A Playful Inventiveness

Gothic Wonder: Art, Artifice and the Decorated Style (1290-1350)

by Paul Binski
2014 Yale University Press, 448 pages, £40.00
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Paul Binski’s Gothic Wonder: Art, Artifice, and the Decorated Style (1290–1350) is meant to do more than contribute to an understudied chapter of the history of English Gothic architecture. Binski does, of course, hope his book will do that for the so-called Decorated Style, but, more importantly, he invites us to a fresh experience. Indeed, his goal is to liberate the architecture of the period from the constrictive theories of the last two centuries, which have not been “especially interested in experience” and in which “the apprehension of outward appearances, the beauty of surfaces that make things powerful, is dulled” (vii). To do this, Binski adopts a “holistic reading,” which “accords much better with the evidence of medieval and premedieval attitudes to that which was pleasurably persuasive” (45). In other words, to get at this period with the magnifying glass, Binksi must also view his subject through a telescope. And so his book also takes on deep-seated, aesthetic theories operative in medieval culture from the age of Constantine; considers Norman, Mediterranean, and northern European architectural precedents; critiques the historiography of the English Gothic; argues theoretically against materialist explanations for the origin of the Gothic; considers the reception of the English Gothic; and, finally, explores the links between grandiose architecture and the contemporary miniature arts.

But this is not to say that he does not have a basic story to tell. Binski begins working from within the paradigm of the English Gothic as “marginal,” inherited from Bony and Panofsky. In his influential study, Bony discussed the Decorated Style as what happened when the Rayonnant went to England, a country Bony described as given to the imaginative, empirical, and playful, as opposed to the academic, scholastic, and rational French. While French building became sclerotic and overthought, Gothic forms played freely on the English margin before returning to France to reinvigorate the Gothic in the form of the Flamboyant style (43–45).

Binski is not persuaded by such explanations of English dreaminess, based on climate and race (50ff.). Rather, as we have said, he aims at a holistic reading, rooted in economic history and medieval aesthetic theory in addition to such formal architectural analysis. His alternative explanation, then, begins with an interesting fact: of the thirty tallest sacred buildings in Europe only one is English (or two, if you count the tower of Ely). The English simply did not do the “megagothic” (33–36). The fact is the campaigns of that great generation of ambitious builders in northern France, who strove to erect naves of titanic scale, were economically exhausting. Northern France remained a graveyard of soaring but half-completed cathedrals. However, this did not mean that English royal and episcopal patrons were any less motivated than their French predecessors to create displays of magnificentia. The solution came in the form of creating spaces that were equally splendid, but in a different way: “The scale of these older monuments was now beyond imitation . . . but not their inventive prowess” (45). The English builders, rather, sought to incarnate wonder by putting on display the intricacy of design, thus creating “the aesthetic of the fourteenth century,” which comprises a “stress on variety to the point of curiosity.” Binski continues, noting the style’s “seemingly endless playful inventiveness at the level of the humorous and the grotesque as well as the great and beautiful, its persistence with practices of lavish detailed decoration with sculpture and marble, its love of mixed coloured, patterned and modelled surfaces, of polychromy” (30). Brightness, color, and varietas were important medieval aesthetic qualities too. They, in addition to sheer size, conveyed a “talismanic aura,” which irradiated out of the surface of holy places and was noted and described in medieval travel accounts (22–35). The English Decorated Style, then, as embodied in Ely, Exeter, and Lincoln, can be “located . . . within a more widespread and long-standing European tradition of aesthetics . . . splendour, radiance, sparkle, richness, complexity and the colour” of the skin of the building (25).

Binski’s Gothic Wonder does for architectural history what Mary Carruthers (whom he quotes often) has done for medieval aesthetics. Carruthers’s The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages is a brilliant book that updates and complements those classic discussions of medieval theories of beauty by Umberto Eco and Edgar de Bruyne with a description of medieval psychological, rhetorical, and “sensual” encounters with beauty. In a similar way, Binski’s book complements such works as von Simson’s Gothic Cathedral. Von Simson beautifully described those aetherial and pure medieval conceptions of order and light; Binski adds to that the vagaries of patronage, place, and craftsmanship: in short, concrete experience within historical time. Binski’s then is a kind of postmodern masterpiece, a work of extraordinary diversity and breadth. And it is successful. He, rather like a jeweler who turns a gem, holds his subject up to examine its full range of prismatic angles. And doing so, he induces fresh wonder.