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

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

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

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

Excerpt

Before the concept of Gothic art can have much meaning to us, we must have some notion of what we mean by Art itself; and it is necessary to make a careful definition of terms. Such terms, to be used throughout this book, are: artist, craftsman, architect; and some more general, such as: utility, beauty. But first to enunciate one or two main propositions which I shall throughout take for granted: that there are both universal and particular human values; that the universal values remain constant; and that the particular values change with circumstances. Local cases will modify universal requirements. What is more, this applies to other things than the material elements of existence; human morality, custom, and religion, while sharing certain fundamental propositions, are on a sliding scale, varying from time to time and place to place. From this it follows that praise or blame allotted to individual works of man must not be taken as final awards or condemnations, valid under all circumstances alike. Material circumstances and mental and spiritual habits alter cases, so that an English village church would be as out of place in tropical Africa, as a communal hut from Papua would be as the new House of Commons.

There are then groups of local circumstances within which grows up a single, essentially suitable and natural style, and all cultural activities conform to its standards. Until the Italian Renaissance, every building ever built had been erected in the only conceivable way. Of course this does not mean that there was no room for individual treatment in the ages before 1500 A.D.--we know that there were in fact great differences between the works of the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic masters. But in any one cultural area at any one period there was, broadly speaking, room for only one artistic method at a time. The exceptions, as in Spain and Palestine, occur where two historically and geographically distinct cultures meet or overlap. Absorptive as Gothic was, it never assimilated the true dome, and even had difficulty in using the centralized plan itself. It is clear that such limitations had little or nothing to do with structure, for the ingenuity and skill of the greatest Gothic architects was unlimited. Here was rather an inhibition of the Gothic spirit.

By investigating the limitations of Gothic, we find its mental frontiers and ultimately come nearer to discovery of what it was. Among fundamental forms, Gothic accepted the rectangular, rejected the central plan; accepted the arch, as far as might be rejected the lintel; accepted the vault, rejected the dome. Catholic in its choice of materials, it preferred homogeneity, and did not normally employ mosaic or marble panelling. But the Ruskinian notion of Gothic "Honesty" is completely false: not only iron tie-rods, but concealed iron reinforcement (as in Salisbury steeple), brick core inside coursed ashlar (as at Bell Harry tower, Canterbury), and rubble infilling, were widely employed. It is nevertheless true that many local and guild regulations of the Gothic age were directed towards adequate materials and workmanship, and the fixing of the "just price".

Gothic art was the outcome of a way of thought, the product of a special kind of imagination. It is pure fantasy to attempt to derive the whole towering achievement of the artists of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries from the half-accidental structural evolution of the ribbed vault. Yet this is what we are asked to believe by the materialist historians, and even by so enlightened and erudite an antiquary . . .

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