The Mentalite of the Gothic Age

Notre-Dame, Cathedral of Amiens:  The Power of Change in Gothic

by Stephen Murray
1996 Cambridge University Press, 233 pages

Notre-Dame of Amiens (1220-ca. 1269) is the largest in area of the French Gothic cathedrals and second to St. Pierre of Beauvais in height. Praised poetically by Ruskin and beloved of pilgrims and touists, it has nevertheless been seen by art historians as a copy of Chartres or a poor- man’s Reims. Chartres is said to typify ‘high Gothic’; Reims has the ultimate west front. Arniens, by comparison, has height and light, but not much else. Yet now Our Lady of Amiens has a champion.

The organization of Professor Murray’s volume is novel and significant. He eschews the style of a monograph, preferring to guide the reader on a walk through the building. The selection and organization of the excellent photographs (many his own) make this strategy work. By the end of the volume, one has seen what Murray describes. More importantly, the reader has contemplated Our Lady’s house: entered through Christ the door; approached in awe the sacred space of the choir, marveled at the spaciousness of the New Jerusalem, been moved by the mysterious geometry of the building; assisted at a sermon; caught a glimpse of the inventive engineering behind the west front; returned outside to read with care the sculpture of the portals; and, perhaps even seen a miracle. (A visit to the Amiens Cathedral Web Site will allow a similar tour of the building:

There is vast erudition here. Extensive evidence supports Murray’s conclusions about the chronology of the building; detailed appendices discuss controversial matters and present translations of the key 13th-century texts; the archival research and bibliographic apparatus behind the volume are exhaustive. Yet the scholarship is worn lightly. This is a great virtue, because what this book is about, in the end, is entering into the ‘mentalité’ of the Gothic age.

The great Gothic monuments were not stamped out of a mold, still less did they emerge on the landscape of Christendom without toil, sacrifice, expense, and even conflict. Gothic, Murray insists, “should be understood more as a process than a thing.” If we understand this to mean that the Gothic Cathedrals emerged from a certain ‘mentalité’ and were constructed with a similar method (in the widest sense of that term), then the lesson that emerges for those who would restore sacred architecture to its glory is one of cautious hope. Of hope, because as we approach closer to the mind of the Gothic builders and their patrons we see that the decisions they made could be made again. Of caution, because it becomes clear that reviving a taste for pointed arches will not suffice: a whole way of thinking about the Church and with the Church will need to be restored. A careful reading of Notre-Dame, Cathedral of Amiens, would be an excellent step in that direction.