The Gothic Age
IT is time to stand upon the great parting between Gothic and modern times, and indulge in retrospect. We have followed the course of architecture from its first pushing against the dead weight of Romanesque, through trunk and great branches into the manifold twigs of separate development. And standing at a distance, the whole tree can be seen in its outline and mass, no longer a collection of disparate fragments, but an organic unity. At the end as at the beginning there are living links binding together the separate parts: Eudes de Montreuil working beside St. Louis on the walls of Jaffa; Michael Sittow sailing from end to end of the known world and back again, reaching the Court of Ferdinand and Isabella at the moment that Columbus was leaving it to discover a new world. The division of Gothic into national styles had not diminished but enhanced its value; their individual discoveries were becoming a common heritage.
We have seen Gothic grow up as a natural and almost inevitable expression of a certain inward spirit, an unresolved tension caused by the firing of an eastern spark within the northern soul. It adapted itself to variations in climate and in psychology, all the time producing an outward shell, a coral, whose form was dictated by the dwellers within. It is in this sense that Gothic art, like Chinese or Egyptian or Greek art, differs essentially from the art of modern times: that is, from the art of Europe in the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The Renaissance, even in Italy, was a foredoomed attempt to resurrect a status quo ante; outside the Mediterranean area it was a tasteless strutting in borrowed clothes. The revolutionary instead of evolutionary form taken by both Renaissance and Reformation betrayed an inner uncertainty, a sudden poverty of inspiration.
Perhaps this exhaustion was a token that the men of the North had worn themselves out with much doing in five hundred years. And truly, their productions were most astonishing in quantity as well as in quality. Architecture was the framework into which the other arts were fitted, each in its appropriate place. We have seen a few samples of the immense output of sculpture which formed an integral part of the architecture, and indeed came from the same brains and hands. In one or two cases we have noticed contemporary links with painting. But beyond these major plastic arts there was a vivid world of craftsmen engaged in the production of illumination and enamel work, ivory-carving or embroidery. Still others were poets and composers of music: authors of a new series of vernacular literatures and a new-system of harmony. All were manifestations of a single overruling spirit. In spite of the inconsistencies between churches and commerce, between pagan and Christian outlooks, there was a single spirit that informed the whole. It was a spirit of activity and uplift, of dynamic energy consecrated to a higher Cause. Besides the pointed arch, the Gothic Age had borrowed something else from Islam, the throbbing call of the muezzin: Up to Prayer! Up to Salvation! Prayer is better than Sleep!
It was this vital urge that led students from all parts of Europe to come together at Paris and to form the first universities. Like Dr. Johnson's young waterman, they were ready to give all that they had for knowledge: in the first place knowledge of the Creator and First Cause; secondly, of the world of nature. This great movement was to culminate in the early thirteenth century in the life and work of St. Francis of Assisi. The exploration of nature, including human