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21.09.08 Hutterer, Framing the Church

21.09.08 Hutterer, Framing the Church

Maile Hutterer's thoughtful and thought-provoking book offers a much-needed re-examination of the flying buttress in Gothic architecture. Rather than rehearsing the voluminous scholarship on structural concerns, it turns instead to the visual and spatial properties of these remarkable outer armatures and considers their reception among medieval audiences. Though the emphasis is on buttresses with proper "flyers"--which is to say, dramatic arches that spring free from the masonry of the high walls they support--Hutterer rightly notes that these elements can only be understood within the fuller context of what she terms the "buttressing-frame system" of the church, which includes the uprights and piers that extend and carry the flyers themselves (11). This broadens the overall focus from the flyers to the entire external apparatus of these churches, which comprise elaborate exoskeletons that circumscribe the buildings and create liminal zones around them, offering borders that were systematically put to use by their medieval communities. These functions--practical, symbolic, and protective--are the primary concern of the book, and open significant avenues for integrated aesthetic, social and political readings of the most iconic structures of Gothic France.

The book is ambitious but also pragmatic in its scope: on the one hand it lays out paradigms that extend very broadly across the whole of Gothic architecture; on the other it retains a fairly tight focus on northern France in the late-twelfth through thirteenth centuries with an emphasis on the great cathedrals, like Paris, Chartres, Reims, and Troyes, as well as the grand collegiate churches in their vicinity. Evidence from as late as the seventeenth century and as far as the Mediterranean does come into play, and is used effectively to demonstrate the endurance and dissemination of Gothic architecture, but it is always firmly understood as deriving from the Île-de-France: this is not a book that seeks to upend the traditional narrative of French Gothic architecture, but rather one that wishes to better understand the place of buttresses within the existing paradigm. This goal is accomplished through four chapters, bracketed by a lucid introduction and summarizing conclusion. Chapter 1 helpfully outlines a series of interesting examples of buttress architecture as well as representations of buttresses, and Gothic architectural motifs more generally, in other media such as metalwork and manuscripts; the currency of these forms as broadly meaningful devices is made abundantly clear. Chapter 2 examines the practical uses of the spaces created by the openings in between buttresses, which could be rented out or otherwise utilized; Chapter 3 looks at sculptural programs that enliven piers and flyers with figures of bishops, saints, and angels; Chapter 4 turns to the literal and symbolic protection offered by militaristic devices, such as crenellations and turrets, and gargoyles, which are convincingly presented as apotropaic.

The book follows a logical arc and will be a standard reference for years to come as the first big study to establish a paradigm for approaching buttresses as visual programs in their own right, situated at the intersection of architecture and sculpture, as Jacqueline Jung has done for choir screens and church interiors in recent years. [1] Its great challenge is a difficult dearth of evidence; its great merit is a tenacious focus on the available sources and the ideas that emerge from close, sustained looking. For example, a fascinating examination of the parish church of Saint-Jean au Marché in Troyes shows masons consistently and knowingly following openwork designs that offered less stability in exchange for greater aesthetic impact and the prestige of its close parallel to the nearby cathedral (20-29). The monumental bishop statues on the Chartres buttresses are situated in relation to the longstanding discourse on holy men as the metaphorical pillars of the church (90-97), and potentially aligned with the portion of the exterior controlled by the bishop and not the canons (113). The sixteenth-century gargoyles of L'Épine are sensitively read against its status as a church of respite, or a last refuge for bereaved parents seeking miraculous baptisms for stillborn infants (155-59). Excellent use is made of the surviving documents as well, with close attention to the contrast between the lively commercial activity associated with the buttress interstices of Chartres (70-76), the comparatively strict restrictions placed on analogous spaces in Paris (77-81), and the rising tensions between the townspeople, castellan, and canons of Laon over their control (81-85). Such juxtapositions give important texture to our understanding of the kinds of value assigned to these urban spaces; there are also poignant accounts of people seeking refuge inside churches--infamously in the case of Thomas Becket (130-31), but also everyday men, women, and children (132)--that are vital evidence for understanding the "fortification" of Gothic churches as a matter of literal salvation, both physical and spiritual. The texts, images, and ideas gathered in the book are thus invaluable towards a richer contextual understanding of buttressing-frame systems.

I would venture to suggest, however, that the author's scrupulous attention to the limits of the source material--so much of which has been damaged or destroyed, whether through time or imaginative restorations--sometimes leads to blind spots or cautious omissions of material that could have strengthened the arguments considerably. Narrowing the scope so strictly to France gives the book a tight frame, but also leaves the author with relatively few well-documented case studies to draw upon. There are provocative and very interesting discussions of the resonance between the buttressing systems of great churches and the turrets of castle walls (143-46), but curiously no mention of chapel spaces within castles, or fortified monasteries, perhaps because the evidence for such things is more abundant in the Mediterranean world but scarcely survives in France; yet surely the evidence from Crusader castles, or eastern European sites like Karlštejn in Czechia, could have been brought to bear on the questions that are raised. It is also unfortunate that the possibility of buttressing-frame systems in Jewish architecture is not given at least a brief mention: here, too, extremely little survives, and yet the striking architectural frames found in Ashkenazic wedding rings or manuscripts like the Duke of Sussex's German Pentateuch (British Library, Add MS 15282, see folios 1v, 75v, 238r) also feature lancets, towers, and crenellations that seem easily as relevant as the pages from the Psalter of St. Louis (Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 10525) and Psalter-Hours of Yolande of Soissons (Morgan Library, MS M.729) cited by the author (48-57). My point is not to impose false equivalences between things like the austere buttresses of Prague's Altneuschul and the French monuments in this book--but in a discussion so heavily invested in social, cultural, and political readings of formal motifs, an acknowledgement that much of this vocabulary also circulated outside strictly Christian contexts seems warranted. Conversely, more evidence from within the structures at hand could also have been brought to bear on the material; it is notable that the discussions of architectural sculpture on the buttresses are not extended and integrated with sculpture elsewhere on buildings. For example, the standing bishops at Chartres could have been put in dialogue with the jamb statues below, and the intriguing caryatids and atlantes of Laon and Reims are mentioned twice but not discussed in detail (99, 107).

Finally, though the author is careful to acknowledge the uncertainties imposed by restorations in the nineteenth century, there are many places where greater engagement with the documentation from that era might have been useful. For example, the reconstruction of Château-Gaillard by Viollet-le-Duc is paired with an early photograph of the donjon at Coucy in a discussion of machicolations (141-42), yet in both cases a fuller discussion of the inherent uncertainties that accompany this evidence would have been useful. Indeed, greater attention to the interventions of Viollet's generation, perhaps in the spirit of Michael Camille's work on the gargoyles of Paris, could have been invaluable, not only to delineate the changes made to buildings and sculptures in greater detail but also to probe the historiographic ripples that persist from that time to our own. [2] The outlines of such inquiry are indeed implicit throughout the book but deserve more sustained attention, especially for the benefit of newer readers. It is, however, all too easy to wish that any study had dug deeper into certain sources or included more examples to extend its most fruitful ideas; as it is there is much to be praised in this handsome, well-produced monograph, and also many future discussions that it will surely inspire.



1. Jacqueline E. Jung, The Gothic Screen: Space, Sculpture, and Community in the Cathedrals of France and Germany, ca. 1200-1400. New York: Cambridge, 2017; see also Jung, "Beyond the Barrier: The Unifying Role of the Choir Screen in Gothic Churches," Art Bulletin 82 (2000): 622-57.

2. Michael Camille, The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2009.