Paradox: Gothic Becomes Classic

The Church of Saint-Eustache in the Early French Renaissance

by Anne-Marie Sankovitch
2016 Brepols Publishers 2016, 240 pages, €99,00 paperback
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Anne-Marie Sankovitch’s opus stands tall in its purpose to demolish tired narratives based on dichotomies between structure and ornament, and the Gothic vis-à-vis the Italian Renaissance, as she does in The Church of Saint-Eustache in the Early French Renaissance, a careful study of the most important French Renaissance church and the only parish church in Paris to be raised in the sixteenth century.

First begun as a chapel in the early thirteenth century, the present building was constructed from 1532 to 1632. The church’s website says that we don’t know the name of the first architect. Sankovitch’s thesis is that Jean Delamarre became chief architect when work began in 1532.

He springs to life by her nuanced demonstration of how his Italianate forms and use of the orders were not merely fixed onto a Late Medieval fabrique in hybridization, but rather evolved with “agility” and expressivity so as to create a unique synthesis—which she refused to nail with a label. She argues that his presumed knowledge of both the Quattrocento and Serlio’s Seven Books of Architecture is crucial, but shows little of it and does not fully cite the latter anywhere.

The book’s timeframe is largely restricted to political and urban dynamics in the reign of Francis I. The king sponsored Saint-Eustache and self-identified with Philip II, who constructed Notre Dame, so that Notre Dame may be showcased as model for the grandeur and plan of the new church.  

What of symbolic values? National historicism, or retrospection, is well recognized, and I like her idea that Cluny III provided a Romanesque model for Saint-Eustache’s framework due to “perception of a shared antique heritage,” which underlies the so-called Renaissance of ca. 1200. This was indeed Delamarre’s solution for embracing “the classical concept of a system of autonomous elements” in order to effect coherence—while serving as authentically French means for rejecting the anti-classicism of the Flamboyant style. This point, struck at the end of the book, at long last explains Sankovitch’s opening sentence that Saint-Eustache is “paradoxical.”

This book is Sankovitch’s published Ph.D. dissertation of 1991 from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. It was brought to fruition a decade following her death in 2005 at the age of 47, at the initiative of Marvin Trachtenberg, Edith Kitzmiller Professor of the History of Fine Arts at NYU, who also wrote an introductory essay. 

His contribution was complemented by pithy contributions from Jean Guillaume, who wrote the foreword, and Étienne Hamon, who responded to it. They must be read altogether as portals into the book as it unfolds in seven thematic chapters and in 354 black and white photographs. The fact that her life’s (ultimate) work was produced by Brepols under these circumstances testifies to its importance. 

However! It is not a monograph, from Alpha to Omega. The book does not contend with later construction campaigns; nor does it address questions of decoration, fenestration, space and light, theology and liturgical practice. The martyred namesake saint is dropped into a footnote; anecdotes on parishioners and tombs are nonexistent; and Sankovitch ignored the Wars of Religion (1562-1598), which destroyed the Valois monarchy and its Renaissance in France. Quotations were not translated.

The distinguished ad hoc team assumed Sankovitch’s readership would consist of architecture purists and French Renaissance specialists. What justified their work was her revised dating and alternative discourse on the complex origins of Early Renaissance architecture in Paris in the 1530s, via rigorous formalist description, especially of the support elements—piers and columns, capitals, and consoles—which she developed with laser-beam focus.

No one had done this before, and as a result, Sankovitch was empowered to dismiss the “ossified” oppositional criticism, not merely react against it. Viollet-le-Duc’s diatribe, the loudest of all, is happily muffled. Sankovitch’s method necessitated the retrieval and editing of her detailed photos, which are virtual eyes into her thinking—although one is tested by the inability to “see” the whole, and the constant flipping through pages. 


Be warned that the formatting was left unfinished. There is no index or list of illustrations (and the in-text captions are brief); archival documents are excluded from the bibliography; and a first name is not always identified. An appendix of the chronology, at least up to the dedication of the church, in faraway 1637, would have been helpful in rescuing blocks of information from ponderous footnotes. In the end, however, a sympathetic reading is finely rewarded.