The Medieval Review 17.07.06

Murray, Stephen. Plotting Gothic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. pp. 336. ISBN: 978-0-226-19180-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Jacqueline Jung
Yale University

Ceci n'est pas un livre du Gothique. At the beginning of Stephen Murray's 1997 video The Amiens Trilogy II: Revelation, a black title screen dissolves into a vista of swirling clouds--an angel's eye view of the heavens. "Ceci n'est pas Amiens," a caption informs us. "The images you are about to see are not pictures...but parables intended to ambush reality." As we fly (or fall) down through the parted clouds, we recognize a map, then the pitched roofs of a crowded town, with the great hulk of the cathedral looming up from their midst. Our descent continues through a hole that has opened in its roof, and we plunge, in dreamy slowness, along its huge compound piers until we land in the middle of the labyrinth in the nave. A robed master mason rises from the ground and proceeds to walk in a straight line, mapping the dimensions of the central square that, we soon see, will form the crossing of the cathedral's nave and transept. A line slices diagonally through the plan, and from there the building's layout unfolds. Once the plan is drawn, we witness the building re-materialize, the piers and buttresses surging upward and the vaults sweeping over the top, and we are allowed to float like specters through the completed structure. As Murray explains the technical problems that caused the building to slowly buckle inward at the crossing, we observe what would have happened had later Gothic technicians not added an iron band around the triforium level: the cathedral crashes down around us in a flurry of smashed masonry and beams. Computer graphics then rebuild it, and we soar back up through the vaults and return to our starting point in the heavens.

The video--which, despite (or perhaps because of) its now primitive-looking technology, remains a wonderfully effective teaching tool--purports to be about the historical process of designing and constructing a great cathedral. (You can watch the whole thing here: At the same time, it is also about the problem of representing Gothic architecture. This push and pull between buildings and their representations, the way these ostentatiously enduring structures morph and change as their stories are told over time, is also the subject of Plotting Gothic, Murray's first book, after a trio of tightly focused monographs, to take a broad and synthetic approach to Gothic cathedrals. The book's title and cover offer a condensed glimpse of the layered complexity of Murray's approach. Despite its resonance with the word "plodding," "plotting" here indicates the dynamism of what has elsewhere been called "the Gothic enterprise." [1] As Murray explains in his introduction, the term's meaning is threefold: it can refer to the act of charting a building's groundplan onto a parcel of ground; to the invention of a narrative; and to the secretive concoction of some (often nefarious) action. The cover image shows a tête à tête among a medieval master mason wielding a compass, a clerical advisor holding a scroll, and a knight with a loosely slung sword and a shield--embodiments of the economic, intellectual, and practical forces that undergirded most urban building project in the Middle Ages--as envisioned by Viollet-le-Duc, whose own textual and physical mediations have shaped the way people see Gothic since the late nineteenth century. Arranging his book according to good Gothic numeric principles--three main sections, each subdivided into three chapters--Murray leads us through several Gothic "plots": those of the people who planned and raised the buildings; those of contemporary writers who framed those projects to serve various agendas; and those of the modern interpreters who have drawn on the material and textual sources to create new narratives for their own time. The result is a lively, eccentric book that is at once in thrall to its medieval subjects and deeply skeptical of any efforts to represent them in a cohesive way.

The book's first section, "Three Eyewitnesses of Gothic," introduces us to the individuals who offer the most important contemporary accounts of what they recognized as a new building style: the well-traveled Picard draftsman Villard de Honnecourt; the monastic chronicler Gervase of Canterbury, who wrote an exemplary comparative analysis of the antiquated and rebuilt portions of his local cathedral; and Abbot Suger of St-Denis, who eagerly described and interpreted his own architectural and iconographic interventions in the venerable abbey church. In discrete but interlinked chapters Murray leads us through both what the men's accounts reveal about contemporary perceptions of the architecture--their interest in novelty, grandeur, formal complexity and technical derring-do--and the ways in which the texts' authority is undermined through internal moments of contradiction and confusion or through external pressures and biases. In the process Murray draws us into the historiography of Gothic, showing how the interests and agendas of modern scholars have shaped our understanding of what those medieval men were trying to say.

For all the discursive shaping to which this architecture has always been subject, the characteristics of "Gothic" (a style medieval people called "modern," "Christian," or "French") are nonetheless consistent: daringly tall proportions, pronounced light effects, repetition of motifs, and predilection for pointed arches, rib vaults, and external buttressing systems. The social, material, and economic underpinnings of the building boom of the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries are laid out in the second main section of Murray's book, "Staking Out the Plot." "Plot" here refers to the square matrix that would be mapped, with ropes and stakes, onto the ground where a church was to be built; as Murray showed in his Amiens video (and his 1996 monograph on that building), this square matrix would ultimately generate the entire plan. [2] In the first chapter of this section, Murray uses this matrix as a tool for thinking, mapping out the way each of his interlocutors approached the material fact of the building, its relation to the past, and the meaning he wished it to impart to future readers. In the process the building emerges as both a rhetorical construct and an artifact encompassing past and present, uniting and outliving the writers and their distant readers.

The second chapter of this section (the fifth in the book) moves us onto the solid ground of the medieval building site, where real people, furnished with heavy stone and paid with money and refreshments, stretched ropes along the dirt to form the footprint of the building. In light of the book's careful organization, it is worth noting that this chapter, honing in on the nuts and bolts of building practices, forms the physical center of the volume. It is this lively synthesis of Murray's long-time detective work in the archives and in the buildings that most non-specialist readers will find particularly accessible and illuminating. If the surrounding chapters show the buildings dissolving into language or cracking into a kaleidoscope of unintended meanings, the real heart of "plotting Gothic" (the book and the act) is the hard labor and creative energy of real people, even if, unlike the three famous interlocutors, their names have largely been lost to time.

The following chapter pulls us out of the slime of the earth and, if not quite into the purity of heaven, then into a nonetheless lofty realm of images and associations that Gothic cathedrals have stirred up for later interpreters. These include the Italian Humanists' disparaging connection of Gothic rib-vaults to the interwoven treetops of dark Nordic forests, an idea embraced and expanded by their German counterparts. The connection of architecture and nature was made explicit in late Gothic Germany, as the work of Matt Kavaler has shown, but even in the more sober constructions of thirteenth-century France, the masonry of capitals and friezes tends to burst into bloom. [3] This kind of exuberant spilling-over of art into nature was typically downplayed in the scholarship that discerned in the clarity and order of Gothic design a materialization of Scholastic logic, a current that began well before Panofsky's famous essay. Through their shared formal language, Gothic buildings could summon up associations with other buildings near and far and thus offer people a sense of shared identity in the earthly domain. They could also, through their tall proportions, dazzling light effects, upward-pointing arches, and lucid geometry, evoke the image of heaven itself.

Whether conceived as an embodiment of natural and heavenly virtues, as a picture of human community, or as a visualization of the most orderly forms of thought, the Gothic Cathedral has emerged as a device of wonder, or, as Murray puts it throughout his book's final section ("Animating the Plot"), an object of desire. Here Murray returns to his medieval interlocutors, warning us of the dangers of embedding them in a teleological narrative and urging us to see them instead in the space of cathedrals still in progress--the space of latency and desire. Cathedral-building, he reminds us, was a complex process fraught with contingencies. The structures should not be construed a priori as either emblems of social cohesion or signs of social oppression (as scholars have posited them in the last several decades), but are best investigated as products of local communities' wishes, needs, and interests as they coalesced under particular circumstances.

It is in this last section of the book, with the work of deconstruction accomplished and a fresh groundplan laid out, that Murray erects the scaffolding for a new kind of Gothic construction. He pointedly does not provide a demonstration of the kind of teaching or writing we should be doing; we do not find here the kind of close architectural ekphrases by which earlier scholars such as Jean Bony managed to evoke great buildings in the mind's eye. [4] Nor does Murray let us see much of the buildings with our real eyes: the book includes 35 black-and-white illustrations, of which only six are photographs of Gothic buildings. This in itself is a wry deconstructive move, as Murray's ability to bring these churches to life through the vigor and crispness of his descriptive prose is, for the many Gothic specialists (including the present reviewer) who have attended his classes or heard him lecture, a source of wonder, inspiration, and envy. By inviting readers to imagine the cathedral in its latent state and refusing to describe it as stands now, Murray brings us, too, into a space of desire unfulfilled. As he goes on to suggest, his interlocutors' dream of completeness and harmony as they watched the buildings rise finds a parallel in the desire for cohesiveness people (then as now) experienced when moving through these edifices: in the process of perambulation, one's attention is always fragmented, drawn simultaneously upward into the vaults, eastward toward the apse, and diagonally or sideways into the richly outfitted chapels of the aisles and ambulatories. (Roland Recht's book Believing and Seeing: The Art of Gothic Cathedrals , published in English translation in 2008 by University of Chicago Press, complements Murray's book by dealing with the completed buildings' visual effects.)

In the book's final chapter it is not only the individual edifice that is subject to reconstruction as an object of desire but also the entire teleological narrative that tries to make sense of the extant constructions. He points out the limits of the old model of artistic transmission that posits the Ile-de-France as the starting point of a stylistic epidemic that spreads throughout the thirteenth century, overtaking new buildings from Spain to Scandinavia. The best way to challenge this outdated model, Murray insists, is with new media, the kind of digital mapping project he and his students have undertaken in Mapping Gothic France ( By presenting individual buildings as assemblages of photographs, plans, laser scans, and textual data, and enabling viewers to examine them in any order whatsoever, this project encourages the drawing of new connections and creation of new stories. We can thus all become types of Villard de Honnecourt, confronting far-flung buildings with fresh, if not innocent eyes, and feeling exhilarated in the stories they prompt us to tell.

Rather than being about Gothic architecture per se, then, this book is about the nature of representation and communication in the practice of art history: the way we read and rewrite our sources, our drive to project desire onto our materials. As such it has more to do with Michael Ann Holly's reflections on our discipline's melancholy nature than with traditional surveys of Gothic art. [5] But this book is anything but morose. Anyone who has heard Murray speak about Gothic will be unable to read this book without hearing his graceful English lilt conveying the prose. [6] Striking up a friendly tone with readers--"we" are important subjects throughout--Murray operates like the thirteenth-century preachers he knows so well, zigzagging from colorful exempla to theoretical reflections and back again. [7] Who "we" are, however, is not always clear. Often we are fellow experts in the formal language and historiographic traditions of Gothic architecture who will readily appreciate Murray's wily deconstructions. At other times we seem to be students or lay readers encountering Gothic afresh. The shifting, unstable nature of the target audience makes it difficult to determine how best to use this book. Most of it will fly over the heads of undergraduates, but Gothic specialists may find its deconstructive agenda unstable ground on which to build, though many will surely embrace the plea for a dismantling of grand narratives in favor of micro-histories of individual buildings.

Art historians of a more theoretical bent will likely feel as if the book is a kind of time-travel device, planting us firmly into the literary-theory discourse of the 1990s. The numerous grid-based, arrow-laden diagrams that pepper the text should be accompanied by trigger warnings for those of us whose graduate studies involved heavy doses of Saussure, Lacan, and Derrida, though with some effort one can tease out how they relate to Murray's more lucid and elegant prose. Some of the contemporary metaphors through which Murray illuminates medieval sources are already outdated: today Villard's goofy conglomeration of sketches looks less like a "database," with its promise of scientific totality and objectivity, than like a Tumblr or Pinterest page, a collection of images unified only by the fact that someone saw them, liked them, and felt like sharing them. And does the transformation of a parcel of land into a soaring Gothic edifice, or the movement of a viewer through its luminous vaulted spaces, really resemble the plot of an action movie, as Murray suggests--something that is, behind all its moments of shock and awe, hugely formulaic and predictable?

Maybe it does. After all, if you peel away the flourishes and idiosyncrasies of a Gothic building, and all the contingencies and agendas behind its construction, you wind up with that simple square on the ground. And what this book reveals is that that square matrix is ground zero for the continued study of Gothic architecture. As we saw in the Amiens video, the square is what remains after everything else has been deconstructed, and it is what forms the starting point for any new creation that will arise. Hands on the ground, rope and stone: this is the cathedral that persists beyond all the representations in text, image, and computer graphics. Murray has long been an outspoken champion of digital media, and he does not align himself with the "material turn" in art history, but in a way his eccentric, frustrating, exhilarating book stands as a paean to the enduring value of material artifacts and the human labor that shaped them. Ceci n'est pas un livre du Gothique . But it offers a plea to its readers very much like the one put forward by medieval preachers (quoted at p. 175): venés aus moustier, venés au moustier: come to church, come to church! See the building, move through it, marvel at it, and find Gothic for yourself.

-------- Notes: 1. Robert Scott, The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). 2. Stephen Murray, Notre-Dame, Cathedral of Amiens: The Power of Change in Gothic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). 3. Ethan Matt Kavaler, Renaissance Gothic: Architecture and the Arts in Northern Europe, 1470-1540 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). 4. Jean Bony, French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983). 5. Michael Ann Holly, The Melancholy Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013). 6. See also Murray's appearances on the NOVA documentary Building the Great Cathedrals, made by Providence Pictures, first aired October 19, 2010 on PBS, accessible at 7. Stephen Murray, A Gothic Sermon: Making a Contract with the Mother of God, Saint Mary of Amiens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

Copyright (c) 2017 Jacqueline Jung

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