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

Article excerpt

Becket's Crown: Art and Imagination in Gothic England 1170-1300. By Paul Binski. (NewHaven: Yale University Press. 2005. Pp. xvi, 343;80 colored and 210 black and white illustrations. $65.00.)

This is an intensely serious and ambitious book which sheds much light on English art in its European contest over a period which might be characterized as the long thirteenth century. It is beautifully produced with well-chosen and apposite illustrations close to the text in which they are discussed. Binski claims with complete justification that he has consistently attempted to alert the reader to the sustained exegetical and textual density of English Gothic, its ethical sophistication, its urbanity and unconventionality, and its prizing of stylistic virtuosity. Similar epithets might be applied to the book. It is skillfully written; it glitters with brilliant aperçus; and it can be witty as well as serious. At times the writing is a trifle ornate, and the reader who encounters an obvious synechdochal train of thought about Becket's wounded head is in for an occasionally bumpy ride. But the consistent intellectual seriousness and the close engagement with the theological and liturgical context is very welcome.

The book is articulated in parts. The first concerns Becket and the architectural and ideological consequences of his brutal murder. After the new work at Canterbury the cathedrals of Lincoln and Salisbury are examined in detail. The second section scrutinizes the solutions arrived at in Ely and Wells and the pervasive impact on the English episcopate of Becket's martyrdom in all its complexity. The physical and ideological context established, Binski examines the way in which religious life and its setting was regulated, externally through the legislation of the Fourth Lateran council, and internally through synodalia and the growing genre of pastoralia. The final focus is on the expressive range of English Gothic, its ability to smile and grimace, and the centrally formative role of music in imagery and spatial organization. This impressively wide sweep allows the author to discuss such topics as the development of the three-nail crucifix, vernacular devotion, and much else. Binski is unafraid to take up the cudgels when he feels it necessary, and his reasoned disagreements with scholars such as Panofsky, Southern, Belting, and Wolfgang Kemp are invariably cogent.

Canterbury was the seminal building in its architecture, its symbolism, and its martyrial coloration. Its range of reference was huge, stretching from late antique imperial mausolea and mediaeval Roman spolia to Saint-Denis. …