The Gothicness of Gothic


By any account, the Gothic period of sacred architecture is extraordinary in its scale and kinaesthetic impact on the viewer. It did not have a “big story” or “master narrative” to gloss and nuance its meanings, as did the “Renaissance” in the Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari.

Instead, scholars of Gothic art, and particularly architecture, carefully analyze building accounts, vernacular and Latin treatises (when they exist), saints’ lives, poetry, and other texts for descriptions, rationalizations, theorizations, or simply reactions to the Gothic cathedral as a way to translate its awesome physical, aesthetic, and historical presence into intelligible stories.

This act of response and translation stands at the center of Stephen Murray’s Plotting Gothic. Murray, the Lisa and Bernard Selz Professor of Medieval Art History at Columbia University, has written ground-breaking monographs on the architecture of Troyes, Beauvais, and Amiens, and an account of the façade sculpture of Amiens in relation to the medieval sermon, A Gothic Sermon: Making a Contract with the Mother of God, Saint Mary of Amiens.

Building Through Words

Plotting Gothic explores the very practices of narration and storytelling of the Gothic through examination of the writings of its most famous and loquacious interlocutors. These include Gervase of Canterbury, a choir monk at Christ Church, Canterbury, who recounts the tragic fire at Canterbury and the rebuilding campaign by the French architect William of Sens and his successor William the Englishman. Another is Villard de Honnecourt, the Picard draughtsman whose “portfolio” or “sketchbook” records a range of Gothic buildings and works of art from France to Hungary. The third is Abbot Suger of Saint Denis, near Paris, who chronicled the building of the east and west extensions of Saint Denis, and whose text was famously read by Erwin Panofsky and others as a proto-humanistic account of high medieval aesthetics.

Plotting Gothic is premised upon a compelling analogy: the three-dimensional layout of the space of a great church—its plot—is not only constructed through a geometric schema charted by a series of ropes and stakes on the ground, but it is also textually and rhetorically constructed by its many interlocutors who describe, interpret and “build” the cathedral through words and images. “Plot” here has a range of meanings, each of which are at play in the book: it may refer to the act of setting out a building in space, it may allude to the invention of a narrative; or to a stratagem or collusion cooked up by its patrons or interlocutors.

Murray’s focus here is with the languages of description employed by interlocutors and the rhetorical commonplaces or topoi in particular which translate Gothic architecture into language and images. For him, such textual constructions counter any kind of tyrannical “master narrative” of the Gothic. Inspired by the computer’s interactivity and synchronicity, the book is offered as a “spatial mechanism” capable of correlating the act of storytelling and the act of building within its covers.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Murray introduces us to the three interlocutors and offers a fresh and lively reading of their texts in the light of current and past scholarship. He explains, for example, how Gervase of Canterbury based his account of the rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral after the fire on the very origins of the world in Genesis: it was built literally and textually on Biblical precedent.

In the second, “Staking out the Plot,” he seeks to correlate the evidence of the three interlocutors and to locate that evidence within the economic, masonic, and historiographic contexts of Gothic architecture. The core of this section is chapter five, “Material Contexts: The Means of Production.” In it we see Murray at his best, where he integrates his discussion of architectural description with the physical act of quarrying, designing, plotting, and building.

The third part, “Animating the Plot,” positions the great church as an “Object of Desire.” He looks at the church as the subject of complex and occasionally conflicting desires on the parts of its patrons, builders, and interlocutors.

Part of the Game of Description

There is much to praise in this remarkable book. Murray is himself one of the greatest interlocutors on the Gothic, and his command of the buildings and their literary sources and historiography is dazzling. Plotting Gothic offers the most compelling and accessible account of this vital material currently available between two covers, and it will offer much to specialist readers and to graduate students who will rightly encounter it on many university syllabi.

While it was not the author’s intention to write a history of response to the Gothic great church (something famously attempted by Paul Frankl), his focus on the three most famous and well-studied interlocutors deserves comment. On one hand, this might be seen as a re-imposition of the canonical narrative of medieval architecture by focusing on its most familiar protagonists, but this is not the case.

But the book as it is structured does point to the need for a fuller critical account employing the very contextualizing strategies Murray lays out to encompass a wider range of textual material. In Britain alone I am thinking of Henry of Avranches’ Metrical Life of Saint Hugh (noted by Murray), which offers a lengthy account of Lincoln Cathedral (in the context of hagiography), and the same author’s De Translatione Veteris Ecclesie Saresberiensis et Constructione Nove on the translation of Salisbury Cathedral, the rich history of description in Welsh bardic poetry, the English royal accounts, and other sources.

In all of this, the significance of antique topoi is vital. The language of description employed in accounts of Gothic architecture was largely borrowed from the antique world of Horace, Ovid, Virgil, and Vitruvius. The process of viewing the building led to inspiration, and to an indexical search for appropriate rhetorical commonplaces from ancient authors and their application to the building in the space of the text.

The inherent but generative slippages that occur in this process between the building and its referent, which may be simply a linguistic tag such as materiam superbat opus or may refer to ancient or Byzantine buildings such as Procopius’s account of Hagia Sophia, is very much part of the game of description, of the creation of the cathedral’s plot, so to speak. Mary Carruthers’ The Experience of Beauty and Paul Binski’s Gothic Wonder explore these issues in depth, but because they were published almost simultaneously, they were unfortunately unavailable to the author at the time of publication.

Unity as Aesthetic Ideal

At the core of this book is a search to define the aesthetic and social phenomenon of church building in Northern Europe—and in France and England in particular—now known as Gothic. It insists on the Gothicness of Gothic, upon the unity of the Gothic as a high aesthetic ideal of later medieval culture, or perhaps even of culture generally.

Although radically different from the canonical books on the subject by Panofsky, Bony, Sedlmayr, and Frankl—a scholarly genealogy in which this book must be placed—or the pre-academic historiography on the Gothic by Walpole, Ruskin, Viollet-le-Duc, and Adams, this book shares a palpable emotional and aesthetic commitment to the Gothic. There is in these books a yearning to return to a complete pre-modern (pre-Revolution or pre-Reformation) condition of the Gothic, to a sense of a complete musical, artistic, and social environment, which the authors readily acknowledge is impossible.

This short-circuiting of the author’s desire, this acknowledgment that the author’s own quarry is desired but ultimately ungraspable, points toward two ghosts in the shell of Plotting Gothic, neither of which are referenced in the notes. Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, a deeply romantic account of architecture and memory prefaces Murray’s account of the cathedral as an assemblage of texts and their topoi—a textual edifice—while Michael Ann Holly’s work on the process of mourning in art historical writing parallels Murray’s own.

Throughout Plotting Gothic Murray quietly but carefully pressures the status of disinterestedness as a language of art historical criticism in which an author cleaves their aesthetic appreciation of their subject from their writings on it, a stance that has ultimately extended the longevity of formalist approaches to the Gothic. The result is a powerful and perplexing book and one that will need to be visited and revisited by scholars and enthusiasts alike.

Matthew Reeve is associate professor of art history at Queen’s University in Ontario. His Gothic Architecture and Sexuality in the Circle of Horace Walpole will be published next year.