Art and Architecture in Medieval France: Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries

By Whitney S. Stoddard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Historical Background

IN THE ÎLE-DE-FRANCE, the small royal domain around Paris, a new kind of architecture, sculpture, and painting emerged in the late 1130's and 1140's. Established, and yet evolving, Romanesque features were synthesized with innovations to form a new Gothic style. Exteriors continued to be conceived in terms of a mural massiveness similar to Romanesque architecture, while ribbed vaults, employed in Norman Romanesque, were developed into more consistent structural systems. A new lightness of interior structure replaced the heavy, lithic piers and walls of Romanesque architecture. In the monastic church, walls and piers in multiple planes paralleled the longitudinal axis of the nave and emphasized the containment of the space, which served as the stronghold of God. The diagonally placed piers with attached colonnettes, co-ordinated with the crossed rib vaults above, added a dynamic movement to the interior spaces of this new Early Gothic style. The small windows, which had been mere perforations in the thick walls in Romanesque architecture, were replaced by large stained-glass windows which increased and transformed the nature of light and achieved a more fluid connection between interior and exterior spaces. These innovations and modifications of Romanesque result in the probing creativity of Early Gothic architecture which can be seen in the many experiments in plan, elevation, spatial treatment, and massing in all the cathedrals that will be discussed.

In sculpture and painting (stained-glass windows and illuminated manuscripts), the persistence of older Romanesque ideas was combined with different interpretations of the human form. A new portal design, with three-dimensional jamb statues integrated with the architecture, reflected the diagonality of the nave piers. New iconographical programs replaced the more visionary Romanesque portals. Stained-glass windows flood the interiors with colored light, while a new monumentality pervades the figures in illuminated manuscripts.

Why did this new Early Gothic style come into being in and around the Île-de-France in the twelfth century? What were the social, economic, intellectual, and religious factors which paralleled this new style and which might account for its emergence? It is true that the Île-de-France had not produced a strong, regional Romanesque style; yet to argue that the vacuum thus created explains the birth and flowering of Early Gothic is fallacious. Rather, the twelfth century in its entirety, as contextualizing the specifics connected with the royal domain of France, must be understood as an extraordinarily vital period of intellectual reawakening. The eminent historian Charles H. Haskins, in his book The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century ( 1927), summarized the century as follows:

This century, the very century of St. Bernard and his mule, was in many respects an age of fresh and vigorous life. The epoch of the Crusades, of the rise of towns, and of the earliest bureaucratic states of the West, it saw the culmination of Romanesque art and the beginnings of Gothic; the emergence of the vernacular literatures; the revival of the Latin classics and of Latin poetry and Roman law; the recovery of Greek science, with its arabic additions, and of much of Greek philosophy; and

-93-

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