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

By John Harvey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER
III
Gothic Designers

FOR some two or three generations controversy has raged over the problem of Gothic "architects" and artists of other kinds. Extreme views are on the one hand that mediaeval culture both artistically and as a whole was anonymous, the product of a group and not of individuals; and on the other that there was no essential difference between the Gothic and later periods, but that "professional" architects and artists existed as members of the literate intelligentsia of the age, namely the clergy. Examined in the light of the ascertainable facts, neither of these views will hold water.

Much of the discussion has been vitiated by lack of adequate definition of terms, and this applies not merely to the modern controversialists, but to the records of the Gothic age themselves, whose usage of words is often ambiguous. Words and phrases divorced from their contexts and preconceived theories have been bandied about as substitutes for impartial research; worse still, professional pride and social snobbery have become involved in the question. It has been common for present-day architects to uphold the view of the importance of their mediaeval predecessors, and for critics of Renaissance and modern architecture to claim that the beauty of Gothic art was due to its production by working men, without the pernicious interposition of an unwanted supernumerary, the "professional man".

It is true that Hugh of St.-Victor, writing about 1130 at the opening of the Gothic period, stated that the mechanic arts, including architectura were suitable only for plebeians and sons of the low-born (plebei et ignobilium filii), but this sneer is countered by the mediaeval masons' own view (in the early Constitutions) that their craft originated with "grete lordis children". A good deal of the arguments advanced on both sides would be merely ludicrous were it not for the profoundly important issues at stake. The discussion has also become involved with cross-currents emanating from the controversy between the "Catholic" and "Protestant" schools of historians. On the whole, the last twenty years or so have seen a diminution in the fierceness of the dispute, partly owing to a waning interest in the social approach to art which interested Ruskin, Morris and the late Eric Gill, partly to the happy tendency for the swinging pendulum to come to rest at a point of equilibrium. But it remains true that the historic facts concerning Gothic art are less well appreciated in England than they are in most of the continental countries.

It takes a long time for the effect of ex cathedra pronouncements to disappear; such was the considered statement by the late Professor Prior that "behind the Renaissance in the history of mediaeval art personality vanishes entirely. We know that individual hands must have carved each figure of Wells front, a certain mind set out the tracery of each Exeter window, but no distinction lies in the personality, just as no record remains of the name of the artist. . . . The conclusion is that the power of designing art in mediaeval times was common property, not merely very usual, but what could be demanded of any workman, and was existent in the masses of the people . . . Artists . . . were just folk generally, and the credit of their art must not be attributed to extraordinary personalities, but to the life history of the race."

The fact that mediaeval masters made their designs and working-drawings

-39-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vi
  • The Illustrations x
  • Acknowledgments xii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter I the Production of Gothic Art 12
  • Chapter II - The Design of Gothic Art 25
  • Chapter III Gothic Designers 39
  • Chapter IV Gothic Geography 53
  • Chapter V - Cathedral Gothic 59
  • Chapter VI Gothic in the British Isles 72
  • Chapter VII Spatial Gothic 83
  • Chapter VIII National Gothic 91
  • Chapter IX the Gothic Age 130
  • A Short Bibliography 133
  • Abbreviations Used in the Notes 137
  • Notes to the Text 138
  • Index 147
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