The Gothic World, 1100-1600: A Survey of Architecture and Art

By John Harvey | Go to book overview
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The Design of Gothic Art

BEFORE any work of human skill can be produced it must first be imagined. In essence, it is this human power of imagining something which did not exist before, that we term "design". The word has of course acquired more specific meanings, including that of the actual picture or model made, firstly as a means to the proper making of the article itself, and secondly to show to the artist or to his client the form of the proposed work. Preparatory drawing or marking-out of materials is an essential preliminary of almost all technical processes. Paintings of elaborate composition, figure sculpture, and large buildings are all examples of art which cannot be accomplished without previous sketching, modelling, or setting out.

Not only is this forethought and preliminary deliberation inevitable, but it was realized as such by the men of the Gothic age. Writing at the end of the twelfth century on the parallel development of the "new poetry", Geoffrey of Vinsauf declared that the writing of poetry required as much care as the building of a house: "He who would found a house sets no rash hand to work, but metes it out first with the measuring-line of his heart." The Latin original was paraphrased by Chaucer in his Troilus two centuries later, and there is no doubt that the idea had a wide circulation. Vinsauf continues to elaborate the theme, and states that "the inner compasses of the mind must encircle the whole quantity of material" (before the work begins). The juxtaposition of ideas: measuring-line and compasses, and the Platonic archetype, whose production by the imagination is the subject of Vinsauf's reflections, is most significant. Mediaeval iconography pictured the Almighty as Creator, holding a pair of large compasses in His hand, and therewith measuring out the universe. Geometry was considered fundamental both in religion and in mundane affairs, even though practical knowledge of its operations was limited.

"As above, so below": the activities of the Creator were reflected and echoed in the works of human artists, and those works depended for their utility, durability, and beauty upon properly composed geometrical relations. The relations of buildings to human scale, and of their parts and those of other works of art to one another, were a practical expression of geometrical truths. This fact, and its particular connexion with the practice of architecture, had been detailed by the Roman architect Vitruvius, writing some twelve centuries before the Gothic age began. It is commonly implied that the work of Vitruvius was lost to the world in the Dark Ages, to re-appear only in the fifteenth century in Italy. This is a misconception, for numerous copies of his work, and of epitomes and abstracts of it, are known to have been made throughout the Middle Ages. In England alone there is evidence that there were copies in the monastic libraries of Bury, Ely, and St. Augustine's at Canterbury, and in that of the Austin Friars at York, while a further copy was made at St. Augustine's in the year 1316, and is now at St. John's College, Oxford.

At Monte Cassino in Italy one of the monks had made a compendium of Vitruvius in 1100, and it cannot be a coincidence that "ordinatio" and "dispositio", the two primary components of Architecture described by the Roman writer, were used throughout the Middle Ages to describe the work done by the chief building masters who had charge of works of architecture. It is moreover a


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The Gothic World, 1100-1600: A Survey of Architecture and Art


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