061.

Reviewed by:
Charlotte A. Stanford
Brigham Young University

This translation of a complex study by a noted European art historian provides a welcome contribution to the international discussion of Gothic art. Roland Recht, an authoritative scholar on the topic for medieval Alsace, has employed his keen eye and pen in mingling historiography and analysis to explore the phenomenon of Gothic throughout Europe. The late Mary Whittall's lucid translation enables scholars to move past language barriers to explore insights into the transition of spatial treatments and the role of images in the complex system that was the medieval cathedral.

Recht begins his study with a hefty two-chapter assessment of architectural historiography, examining "the sedimented layers of meanings that have accumulated" in the term Gothic since the late nineteenth century (5). The scholarly giants summed up in these fifty- plus pages range from E. E. Viollet-le-Duc to Paul Frankl and mention is given to most of the notable names in Gothic studies up to the post-World War II era. The list is lengthy and the discussion rapid, incorporating as it does Pol Abraham, Henri Focillon, Otto von Simson, Erwin Panofsky, Joseph Sauer, Richard Krautheimer, Hans Jantzen, Hans Sedlmayr, L. F. Salzman, Franz Wickhoff, Alos Riegl, August Schmarsow, Meyer Schapiro, Otto Pcht, and more. If this compendium of Gothic historians, untimely cut off before our current day, is too rushed to be very helpful for non-specialists, it does provide an illuminating glimpse into a European scholar's perspective. The discussion concludes with a terse mention of the "number of monographs [that] appeared during the 1970s and 1980s, dedicated to individual buildings, preeminently French and German ones, but written in many cases by foreign scholars," (30) a telling comment both for the international nature of (and potential tensions between) scholarly traditions. Recht's accompanying acknowledgment, "Nowadays, however, the systematic examination of a building calls for so many skills that it requires the collaboration of architect and architectural historian to bring it to a successful conclusion. We have entered a new phase, that of ever more elaborate "rematerialization" of Gothic architecture" (30) does not, in fact, put a period on the sort of investigation of the Gothic phenomenon attempted by scholars such as Frankl. Rather it prepares the way for his own synthesis of Gothic vision in the pages to come. This implicit claim is indeed monumental, and in the following chapters, particularly chapter four, he does tackle a number of issues familiar in Gothic discourse. These include the thorny concept of the "first" Gothic monument, which title Recht is inclined to award to Sens over St. Denis (117), the role of polychromy in French as well as English buildings (178 ff), and the concept of the "classical" nave elevation solution of Amiens analyzed in contrast to a "truly Gothic" monument such as Bourges (165).

One of Recht's greatest strengths as a scholar in this study is his own connoisseur's eye, especially as he discusses the manipulation of architectural space. These sections are heavy with specialized, but necessary terminology. A case in point is his discussion of the torus moldings on the arch openings of each level of the nave of Sens cathedral, required for explaining how the rich juxtaposition of light and shadow was formed at Sens (119). He expands these observations with material from medieval theological and scientific sources, but Recht does not seek to explain architecture in terms of theology; he argues that the shared commonalities of vision and space in these different forums are parallel, rather than causal, developments.

A major theme of the text is the examination of such parallel commonalities. Chapter three, "The Seen and the Unseen," investigates how medieval theologians conceived of the seen as leading to the unseen: in developing theological stances on the Eucharist, in creating art that could serve as an 'eyewitness' to events (particularly with St. Francis imagery), and in showcasing relics with rock crystal containers. Chapter four, "Architecture and the 'Connoisseurs,'" likewise delves into issues such as the shift of an architect's role from craftsman to designer, in conjunction with time- saving specialization in template design and stone cutting techniques. In chapter five, "The Carved Image and its Functions," Recht explores the enhanced framing of sculptures in the Gothic era (in the form of niches that set individual figures apart) and increasingly elaborate gestures and clothing folds of figures in conjunction with different levels of literacy and the desire for greater 'readability' in images. Chapter six, "Models, Transmissions of Forms and Types, and Working Methods," treats medieval writings on physiognomy in light of the growth of individual differentiation in portrait sculpture.

In keeping with the title, however, the book's main thrust is to examine the cathedral as a mingled system of seeing and belief. The author explores this both in the shaping of space and in the appearance/function of the myriad images showcased therein. This system revolves, Recht argues, around an increasing desire to provide eyewitness proof of the miraculous through depictions of the lives of saints and the mystery of the Host. Each chapter examines one or more aspects of framing that eyewitness experience: the use of ornament (chapter two), the treatment of reliquaries (chapter three), the structuring of church interiors, especially through responds and moldings, lighting and polychromy (chapter four), the setting and employment of sculpture (chapter five), and examining the way in which formal motifs such as drapery panels made up a shared artistic vocabulary (chapter six). The concluding chapter, "The Cathedral as a System of Seeing," knits all of these strands together in a claim that these elements combined to focus the eye into a system of actual (rather than apparent) perspective. The cathedral thus became a space defined by hierarchy and the manipulation of forms to express that hierarchy, conceived in the same spirit as a T-O mappa mundi (312; also 229). Such actual constructed space, framed by the axial cathedral interior, paved the way for the development of illusionistic space in Quattrocento painting (316). This concluding claim is bold and thought provoking, one that deconstructs the preeminence of pure architecture even in a study that takes architectural space as its central point.

Nevertheless, Recht's book must be treated with caution: it is not a general introduction either to cathedrals or ways of seeing. Firstly, knowledge of architectural terminology is essential for following many of his arguments (especially in chapter 4). Secondly, the black and white images are not always of the best quality, and there are many more examples in the text than there are illustrations to demonstrate them. Thirdly, the author raises a number of potentially controversial assertions in passing, often without the benefit of specific footnotes to guide the interested reader further into the issue at hand. There are many more of these than can be dealt with in the space given here. One example that struck this reviewer is his interpretation of opus francigenum as a stonecutting technique rather than the French Gothic style of cathedral building per se, a comment dropped almost casually in passing (166). The lack of citation is a barrier to any scholar seeking to pinpoint sources for further investigation, and the end of chapter bibliographies are not a substitute for full critical notes. Helpfully, however, the English bibliography has made an effort to provide references to English translations of works cited originally in other languages. Indeed, we owe thanks to the diligence of Mary Whittall and those who saw her translation project posthumously completed and enhanced, for what is ultimately, despite its weaknesses, an intriguing study of Gothic accompanied by investigation of many critical questions in the discipline, written by an observant and thoughtful scholar and now made easily accessible to the English-speaking world.

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Charlotte A. Stanford

Brigham Young University