The Cathedral: The Social and Architectural Dynamics of Construction

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ALAIN ERLANDE-BRANDENBURG The Cathedral: The Social and Architectural Dynamics of Construction Trans. Martin Thom. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 378 pp.; 161 b/w ills. $89.95

Following Constantine the Great's elevation of Christianity to privileged status in 313 and for more than a millennium thereafter, ecclesiastical architecture became the dominant art form throughout Europe, and the cathedral served as the quintessential symbol of medieval Christian society. Such importance notwithstanding, at no time did church architecture enjoy greater primacy than in France during the Gothic age. From the middle of the 12th century until the end of the 13th, cities and towns throughout France undertook massive artistic projects encompassing not only buildings of unprecedented scale but also the myriad pictorial arts employed to adorn them, including sculpture, stained glass, and metalwork in particular. Even the so-called minor arts were imbued with the aesthetic of Gothic structure; reliquaries made of precious materials assumed the form of fanciful Gothic buildings and images in illuminated manuscripts were often set within frames evoking Gothic structural design.

The extent of the Gothic achievement is attested in part by its enduring visual and intellectual appeal; our own perspective on the medieval cathedral is to a large extent informed by the monumental structures of Chartres, Amiens, Rouen, and especially Paris. Yet, as Alain Erlande-Brandenburg argues in his new study, such a perspective is to some extent misguided, owing at least as much to the vision of 19th-century restorers as to the achievements of the original builders. Erlande-Brandenburg's project is to examine the idea of the medieval cathedral, beginning with its tentative origins in the ancient cities of the Roman Empire and concluding with the ambitious and magnificent structures of Gothic France. The monuments examined in this broad and accessible study are well known to art historians, yet the author's approach is new. Relying on primary sources and new archaeological data, Erlande-Brandenburg defines the cathedral not as an individual monument but as a complex of buildings, encompassing the church, bishop's palace, canon's precinct, and hotel-Dieu among other structures. His argument thus hinges on a historiographical reassessment, replacing the prevailing conception of the cathedral as an isolated and self-sufficient monument--first espoused in the 19th century by Viollet-le-Duc, Jean-Baptiste Lassus, and others--with a more historically and archaeologically grounded view of the cathedral as "holy city." Erlande-Brandenburg's study, then, is concerned less with medieval church architecture than with the vicissitudes of the medieval town and the contribution of the Church to its development.

As a way of redressing the historiographical problem and of opening the way for his new interpretation, the author begins with an examination of the 19th-century Gothic revival, finding in the writings of Victor Hugo the impetus for the major restoration projects taken up in the following decades. In his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo constructed an image of the cathedral as a living, palpitating being rather than a cold stone edifice and asserted the primacy of architecture over the other arts. No longer the exclusive property of the priesthood, Hugo's cathedral was a popular monument, expressive of the will and the energy of the people. The influence of Hugo's work was profound, contributing both to the popularity of the Gothic revival and to the restoration work of Viollet-le-Duc and Lassus among others. Like Hugo, these architects understood the rise of the cathedral to be linked with the prosperity of the cities. Yet, in contrast to him, they saw the cathedral as a single monument, neglecting or even condemning the immediate environment. The restoration work at Notre-Dame in Paris, for example, resulted in a two-thirds reduction of the population on the Ile de la Cite. …