Art and Scientific Thought: Historical Studies Towards a Modern Revision of Their Antagonism

By Martin Johnson | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
From Byzantine Manuscripts and Ivories to the Gothic Sculpture of Chartres

Cathedrals of Northern France have often shocked any Anglo-Saxon visitor who had been contented with the more kindly dignity of English Gothic. The fantastic skeleton of flying buttresses at Amiens, Beauvais, Le Mans, or Bourges, associated with the monstrous height of the Continental Gothic, together with the overpowering forest of a thousand statues covering the later façades at Reims and Rouen and elsewhere, might create an impression of disquiet or even of nightmare, when compared with cathedrals nearer home. In the end it is possible to be left unsatisfied by monstrosity, and perhaps Chartres outlasts some others in recollection for the very reason that its most significant portions were built long before any taste for the Flamboyant had developed; also the urge to outdo some neighbour in size or complexity had not yet become a serious motive when its last rebuilding was planned, so that a singleness in purpose adds to an impression of strength conveyed by the restrained dimensions and decorations of the main fabric. Nevertheless it is a striking and even intimidating experience to run the gauntlet of the strange sculptures which cluster round the oldest or more Romanesque doorway at Chartres; years afterwards one remains haunted by the cold enigmatic questioning with which the faces of the colossi seem to look down from the West front upon a modern mortal venturing between their ranks.

I propose in this note to draw attention, more pointedly than in most accounts, towards an association of such feeling with the artistic ancestry of these colossi which are among the oldest large sculptures in any French cathedral. There are hints seeking the peculiar strength of this art in a development of Byzantine from Syrian, Persian, and Celtic decoration, and I shall suggest that these hints might well be followed up more closely. It may turn out that the Romanesque aspect of Chartres is not to be regarded only as crude germ of the later medieval or Gothic, but as an immortal vision from the earlier or 'Dark' ages, exhibiting a spirit which survived and outshone the terrors of a stormy thousand years.

-65-

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