Becket's Crown: Art and Imagination in Gothic England 1170-1300

By Crossley, Paul | The Art Bulletin, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Becket's Crown: Art and Imagination in Gothic England 1170-1300


Crossley, Paul, The Art Bulletin


PAUL BINSKI Becket's Crown: Art and Imagination in Gothic England 1170-1300 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 343 pp.; 67 color ills., 176 b/w. $65.00

It is hardly surprising that Paul Binski's Becket's Crown is the first svnoplic analysis of English thirteenth-century art for nearly fifty year's. Squeezed between the novelties of the "Twelfth-Century Renaissance" and the splendcirs of the Decorated Style, the thirteenth century has a chilly and impersonal feel, an embodiment of those unexceptionable virtues "serenity," "order." and "the classic." The successful Agr of Chivalry exhibition (Royal Academy of Arts. London, 1987-88) opened our eyes to its artifacts within the limitations of a temporary loan exhibition and the format of a catalog, but the most recent survey, until now, was Peter Brieger's worthy but staid volume English Art 1216-13117. published in the Oxford History of Art Series in 1957.

Into this critical void Binski's book, an extended version of his 2002-3 Mellon lectures, bursts like high-voltage floodlight. It is not a textbook or a survey but a cultural history of English an from 1170 to 1300. and it draws together its diverse material into an eclectic and individual Wirhungv zusammenhang. Binski is in no doubt about his agenda or his methods. He courageously breaks down media-based specialisms to deal, simultaneously, with architecture, sculpture, wall painting, manuscript illumination, and im sacra. He invokes the post-modern anthropology of Clifford Geeriz, with its definition of culture as a collection of subjects caught in "webs of significance," requiring "thick description" (thai is, intricate local knowledge). He has clearly found inspiration in historians of sainthood and religious thought, especially André Validiez and Beryl Smalley, and he draws (with critical reservations) on C. Stephen Jaeger's connections between the bodily demeanor of lale-thirteenth-century sculpture and ethical concepts (ullimatelv Roman, but immediately scholastic) of proper behavior. With subtlelv and panache he infiltrates these varied strands of investigation into lhe extraordinary range of English thirteenth-century art and aligns them with a wealth of specialist empirical research. At the same time, he keeps an appreciative eye open to Continental connections, ensuring that for the first time English Gothic art is brought into a more coherent and interesting relationship with the growing literature on European religious art of the period.

Binski's grand narrative is unashamedly revisionist. The familiar concerns of latertwentieth-century art history-anti-essentialism, relativism, the critical privileging of diversity, the emphasis on the marginal and (he secular, the reduction of motive to the exercise of class-based power-are countered hy a view of medieval culture at once religious, hierarchical, and centrist. Binski's book is not a social history of religion, but it is a history informed at every point by religion. For thirteenth-century culture was above all a religious culture, shaped bv a successful international church and dominated by great churchmen, men (it was largely men) whose life and institutions embodied the most ambitious moral, intellectual, and aesthetic ideals of the time. Their influence was central and hierarchical, for it spread outward and downward to public culture generally. Only by admitting the existence of dominant aesthetic and ethical traits within a pluralistic culture can we arrive, argues Binski, at a fuller understanding of the marginal and the plural.

But if the viewpoint of this book is centrist, its starting point is individualist. Critical to Binski's argument is the idea that art and institutional life are shaped by notions of personal conduct-the conduct and thought-worlds of great individuals. This book gives entrée into the administrative and ethical world of a mandarin clerical class: Thomas Becket and his mtdili, Stephen Umgton of Canterbury, Robert Crosseleste of Lincoln.

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