20.01.04 Glaser, The Idea of the Gothic Cathedral

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Elizabeth Carson Pastan

The Medieval Review 20.01.04

Glaser, Stephanie A., ed. The Idea of the Gothic Cathedral. Ritus et Artes. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols , 2018. pp. 393. ISBN: 978-2-503-56813-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Carson Pastan
Emory University

Medievalism--which may be briefly defined as the investigation of the reception of the Middle Ages in later periods--has emerged over the last several decades as a field in its own right. This anthology is a testament to the strength of this burgeoning and multidisciplinary field. What might have once been a later chapter in a monograph devoted to a given medieval monument, in The Idea of the Gothic Cathedral has become an exploration that focuses on later perspectives towards and appropriations of Gothic monuments in a sustained way. For example, Emile Mâle’s famous statement enunciated in his monograph L’Art religieux du XIIIeen France (1898) that the art of the thirteenth century is “frozen music” might be understood within the context of Mâle’s chapter as a metaphor attributable to his interest in medieval liturgy. But in her essay, “Frozen Music and Symphonies in Stone,” Stephanie A. Glaser demonstrates that the analogy between architecture and music is part of a much larger discourse with origins in eighteenth-century aesthetic philosophy. Not only do her insights highlight unexpected thematic connections between such luminaries as Goethe, Victor Hugo, Viollet-le-Duc, Beethoven, and Mâle, but they also further contextualize how Gothic architecture came to be viewed in a more positive light, at least in part through its analogies to music.

Some anthologies can be dipped into at random, but The Idea of the Gothic Cathedral is structured from the opening historiographic overview by Glaser to the concluding reflections by Richard Utz to build upon itself in a coherent way. The essays are divided into three sections: The Cathedral and the Nation; The Cathedral between Art and Politics; and The Cathedral in the Arts. Within each section, the final essay provides commentary on the other contributions. Thus, Kevin Murphy’s “The Gothic Cathedral and Historiographies of Space,” is not only a fine essay in its own right, but he is also in conversation with the other essays in this particularly strong first section. His reference to the other historiographies in this section further strengthens his case, using Henri Lefebvre’s influential Production of Space as a conceptual model, that Gothic cathedrals tended to be “read” rather than understood as “lived” social spaces. An illuminating essay such as Klaus Niehr’s “Patterns of Behaviour: Architectural Representation in the Romantic Period” gains additional momentum through its appearance in this volume. Niehr thoughtfully examines different modes for illustrating architecture--including Viollet-le-Duc’s unpeopled “scientific” illustrations emphasizing structural issues and Thomas Frognall Dibdin’s “verbal pictures” with their atmospheric and snapshot-like perspectives--without forcing a teleology upon them. Niehr’s is one of a handful of essays in this volume, along with those by Jean-Michel Leniaud, Maylis Curie, and Utz, that insist on the importance of subjective response, a point made quite deftly by the latter in drawing attention to neologisms of the period, including “medievalism” itself (345), which serve to define and qualify time. [1]

As Michael J. Lewis articulates, “The Gothic Revival was a bundle of ideas--artistic, religious, and political--but the relative proportion of those ideas differed in England, France, and Germany.” (81) Yet despite the varied national discourses drawn upon--which include British travelers looking at Spanish cathedrals, the engagement of Spanish cathedrals with forms found in Islamic buildings, French painters’ representations of Gothic architecture, imagined, unfinished, and unbuilt cathedrals in Germany, and the French architect and restorer Viollet-le-Duc’s popularization of Viollet-le-Duc--the reader is guided clearly and cogently into the thesis and expertise of almost every author. This volume is about the idea of the Gothic cathedral, a notion which provides a focus for a yeasty range of perspectives, including (but not limited to): nationalistic, pedagogical, anarchical (here rather idiosyncratically defined), fantastical, and by means of “fictions of factual representation” (259, from Niehr’s contribution, quoting Hayden White to good effect). Each new historical artist or commentator presented is clearly identified with dates, and complete bibliographic references in the footnotes offer scope for further reading. A case in point is the rich documentation in Matilde Mateo’s “Moorish-Gothic Cathedral,” which allows the reader to pursue the fascinating historiography of the much-debated Islamic roots of Gothic architecture.

Besides the excellent essays already noted, I particularly enjoyed Elizabeth Emery’s “L’Histoire d’une cathédrale: Viollet-le-Duc’s Nationalist Pedagogy,” examining the historical fiction geared towards adolescents that Viollet-le-Duc penned later in life, which provided him with a means of delivering his last word(s) on the Gothic cathedral. Although he was criticized by contemporaries for downplaying the religious function of Gothic architecture in the Dictionnaire, Emery argues that the semi-fictional genre allowed Viollet-le-Duc to further publicize his theories promoting the Gothic cathedral as a symbol of social solidarity and French patriotism.

Even in this exceptionally well-structured volume, there are a few minor areas that might be improved upon or critiqued. Occasionally, I wished that the illustrations were larger or commented upon more fully in order to understand how a given author was reading that image (for example, figs. 1.3-1.7). I was also surprised that Utz would refer to the limitations of “an exclusively art historical or aesthetic focus” (349), since an art historical approach is not equivalent to an aesthetic focus as quite a number of the contributions in the volume attest, and it seems an ungenerous point to make in an anthology that is so strikingly post-disciplinary. Authors throughout the volume draw nimbly upon a range of materials--visual and otherwise--to make their case, and the strongest essays focus in on their particular topic without being constrained by any one method, field, or discipline.

The real subject of this work is of course only ostensibly the Gothic cathedral, which serves as a kind of “time machine” (as one contribution dubs it) for this series of compelling essays about how we construct and impose meaning on the world around us. It is an important contribution to the field of medievalism.



1. I cannot resist making a reference to the essay by Michel Pastoureau, “‘Programme’: Histoire d’un mot, histoire d’un concept”, in J.-M. Guillouët and C. Rabel (eds.), Le programme: Une notion pertinente en histoire de l’art medieval? (Cahiers du Léopold d’Or, 12; Paris, 2011), 17-25, which identifies “program” as a term originating in the modern period. Although not a word that insists on temporalities such as those with which Utz is specifically concerned, Pastoureau persuasively argues that this new term underscores a larger shift in approach, much like the term medievalism, as Utz urges us to consider.

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