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 25
Historical Background

THE STUDY of French art of the period 1240 to 1500 depends on the definition of styles such as Rayonnant and Flamboyant, and the study also requires a general dating of these styles. The art of the period was not ahistorical; a careful scrutiny of the architecture, sculpture, and glass of a given cathedral reveals the ways in which master builders, sculptors, and stained-glass workers were familiar with older monuments, aware of contemporary experiments in other cathedrals, and at the same time struggling with new ideas of their own. Since each monument is a series of permanent moments in a dynamic development, it is unfortunate that art historians are compelled for the sake of clarity to divide Medieval art into periods with labels. The early Medieval Scholastics avoided chapter divisions and wrote continuous commentaries, but we are forced to emulate the thirteenth- century Scholastics and divide Medieval art into historical periods.

In Part I, Romanesque France, we saw how the High Romanesque Burgundian builders of Cluny III and Paray-le-Monial created tall, directly lighted structures by synthesizing the dark, vaulted interiors of nave and aisles of Early Romanesque churches with the high unvaulted naves of Ottonian churches, with their clerestory windows. In spite of the proto-Gothic nature of the soaring, well-illuminated space of Cluny III, the abbey and its Cluniac dependencies reveal the massive, mural character of Romanesque. Windows are perforations in the thick walls which parallel the axis of the church. At the same time, embryonic Gothic structural innovations, such as ribbed vaults and hidden buttresses, appeared in Norman Romanesque churches. From the late 1130's to the 1190's (Part II), the Early Gothic builders, in search of more light, experimented with different plans, elevations, and structural systems. In 1194 and 1195 the masters of Chartres and Bourges created two different High Gothic syntheses based on the knowledge of many Early Gothic monuments (Part III). These two cathedrals became the models for two different kinds of High Gothic design. In both cases, however, the masters combined older ideas with innovations. Soissons (in the late 1190's), Reims ( 1211), and Amiens ( 1220) continued the Chartres format with variations, while Le Mans, Coutances, and others grew out of the design of Bourges. In the cathedral at Beauvais ( 1225) features from both of the two different evolutions within High Gothic coalesced.

In the 1230's and 1240's in and around the ɩ + ̑lede-France, new features made their appearance. The choir of Amiens, begun around 1236 with the superstructure erected from the 1240's to 1269, has a glazed triforium, multiple planes of walls and colonnettes, and an interlocking of triforium and clerestory. The logical separation of zones characteristic of the naves of Chartres, Soissons, Reims, and Bourges has been transformed into a dynamic interpenetration of stories dramatized by the increase of light through the glazed triforium. The choir of Amiens is no longer High Gothic. Indeed, the germ of this change is clearly revealed in the nave of Amiens, erected between 1220 and 1233.

This new point of view is usually labeled Rayonnant, from "rayonner," meaning to radiate or shine. The term was originally used to describe

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